In The Early History Of Myth And Magic, The Sign And Its Significance Merged Into One Another

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Expressed In The Minds Capacity For Representation Is The Ordering Of Particulars

Conversation In Thin Air

“So Noel,” I again interrupted, “what’s with Cassirer’s take on Einstein’s theory?”

“Well, before that question can be answered, you’ve got to know something about Cassirer’s philosophy,” Noel replied.

“But I do know something about his philosophy,’ I said, “I took a class in it. As I recall, it’s about how language, art, religion, and science are regarded as continuous aspects of cultural development, which, when understood from Cassirer’s point of view, were taken to be expressions of the power of man to build an ‘ideal’ or symbolic world.”

“That’s very good,” Noel responded. “You are a student of philosophy. Actually, Cassirer was a philosopher of the neo-Kantian variety, and he held that the objective world resulted from the function of human consciousness to symbolically produce, through a priori principles, culture–myth, religion, language, art, history and science. For Cassirer, man was a symbolizing animal, and the principles used to differentiate and order culture were, according to him, dispersed over a wider range than Kant supposed. Kant’s a priori principles were more restrictive and static than were Cassirer’s. However, that said, Cassirer still believed that the organizing principles of the human mind were responsible for all aspects of culture, including the dynamic critique of culture that formed the substance of his work on symbolic forms. In effect, Cassirer, like Kant, investigated not so much the objects of knowledge and belief as the manner in which those objects were constituted in consciousness.”

“But what’s that got to do with relativity,” I said. “How did Cassirer apply his a priori principles to the physical world, the world that we are able to know and predict?”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” exclaimed Tony.

“And, what principles did Cassirer take to be a priori anyway,” I said. “Obviously Kant’s space and time had to go, but causality and relation, I suppose, they could stay. Right?”

Woe, to many questions too fast,” responded Noel. “We need to back up a little here. First, no individual can claim to grasp absolute ‘reality.’”

“That’s what you say,” Tony replied, “Don’t tell that to my Harvard buddies.”

“Give it a break Tony,” Noel shot back, “and listen up.”

“Testy, testy, fellows,” Stan, the English Professor, interrupted, “after all this is not a stuffy conference. Mountain air is moving through our lungs, so lets try to keep it civil, shall we.”

“As I was saying,” Noel continued, “nobody has a claim on absolute reality, so we make do with approximations, and those approximations result from symbolic representation. And further, the pre-conditions for those representations are what make Cassirer a neo-Kantian philosopher. Expressed in the mind’s capacity for representation is the ordering and differentiating of particulars, the opposing of being to non-being. That was the source of expression early on in cave paintings and idol worship, and that is still the source of expression in today’s artwork. In fact, that is the source of expression in all symbolic forms, in literature, in science–the abstract and identifiable nature of that capacity drives the transmission of culture. At the cutting edge of symbolic representation is found the activity of ‘interrogation and reply,’ as well as the interplay of the understanding with our creative imagination, and the rules we use to extend and restrict that imagination. But here I am getting ahead of myself.”

“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 awa
y 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. The stuff only gets better.”

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