Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Walker Percy on Symbols and Semiotics.

May 30, 2011 at 4:29 P.M. "Errors" were reinserted in this essay as part of the continuing computer crimes against me. In the absence of my personal computer I must repair the harm done to my works by N.J. officials (or their hackers) at public computers throughout New York city. I cannot say how many texts have been damaged in this latest wave of attacks. ("How censorship works in America.")

December 2, 2010 at 3:18 P.M. From a public computer: "Errors" reinserted in this essay have been corrected.

July 28, 2010 at 3:01 P.M. "Errors" were inserted and corrected in this essay which had been left alone for a while. Copyright protection and the U.S. Constitution have no meaning for New Jersey legal officials. This means that we can expect future vandalism of this essay and others aimed at causing psychological harm to me through what they call: "induced frustrations." Lots of luck, New Jersey.

July 7, 2010 at 2:23 P.M. I notice that one of my essays examining the work of Norman Mailer was deleted from this blog against my will by New Jersey's hackers. I will write another essay about Mailer to replace the deleted work which will probably appear under someone else's name in print. ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and ''Brideshead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

Walker Percy, "Symbol, Consciousness, and Intersubjectivity," and "Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism," in The Message in a Bottle (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1983), pp. 265-287.

Walker Percy, "A Semiotic Primer on the Self," in Lost in the Cosmos, The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Washington Square, 1983), pp. 86-140.

Henry Kisor, "Dr. Percy on Signs and Symbols," in Lewis A. Lawson & Victor A. Kramer, eds., Conversations With Walker Percy (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1985), p. 193.

Charles Sanders Peirce, Chance, Love and Logic: Philosophical Essays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1998), pp. 238-301.

John P. Hogan, Collingwood and Theological Hermeneutics (Latham: University Press Inc., 1998), pp. 167-196.

More good stuff about my book:

Walker Percy's essays and novels are philosophical in the sense that works by Camus and Sartre, Mann and Tolstoy are also philosophical meditations on ultimate life-issues by way of narrative structures.

Percy's writings illustrate forms of awareness and a concern with wisdom, which is enriched by Percy's Christian faith and familiarity with the tradition of Biblical scholarship and reflection. Percy was a physician and biologist, and he was up to date on scientific issues. Also, Percy was a Southerner.

Two of Percy's essays in a collection entitled The Message in the Bottle are especially relevant to my interests. You can read chapters 12 and 13 of that book together, for example, as explorations of the role of symbolic thinking in our self-understandings, particularly in coming to terms with the puzzle of consciousness, also in physics and mathematics. Both of these superb essays nonetheless suffer, I believe, from a failure to make use of key insights in the writings of Paul Ricoeur.

Percy begins by stating the issue dividing the two basic approaches to the mystery of consciousness: 1) the "explanatory-psychological" (behaviorist or scientific) view of consciousness; and 2) the "phenomenological-hermeneutic" (humanistic or interpretive) view. The first of these approaches seeks knowledge of causes and the workings of consciousness from an external or objective perspective; the second seeks understanding of consciousness from an interpretive or hermeneutic perspective.

Neither of these approaches is likely to be sufficient on its own or to eliminate its rival from the intellectual scene. Pluralists concerning descriptive vocabularies, like me, are convinced that we need both of these perspectives to know and/or understand the "unitary phenomenon of man."

Much depends on what aspects of human beings interest us. When it comes to the human realm of meanings, phenomenology wins; when it comes to understanding empirical reality, science wins. Men and women must be understood in both ways, externally and internally, because we live in dual realities. Percy says:

"One can either look upon consciousness as a public thing or event and as such open to explanatory inquiry; or one can regard it as an absolutely privileged realm, that by which I know anything at all -- including explanatory psychology. As exemplars of these two approaches I shall refer to ... the work of George H. Mead [behaviorist-externalist] and Edmund Husserl [phenomenologist-idealist-internalist].

I adopted a similar strategy by comparing the philosophies of Owen Flanagan and Paul Ricoeur.

Percy and I wish to use other thinkers as "place-holders" to mark the spot (roughly) that each occupies on the philosophical map then to move from one to the other (Ricoeur, for me; Mead for Percy), choosing one, finally, as home base -- in order to analyze consciousness and language philosophically -- so as to establish a reconciliation with the rival position.

Percy is best thought of as a scientific-phenomenological-existentialist.

No doubt Percy's existentialism was at least in part the result of his experience of Tuberculosis and stay at a sanitarium during the forties. Mr. Percy died some years ago. This experience of illness and training as a physician may also explain the Catholic novelist's fascination with Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.

The "quest" is for a synthesis of these rival views, aufheben, or a form of "transcendence" (reconciliation is the "Holy Grail"). The problem for all philosophies results from the need to account for what Percy calls "intersubjectivity." I will speak of the "encounter with the Other" or of making the "Ogival crossing.

It may be best to pause in order to define some key terms that people often find puzzling. I happen to be reading Dan Brown's pulp novel The Da Vinci Code. The book is fun, if you recognize how silly it is and do not take it seriously. All of Percy's novels are better that The Da Vinci Code. Regrettably, many people do take that pulp novel seriously. Some of the subtexts in Brown's book are not very pleasant. I cannot help laughing at some of the blunders in Brown's novel. No, this is not getting off-course.

