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Speaking Gave us a Symbolic Mind

  • Many animal species are equipped with "anatomical oddities" that enable sophiticated skills of one sort or another.
  • Humans happen to be equipped with a vocal organ that can produce an enormous range of sounds.
  • The human race was born with a peculiar ability, the ability to speak.
  • Animals speak the same "language" wherever they are: they can emit only a limited range of sounds and use them for the most important signals.
  • Humans can emit an unlimited number of sounds.
  • Each tribe selected some of those sounds to create its own language.
  • Facial expression, instead, is the same all over the world: a smile means happiness and frowning means that something is wrong. Because we can make a limited number of facial movements, the language of facial expressions has become homogeneous, universal.
  • Gestures, too, can vary wildly across tribes because we can make a vast repertory of movements with our hands.
  • When different tribes met, they had a problem that animals don't have: how to understand the sounds (and sometimes gestures) made by humans of other tribes.
  • The "translation" from one language to another language requires abstraction: once you understand what a word "means", you can find the equivalent word in your own language.
  • Primordial symbolic activity begins the moment when an individual meets another individual because two brains can never communicate in a perfect manner: one person's thought cannot be translated identical into another person's brain. A higher abstraction is required to communicate or understand a thought.
  • The abstraction needs to be communicated by some bodily means: gesture, facial expression or sound.
  • Most animals have a limited repertory of gestures, facial expressions and sounds. Therefore they don't need a complex symbolic mind.
  • Humans are unique in their ability to generate a lot of sounds and a lot of gestures; hence the multiplication of vocal and sign languages, and hence the sophistication of the human symbolic mind.
  • Sometimes there is no one-to-one translation, but an abstraction helps find a way to understand each other.
  • Communication between people who speak different languages is communication mediated by abstract symbols.
  • Translations trained the human mind to abstract thinking.
  • All abstract thinking is in practice a kind of translation: trasforming something external to us into something internal to us.
  • Other animals don't need any of this because they can easily communicate with members of the same species.
  • In the human world the proliferation of languages caused a problem that was solved by the invention of abstraction.
  • Humans are equipped with another anatomical oddity: a large cortex that happens to be well suited for accommodating and manipulating symbols.
  • Then abstract thinking was applied to other domains, such as the properties of matter (Physics). The human mind started building abstractions of everything, and even abstractions of abstractions (Mathematics).
  • Regions where civilizations collide churn out great poets and philosophers because the civilizations cannot be translated one to one, and thinking in higher abstractions is required.
  • Why Athens? Greece (not blessed with fertile river regions) was an unlikely place to yield a great civilization but it became the center of a cultural revolution (art, science, math, literature). What Greece perfected is the symbolic mind. The symbolic mind was perfected in Greece because the Greeks needed to think symbolically. The need to think symbolically arose because of the interaction of races that spoke different languages: Egyptian, Minoan, Dorian, Ionian, Luwian (the language of Troy), Mycenaean, the people of the Eurasian plains...
  • Throughout history the human mind has been getting better and better at abstract thinking because of the steadily growing interaction with speakers of other languages and practitioners of other cultures.
  • Today's humans can think more sophisticated thoughts than ancient humans whose life was mostly confined to their tribe.
  • Humans quickly realized that symbolic thinking was useful also to communicate among people speaking the same language, and, in particular, to transfer knowledge from generation to generation.

See also

The Future of the Symbolic Mind

See also

The Symbolic Life

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