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The Explanation of Myth and Myth as Explanation

E. Thomas Lawson
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 507-523
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1463046
Page Count: 17
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The Explanation of Myth and Myth as Explanation
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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate critically aspects of the new intellectualist tradition insofar as this tradition treats of myth as a kind of explanation. In the first section I describe four versions of myth as explanation (Horton, Winch, Lukes and Jarvie). All four versions take myths at their face value and then, by various means, attempt to show how such explanations are to be understood. Concepts such as idiom, context, situation, play key roles in these attempts. I find none of these versions satisfactory although all have the merit of establishing myth's cognitive character and, therefore, of moving beyond purely emotive theories of myth. In the second part of the paper I argue that the structuralist perspective of Lèvi-Strauss constitutes a genuine theoretical advance by subsuming the surface features of myth, such as its explanatory character, under more fundamental and comprehensive concepts. Lèvi-Strauss has succeeded in describing the formal properties of mythic systems by using linguistic theory as a model. This opens the way for empirical investigations into the acquisition and function of symbolic systems. I conclude by asserting that it is time for bold theories about the formal properties of religious systems and for ingenious attempts at finding ways to find application for them to the welter of data which religionists have already gathered.

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