An entity that conveys symbolic meaning has symbolic and non-symbolic aspects. In its non-symbolic aspects, it is the vehicle or medium through which the symbolic meaning is objectified or achieves concrete form. A symbolic form is an organisation of such entities, embodying a particular orientation, or giving a particular distinctive form, to experience. Language, myth, religion, law, art, and science are examples of symbolic forms. Ashoka dwells on the aspects of an entity, in the second part of his erudite six-part serial, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
An entity is abstractive if its meaning is not exhausted by reference to the immediate presence of a concrete reality, specific object, or actual instance; if it expresses qualities or characteristics apart from their embodiment in any specific object or actual instance; or if it represents an essence, a concentration of what is essential of something more general or complex, or a concentration of what is shared by more than one object or instance. A crucial characteristic of a symbol is that it always implies something beyond, and is in this sense independent of, any immediate experience. A symbol refers to the imagined, to the invisible, to the negative. A symbol is a recreation of the past or a procreation of the future. A symbol reminds, anticipates, or implies, rather than indicates, signals, or announces. A symbol may stand for, represent, evoke, or imply some other entity by virtue of a property, quality, characteristic, or participation in some event it shares with that otherwise different entity; or it may symbolise another entity by virtue of an arbitrary, conventional link to it, that is, by agreement. An entity is suasive when, as a component of personality or social systems, it exerts effects independent of any capacities for physical force it possesses.
An entity that conveys symbolic meaning has symbolic and non-symbolic aspects. In its non-symbolic aspects, it is the vehicle or medium through which the symbolic meaning is objectified or achieves concrete form. A symbolic form is an organisation of such entities, embodying a particular orientation, or giving a particular distinctive form, to experience. Language, myth, religion, law, art, and science are examples of symbolic forms. The symbolic process may refer either to the generation of symbolic forms or to the vicissitudes or effects of such symbolic forms, in a personality system or—when these forms are shared by interacting persons—in a social system. Cassirer tends to view the primary function of the symbol as formulative. It is a creation, a conception of reality, which composes experience. The symbol makes it possible to hold on to, to imagine, and to think about aspects of reality in their absence.
Burke tends to view the primary function of the symbol as suasive — communicative and instrumental. It is used in discourse to transmit and exchange ideas, to explain, persuade, arouse, sanction. Ultimately, it is an instrument for the satisfaction of wants and the control of resources (especially the cooperation of other humans) required for such satisfaction. The symbol may be held, in the first view, to impose upon reality a conception of it; the symbol presents” that conception in some form. Freud’s emphasis on the determinative role of psychic reality is an example. If the second view is coupled with a naive realism — which, to add to our difficulty, it appears to be elsewhere in Freud’s writing — then the symbol may be held to represent an actual aspect of reality out there, an object or relation between objects to which the symbol may be linked by convention, but which is considered to have some true existence apart from any symbolisation of it.
According to Cassirer, the methods of introspection and observation of behaviour are inadequate for the understanding of man as a symbolising animal. One must also consider the works of man, his culture, which constitute the symbolic world of his own making, and reveal by inference the nature of their maker. In studying the works of man, Cassirer makes a clear distinction between a concern with the genesis of a symbolic form (how did it arise in the course of time? from what precursors?) and the systematic, structural-functional analysis of the symbolic form, which establishes what is logically though not necessarily prior. The functions of a symbolic form, the aims it realises, may be reconstructed from an analysis of its structure, as one might seek to reconstruct the special modes of experience of each kind of organism from its anatomical structure.
