Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The necessity of symbolsim

These days, the Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) is mainly remembered for his seeming truism "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing."  In my youth I encountered this notion, as revived by G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica of 1903, as it circulated approvingly among the logical positivists at UCLA.

Despite its seeming plausibility, the precept is false.  Any adequate understanding of the world in which we exist depends crucially upon one’s ability to make connections.  Historically, and today as well, such connections are embodied in such procedures as symbolism, allegory, and metaphor, whereby each thing is both itself and one or more other things.
A familiar example appears in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances.”  Of course, the world is not literally a stage. Shakespeare uses the points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the lives of the people within it.  To deny oneself the resources of such ways of thinking represents a serious intellectual impoverishment.


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