(from the Church of Panyia tis Skripous near Orchomenos, Greece
photo by me )
With regards to the NPR broadcast about symbolic thought (see link a couple entries below),
a friend said this to me:
"I thought just thinking is symbolic thought!"
Quite frankly, it is, if thinking involves taking something unsaid
and making it said.
Think about it this way:
our brain is just a murky cauldron of impulses
and in that sense it is a bit like the universe itself.
Once we suffer the desire
to articulate some little part of that murk,
and once we produce a
receptacle - any kind of receptacle -
to contain the meaning we intend to convey,
we are entering the realm of symbolic representation.
1. a ring or a bead is a receptacle to symbolize our union
and promise to another person
2. a cross is a receptacle to represent a certain branch
of religious belief
3. painting a wall blue is an attempt to symbolize -
and hopefully produce - calm.
4. wearing a John Lennon t-shirt signifies one's alliance to what
he has come to represent.
5. a sigh, too, can be significant, if uttered
in the presence of others, with the intent
that it be heard
6. words, like these words I write to you,
contain a vast number of impulses
that my sad poor brain
feels a need to articulate
7. something like a stop sign is a complex
symbolic representation, as it combines a shape
(that shape alone has come to signify Stop!);
a color, red, which suggests urgency;
and a word.
The most challenging form of symbolic representation is words, because
words assign physical sounds,
and arrange those sounds in a number of ways, to
signify specific concepts. Those concepts
can be either
concrete or abstract--
table what I write upon, is concrete--
love what I feel for you, is abstract
If you think in words, then thought is symbolic representation.
But it's a higher order of symbol than a bead.
By higher order, I mean,
The question I think is fascinating,
and the question broached by that NPR piece,
at what point did the human animal begin
to assign various combinations
of sounds and intonations
to both concrete and abstract concepts?
at what point and how
did we begin to represent those physical utterances
as symbols - ie: in writing?
I can imagine
as with some animals and human babies,
the first attempt to produce
sound with discrete meaning
is probably the isolated sound
(For how many cultures does some form of "ma" mean mother?)
As has been said
by Freud, Lacan,
and countless other scholars,
the beginning of language
But there's something
more subtle and significant than that,
where language is concerned.
DESIRE is the
for the act of coupling
for the act of transcending
our isolated bodies,
and the byproduct
whether planned or not
a new, single entity.
For the first year or so
that baby human is no more than
the human animal.
She has human needs and desires
linked to survival and satisfying
her body's needs,
and those needs are continually fulfilled,
True, the baby does not start saying "ma" right away.
as an animal screams.
At the beginning of life,
the baby human animal is convinced
that he and ma are
one entity, and
if ma's not there,
there's something wrong in
The baby begins to suspect pretty early
it might be alone,
and it screams.
It screams for the sake of survival,
in much of the animal world,
a screaming abandoned baby
often expedites its own death.
The point at which the baby decides to just say
the point at which the baby
decides to start imitating the sounds
made by its parents
coincides with the moment at which
the baby becomes resigned
to the idea of being alone,
of being an entity separate from its mom.
Lacan calls this the Mirror Stage,
the moment at which the baby looks in the mirror
and recognizes itself as a complete being,
and at that point the baby begins
its excursion into symbolic representation,
As Ferdinand de Saussure said,
the symbol represents anything that is not present;
it stands in the place of that which is
yet to be found.
When the mom is missing,
you say "mom."
When your cat is missing,
you post a sign on a telephone pole.
When you sense in your gut that
there's something greater than you,
but you haven't seen it,
you say "God."
The question becomes,
when we move this theory and equation
into the history of humanity,
at what point did the human species
evolve from the screaming, impulsive animal
it probably was
to creatures that developed a complex system of representing thought?
I would say it came at about the same time someone ate an apple.
Very shortly after the moment of eating an apple,
the first signifying act produced by humans
recorded in written human history occurred:
it was a leaf on the genitals,
an attempt to hide the fact
that those two naughty kids could suddenly see
that each of them were
Up to that point, they thought they were
one and the same,
with each other and with God.
If you really want to go far with this,
the story of Adam and Eve is an allegory,
but a fairly realistic one, at that,
that tells us
the story of evolution
the precise moment at which
the human animal
entered the realm of symbolic representation
(thereby, making them