Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 1, No 2 (2005)

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Palaeo-philosophy: Complex and Concept in Archaic Patterns of Thought

Paul S. MacDonald


This paper argues that efforts to understand historically remote patterns of thought are driven away from their original meaning if the investigation focuses on reconstruction of concepts. It is simply not appropriate to be looking for an archaic concept of soul, name or dream, for example, when considering the earliest documents which attest to their writers’ (and others’) beliefs about certain types of phenomena. Instead, we propose to employ the notion of cognitive complex (as elaborated in the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Hallpike) in order to investigate some important philosophical themes in Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Iranian, and Ancient Near Eastern documents. Our principal theoretical claim is that archaic thought does not work with concepts but with complexes whose salient features are an over-abundance of properties, an over-production of connections, and weakness in abstraction. The basic level of complex formation may be the most inclusive level at which it is possible to form a mental image. Specific studies are focused on ancient texts which exhibit archaic patterns of thought. In Egyptian texts, “manifestation” (kheperu) seems to convey something which all categories of beings are capable of becoming, being and having, assuming and leaving; the “name” (ren) was considered to be an essential component of the individual’s survival; symbolic representations, such as images and words, are causally connected to the ‘objects’ the image or word signifies. In ANE records the human etemmu was plainly the corpse or skeleton of the dead person; on the other hand it was also the shadowy, volatile image of what he was during life. In ANE records the baffling idea of the divine me referred to an entire cultural area, an acquisition of civilized life; but at the same time it is also the result of an invention, a divine decision. The complexes involved in these archaic ideas about soul, name and dream are ideas fused with their ‘objects’; they have unstable traits and prototypical instances; and are thought at the most abstract level which have concrete images.

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