What is Man?: A Shared System of Symbols Necessary for Cooperative Action – IV

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A shared system of symbols is the necessary condition for cooperative action. Science uses prepositional language. Art uses language. History, which examines man’s past to judge or sanction his actions, or law, which sanctions, uses rhetorical language. Religion uses ethical language. Each type of language, as a special mode of persuasion, locates or appeals to certain grounds, motives, or reasons for action. Here’s the fourth part of the six-part serial, by Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively for .

The unfolding or development of action according to admonitory implications or an admonitory principle of order appears to bear some relation to the organic solidarity of a social system — based on differentiated, complementary roles — characteristic according to Parsons of the adaptation and integration subsystems of a society. Burke, too, has a fourfold classification—in his work, it is a classification of primary linguistic or types of language: 1) logical or prepositional; 2) poetic; 3) rhetorical, and 4) ethical. It is consistent with Burke’s general position to regard each type of language as a mode of persuasion, which induces cooperation (solidarity) by creating a particular kind of shared symbolic world. Words do not essentially stand for concepts or forms of knowledge, but are rather hortatory acts of communion, creating shared sympathies, purposes, and basic orientations. (A word or statement is an attitude, “rephrased in accordance with the strategy of revision made necessary by the recalcitrance of the materials employed for embodying this attitude.”)

A shared system of symbols is the necessary condition for cooperative action. Science uses propositional language. Art uses poetic language. History, which examines man’s past to judge or sanction his actions, or law, which sanctions, uses rhetorical language. Religion uses ethical language. Each type of language, as a special mode of persuasion, locates or appeals to certain grounds, motives, or reasons for action. Even closer to us, in the realm of mental illness, Harry Stack Sullivan (in my humble opinion, the greatest psychiatrist of this century) in a paper in Schizophrenia as a Human Process quotes Adolph Meyer as defined in 1907 the of mental reactions (as a type of biological reaction) to be the occurrence of a system of symbolisation. “From this viewpoint.” writes Sullivan in 1925, “it will be seen that any problem in psychopathology becomes a problem of symbol functioning, a matter of seeking to understand and interpret eccentric symbol performances.”

Symbolisation is as much a part of man’s biology as the physiological processes that—from the point of view of the study of personality — constitute the conditions and resources for symbolic processes. There is nothing mystical, although much is still mysterious, in this conception of man, which focuses on a unique capacity, appearing in a living organism that has achieved a certain degree of complexity and differentiation. The most casual inspection of man’s actions would indicate that these are not dependent in any simple way upon his past or present experience. He continually, through symbolisation, creates and recreates his past and acts in part at least in terms of his own of it, rather than simply as it objectively “was” (even supposing that could be unequivocally determined). He is able, through symbolisation, to imagine future states of affairs and expends effort to alter objective situations to conform to such imagined states of affairs. Animals, including man, are able to respond to signals. Signals announce or indicate what is, has been, or will be present. Signals are intrinsic or arbitrary; that is, signals are a natural part of or a convention attached to, the presence they announce or indicate. Man, however, certainly alone among all animals, is able to evoke, to remind himself, to anticipate that of which there is no sign at all. Man’s symbolizations are independent of his immediate physical environment. A moment’s reflection will convince you that this characteristic of his thought carries with it the potentiality for either unusual or disaster; one can hardly avoid an ironic attitude toward this great gift.

The man symbolises the invisible; only man is capable of appreciating the negative. He alone is able in the presence of “yes” to imagine “no,” in the absence of “anything” to imagine “something,” in the presence of “that which is” to imagine and act in terms of “that which is not,” and in any situation to imagine alternatives and their possible consequences. His imagined world, the world created by the exercise of the symbolizing , is not a simple replication, summation, or extract of experience with objective situations, but is rather a invention, which is imposed upon the objective situation and determines its meaning and therefore action in relation to it. Man, in this view of him, lives in a world of value as well as a world of fact. Note that rationality, which concerns means-ends relations, is irrelevant to the problem of choosing between ultimate ends or values. There is no instrumental reason or purely cognitive standard for preferring one ultimate end or value over another. The achievement of such ends in action, however, is limited by the availability of objective means and by the extent of man’s willingness to expend effort to master means and to overcome objective obstacles.

Man is neither a creature of conditions nor a passive embodiment or of transcendental ideas that live through him. Man makes choices or expresses preferences between alternatives. He accounts for such choices by reference to “motives,” “feelings,” “ideas” (non-scientific as well as scientific ideas), which are represented by symbols. Man is active, not reactive. He creates a world of meaning in terms of which he acts. He does not respond to things as they are, but to the meaning, things have for him. These meanings may be inferred from his actions or represented by him in symbols. Man does not simply react to stimuli but makes an effort to realise in action—through mastering means and overcoming obstacles—patterns or states of affairs conceived by him and deemed by him to be desirable. That is to say, man acts in a world of symbolic conceptions. He is oriented to imagined states of affairs, conceptions of the future. He is motivated by commitments to realize (or avoid) such states of affairs through action. Man’s creative activity depends upon the symbolization function and cannot be understood without reference to a subjective frame of reference—that is, how things seem or are conceived or represented, what states of affairs are imagined and function as ends or goals, in the mind of man. You may well ask here, why the formulation that man chooses between alternatives in assigning meaning to any situation in which he acts. Why is the meaning of the situation not determined a priori by the objective characteristics of his environment and hereditary endowment? Talcott Parsons especially has emphasised that man must be conceived as choosing between alternatives because of the ambiguity of the object world and the plasticity of the nervous system. The significance of a situation to a man is not predetermined by intrinsic characteristics of that situation or anything in it. Man’s genetically determined constitution does not automatically determine, over a very wide range, his intentions in a particular situation.

The necessity of interpretation implies alternative frameworks of meaning, within each of which occurs a particular kind of symbolisation. I have already shown you how examples of such frameworks of meaning, as these are given primacy in various types of action or highly differentiated works of man, are to be found in the work of Burke, Cassirer, Freud, and Parsons. First, there is the adaptive frame of reference exemplified in instrumental action and ego functioning, and by science. Instrumental action, ego functioning, and science are concerned with the relation of means to ends, and give primacy to cognitive standards of truth, validity, or efficiency. Second, there is the expressive frame of reference exemplified in expressive action and id processes, and by art. Expressive action, id processes, and art represent meanings by expressive symbolizations—emotions may be regarded as such expressive symbolisations—and give primacy to appreciative or aesthetic standards of appropriateness, taste, or beauty. The moral frame of reference is exemplified in responsible action and superego functioning, and by law. Responsible action, superego functioning, and law are concerned with moral evaluations in terms of systems of norms and give primacy to integrative standards of right and wrong. Finally, the value frame of reference is exemplified in commitments to patterns of ideas, values, and beliefs, in ego-ideal processes, and by religion. Value-commitments, ego-ideal processes, and religion maintain patterns of beliefs about non-empirical aspects of reality and ultimate value orientations. I should like to reemphasise here that while “real” external reality may be presumed to exist independently of its apprehension, it cannot be known except symbolically—as part, then, of psychic reality insofar as psychic reality is constituted by symbolic processes. Even the experience of simple sensations involves interpretation in a framework of meaning. Science does not involve direct knowledge of “real” reality but an interpretation of reality in a particular framework of meaning.

(To be continued)

(Excerpts from the volume Understanding Mental Illness: A Philosophical Journey by Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad)

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.