Literal and Symbolic, Part I

In his Freeman article “Spontaneous Order: Awakening the Sacred,” Zachary Caceres reveals the latest step in a very modern trend of trying to reconcile the symbolic and the literal – or, as they appear in Caceres’ article, the sacred and the scientific.

Throughout known human history, we have continually explored the world around us, our natural ability to perceive patterns driving us to look for them in everything we can classify as observable. Because the human nature is inherently dual, ideas and discoveries generally fall into two categories – the literal and the symbolic. Perhaps a good example is the brain itself: in the literal sense, it’s a complex mass of neurons, using chemistry, electricity, and structure to operate; yet, independent of this is the idea of psychology and the self. To this we owe Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Though thought and self-identification are largely intangible – not belonging to a single part of the brain, but a result of its operation – we still identify them as being existent. The brain is the literal, the mind the symbolic.

Caceres notes in his article, “The twentieth century was not kind to a sacred view of the universe.” This illumines a small part of a large, history-spanning picture. Historian Lynn White, Jr., from the University of California at Los Angeles, presents us with a more complete view of this picture in his essay, “Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages,” first published in 1947. While Caceres correctly points out the roots of modern science in Greek philosophy (specifically, the concept of scientific reductionism, the idea that everything can be reduced to its constituent parts), White gives us a little more detail. The sciences of the ancient world were seeking the constituent parts of literal things – swans, rocks, and the like – but the purpose was to achieve a better symbolic understanding. The ancient Greeks reduced the world to a very small set of elements, yet this understanding would probably never have transformed into the Periodic Table of the Elements. The Greeks believed that everything physical (literal) was merely a corrupt reflection of the metaphysical (symbolic); thus, to reduce something to its base (four) elements, or to geometric symbols, was to gain a true understanding of that thing. The focus of Greek science was the symbolic, with the literal merely being an inconvenient barrier to truth.

The naturalism that arose in the Middle Ages (White places its official arrival in the 12th century, but ideas have notoriously little regard for dates) represented one of the first major departures from this. Societal and economic changes (better tools, more division of labor, an enriched peasant class, and a rising mercantile middle class) began to bring a focus to the practical and literal. While the nobility and clergy were satisfied holding highly symbolic liturgical services inside the church building, the rising middle class demanded a more dramatic performance; instead of clergy reciting the lines of conceptual figures, we see actors donning costumes and personifying them on the church steps. Instead of Madonna and Child painted in two dimensions with watchful eyes on the congregation, we see an image of a mother and infant with depth and emotion, sometimes even interacting with objects or their environment.

Several types of key discoveries lead us into the modern, scientific, heavily-literal age, out of the age of symbolism. We see the discovery of the Periodic Table replacing earlier ideas about matter. We see evolutionary theory supplanting a mythic creation. We see the rise of psychology to remove our ideas of spiritual influences on human behavior. We see genetics and instinctual theory replacing Fate as the determinant of our personal destinies. We hear Nietzsche pronounce that ‘God is dead.’ As the Industrial Revolution blooms, we see societal and intellectual Progressivism denying that there is anything more to this life than what we can scientifically determine.

Yet this transition is not necessarily a positive one; it is a shift from one extreme (blind symbolism with no substance) to another (insensible literalism with no purpose or meaning). To embrace only one is to deny half of our ability to see and understand the world around us. There are layers in this world (and especially in us) which are subjective and philosophical; there are concepts which, if they are to be understood by the common laborer instead of just the intellectual elite, must be approached in a heuristic, symbolic manner. There are truths which we cannot perceive directly.

The best example of this is the primary tool of the literal understanding: mathematics. Mathematics reduces the literal world to complete symbolism; a child may learn how to count apples by counting plastic blocks, two objects which bear almost no literal connection. We are reminded in math courses (especially as we begin to learn math in the context of physics, chemistry, or finance) to be very careful with our units. Returning from the symbolic to the literal is regarded as one of the most important steps of the process – and is also the step which causes most students to question the relevance of the higher forms of mathematics. If it has no practical use, if I can’t use it to balance a checkbook or calculate a sale price or more efficiently complete the tasks of my job, if a highly symbolic mathematical process doesn’t translate back to the purely literal, of what use is it?

As our ability to further divide the universe into smaller and smaller parts increases, we begin to see weaknesses in the purely literal – flaws every bit as inexplicable as a belief in the purely symbolic. New ideas begin to develop, pulling us back toward the realization that there are systems we might not be able to fully understand, but could still predict. These ideas can more quickly produce a world which we can understand than we could by attempting to capture the world in its entirety and deduce its future state formulaically. We see the rise of chaos theory (especially the idea that systemic unpredictability occurs in a predictable pattern) and emergent order (the idea that a knowledge of all the parts doesn’t constitute a knowledge of the whole) challenge the stranglehold of the literal, and reintroduce us to the symbolic.

About the Author

Dan McFerren


  1. Fascinating post Dan. I’m especially pleased that you chose to highlight the work of one of UCLA’s many renowned historians!

    Go Bruins!

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