I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.
I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.
Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.
Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.
In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.
Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.
Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history. This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.
So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.