What is Man?: Symbols, Language, Mind, Communication & Social Realities – III

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Language is a mode of persuasion, a means by which men obtain the cooperation of one another. The mind is largely a linguistic product, constructed of social realities— patterns of cooperation — and the communicative materials creating and maintaining such patterns. Here’s the third part of the six-part series, by Prof. Ashoka, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Kenneth Burke has emphasised rather than the formulative the communicative function of the symbol. He has distinguished between a scientistic or epistemological view of symbol as a form of knowledge and a dramatistic view of a symbol as a form of action. The development of symbolisation, if not its origin, is shaped by communicative necessities. However, a symbol is not merely a purveyor of information, of definition and description, but is rather intrinsically hortatory action; even the names of things are programs suggesting attitudes and acts. Language is a mode of persuasion, a means by which men obtain the cooperation of one another. The mind is largely a linguistic product, constructed of social realities— patterns of cooperation — and the communicative materials creating and maintaining such patterns.

Motives, according to Burke, are intrinsic to language and essentially another name for it. (Just as Burke in our day is able to that motives and language are one, so Levi-Strauss in another realm, emphasising, however, the formulative function of symbolisation, writes essentially that society — and its institutions — and language are one: both are manifestations of ways of ordering and classifying experience; both are forms or objectifications of thought.) Communication between parts of a system arises because, although such parts must function together (that is, cooperate) as members of the same system, they are yet — as individuated, differentiated parts — divided. This combination of division and consubstantiality is the necessary condition of communication. Symbols are one means of communication. A symbol as a suasive entity is intrinsically concerned with, intrinsically a mode of response to, division. The relation of a symbol to other symbols defines a particular strategy for mitigating or operating upon division.

Communication, when it involves the suasive effects of symbols participating in a personality or social system, is that change (in response to division or partition in the system) wrought in the system (for example, in the relation between two parts or in the state of one part that is in relation to another) by a symbol (that is, by the generation and presentation of a conception) in so far as such a symbol reminds, anticipates, implies, evokes, or appeals to certain grounds for such change; the implicit or explicit relation of such a symbol to other symbols defines a strategy— intrinsic to symbolicity—for operating upon division. A symbol is suasive in so far as it motivates action by reminding, anticipating, implying, evoking, adducing, locating, or appealing to certain grounds (reasons or motives) for such action, and in so far as it participates in relation to other symbols in a particular strategy for mitigating or operating upon division.

What are the grounds for action to which a symbol appeals, which it implies, which it locates? Burke’s primary method is the study of literary forms; using a dramatistic terminology, he refers to five loci of motives: scene, agent, agency, purpose, and act. No matter which of these elements is explicitly named, the others are also implied. The implications of a symbol as a suasive entity or symbolic act are analogous to those of an axiom or set of axioms, all contained within it that may be deduced or made explicit from it. For example, Burke suggests that use of such a term or concept as “repression” (act) implies or inevitably leads to such terms or concepts as 1) a repressing agent; 2) that which is repressed or to be repressed with a degree of or success to which is associated pain or pleasure (purpose); 3) the pressure or used to carry out the act of repression (agency); 4) an unconscious—the location of the repressed (scene). Any one of these terms leads to all the others. A symbol as a suasive entity or symbolic act is, then, a tautology, a structure of elements or terms in which each part is implicit in all parts. The motive is an abbreviated title for “conception of a complex action.”

If one knows a man’s conception, one knows how he will act or why he acts as he does. The conception is the motive for action. A symbol may locate a motive for action in the characteristics of a scene in which action occurs; or in the characteristics of an agent of action. A symbol may locate a motive for action in its beginnings, in an agency—a resource or potentiality for action; or a symbol may locate a motive for action in its culmination, in the fulfillment or use of potentialities in consummation or of purpose.

