On Symbols

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A reflection on Aristotle’s Topics

I have previously reflected on the division between intentional and unintentional physical motion (see on Action) and have also defended my previous position on the need for investigation and learning (see on Investigation). However, I believe that both these reflections have failed to deal with the important question: how can minds communicate through physical mediums? This is important, for it draws forth both the feasibility of learning, as well as questioning the importance of dialectic. To attempt to answer this question, I will first re-state the challenge of materialist psychology – and how it counteracts our intuitive understanding of cognition. I will then attempt to articulate my own position by positing that metaphysical minds can use the physical medium to refer to both physical and metaphysical realities.

If cognition is merely physical phenomena, then it will exist only in two components. Firstly, there would be those aspects of our cognition which are pure instinct, the hard nucleus of the lizard brain which drives us to eat, sleep and copulate. Secondly, there would exist a layer of learned experience, derived from sense impression, which improved our ancestor’s evolutionary fitness by allowing for cognitive adaption within a single generation. However, if we look at cognition in this light, then human interaction cannot be seen as a conversation – as the ‘ideas’ of the physical brain are merely illusions of a complex neurochemical reaction. Instead, the façade we see as communication is merely an evolutionary oddity – a superfluous addition over the pheromonal signals that ants use to coordinate the defence of the nest or the dance used by a bee to relate directions to a fresh patch of flowers. A reductionist physical understanding of cognition means that reality is singular to each mind – as when ‘reality’ is formulated anew in the brain of another it is warped and twisted by the unique frame of reference of the new subject. As all non-instinctive thought is but a complex system of adaption to survive in the changing environment, the materialist understanding of cognition would suggest that the linguistic systems we construct cannot convey real information.

Conversely, if we accept that when we communicate that we are referring to something, physical or metaphysical, then we have to push the understanding of cognition beyond the physical. If cognition acts as a link between the physical and the metaphysical, then it is possible that conversation can occur – as there is actual meaning behind the ideas which people use. I am not suggesting that language itself creates meaning – a somewhat more idealist preposition – for otherwise, language would either be unchanging or reality would morph with the whims of the observer. Rather, I suggest that when people have a conversation, they are attempting to pass metaphysical ideas – paradigmatic snapshots of reality – through the physical medium. If two people are talking about the same subject, then they can hold a conversation, breakdown in communication notwithstanding, as long as they both approach the dialogue looking at the same aspect of reality.

Breaching the walls of a frame of reference, the only true path to intellectual development, is difficult – and as I have previously mentioned, it requires dedication, effort and generosity from both sides to achieve. The mechanism by which such breaching occurs is the ‘communication’ above, which occurs via the use of symbols. Symbols can come in many shapes and sizes – language is the most obvious but dance, music and art can all act as vehicles of communication. The symbology itself does not contain the metaphysical idea which it represents, but it acts as a pointer, referring the mind of the other towards that aspect of reality which both minds perceive. Of course, sense experience will colour the imperfect lens through which the other mind perceives said idea, but without accepting a common fabric from which the two minds can interact, we must discard the idea of conversation entirely.

Original text

Aristotle’s Topics


Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Sacrifice of Iphigeneia, 1770

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