Sunday, August 4, 2013

Analytic vs Holistic Reasoning and the Homeric Question

Homer, by Rembrandt

I read an article outlining a famous prisoner's dilemma game given to indigenous peoples. It dovetailed with a problem in the social "sciences" (I don't like to call them sciences for a few reasons, but that's beyond the scope of this entry or probably this blog)- lack of diversity in the examination of test subjects. The outcome of this particular game was shown to challenge the assumptions of universality present in many of the social sciences like economics and psychology. It later goes on to detail how Westerners tend to think analytically- breaking things apart and analyzing the pieces, while most other cultures tend to think holistically- viewing and understanding the big picture of things.

This got me thinking about the classic Homeric Question- were the Iliad and Odyssey composed by the same author? Even further, was each individual poem composed by the same author or was it a collective effort of the entirety of a people over many generations? The attempts to answer this question illustrates in some ways the dichotomy between analytic and holistic reasoning.

The introduction in the Penguin Classics version of the Iliad goes over the question in great depth, and I will be citing it often.

During the 19th century, it was believed (probably for emotional rather than any coherent logical reasons) that the Iliad and Odyssey were a collective undertaking- a string of poems from different authors that merged together to form the modern epics. The onus was on Homeric scholars to take apart the pieces to construct this epic. It was the age of nationalism- the spirit let loose upon Europe after the French Revolution. It was also the age of equality- the great, collective efforts of the nation were in vogue over works of individual genius. This spirit was applied to the Homeric poems. They were seen to be the collective undertaking of the Greek people that merged together over time (Knox, 9). The problem of course quickly became apparent- nobody could agree on what constituted these separate poems. The 19th century rolled on and this basic problem could not be solved.

The points of contention were where the differences in the text indicated differences in authorship and time of composition. I've highlighted before the appearances of seemingly out of place technology within the text- iron tools and weapons for example, that the trained eye can find at certain points in the poems. Beyond this however, the culture seemed out of place. It's been pointed out numerous times that the Greek kings more resemble Dark Age warlords rather than the centralized monarchs operating out of sophisticated palace bureaucracies that were the norm for the Mycenaean period of the Late Bronze Age. Analytic scholars tackling the infamous Homeric Question enthusiastically pored over these differences in culture and technology, pointing out the inconsistencies that seem to suggest the hand of more than one author.

One other measure of the passage of time within the poem was the change in the language used to write it. The letter 'W' for instance, disappeared from the Greek alphabet early on (Knox, 13). Yet it is used frequently within the poems. Could this suggest that these particular parts of the poems came earlier than other parts of the poems that did not use the letter? Perhaps, but scholars were quickly confounded, as the letter appeared alongside other things that would suggest a later composition.

Another major avenue of inquiry was opened by Heinrich Schliemann, whose discoveries in the latter part of the 19th century of the sites of Mycenae and Troy opened a world that even the Classical Greeks did not know existed. Would there be physical evidence from these lost civilizations that correlated with the descriptions in the poems? Surely the world Homer was describing correlated with these fantastic civilizations, and not the comparative backwardness of Dark Age Greece, right? (Knox, 11)

To make a long story short for the purposes of this blog, all of these avenues were eventually exhausted. There was quite a bit of evidence that the poems coalesced and accreted over time, but there was no way to in any meaningful fashion point to specific places as definitively the work of a different author. They were simply too jumbled to make any analysis on these grounds meaningful. When the 20th century came, many scholars had given up. It seemed that the Unitarians- those who stressed that the overall style and progression of the poems suggested the hand of a single author, were correct. Unlike the Analysts, whose name suggests their style of viewing the poems, the Unitarians looked at the epics more holistically. What was important was not the inconsistencies (that can often be found even in the works of modern authors), but rather the big picture of the poems.

To the Analysts 'Homer' didn't exist. He was just an abstraction of the work of a whole people. To the Unitarians, 'Homer' may not have existed, but nonetheless the poems were written essentially by someone of the same name, as the famous adage in the field goes.

As the article linked at the top stated, analytic reasoning examines the pieces of the puzzle (which in my opinion can be very useful, as the scientific method has shown), but it can also take an object out of its larger context. This may lead to misunderstanding, as we can see with the comparative failure of the Analytic school in the 19th century.

An American scholar by the name of Milman Parry was the man that found the answer that best describes the Homeric riddle, and in some ways it was one that was a fusion between analytic and holistic reasoning. He found that the poems and whoever wrote them were the heirs of a long tradition of oral poetry. The poems did coalesce over time in countless oral performances (the structure of which can be seen through analysis), but their present form was given to us by a singular talented author that brought these different tales and short stories together to form a truly epic poem (the structure of which can be seen by looking at the big picture) (Knox, 21). Parry's work deserves its own entry, and so I will not go into it in detail here.

In my opinion the work of Parry is the best answer to the analytic/holistic dichotomy. One form of reasoning shouldn't be discarded in favor of the other. Both can be used in conjunction to give us the greatest understanding.

Sources Cited:

Bernard Knox, The Iliad (Penguin Classics Version) Introduction (New York: Penguin Group)

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