Ernst Cassirer—The Functioning Of Symbolic Forms

Conversation In Thin Air Continues
July, ’80

“Yeah, I think some of this stuff is coming back to me now,” I said. “I’m beginning to remember why I liked Cassirer.”

“In the early history of myth and magic,” said Noel, “the sign and its significance merged into one another. For people about to embark on a dangerous hunt, the painted picture of the successful hunt on a cave wall, was not just a picture, it was ‘reality.’ No distinction was made between the painting and what it represented. The painting of the successful hunt and the upcoming hunt became ‘one.’ By such means early people gained control over their world and predicted many, if not most of the events.

“As language developed, and human societies became more intricately organized, a more symbolic intuitive function began to dominate. Language differentiated the perceptual world into spatially and temporally related material objects. The expressive ‘magical function’ that animated everything with human impulses and desires gave way to a more efficient, predictive power. The predictive power of ‘common sense’ worked to displace the predictive power of myth and magic. Now, however, even that predictive power has come under fire. Magic was the first to go. Now ‘common sense objects,’ the bearers of both subjective and objective properties, also must go. Science and mathematics–the conceptual world of relations, as opposed to the ‘reality’ of substances–owes its existence to the ‘symbolic conceptual function,’ and progress, as measured by that function, tends to move in a direction away from the world of ‘common sense.’ One only has to look to where our knowledge has taken us for a confirmation of that idea. At the micro level of our experience we have a description of the ‘now you see it, now you don’t world’ of quantum mechanics, and at the macro level of experience we have a description of the curved surface of the four-dimensional space-time continuum.” In both directions little of our ‘common sense’ world remains.”

“So big deal,” said Tony, “Knowledge is like that. That’s why it’s called knowledge, and thank God for it.”

“I would whole heartedly agree with you Tony, except for one small snag,” responded Noel, “Our journey down the road of discovery is a very lopsided journey. In a technological society gone berserk, the ‘earth stewardship ethic’ seems to have disappeared at a rate inversely proportional to what gets called ‘progress.’ We are on a course of self-destruction, and, apparently, nothing can be done about it. It’s a damn shame.”

“Here, here,” exclaimed Peter, “If you ask me the world would have been much better off if mankind would have stayed painting successful ‘realities’ on cave walls, as opposed to creating successful war machines. What did that get us anyway–a predictable history of unnecessary suffering and an earth full of pollution?”

“Yes Peter, I know what you’re saying,” replied Noel, “but remember, all of civilization, the civilization we take for granted– agriculture, medicine, literature, technology—has benefited mankind immensely.”

“Fellows, I don’t mean to sound rude,” I said, “but what happened to relativity?”

“I’m getting there,” Noel replied, “and maybe we’re already there.”

“If you haven’t already guessed,” said Tony, “’philosopher speak,’ goes on and on and on. Here, have some more whiskey. It only gets better!”


About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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One Response to Ernst Cassirer—The Functioning Of Symbolic Forms

  1. bwinwnbwi says:

    Anthropologically speaking, at the time when animals refused to passively accept their environment and instead worked to actively transform that environment was also the time when animals acquired the rudimentary beginnings of “time of mind” (the implicative-affirmative’s symbol-generating capacity)—the birthright of inquiry, analysis, conscience and imagination and awe. Considered in this light, faith (a mastodon kill painted on a cave wall) becomes just as “real” as the Higgs boson. The utility of symbolic forms, if that is the right word, is not just about a “thing” to be apprehended, it is about a movement towards constancy, endurance and certainty, and that objective applies to both culture and mind. In other words, we must shift gears here and think of the universe not as something that consciousness defines, but rather, as something that defines consciousness.

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