Erlebnis & Thumos

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THUMOS (Homer): “There is no general consciousness in the Iliad … The thumos, which later comes to mean something like emotional soul, is simply motion or agitation. When a man stops moving, the thumos leaves his limbs. But it is also somehow like an organ itself, for when Glaucus prays to Apollo to alleviate his pain and to give him strength to help his friend Sarpedon, Apollo hears his prayer and ‘casts strength through his thumos’ (Iliad, 16:529). The thumos can tell a man to eat, drink or fight … Achilles will fight ‘when the thumos in his chest tells him to and a god rouses him.’ (9:702f) But it is not really an organ and not always localised …” [1]

 

ERLEBNIS (Dilthey): “… any cognitive, affective or conative act or attitude which is conscious, but distinguished from the object to which it is directed, and not itself the object of any other act or attitude. Erlebnis are too intimate to be focal. We do not know, feel or will them; we know, feel and will through them.”[2]

 

Whilst reading Dilthey’s idea of Erlebnis, I could not help but be reminded of the Greek idea of Thumos. On the surface they seem completely different concepts: Thumos is an inspiring agent whilst Erlebnis is a vehicle through which our inspiration is made possible (but fundamentally, that could be the same thing). Erlebnis is experience itself, whereas Thumos is a motivating force, yet Dilthey says that we know, feel and will through these experiences, and that is what gives Erlebnis the feeling of ThumosErlebnis is also a motivator.

Homer places thumos like an organ in our body, and makes it a kind of receiver, through which the gods are able to stimulate and move us to action, or turn us off at their will, and the god Apollo uses Achilles like a toy in this manner.

But what is Apollo? Does Erlebnis describe what the Greeks believed was an intervention between the gods and mortals?

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes Erlebnis as immediate experience: “(it) denotes experience in all its direct immediacy and lived fullness,” and should be contrasted with Ehrfarung: “denoting ordinary experience as mediated through intellectual and constructive elements.” Erlebnis is the experience that is not mediated by the intellect – it is pure and direct – which for the Greeks meant that it came straight from the gods; straight from Apollo.

C.D.P.: “As immediate, Erlebnis eludes conceptualisation, in both the lived present and interiority of experience. As direct, Erlebnis is also disclosive and extraordinary: it reveals something real that otherwise escapes thinking … Typical examples include art, religion and love, all of which show the anti-rationalist and polemical uses of the concept.”

By drawing a link between thumos and Erlebnis a new light is shed on each one.

In Julian Jayne’s thesis on the Bicameral Mind, he claims that thymotic inspiration was a fundamental feature of the human mind some three millennia ago, and he sees vestiges of it remaining in what is now called schizophrenia. But Jaynes’ thesis was more concerned with the neurological significance of thumos than with the inspirational power of direct experience. For Jaynes, the inspirational power of our pre-self-conscious ancestors, came from the voices they heard in their schizophrenic minds (part of Jaynes’ theory is that the human mind evolved away from a commonly schizophrenic condition some three millennia ago when the proliferation of city-states formed closer human communities in which hearing voices became an annoyance rather than an inspiring tool).

But could it be that, whilst the voices have disappeared, the direct inspiration of experience has not – and this is what Dilthey was expressing through his concept of Erlebnis.

 

[1] Julian Jaynes, THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND, Mariner 2000, p. 69

[2] Wilhelm Dilthey, SCIENCE OF PHILOSOPHY (translator’s preface)

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