Between Magic and Logos

This is my follow-up post to the March 13th ideas-letter, which you can find here.

I’ve chosen to focus on Adam Gopnik’s piece about the Warburg Institute in The New Yorker. My favorite line from this article came when he touched on Aby Warburg’s travels in the American Southwest:

But his experience of the ‘indigenous’ deepened and universalized his instincts about the role of images across cultures. The Hopi were really not that far from Renaissance Florentines. They, too, ‘stand on middle ground between magic and logos, and their instrument of orientation is the symbol,’ [Warburg] wrote.

When I read that, specifically about standing between magic and logos, I smiled and thought, “Ah, me too.” (Though I might prefer the word “mystery” to “magic”.)

In my day-to-day life I am a pretty practical person. I am rational about money, for instance, and I don’t consider myself overly emotional or dramatic (though my husband may beg to differ). Also, I appreciate the advances science and mathematics have made in explaining how things work, and I am always amazed at the precision that has been achieved. However, when I retreat into my mind and start musing on the meaning of life and the universe, I can’t help but think in terms of mystery and metaphor, as opposed to cold, hard science. I take the scientific conclusions and ponder them in light of each other and in light of my Christianity and I enjoy trying to fit them all together into a unified theory of “what it all means”. Sometimes I feel guilty about this and wonder if it is just a product of a weak mind. But when I read that quote, I was relieved to remember that I am not alone in the way I see the world, and also grateful to Warburg for putting it so well.

I’ve written before about how I see philosophy and art as two sides of the same coin; two different but equally valid ways of explaining the phenomena of our existence. I think this quote provides another helpful lens through which to view that seeming dichotomy. It is my contention that there is one reality and therefore one truth (the universe). While there are many different ways of approaching and making sense of that truth, they all must ultimately be reconcilable with one another*, or better yet, fit together like pieces of a mosaic.

The whole article was in a way an embodiment of the classic struggle between rationality and irrationality, realism and idealism, magic and logos. Warburg was a mystic, while Gombrich (his successor) was a materialist:

Gombrich’s great work involved mapping the methods of the sciences, their search for new knowledge through self-correcting experiment, onto the history of painting. Art, he thought, progresses rationally, as science does. He had a horror of romantic irrationalism of all kinds; it was, he thought, at the heart of the Nazism that had destroyed Germany’s intellectual heritage and sent a generation of European scholars, himself included, into exile.


For Gombrich, the continuities of art were not the result of engrams stuck in the mind. They were traditions near at hand, hypotheses attempting to solve problems, rather than recurrent images haunting the collective unconscious.

Even the legal battle in which the institute found itself represents a struggle between the practical needs of the University of London and the “impracticality” of the library. As usual, a balance must be struck between the two extremes. So let us stand on middle ground.

Further Reading:

  • Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography by E.H. Gombrich
  • Another Part of the Wood by Kenneth Clark
  • The Nude by Kenneth Clark
  • The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity by Aby Warburg
  • The Age of Insight by Eric Kandel

— Also, Cornell University Library gives you a closer look at Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.

*After re-reading this, I realized it might sound like I’m defending relativism. I am not. I think there are viewpoints that contradict each other, and in these cases, one must be right and the other wrong (or both wrong in a different way, I suppose). What I meant was, if two people with different perspectives come to the same truth (or different parts of the same truth), they are both right, and their ideas — though seemingly unrelated or opposed — can be made to fit together.



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