Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Some symbolic thoughts

From a psychological perspective, symbolic thought—defined as the mental representation of non-perceptually present (or non-existent) entities—is an innate characteristic of human experience.  Its emergence in the individual can be traced to the development of object permanence, which occurs by the 8th month of life and perhaps sooner.   The young infant’s lack of object permanence is part of the reason the game of peek-a-boo is so much fun:  your face isn’t just emerging from behind a blanket; it is suddenly materializing into existence after completely vanishing from the universe.  After the child has developed the capacity for object permanence, the surprise-value of peek-a-boo is reduced and the game loses its potency. 

But the simple (!) capacity for mental representation seems to be something qualitatively different from what we are doing when we structure and funnel our experience through reified abstract cultural institutions.  The former is necessary but not sufficient for the latter.  Symbolic thought is part of what it means to be human.  Mediated experience is part what it means to abandon your humanity to the machine.

There are some (e.g., ecopsychologists and green anarchists) who believe that getting people to engage in direct,” unmediated” experience can serve as a tool of liberation and as a way to facilitate the process of de-civilizing the world.  They might be right.  But I suspect that they might be overestimating the liberation-value of unmediated experience.   

Human psychological development is a process that interleaves specific experiences with biologically-directed maturational processes.  Our psychology is a complex product of our previous interactions with the world—many of which have involved a high level of mediation through the (mis)application of abstract mental constructs (e.g., reification ), or through technology, or frequently both.  It is not something that can be reversed or undone.  Once we have attained a certain level of biological maturity, the damage is done.  We are doomed to carry the psychological scars of civilization (with respect to our default affective and cognitive processes) for the rest of our lives.  We are all, in a sense, feral children in reverse.

This casts some doubt on the idea that getting people to engage in unmediated experience, getting them to interact with the world in a more direct manner, getting them to make contact with their immediate sensory and affective experiences, and getting them to engage in direct and meaningful human interaction with other human beings will somehow break the spell of civilization. 

But that doesn’t take away from the potential usefulness of unmediated experience as a tool in the de-civilizing process.   I don’t think it is necessary to break the spell to know that you have been bewitched, in the same way that you don’t need to have a thorough understanding of the cause of an illness to know that you are sick and to be able to affect a cure.

And, just for the record, unmediated experience is something to pursue for its own intrinsic value as experience.  Right now is all there has ever been.  


  1. How does this interact with zen philosophy and practice? I see parallels in the emphasis on sensory experience.

  2. Great question. Yes, there do seem to be some parallels with Zen practice. And I’ve always interpreted Dogen’s admonishment: "Throughout the universe nothing has ever been concealed" as being directed at our tendencies toward reification.