Cassirer’s differentiation of two types of thinking, the mythic and the rational-discursive, bears an obvious relationship (which has been pointed out, for example, by Langer) to Freud’s great discovery of primary and secondary process, achieved by different methods and in a different empirical realm. Language has close links in its origins to mythic thinking; it develops into a form that is also capable of employment in rational-discursive thinking. (I wonder why Cassirer ignored to such an extent the work of Freud. A number of reasons are suggested by passing comments in his work. He distrusted the method of introspection and the focus upon a single individual as a way of answering questions about the nature of man as a symbolising animal. He apparently had misread Freud or was not familiar with much of his writing—either possibility surprising in a scholar of such erudition—and believed that Freud explained everything by a single factor: sex. He was critical of the concept “instinct,” particular pretensions to explanation by use of such a concept, and apparently did not understand that Freud had something psychical in mind in using such a concept. Finally, perhaps most important, Cassirer emphasised the sacred rather than pleasure as essential in mythic thinking. It is certainly in his emphasis on the reflex reduction of tension and pleasure that Freud betrays his ties to a utilitarian positivism. For Cassirer, the quality of sacredness arises out of man’s fear of death; it is an assertion of immortality, continuity, and the solidarity of the universe; it functions to arouse man to search, to strive, and to realise possibility.)
In addition to the proto-symbolic forms of myth and language, Cassirer discusses four works of man — religion, art, history, and science. These, he believes, have a unity as symbolic forms, but differences in structure and function. For Cassirer, art is a prototype of the symbolic world of sensuous forms, creating order in apprehension; science is a prototype of the symbolic world of cognitive forms, the world of space, time, and causality, creating order in comprehension; history is a prototype of the symbolic world of moral judgment, the world in which man seeks to understand himself and the consequences of his social actions, creating order in social relations; and religion is the prototype of the symbolic world of sacred conceptions or ideas, creating order in man’s orientations to the future and his strivings to realize the possibilities he conceives. You may be as interested as I am to notice that there are parallels in this formulation with Talcott Parsons’ differentiation of four subsystems—goal-attainment, adaptation, integration, and pattern maintenance— of any system of action, and Freud’s differentiation of four subsystems of personalities (I say four, because of my preference for distinguishing between superego and ego-ideal as functional subsystems)—id, ego, superego, and ego-ideal. The parallel may be more than a coincidence. Do you think it may arise from the involvement of each of these thinkers in a consideration of symbolic processes?
Although Cassirer clearly means that different symbolic forms are not comparable (i.e., subject to the same standards), entering as they do into the creation of distinct symbolic worlds with different structures and functions, he nevertheless on occasion describes myth and magic as false and erroneous forms of symbolic thought, which pave the way to the true symbolism of modern science. This is similar to the rationalistic bias of Freud, which occasionally leads him to an equation of ego with health and “true” reality. As a scientist rooted in positivistic tradition, Freud tended to take “reality” for granted as a concept, in the same way that as a Victorian he took “values” for granted and, focusing on moral values, was not moved to distinguish between kinds of values or to realise that his own passion for truth was itself committed to a value standard competing with other value standards. Freud did not bother to see or make explicit that the objective reality of the rational ego-created according to the reality principle — is as much a result of an act of the mind as the inner world of psychic reality he so brilliantly revealed, its phantasmagoria created according to the pleasure principle. He eschewed philosophical questions when these touched on the conceptual equipment he accepted as given. So, Wallace Stevens, in defence of imagination as a necessary agent—in interaction with the brute, bare, essentially unknowable rock of reality—for the creation of any reality apprehendable and comprehendable by man, is able to make the following bitter comments, paradoxically enough, about Freud, the discoverer of psychic reality, the archaeologist of the imagination at work in the creation of reality: Boileau’s remark that Descartes had cut poetry’s throat is a remark that could have been made respecting a great many people during the last hundred years, and of no one more aptly than of Freud, who, as it happens, was familiar with it and repeats it in his Future of an Illusion. [I could not discover such a reference in that essay.] The object of that essay was to suggest a surrender to reality. His premise was that it is the unmistakable character of the present situation not that the promises of religion have become smaller but that they appear less credible to people. He notes the decline of religious belief and disagrees with the argument that man cannot, in general, do without the consolation of what he calls the religious illusion and that without it, he would not endure the cruelty of reality. His conclusion is that man must venture at last into the hostile world and that this may be called education to reality. There is much more in that essay inimical to poetry and not least the observation in one of the final pages that “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.” This, I fear, is intended to be the voice of the realist.
(To be continued)
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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