This post was inspired by Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man. (It was published in 1944 hence the use of ‘man’ for humanity.)

A paragraph on Cassirer. If you have heard of Ernst Cassirer it will almost certainly be because of his four volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. This is serious academic philosophy – definitely not for the faint hearted. I have never managed to read it properly – it is concerned with issues of academic philosophy rather than problems of life that normal people deal with. Cassirer himself acknowledges this in An Essay on Man. Cassirer points out that humankind is not so much the ‘rational animal’ – rationality as what makes people distinctive leaves out too much – but ‘the symbolic animal’. The forms of this symbol using include myth, science, history, art and so on. This is Cassirer’s genius I think: he has zeroed in on what makes humanity distinctive – if not entirely unique (some birds decorate their nests, primates engage in ‘purposeless’ play but people live their lives largely in a symbolic world: we spend so much of our time exchanging greetings, talking about meaning and so on). If you wish to find out more you will find him in dictionaries of philosophy and lots of stuff online.
We spend much of our time occupied with symbols. There are road signs as well as signs telling us what goods are within an entrance. There are symbols of goodwill (waving, smiling) and symbols that encode information (which you are decoding at the moment). Part of the social nature of people is our living in a world of symbols.

This world of symbols can be fairly direct – a raised hand for stop, a nod or headshake for yes. But they can also be more abstract – children learn spend some of their early years learning the symbols of their native language. Adults can make symbols about how to use these symbols – grammars, dictionaries and so on. They can even exchange symbols about symbols about how to use the symbols (philosophy of language and so forth).

Some of our experience is largely free of symbols – removing our hand from something that is hot for instance. (Although even this can be modified by the symbols we invest with meaning – enduring pain for a higher purpose for instance.) But the distinctively human aspect of our lives is closely bound up with symbols. (Any living entity will move toward react to its environment, humans are also able to respond.)

Traps
Symbols aren’t the same as our direct reactions – e.g. grabbing for something when we are about to fall. And it is important that we have these reactions – they can save our lives and so aren’t less important than our ability to use symbols. They just aren’t what is distinctive about us as humans.

Our focus can often go to what is distinctive – but this may not be what is most important. It may be the snake that blends in with the background is much more important to our survival than the garish coloured piece of litter that is so easily seen against the leaves.

Focusing on symbols can be a trap – it can lead us to forget our instincts and direct perceptions. We can end up ‘living only in our heads’, losing the delicious sensuality of our sensory experience and the wisdom of our instincts.

Zones
One way to become aware of the traps of focusing only on symbols is to distinguish different zones. (I have taken this from gestalt psychotherapy.) The three zones [link to a PDF] are: inner, outer and middle. (These are approximate not hard and fast – the zones overlap somewhat).

The outer zone is that part of our experience dealt with by our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch -which respond to external objects.
The inner zone is that part of our experience that has to do with our inner fantasies and emotions.
The middle zone is that part of our experience made up of our symbols.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves of which zone we are focusing on at any particular time. For me at the moment it goes something like this: now I am waiting for a phrase to come to me, now I am aware of my fingers on the keys, now I am aware of the words appearing on the screen, now I am aware of a spelling error and so on.

As so much of our education is about symbols it can be helpful to distinguish the middle from the inner and outer zones. Our reaction to someone’s tone of voice may tell us more than their remark about the weather. The beauty of this tree is not captured by the label “tree” – or even its more precise botanical classification. For those of us spend lots of time focused on the middle zone it can be very refreshing to focus on the inner and outer zones.

It is also important to distinguish the three zones and not confuse them. Our reaction may have little to do with the current situation – we may react negatively to a stranger because they are hostile or because they remind us of someone from the past. We may like someone immediately because they take an interest in us or because they remind us of someone in the past who took an interest in us. We may make a very comprehensive plan to achieve a goal – but implementing it has to do with the outer zone not just the middle zone. Our intentions (middle zone for us) may not be perceived by others (outer zone for them). Being clear about the three zones can save much confusion and angst in our relationships.

Enriching our Experience
Acknowledging the three zones can enrich our experience. Neither of them is more important – they all add richness to our lives. Seeing the beauty of nature, experiencing the richness of our emotions, using our thinking and symbols to understand and communicate – all of these make up a fully human life.

Here are some things to try to enrich your experience. You may like to start with the zone you are most comfortable with and then experiment with the others – or try a challenge straight off, it’s up to you.

  1. Take a moment to watch how your experience moves between the three zones. Then label the zone you are paying attention to.
  2. Staying in the inner zone. Count your breaths. How long is it before your attention moves elsewhere?
  3. Staying in the outer zone. Choose a sensation from one of your senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell). See how long you can remain focused on this: how long until your attention moves elsewhere?
  4. Staying in the middle zone. Choose a symbol to focus on. How does it relate to the outer zone? How does it relate to the inner zone? How long you can stay focused on this symbol? How long until you focus moves elsewhere?
  5. Do you prefer one zone over the others? Perhaps you would like to spend a few minutes each day consciously staying in the zone you enjoy, or one of the others that you find less familiar.

As we become more familiar with the three zones the richness of our experience will increase.

Which zone do you find easiest to be in? Does your enjoying one zone lead to problems with the others? Is there one zone that you would like to focus more on? I’d love to hear your experience of the different zones, their pleasures and challenges for you. You can tell me your experience of the three zones in the comments on this post. Looking forward to hearing from you.


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4 Comments to “Our Experience and Our Symbols”

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  3. Mark says:

    This is very interesting. I am going to take some time to re-read this and digest more fully. I am sure that this will raise my awareness and because of that my journey will be enhanced. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Evan says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. I’d like to hear how your journey is enhanced if you would like to come back and let me know.

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