There are also motives or grounds for action located in man’s devotion to the symbol systems he uses. Such devotion to the symbol enhances the symbol’s intrinsic capacity to mitigate or operate upon division. A symbol has implications. Every language implies possible developments. For a symbolising , following out such implications, carrying out these terministic possibilities in action becomes an end in itself, irrespective of other consequences such action may have. Such action may appear peremptory or compelled since all things implied have to be developed; all the implications of a terminology have to be tracked down with a kind of formal thoroughness; all the implications of a key term have to be . Once man is committed to a conception, to a language, to a symbol or symbol system, he acts to bring his life into conformity with it; he models his life after it; he governs his life by the pursuit and realisation of its implications. He persuades others to act in such a way that he may make himself and his world over in the image of his language. Therefore, Burke states, paradoxically, that things are the signs of words, not words the signs of things. “The of words is infused into or symbolised by non-verbal things,” rather than “a word is learned as the sign of a thing.” (Wallace Stevens writes: “Life is the reflection of literature.”)

I remind you that motive and action as used in the preceding paragraphs should be distinguished from the motion or reaction resulting from the “physicality” of man and the effect of physical forces upon him (as in “falling down a hill”) as well as from the or reactions resulting from the “animality” of man (that are solely effects of physiological processes unmediated by symbolic process). It is a fallacy to attribute consequences of symbolicity to physicality or animality. Man’s devotion to his symbols and symbol systems is a manifestation of his “rage for order.” (“Man,” says Burke, “is moved by a sense of order.”) The disorder is represented by division without consubstantiality. Then communication is impossible. The division is mitigated by preserving and organizing it, or by transcending it, through resources intrinsic to symbolicity. Symbols and symbol systems are intrinsically resources for the creation of order. An order is born out of the implications of symbols, their relations to each other, and is a consequence of any use of symbols.

Symbols have entelechial implications, because of symbols, which are generated by abstraction, have a tendency to suggest or anticipate ideals — perfect, more abstract forms. Such ideals transcend divisions or differences through movement to higher or prior, more inclusive or more essential, conceptions. The entelechial implications of a symbol create through such transcendence a particular kind of order. Development is temporal or hierarchic (in time or in essence) progressive or regressive succession. An essence is carried up or down, forward or backward, to an apotheosis of excess. Continuity, composition, and the fulfillment or reinforcement of a given pattern are emphasised. Such a principle of order serves as grounds for action: in preoccupations in terms of which everything—no matter how seemingly disparate—is interpreted; in the continual search for materials that, no matter how incongruous, are fused and made to link with or belong to such a preoccupation (what Burke, following Dewey, calls, for example, an “occupational psychosis”); in the purposive shaping of later experience in terms of some early, primal experience; and in the sacrifices made on the altar of “a way.” (“Man,” says Burke, “is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection.” The hierarchic incentive is not just a function of social institutions, but is “embedded in the very nature of language.”)

Symbols have admonitory implications, because of symbols, which are conceptions of the imagined, the invisible, the negative, manifest the ability of the symbolizing animal to say “no” in the presence of “yes.” (“Man,” says Burke, “is the inventor of the negative, is moralised by the negative.”) Admonitory implications are illustrated by the tendency of a certain kind of symbol to imply its antithesis, to require its antithesis for an adequate definition of itself. The admonitory implications of a symbol create through such antitheses, through dissociations, discontinuities, and differentiations, a particular kind of order. Development is dialectical. The division is preserved and organised: opposites check, caution, and correct each other; harmony is in the balance of opposites, in the arrangement of differences, in the tension of conflict. Such a principle of order serves as grounds for action in choice, selection between alternatives, efforts at integration or adaptation. A “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” implies its opposite; prohibition arises only in response to, to correct, an antithetical tendency, one always implying and limiting the other. A scientist organizes opposition to propositional assertions in the effort to validate or invalidate them; he asserts, organizes counter-assertions, plans experiments giving voice to the opposition, and weighs evidence, checking each assertion against its negation. (The unfolding or development of action according to entelechial implications or an entelechial principle of order appears to bear some relation to the mechanical solidarity of a social system—based on shared values, beliefs, and sentiments—characteristic according to Parsons of the pattern-maintenance and goal-attainment subsystems of a society.

(To be continued)

(Excerpts from the volume Understanding Mental Illness: A Philosophical Journey by Professor 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’.