architecture student on a discovery via north dakota

“Discovery of the Mind: In Greek Philosophy and Literature” by Bruno Snell

This paper seeks to give an overview and analysis of Bruno Snell’s book, Discovery of the Mind: In Greek Philosophy and Literature, in relation to architectural process and disovery. The paper was written in three parts, accentuating three main topics of the reading.

Bruno Snell (June 18th, 1896 – October 31st, 1986) is a German classical philologist (philology: def.: the study ancient Greek and classical Latin). He studied law and economics in Edinburgh, Oxford, Berlin and Munich.  He earned his Ph. D. in 1922 at the University of Gottingen.  He became a professor of Classical Philology at the University of Hamburg in 1925.

His Book, The Discovery of the Mind (Die Entdeckung des Geistes), was written in 1946 in German and then translated into English.  The entire book argues that the development of Greek literature, from Homer to Plato, shows a gradual discovery of the inner mental life and individual world of thought.

Part One: The Beginning of Discovery and Thought

Rarely, do we think of how our ways of thinking developed. Why do we remember certain stories and interactions in life?  Snell begins to unravel this question by informing us of the roots of thought and how it has progressed and transformed.

“European thinking began with the Greeks. Science, literature, philosophy and ethics all had their roots in the extraordinary civilization.  The rise of thinking is nothing less than a revolution; they did not simply map out new areas for thought and discussion, they literally created the idea of man as an intellectual being. “

-Dover Publications (Publishing Company of “Discovery of the Mind: In Greek Philosophy and Literature”)

In the introduction, Snell explains that everything is connected.  We remember and relate to stories and other people because we have a frame of reference that our knowledge builds upon.  But the roots of this frame of reference and knowledge base have its own historical growth beginning with the Greeks.  To better understand what were doing and why were doing it (especially in the design profession), we must not only seek historical facts and stories but also understand that our way of thinking now, differs greatly from the way of thinking of the Greeks.

Snell goes on to stress that the human mind and its ways of processing had to be discovered by the Greeks and not invented.  The example he uses to further this point: America had long existed before Columbus discovered the New World.  He discovered, not invented.

Knowing the difference between discovery and invention is a crucial because our relation and participation through these two words are completely opposite.  Snell states,

“As a rule, inventions are arbitrarily determined; they are adapted to the purpose from which they take their cue.”  Inventions adapt to our desires, as they are placed within our perception.  “… No objective, no aims were involved in the discovery of the intellect.”  We adapt to the discovery and place ourselves within it.

Discovery                                                                    Invention

-No objective aims                                                      -Arbitrarily determined

-We adapt to it and it gives us purpose                        -It adapts to our predetermined purpose

-Noticing something that already exists                      -Creating something that doesn’t exist

This discovery was the beginning of man’s gradual understanding of himself, which is revealed to us in Greek poetry and philosophy such as the Iliad and the Odyssey – Homer’s two epic tales of the ancient world.

The Iliad and the Odyssey provide the background, in language and in thought, from which Greek philosophy emerged.  They were written between the eighth and ninth century B.C.  The Iliad tells the siege of Troy by the Greeks, a tale of nations at way and of the courage and compassion heroic soldiers show upon the field of battle.  The Odyssey is the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and the many marvels and challenges he encounters during his ten-year voyage home to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.

“These stories stand at the source of Greek tradition and speak to us with a strong emotional appeal; and as a result, we are quick to forget how radically different the experience of Homer differs from our own.”

-Bruno Snell, “The Discovery of the Mind: In Greek Philosophy and Literature” (Page V).

We forget that these myths and stories of Greek origin took place in a completely different time with different people, different ways of life, different meanings and values.  We try to place it in our own time and relate it to our own modern day emotions.  Snell States, “All too frequently, we measure the products of early Greece by the standards of our own age.”

The reason we cannot fully empathize with and understand Greek mythology is because the Greeks perceived the world through discovery: a very physical, tangible and multi-sensory participation. When we, in modern times, try to perceive these stories through intellect alone, which is merely thought-based, static, elusive.  “Discovery was necessary for intellect to come into existence,” Snell states. Since we cannot tangible relate, we use metaphor.

Metaphor. Def.: a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story, or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing of some intangible quality/idea.

Metaphor is unavoidable in our modern age.  It relates us to the world, gives us a frame of reference.  Snell States, “We cannot speak about the mind of the intellect at all without falling back on the metaphor.”  Through the use of metaphor, we begin to discover like the Greeks did.

Part Two: Learning Through Doing

“Our investigations and research of history do not need to end in truth or validity.  It is well within our power to say whether the product of a particular era is great or small, profound or superficial, influential or ephemeral.  History is not an endless repetition.  The human spirit is restricted within a small range of possible manifestations, new departures are notably rare, and their forms severely limited. “

What Snell means in this passage is that we all come to an understanding through this frame of reference that exists through our previous engagements and experiences. The purpose of these ancient Greek myths are not to tell fact based timeline but to inform through their doings so we, in turn, will take from example and learn by doing.  There is rarely a ‘new-to- the-world’ idea or departure, only a rediscovery of the essence of man.

Snell goes on to say, “The findings of a scientist or a scholar are made in an atmosphere of peaceful contemplation, whereas the discoveries of the Greeks which constitute our topic, affecting as they do the very essence of man, take shape as vital experience.”

We find wisdom through experience and many times, through suffering.  It is a physical knowledge that the Greeks participated in which directed them to a profound discovery of themselves.

“They [the Greeks] assert themselves with a violence which is not merely arbitrary or accidental; the historical situation on the one hand, and the forms in which the mind may understand itself on the other, provide the dynamic setting for the new self-realization of intellect.”

Part Three: Homer’s View of Man

(The Developing of Language Through Perception)

Snell shows how the Homeric myths provided a blueprint for intellectual structure the Greeks erected; how the notion of universality in Greek tragedy broadened into philosophical generalization; how the gradual unfolding of the concepts of intellect and soul provided the foundation for philosophy, science, ethics, and finally religion.

“It has long been observed that in comparatively primitive speech abstractions are as yet undeveloped, while immediate sense perceptions furnish it with a wealth of concrete symbols.”  An example is Homer’s use of a wide variety of verbs to denote the operation of sight.  Several of those verbs have gone out of use in later Greek literature and living speech.

The verbs of the early period take their cues from the palpable aspects, the external qualifications, of the act of seeing.  “It goes without saying that even in Homer men used their eyes ‘to see’, i.e. to receive optical impressions.  But apparently they took no decisive interest in what we justly regard as the basic function, the objective essence, of sight; and if they had no word for it, it follows that as far as they were concerned it did not exist.”

Language aimed progressively to express the essence of an act, but is first unable to comprehend it because it is a function not named or associated with certain emotions.  As soon as the act receives a name, it has come into existence, and the knowledge of its existence quickly becomes a common property.  The function is now a concrete fact, but its objective existence did not manifest itself so clearly as the presence of the actual act. Its prior significance has changed because language is more limited than perception.  It is now, like intellect, static or elusive.

“In the course of our discussion it will become evident that certain basic mental patterns exercise a varied control over men’s minds and leave their imprint upon the manner in which the man take cognizance of himself.  Both historical aspects and the systematic side of this process must be illuminated in an intellectual chronicle.”

-Bruno Snell, “The Discovery of the Mind: In Greek Philosophy and Literature” (Page X).


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