Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Liberating Ourselves From Symbolic Thought

I've mentioned this before: All symbols -- including symbolic thought -- have the same relation to reality that a map has to its terrain.

Going a bit beyond that, I happen to think that all thought is symbolic. At least all thought about "things" is symbolic. And if that is true, then it follows we cannot think of a "thing" -- but only of a symbol of a "thing".

Or, to be more precise: since our thoughts of things are inevitably symbols, things themselves are the symbols we create. That's to say, one might argue reality itself does not have "thingness". Instead, we create "thingness" whenever we think about reality. What we are conscious of becomes a thing.

One practical implication of all this -- assuming any of it is true -- is that looking at "things" in this way is psychologically liberating.

When I have fully realized that my thoughts are to reality as a map is to its terrain, I am freed of mistaking the map (the symbol) for its terrain (for what it symbolizes). And that means I am much less likely to become wrapped up in identifying my self with this or that particular map or symbol. Or, to rephrase it, I am much less likely to become emotionally attached to a map or symbol.

In practice, that means I am much less likely to invest an inordinate amount of my time and energy into preserving the "purity" or "sanctity" of mere symbols. For instance, to the extent I realize the map is not the terrain, I am freed from the delusion that gay marriages will destroy the sanctity of my own marriage. I now see that delusion for what it is: a confusion of the map with the terrain. For the only thing that gay marriages will change is the map for the word "marriage". They will not in any way change the terrain or reality of marriage. Yet, this simple truth might have eluded me until I fully realized how my thoughts of such "things" as marriage were entirely symbolic.

1 comment:

Brendan said...

"Instead, we create "thingness" whenever we think about reality. What we are conscious of becomes a thing."

Beautiful, simple and oh so very freeing and powerful . . .

Nice post, Paul.