For one thing, Brown's hero (Robert Landon) is a "symbologist" who teaches at Harvard. There is no such academic subject. There are no university departments of "symbology." There are people who are experts in "semiotics," which is the "general study of symbolic systems, including language." A key text in semiotics is C.W. Morris, The Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), all the way up to Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics (1976).

Julia Kristeva makes use of the term "semiotics" in her own system, mostly to confuse everyone, which sounds like fun. A neo-Marxist tradition that interprets the language of commodities (as a system of signs) is associated with postmodernist sociological theory as in the writings of Jean Baudrillard.

"Hermeneutics" is "the theory and practice of interpretation." It is a modern method or discipline developed early in the nineteenth century in Biblical criticism which was extended by Schleimacher and Dilthey to cover the whole of human existence, distinguishing human from natural world concerns in social theory or "the human sciences" -- especially as developed by phenomenologists -- in a tradition including thinkers from Hegel (The Phenomenology of Mind) to Heidegger, especially Gadamer and Ricoeur in our times. American legal theory has made creative use of the field.

Back to Percy. Neither of the two basic approaches to the study of consciousness does very well in accounting for social reality (or intersubjectivity) because behaviorists are stuck on the "outside" of people, with what is observable, which is public and social; whereas phenomenologists are stuck on the "inside" of people, with their inner lives and development of intentionality, but unable to get to the public world of others.

John MacMurray and Gabriel Marcel, among others, help with this problem by making love the path to the other, an other who is always already with us:

Percy says -- I agree -- that many of these difficulties result from a failure to appreciate the crucial importance of symbols, especially words as symbols. Sources for this insight include Ernst Cassirer and Susan K. Langer. An appreciation of the peculiar role of symbols in formulating or constituting subjects ("and don't forget power!" Foucault says) will leads us to ...

" ... (1) confirm in an unexpected way Mead's thesis of the social origin of consciousness, (2) reveal intersubjectivity as one of the prime relations of the symbol meaning-structure, (3) provide access to a phenomenology of consciousness, not as a transcendental idealism, but as a mode of being emerging from the interrelations of real organisms in the world."

The failure to refer to Ricoeur is a major problem for Percy because Ricoeur's project begins from the insight that the "other is always with us already" to the extent that we are formulated or shaped in and by languages that define us and that we also help to redefine, all the time, in a kind of energy-exchange, bringing us close to idealism again.

"The symbol gives rise to thought," says Ricoeur. Symbols make thought and identity possible in community. A symbol is necessarily a social space.

We look for the self not "inside" the mind in a Cartesian meditation or by way of Husserl's epoche, but "outside" of the psyche, in collective mind or shared cultural meanings, through a "truncated ontology of the sign."

This is Ricoeur's Kantian move, which leads him in a Hegelian direction. You can do better than Mead, folks, and avoid all of the absurdities and ethical problems of behaviorism, while still achieving the objective and external perspective so beloved of those who are "into" scientific psychology and pragmatism.

"I am objective," says the science major. Ricoeur answers: "So am I." Lawyers ask: "What would you like me to be?" ("Behaviorism is Evil.')

French philosophers and literary theorists are way ahead of us in this area. True, from a Continental perspective, Percy is reinventing the wheel. However, he is doing so very well and translating these weird European ideas into an American idiom

"Semioticists take due notice of the relation of denotation in semantics, which is that dimension of semiotic which has to do with the RULES by which a symbol is said to denote its denotatum. ... ... Signification is essentially and irreducibly a triadic meaning-relation, whereas symbolization is essentially and irreducibly a tetradic relation. The three terms of the sign-response are related psycho-causally. The schema, sign -- organism -- significandum, has so persistently recommended itself as the ground of meaning, human and sub-human, because it deals with physical structures and with causal relations and energy exchanges between these structures."

In other words, for Percy, an organism is always merely "responding" (yes, but how freely?) to an environment in formulating an identity, even when the environment is a "sign-structure."

Now we need Derrida and Chomsky -- but also John Austin -- to remind Percy that language has a constitutive power. Every human environment is a language. Languages, however, are more than environments. ("Immanuel Kant and the Narrative of Freedom" and "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Sign-mediation is more than an environment for a subject. Sign mediation creates what it describes. Think of mathematics and the years of effort to cope with such items as the Reiman hypothesis or Fermat's last theorem. (Austin's "How to do things with words.")

This linguistic essence is even more true of symbols. Just head down to Thompson Street and play chess with the hustlers. You will find yourself in a universe of knights and castles, "king's indians" and "queen's gambits." ("Sinbad's Excellent New York Adventure.")

I heard Derrida address these themes concerning the constitutive power of language, referring to Austin specifically (which was surprising), in a French language public lecture I attended at New York University's French Studies Center.

