[percy-l] Re:Seminal events of consciousness

Karey L. Perkins karey at charter.net
Mon Dec 16 13:50:20 EST 2002

I'm behind on reading and answering these e-mails -- it's midterms for me
and Christmas is hectic -- but I wanted to respond briefly if incompletely:

I'm not sure what either Marcus or Wade mean by the word Gnostic -- could
you clarify?  If by Gnostic you mean "out there" or too "abstract" in all of
this relationship of language to the Bible and creed, I would disagree.  I
think the truths in the Bible are beyond what we normally perceive on the
surface:  i.e.: examine it more deeply and it has profound clues as to the
nature of man, the world, God, and life (Percy's radical anthroplogy).  The
ancients were on to very many truths that we have now forgotten or that the
Enlightenment has marginalized or that just don't fit in our paradigms --
but that doesn't mean they don't work or aren't true.  At the very least the
exploration of that can be an illumination into what the Biblical writers
were intending to say, whether or not you believe it is a material import to
the nature of the world.


>>>>>>>If someone loses his ability to speak or to write or read or even
portions of his experience drop out of thought, does he lose who he is?  If
he loses part of his language, does he lose part of himself?  What is it
we're all saying here?<<<<<<<<<

Percy said it was "symbol-mongering" that really defined the difference
between man and the animals:

"The truth is that man's capacity for symbol-mongering in general and
language in particular is.intimately part and parcel of his being human, of
his perceiving and knowing, of his very consciousness." (Message 29)

He also says later that art, etc. is symbol mongering, as Steve and others
have pointed out.  So language is just an example of this symbol mongering,
and losing language is not losing self, or what it is that makes one human.
Language is just the platform Percy used to study symbol mongering.

I think the real issue is, does losing "symbol-mongering" result in losing
"self" or a more human way of thinking, or a "soul" or whatever it is that
differentiates man from animal, or whatever it is Percy meant?  For Percy, I
DO think he is saying that without the capacity for symbol-mongering, you do
not have "consciousness" in the way that other humans do.

And to Steve and Jim's discussion on which came first, chicken or egg, cited
partially below:

>>>>>>Further, "worlds" are not created by symbols as if out of nothingness.
If that were true, that worlds or consciousnesses were merely the sum total
of our abstract representations, we could not think without words, which is
absurd. We do it all the time. (Steve)<<<<<<<<<<<

>>>>>>>Knowing and consciousness are not contingent upon whether our
thoughts can be represented. We frequently find ourselves in situations that
defy language or representation. But, its our relational need that compels
us to find and create symbolic form for our thoughts. We want to share our
thoughts. (Steve)<<<<<<<<<<<

>>>>>>>>The phrase didn't tell us something new; instead we recognize in it
what we knew but had not yet named ourselves. You can't name something
unless it exists. Thought exists before we name it. (Steve)<<<<<<<<<<<

>>>>>>>Our knowledge of a thing precedes our naming it; it is formless and
therefore uncommunicabe and unrelational. However, it's in the naming that
we give form to the formlessness of it, as God did when he spoke and
creation was.(Steve)<<<<<<<<<<<

>>>>>>>>In the same way, in our own Genesis, we create symbols not because
our consciousness is dependent upon it, but because we have a relational
need (perhaps even a relational need with our own self (Steve)<<<<<<<<<<<<

>>>>>>>I do not agree with your view below that thought precedes
representation.  That representation is perhaps just a vehicle for conveying
our thought to others.  On the contrary I think representation is the very
essence of thought.  It's what divides (triadic) thought from mere
(dyadic)mechanistic re-action.(JIM)<<<<<<<<

It seems from my reading Percy and Jim agree:  In fact, we can only "know"
the world, on a conscious level, through the naming/language act. If we
cannot name a thing, we cannot know it except as it relates to our
instinctual nature and physical survival (This is all over Percy's works,
but see especially Signposts 261, 274, 282).  And also, he says
symbolization is the "very condition of our knowing anything" (Signposts
132).  And, Percy says:  symbol is what enables us to know "being," to KNOW
the things we name, since we cannot know it directly. We must, instead,
"sidle up to it" through symbolization (Message 264).   So for Percy, symbol
was not an event that happens so we can RELATE, but an event that happens so
we can KNOW.  (Although later, the triadic theory becomes tetradic, and
Percy says that we must know within community -- that we can only symbolize
and know if there is another person there -- and at one point I think he
does offer that that can be talking to yourself, but I don't have the
reference to that right now.)

So relating IS very important.  But it seems that KNOWING comes first, and
also the need to know is first, before the relating need:  Percy and Susanne
Langer, insist that humans NEED to symbolize; in fact, it is THE basic human
need (Message 288-296). But is this need to symbolize the need to relate or
the need to know?  Percy says it is "ontological" not "biological" --
  When I ask what is this strange flower, I am more satisfied to be given a
name, even though the name may mean nothing, than to be given a
classification. If I see a strange bird, ask my bird-watcher friend what it
is, and he tells me it is blue-gray gnatcatcher, I am obscurely
disappointed. I cannot help thinking he is telling me something ABOUT the
bird-that its color is blue-gray and that it catches gnats - and what I
really want to know is what it IS. He will tell me that I am only falling
victim to primitive word-magic.[but] there is another reason for my
satisfaction. It has to do with the new orientation which has come about as
the result of naming. The orientation is no longer biological; it is
ontological. (Signposts 133-134)

Ontological has to do with "being" -- which could mean we understand (even
create?) the essence of that thing by naming.  Definitely, the essence of
the thing for YOU is created when you name, though it exists in the outer
environment.  But you know it only insofar as you perceive it through the
word.  So all of our knowledge of the external world is mediated by
symbol -- by our "world" or paradigm.

As for me personally, I'm still trying to figure out this concept in many
different ways.  One of the things I'm trying to figure out, besides what
kind of need is being met, or which came first, the thought or symbol, is:
What's going on?  That is, what's going on inside the human, inside the
coupler, or inside the "Language Acquisition Device" for which Percy had
these final words in "Message in a Bottle":

"The apex of the triangle, the coupler, is a complete mystery. What it is,
an 'I,' a 'self,' or some neurophysiological correlate thereof, I could not
begin to say" (Message 327).

Does he solve it in later writings?  I don't know.  I'd be curious to see
what Ken Ketner had to say about what is going on in the "coupler" or the
"human" when symbols happen there.

>>>>>>>>>>Why must thought precede representation or vice versa  -- why
can't they be the same thing?  I'm not convinced poetic words are just the
vehicles of thought  -- I think they are the thought itself  (Jim) <<<<<<<<<

This is the big issue.  Of course, all of us Percyians agree, language is
not dyadic, it is not stimulus-response, and language is not two events
separated by space and time in the external world.  Those two events are
interacting inside the human, the coupler, and that's where language occurs.
But what IS occurring, now that we agree on what is NOT occurring?   At one
point, I had thought that symbol was a UNION of these two -- the object and
the word.  Somehow, they become one.  Then I thought not quite that -- but
almost (kind of like consubstantiation instead of transsubstantiation.)
Percy says that:

    The use of symbol is a "pairing [as opposed to a succession], a laying
of symbol alongside thing" (Signposts 134) which imples two things, side by

But then he goes on to say:

    It is "intentional relation of identity" (Signposts 134).  Which implies
they are one?  Or almost one?  inside the human.

Any thoughts or insights on:  What Percy thought was happening in the human?
What anyone else things is happening in the human?

Also Steve, I was wondering if you could clarify the "begotten not made" and
how that relates to the topic...


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