Thinking With Symbols

Symbols are a common part of human thought, whereby complicated and multifaceted experiences and parts of experiences are grouped together within the mind of an individuals an aid to more rapid and complex cognition. A primary example of this symbolic thought is language. Children are born unable to understand and articulate much of anything beyond very basic emotions because their minds do not have use of symbolic language. Yet by the time they can walk, children can typically make at least some use of words – and by the time one is an adult, an individual is often so used to thinking with language that the alternative is elusive and difficult to conceptualize.

Language is among the set of symbols individuals make use of which are informed by external stimuli – created by some people and actively or passively taught to others (perhaps not exclusively, certainly there are artificial or synthetic languages which are only used by their creators). But other symbols abound. Pictures, statues, buildings, personal tokens, all of these are physical objects which can be assigned symbolic importance. As words can exist without writing or even sound (if you think about it), symbols can exist within the minds of individuals without the need of attachment to a physical object. Emotions or life-choices can be held as symbolic, and rituals are behavioral patterns which have been assigned symbolic meaning. What makes something a symbol is not what it is or how it is classified, but only that the thing is seen as representing something else. Sometimes the symbolic meaning of a thing can be so significant to an individual,or the original thing so insignificant, that the original thing is only ever perceived to be the symbol by that individual.

A person can spontaneously assign symbolic meanings to the world around them. It is typical that the symbolism begins with a close relationship to the symbolic object and tends to evolve throughout the life of that individual as well as iteratively while it is communicated between individuals. Thus, the evolution of cultural norms of behavior and expectation within and between generations both shape and are shaped by such symbolism.

A pervasive set of symbolism pertains to deities, faith, religion, spirituality, superstition and mysticism. The human mind is designed to use symbolic thought as a significant cognitive aid when problem solving, a learning systems which constantly compares different parts of the world around it, and has evolutionarily developed the ability to seek out why things happen and not just what has happened. Because of this, when mysteries in the environment appear otherwise unsolvable, it is a natural consequence that many individuals will assign the mysterious events familiar qualities so that they are less scary and easier to explain. Personification is a particularly prevalent and powerful means to this end, because what could be more familiar than the mysteries of other people’s thoughts and motivations? Other people’s behaviors are so familiar, in fact, that entire systems of symbols have been devised to help understand them.

Once these personifications are spread, due to the factors that stable symbolic meanings across populations and time, they can become increasingly significant to the individuals who have accepted them and, in various ways, universalized. One tree is sacred, so other trees are sacred; that river floods and changes the environment, thus it is doing so at the behest of a powerful spirit, and then other rivers must have spirits as well, etc. Through the complicated back-and-forth of such assignments of symbolic meaning, both within the mind of a single individual and between people who share ideas, systems of such belief can develop as a kind of logic is applied to the myriad of symbolic explanations for how and why the world works.

Historically, these symbolic systems were used to describe and legitimate the sustenance of hierarchical social relationships as early as the written record extends – back to Sumer and the city-states of Mesopotamia. Such societies grew to considerable population and complexity, and it was perhaps a need for those in power positions to fulfill the expectations of their own symbolically defined systems through stability and organization that written language, mathematics, and systematic exchange were developed – as well as improving processes for agriculture, the construction of buildings and roads, and the development of new weapons technologies, providing those who carried out the violence which was necessary to maintain the hierarchical social order more efficient means to back up their threats as populations grew.

The modern conception of the social contract is itself a symbol. That symbol unifies people into a society and attempts to set the tone for subsequent discussions regarding the specifics of the ongoing relationships between individuals in positions of hierarchical power, and the rest of the population. In the United States of America, that symbol takes a form similar to many before it of the same tradition, that the government should be just by adhering to the principles of “all men are created equal…” and the terms of the Constitution; that it should be reserved in its execution of violence by not behaving as the British empire that preceded it in authority over its claimed territories; and that its authority to exert power, through violence or merely the veiled threat thereof, is derived wholly from the consent of the individuals whom it claims to represent.

So long as the government which claims its authority through consent relies upon the induction of fear through the threat and use of violence to enforce its laws and authority, the symbol by which that authority is claimed is little more than a fraud perpetrated by those first conquerors over their victims. In the presence of universal violence, authority will inevitably be enforced through violence. In its absence, such symbolic authority can only be enforced through the aggregate faith of the individuals comprising the government’s constituency. This is necessarily a fragile legitimacy, easily lost when those in power violate the restrictions of their symbolic contract. What the American government has done since at least the middle of the 20th century is attempt to balance the use of secret violence hidden from the public, pervasive dissemination of the fear that alternatives to the present power structure will with certainty bring about death and terror, and the use of that fear and secrecy to mask the continued reduction of the adherence by the people within government to the symbolic contract and the faith of the public in favor of the presumably superior stability of enforcement through violence.


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