Legal training comes in handy at this point. American Constitutional theorists have found poststructuralist and hermeneutic theory useful for their interpretive concerns. In U.S. jurisprudence there are often legally-mandated terms ("magic words" ) that must be spoken in order to alter legal reality

"I now pronounce you man and wife."

When a statutorily mandated set of requirements are satisfied, a judge may speak these foregoing words creating a new entity, in fact, merely through the use of words. The life-world of those about and to whom such words are spoken is recreated, instantly, by their use.

Indeed, the entire society's legal reality is altered by such a pronouncement because the network of legal obligations changes for those with a new status and all other legal subjects. They (and we) stand on new common ground in a shared world of language-relations or meanings after such words are spoken. Denotation, the act of naming, requires the TWO, namer and hearer. My calling this thing a chair is another way of saying that it "is" a chair for you and me. Get this move:

"Every symbolic formulation, whether it be language, art, or even thought, requires a real or posited SOMEONE ELSE for whom the symbol is intended as meaningful. Denotation is an exercise in intersubjectivity. The two are suddenly no longer related as organisms in a nexus of interaction but as a namer and hearer of a name, an I and a Thou, co-conceivers and co-celebrants of the object beheld under the auspices of a common symbol." ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

I now reach for my copy of Judith Butler's and Gillian Rose's books and for John MacMurray's writings.

What does it mean to tell me that "Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers?" What reality are we creating by doing this, speaking these words, to a young person? How about this: A judge holds his or her nose and says, "You are the personal injury lawyer from the storefront office, right?" Am I your "inferior," Mr. Rabner?

What place is created for you if you accept that label of "inferior'? What if you are "the Defendant"? Or "offender"? What if a woman is called a "filthy whore" or a "fat pig"? What if you are told in an American courtroom to "sit on the last bench in the room"? Do you embrace the label that seeks to dehumanize you and transform it? Or do you reject the entire discourse and create another? What is the best form of resistance to such stupidity and injustice? "Ethics"? You must be joking, New Jersey. ("New Jersey's 'Ethical' Legal System" and "New Jersey's Office of Attorney Ethics" then "What is it like to be tortured?")

The trial or legal proceeding is already over when you can refer to a defendant on the front page of the newspaper in town as "the prostitute." ("Abuse and Exploitation of Women in New Jersey.")

When a judge can say before the trial of Mumia Abu Jamal "I am going to help them to fry that nigger!" the outcome is predetermined. Welcome to America's legal system! ("Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal" and "America's Holocaust" then "Race, Sex, and Incarceration" and, again, "Abuse and Exploitation of Women in New Jersey" and, finally, "Foucault, Rose, Davis and the Meanings of Prison.")

I choose struggle. How about you?

You have forty-five minutes and may use any sources that you like to answer these questions. Finally, citing Gabriel Marcel's "intersubjective nexus," Percy concludes:

"If we wish to study the knowers themselves, the I-Thou relation, we must use some other instrument, speak some other language, perhaps an ontological one rather than physico-causal."

Then, the Turandot phenomenon:

"Awareness is not only intentional in character; it is also symbolic. ... I am not only conscious OF something; I am conscious of it as being what it is for you and me. ... The 'I think' is only made possible by a prior mutuality: 'we name.' ..."

We name. Mutual naming is only possible, in turn, because persons always share a common language of images or archetypes. In fact, that capacity for language is part of what it means to be a person, together with an aptitude for other forms of discourse or non-verbal languages -- art, for example -- and a set of collective memories, or a deep, shared or universal subconscious, which is expressed in archetypal symbols. ("'Inception': A Movie Review.")

It is these symbols which (at the most profound level) locate or place each of us, like it or not, in the lives of all others. ("Daniel Dennett and the Theology of Science.")

Such a bizarre experience of "heightening" awaits many cinema stars who, usually through no choice of their own, tap into mythic or archetypal images and become undying (and often unwilling) symbols. Kate Winslet was faced with a Jaguar automobile named after her. This is a heavy burden, which must take a psychological toll on anyone. 12 cylinders, Kate? ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

Even in death these persons or their images (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley) are used or exploited for purposes and reasons which are not their own. One is reminded of the mythology of shadows -- and of the theft of shadows -- as in the story of Peter Pan. ("'Finding Neverland': A Movie Review.")

Something deeper than words is involved in symbolizing by way of primal and archetypal images, for we reach that universal or fundamental humanity where we must stand together. And this "something" is captured in a few of our greatest symbols: Star of David (which is an abstract expression of all that is in Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" and more), Enlightened Buddha under the tree, and crucifix, all are representations of the point at which human and universe (God, if you like) meet, where all opposites are transcended and resolved -- including masculine and feminine -- in or by love. The crucifix is a symbol of ultimate community and our only possible total reconciliation of fate with hope.

Tragically, given the bloody history of humanity, a crucifix (like every other important symbol) must be ambiguous as a symbol.

If I were to meet the proverbial anthropologist from Mars (suppose he looks like Woody Allen or Marilyn Monroe, see what I mean?) and he or she asks me: "What is your species?"

My answer would be to point at such master symbols -- for me, this means a crucifix most of all -- and then to give him or her (it?) a "name."

Through naming we escape necessity.


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