Symbols — from core symbols like the Virgin of Guadalupe to abstract ones like the whiteness of Melville’s whale — fix and generate ontological categories. How and why this happens is a question of deep interest to me, but that it is true seems obvious and well established. Human beings create symbols like plants produce oxygen, and symbol formation is inextricably bound to a defining trait of human beings — rich, discursive, and always already metacognitive language (human beings have always talked about talking, a practice that must be regarded as intrinsic to human language). Linguistics up to now, wedded as it has been to a Chomskyian Cartesianism, has missed this role, although philosophers have not lost sight of it. As Ricoeur wrote, “the symbol gives rise to thought.”
The relationship between language and symbolism is complex and (still) not well understood. My own view is close to that of the (admittedly discredited in its original form) generative semantics school, associated with George Lakoff. I believe that categories and rules are in some way generated by the transduction of meaning that takes place between neural representations of concrete objects. Discursive language — not “deep grammar” — tries to fix these meanings in propositional form, but the symbolic substrate has a dynamic quality, in no small measure do to its adaptive nature in response to what Merleu-Ponty called the “primacy of perception.”
With writing and then printing, and the monopolization of explicit knowledge, in the form of written records, reference works, etc., by governments, universities, etc., the relationship between discursive fixation and embodied symbols becomes tenuous and contested, resulting in a mind/body problem unfamiliar to ritual societies.
In any case, a number of practical observations follow from this tenet, which I will quickly enumerate, and hopefully take up later:
- Human ontologies are not plans.
- Human ontologies are overdetermined. That is, there is always more than one way to express an ontology The fixing of meanings will always fail if the goal is to create non-overlapping, non-redundant descriptions.
- Human ontologies are rhizomic. In their natural form, ontologies are not hierarchical. Rather, the hierarchical representation is one form of serialization that works well because of its analogy to kinship (see Durkheim and Mauss, Primitive Classification).
- Human ontologies are local and situated.
- Human ontologies evolve.