University of Earth
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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Significance: Degradation of symbolic forms

Metaphor Project

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1. Central role of "symbol"

The resistance to symbols as criticized by Duncan has recently been reduced as a result of the Harvard Project on Human Potential (see Section H). In the first product of this project Howard Gardner writes at length concerning the central role of symbols: "It is through symbols and symbol systems that our present framework, rooted in the psychology of intelligences, can be effectively linked with the concerns of culture, including the rearing of children and their ultimate placement in niches of responsibility and competence. Symbols pave the royal route from raw intelligences to finished cultures." (The Socialization of Human Intelligence Through Symbols, 1984, p.300)

Gardner points to the vital bridging role of symbols between incommensurable domains such as biology (nervous system structure and function) an anthropology (cultural roles and activities): "So far as I can see, there is no ready way to build a bridge between these two bodies of information: their vocabularies, their frames of reference are too disparate. It is as if one were asked to build a connecting link between the structure of a harpsichord and the sound of Bach's music: these entities are incommensurate." (p.300) There is even a whole section on "symbolic development", based on the Harvard Project Zero. Unfortunately none of these references to symbols in any way distinguishes between the use of symbols as signs and the presence of some intrinsic relation between the symbol and what it represents. Gardner is quite clear about this: "I conceive of a symbol as any entity (material or abstract) that can denote or refer to any other entity." (p.301).

2. Symbols vs. Sign

Despite discussion of stages in symbolic development during an individual's development, this totally ignores the symbolic dimensions discussed in the previous note and presumably is totally unable to relate to them. Signs cannot apparently be distinguished from symbols in current theories of education. Indeed the index of Gardner's book contains no reference to "signs".

To the extent that people identify with symbols (often to the point of being enthralled by them), rather than with signs, the resulting forms of education can only enable people to manipulate signs in the "niches of responsibility and competence" in which they are placed within the economic system. This leaves people vulnerable to other experiences in the psychosocial system through which they may be able to learn the significance of symbols, as opposed to signs. Religions and other sects may be considered a relatively benign source of such learning, as are certain forms of advertising, and media events. However, the vulnerability of teutonic cultures to symbolic manipulation during the Nazi period indicates the possibility of more extreme forms of societal learning for which modern theories of education are unprepared.

3. Confusion about symbolism

Cirlot notes that much scepticism about symbolism, especially among psychologists, arises because of the confusion of two quite different aspects of symbolism: the manifestation of the true meaning of the symbolic object as against the manifestation of a distorted meaning superimposed by an individual mind prejudiced by circumstantial or psychological factors.

He points to the Freudians as offering one example of prejudiced interpretation of all forms as unveiling universal sexuality. He contrasts the Freudian approach with several classical symbol systems based on the essential polarity of the world of phenomena according to generic principles which in each case include the sexual division, but not to the exclusion of all other interpretations. Such distortion of the true meaning of symbols arises from an over-restriction of their function, as well as from over-identification with the psychological mechanism that construes it. (A Dictionary of Symbols, 1971, p.xlvii-xlviii)

Symbolic interpretations may thus be confined within the narrow limitations of allegory, restricting it to some particular level. Cirlot points out that such degraded meaning may not only affect the interpretation the symbol receives, but also the symbol itself. Other forms of degradation he notes include: trivial vulgarization; over-particularized interpretation, leading to lengthy and arbitrary descriptions; over-intellectualized, allegorical interpretations; and identifications through so-called analogy (p.li).

This has in no way discouraged interest in symbols in many sectors of society. But it is the disagreement between symbolists, itself symbolized by the relationship between Freud and Jung (and perpetuated by their interpreters), which one might expect to be contained and given significance by the symbolic domain. Symbolists, like other specialists, have however proved unable to heal their own domain.

4. Avoidance of symbols by international organizations

This environment, its encouragement of mystification, and the neglect by sociologists, has reinforced the tendency to ignore symbols in the conception of any organization or programme. As pointed out above, symbols are consequently of little interest to international institutions except for public relations purposes, as political tokens in campaigns to preserve symbols of a country's cultural heritage, or, ironically as indicators of the status of the institutions and those who work there.

Rather than explore the integrative function of symbols, the international community limits itself to the use of symbols solely for public relations purposes in a manner totally divorced from the challenges of interrelating the substantive problems under discussion. Symbols are used to paper over the substantive cracks and institutional rivalry. This is perhaps typified by the widespread use of the NASA photograph of the Earth taken from the Moon. This has been treated as an extremely powerful and meaningful symbol by many, especially by those concerned with the environment ("One Earth").

