Joseph Campbell and the Humanities

joseph_campbellJoseph Campbell is important to people as a guide to approaching stories and myth because he focuses on the underlying spirituality of humanity. Some historians and actors utilize his model made famous by The Power of Myth. It is valuable because it allows people to find the significance of age old myths and consider how they are relevant to themselves. Yet, often times people can become so focused on approaching myth via Joseph Campbell’s guidance that they miss other opportunities and avenues to interpret, understand, and internalize myths and stories.

In examining the nature of Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Daniel Gorman Jr. aptly notes that Campbell’s work is a mixture of subjective, personal philosophy and empirical theories on the history of religions. Consequently, his is able to weave “these  competing theories and personal anecdotes into a remarkably coherent discourse” [1]. So while his work is valuable as an illuminating philosophy, it should always be taken into consideration that Campbell is not operating purely as historian of religion. Rather, he employs elements of subjective viewpoints and objective viewpoints[2]. Perhaps we may even consider him to be the father of a sort of faith, or at least a school of philosophy.

Therefore, when a historian attempts to use Campbell’s approach as a model for the academic study of religions, his or her work is also applying a vast amount of personal ideology, ideology not subject matter for the analytical, academic studies of religion. Likewise, when an actor uses Campbell’s approach as a model, he or she must take into consideration that the approach is very much imbued with Campbell’s personal philosophy. In the case of actor, that is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is something that people must be aware of.

Consider, though, the value of taking this into consideration. Perhaps if both actors and historians accounted for this, they may be able to find elements of Campbell’s approach and combine them with elements from other philosophical outlooks. For the historian, although most don’t use Campbell’s approach, it would vastly increase the potential for alternative understandings of historical developments. For the actor, it would clear the path to explore alternative approaches to the human spirit, or psyche, and representations of characters within plays and worlds.

*While I am fully aware that many scholars recognize the issues with Joseph Campbell’s approach, readers should be aware that this post is more generic and more about helping scholars and artists see the value of working with each other to produce a stronger focus on humanities within American culture.

[1] Daniel Gorman Jr., “Revisiting Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth”, Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 5, no. 1 (2014), p. 86.

[2] Although I am aware it is practically impossible to have a purely objective fact, for the sake of the simplicity of this discussion, I am distinguishing between them is such a way.

3 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell and the Humanities

  1. Really glad you are approaching Joseph Campbell, he really is a man of his own time and has a huge cultural impact regardless of how many people recognize him as a legitimate historian of religions scholar. Campbell, in my mind is a culmination of the European Enlightenment’s attempt at reducing religion, often to a systematic understanding of morality etc. (example, just look at how many variations of “The Essence of Religion/Christianity” there were during or immediately following the Enlightenment furthering in examinations in comparative religions with works like Huxely’s ‘Perennial Philosophy” continuing to this day.)

    Very important to spread the word about Campbell’s stubborn ideology – good for selling books, not so good for an encompassing inquiry.

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