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The Symbolic Life

  • Humans are unique among animals because they create symbols for all activities
  • A traditional wedding used to last hours if not days, during which an impressive number of mindboggling rituals were performed that involved dozens of people. All of this to celebrate the fact that a woman was about to lose her virginity. We don't have time for such elaborate weddings, but we still "celebrate" a wedding. Animals don't. The tea ceremony in Japan is an elaborate ritual that can last hours. All of this to drink a liquid. We go to a pub and expect something to happen there which is not just drink beer. We shop for clothes and furniture. We waste money on a dead person to give her a funeral.
  • Humans waste an incredible amount of energy and resources to create useless things such as artworks, to design stylish buildings, to write and/or film stories that never happened, to make jokes, to play games.
  • No other animal wastes so much energy into unnecessary activities. Most animals eat, have sex and raise their offspring, and then they die. They have no elaborate rituals.
  • Humans can't help it. We have a mind that produces symbols for everything, and just about everything becomes a ritual.
  • The consumer society is a direct consequence of a mind that produces symbols for everything. A car is a useful device, but choosing a car of a particular color or shape is a waste of time and money. Ditto for clothes, furniture, kitchenware and so on: the way it "looks", or the way it is associated to other symbols, becomes more important than the way it works.
  • We think of life as love and hate, courage and cowardice, luck and misfortune, and so on.
  • Symbols build symbols which build more and more complex
  • Chains of symbols become elaborate rituals: rules, laws, uniforms, customs, states, ideologies and religions.
  • Maybe the symbolic mind is also responsible for the incredible mobility of human beings: we are the only animal that is curious to explore the world. Symbols create the desire for other symbols, for exploration and discovery.
  • Maybe that's also the reason why humans evolved the ability to grasp objects and to walk upright. Maybe our very desire to walk is due to the symbols created in our minds, for example the symbol of travel.
  • We used hands to turn symbols into things, so that symbols became permanent, not transient.
  • Maybe we became builders not to protect ourselves from rain and predators but in order to build symbolic things. Maybe technology is a byproduct of the impulse to make touchable and visible symbols. Maybe the original rituals had no objects, just movement of bodies, and only later objects were built to add more symbols to the ritual. Maybe we invented fire for a ritual and then discovered that it could be used to cook. Maybe we invented clothes for rituals and then discovered that they allowed us to live in colder climates.
  • It was an accident that some of these things turned out to be useful for survival.
  • Temples became ordinary homes, chariots became carts and trains and cars, fire pits became lamps and ovens and appliances.
  • A society of humans is the dance of all these symbols in action, trying to coexist, often colliding.
  • The human mind cannot stop inventing symbols and rituals. As religious rituals fade away, new rituals are constantly being created in other fields, for example for rock music, sport and videogames.
  • We think that we are getting rid of old useless symbols such as elaborate weddings and funerals, but in reality we are creating new ones all the time; and the symbols that we create determine the way we live.

See also:

Speaking Gave us a Symbolic Mind

See also:

The Future of the Symbolic Mind

Read: Susanne Langer's "Philosophy in a New Key"