But it has not encouraged any further exploration of symbols as symbols. It is a symbolical irony that the symbols (or "logos" in their terms) of the various United Nations Specialized Agencies, for example, are invariably presented in isolation even though it might be assumed that they represent the different parts of a symbolic composition. There is no call to explore ways of representing their functional complementarity and it is therefore not surprising that their relationships should be primarily characterized by petty bureaucratic territorial squabbles. There is no attempt to capture and communicate the "cumulative meaning" of the functional pattern they represent.

The irony is all the greater in that it is such Specialized Agencies, or their corresponding ministries at the national level, which are in many ways (in the public eye) the modern equivalent of the different temples to the gods in ancient civilizations such as Rome, Greece or Egypt. This is in part confirmed by the symbols associated with such gods as their own (eg FAO, UNESCO, WHO). But whereas the relationships between the gods had been extensively dramatized in legends and folk tales, the relationships between the functions represented by such agencies is buried in the proceedings of a maze of coordinating bodies.

5. Signs of quantity vs. Symbols of quality

There is a strange historical symmetry to the fact that such ancient civilizations were so heavily influenced by qualitative symbols in all their decision-making but relatively indifferent to quantitative indicators. Modern institutions are however heavily influenced by quantitative "symbols" in the form of statistics and indicators and almost totally incapable of identifying qualitative indicators. This is especially clear in efforts to assess quality of life.

This irony is perhaps matched by the harmony in their cosmologies between macrocosm and microcosm as being reflections of each other, in contrast to the complete lack of ability to provide a framework to relate individual (micro) with global (macro) concerns in modern development programmes as evidenced by the United Nations University's Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project which fragmented on this issue. It was symbols that provided the bridge, and in many ways continue to do so in non-western cultures.

6. Symbolic pattern implied by international institutions

For those who would see in such institutions as the United Nations a symbol of hope, it would seem to be vital to devote care to the nature of the symbolic pattern they constitute. What is the symbolic pattern constituted by the international community of institutions as a whole? To the extent that such institutions are foci of societal learning, Gregory Bateson's basic point is again relevant: once the pattern that connects learning foci is broken, all quality is necessarily destroyed (Mind and Nature, 1979, p.8)

J C Cooper notes: "Symbolism is basic to the human mind; to ignore it is to suffer a serious deficiency; it is fundamental to thinking, and the perfect symbol should satisfy every aspect of man - his spirit, intellect and emotions." (An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, 1978, p.8) For Dean Inge: "Indifference to them is not, as many have supposed, a sign of enlightenment and spirituality. It is, in fact, an unhealthy symptom."

7. Beyond symbol degradation: symbolism for the future

In addition to the important function symbolism can play in integrating understanding of the range of opposing factors so characteristic of the global problematique, symbolism also has a role to play in defining man's relation to his future (to the extent that this may be dissociated from the problematique).

For Martin Grotjahn the understanding of symbol gives the clue to understanding people and it also provides a key to the future. "We cannot hope to predict or plan developments without analyzing the trends in unconscious motivation. To have neglected this has been the failure, in the past, of proper planning for the future... When we understand the symbol and when we related ourselves to problems of the future as if the future itself were a symbol of our unconscious, then we will develop that kind of creative integration which we need in order to understand the past, to master the present and to predict the future." (The Voice of the Symbol, 1971, p.189)

Elsewhere he suggests that: "The next step in human development will be a creative and courageous integration of our knowledge. Human life is a symbol of existence in this world. A return to naive, primitive symbolization is unacceptable. If tried it world lead to psychosis." (p.181). For him the creative integration of symbolic vision would combine respect for incompatibles such as respect for individual rights with duties to the community. Such creative integration does not imply a return to pre-logical thinking in the future. It combines symbolic thinking with logical, rational, and scientific thinking. "Once, at the beginning of human development, it was no longer enough to react to signs and signals as an animal does; now it is no longer enough to form symbols in the form of rituals or myths." (p.183-4)

It is perhaps a tragedy, and a necessary consequence of the human condition, that those most consciously involved in the design of motivating symbols are those with the greatest commitment to entrap society in the unthinking consumerism which is aggravating the ecological and resource problems so characteristic of the global problematique.

8. Method

Recognizing the importance of symbolism as an unexplored resource, Section MS was designed as a way of providing a brief overview of the range of symbols in order to get some sense of the symbolic patterns. Given the overwhelming amount of information available on symbols, the approach was to group symbols into classes and to indicate tentative relationships between such classes. This first step in many ways denatures the symbols to which reference is made since, as Cirlot points out, it is difficult to classify symbols with exactitude.

By placing symbols in this context however the stage is set for opening entries on specific groups of symbols which can be interrelated by other types of cross-reference.

In particular the challenge is to find ways of reflecting to some degree the patterns of symbols discussed above. Of great interest also is the possibility of relating specific symbols to entries in other sections, especially values, modes of awareness and even, possibly, to problems and to the organizations responding to them.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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