Because the hominid brain has evolved over millions of years, so too has the symbolic function of the brain. The reason I can say this is that Nature is notoriously conservative. A really useful function emerges and then sticks because it works. The brain of your dog or cat or goldfish, or of a monkey or chimp, operates just as symbolically as yours does. What is different is the complexity of the symbolic operations your brain can carry out. Your dog's act of recognizing you is a symbolic operation just as much as is your recognition of your dog. Your dog's feeling of love associated with your image is just as intentional and just as symbolic as is yours toward your dog's image.

In biogenetic structural theory we make certain distinctions in terms of the complexity and evolutionary advance of the symbolic function. Let me turn our attention to looking at these distinctions for a moment. Remember, these are ways of looking at the same general symbolic function at different levels of evolutionary development, and development in the maturation of the individual human being. And at each level there is the same movement from part to whole, the same cycle of evocation, expression and fulfilment as discussed in Day Five.


The symbolic function is operating during every moment of consciousness, and does so pretty much unconsciously for the most part -- although phenomenologically you can become quite aware of its operation if you choose to be.

  • Small-s symbols. When we are speaking about the general symbolic processes of our brain or your dog's brain, we usually refer simply to symbol with a small-s. Small-s symbolism is the ancient ability to associate meaning to object, the process that is common so far as we can tell to all critters with brains. It is probably present even in simpler critters without brains.
  • Big-S SYMBOL. Humans are able to cognize certain symbols as especially salient, and are potentially more aware of the role of the cognized symbol , or as we sometimes put it in our writing, the Big-S SYMBOL , in its evocative (that is, penetrative), fulfilling and expressive modes. Usually the awareness of a SYMBOLIC relation is a culturally conditioned, mythopoeically enhanced, awareness of the symbolic nature of the associations between symbol and meaning. Thus the leaf of the sugar maple can be abstracted in form, painted red and come to represent the multiple associations of the meaning of being Canadian. Or the red sap of a particular tree can come to be metaphorically associated with menstrual blood, sexual maturity and other notions important to certain West African peoples. Or a wooden cross may evoke a powerful set of associations for a devout Christian.

    SYMBOLS are typically those symbols that evoke the most profound, ramified, socially controlled and even archetypal intentionalities available in a culture's repertoire (e.g., rituals, flags, totems, shamanic and dramatic regalia, geographical features, cosmograms, icons, personal fetishes, etc.). The capacity to cognize symbols as SYMBOLS seems at best rudimentary in the higher non-human animals (e.g., meat for chimpanzees in their exchange rituals), but had apparently become quite advanced among hominids by the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic. Entire events may be demarcated as SYMBOLIC and take the characteristic form of performance and ceremony.

  • Signs. A still more evolutionarily advanced form of the symbolic function is signing . A sign is a specialized constituent in a greater symbolic operation (e.g., words are the constituents of statements and conversations). In sign systems there is a more evident specialization of meaning and hierarchical organization of embedded perceptual constituents (e.g., phonemes comprising lexemes, lexemes comprising utterances, utterances comprising conversations, etc.). Signs show a loss of the evolutionarily older stimulus-bound (so-called iconic) reference. They are thus a more abstract element participating in a relatively stimulus-free contextualization of meaning.

    However, in natural signing situations, such as a conversation, the telling of a myth, or the report of an event, the SYMBOLIC reference is rarely if ever lost at the highest level of intent. Words (signs) are used to describe and evoke SYMBOLIC imagery or references. The context of the sign is the patterned (grammatical) relations it forms with other signs and embedded levels of signs, but the actual lived context of the text is almost always experiential and frequently metaphorical. Thus we may use signs (words) to talk about SYMBOLS (say, the Canadian flag). I can say to you that the Canadian flag is a red maple leaf on a white and red field. I have used signs to describe a SYMBOL -- get it? This is another indicator of the evolutionary power of the emergence of language in the hominid line.

  • Formal signs. The most advanced form of the symbolic function is formal signing in which both the constituent signs and the highest level of text may be totally abstracted from natural experience (e.g., mathematics and formal logical structures, as well as certain types of abstract art). Formal sign systems can establish their own contexts and meanings, independent of perceptual experience. The sign 'X' can mean nothing more than "(A + B)" where all three signs are empty of real things like oranges or stars. The great advantage of formal sign systems is that they maximally removed from environmentally imposed meanings, and may thus be used to describe abstract relations unfettered by instantiation in the real world.


    All four levels of symbolic activity may be operating in the same social event, and operating within and between the same cognized environments. Furthermore, all four levels have adaptive consequences in both phylogenesis and ontogenesis. The adaptive importance of the symbolic function, operating unconsciously in most individuals, has been made clear above. Stimuli in the operational environment produce sensory objects that in turn penetrate to associations and responses that have developed in interaction with those stimuli. The meaning of any stimulus is knowledge about that stimulus, or more properly about that stimulus as a phenomenon. Penetration by the model mediating the percept to the greater neurocognitive field mediating "meaning" allows rapid integration of knowledge from initially partial information about the percept to full apprehension of the percept as a locus of meaning.

    Yet any set of models producing meaning about an object reflects its own zone of uncertainty -- there is always a "horizon," whether it be perceptual or cognitive. You can only apprehend so much about an object, and you can only know so much about that object. The attributes of the object you can discern are always a subset of the total possible attributes, and the meaning evoked can always be different, or more accurate, or more complete, or more precise, seen from a different vantage point, etc., relative to the transcendental nature of the stimulus in the operational environment.

    SYMBOLIC activity may exhibit its adaptive function in more dramatic ways, and in ways that have held great interest for anthropologists. Some forms of SYMBOLISM such as mythology are directed in part at coping with a society's consensus zone of uncertainty. Myth typically provides an explanation for the origins of the world and society, for the relations of life and death, and for why things are the way they appear. Myth may provide a map of significant relations among gross domains of objects and events such as animals, heavenly bodies, seasons and calamities. Myth often provides a description of the normally unseen domains of the cosmos, multiple realities the existence of which accounts for unseen forces affecting human affairs. And when glimpsed, experiences of these previously hidden domains are given mythical significance -- the myth providing at the same time both the context of evocation and the context of interpretation. Myth is commonly grounded and vivified within the context of ritual activity, activity that may at many levels bring mythical SYMBOLISM alive.


    The adaptive importance of sign systems is most evident in natural language. As I argued in Day Two of this tutorial, language evolved to facilitate the exchange of vicarious experience in a species whose brain had evolved to the point where it could know far more about the world than is present to perception. The potential problem for a social species with such a brain is that the consciousness, awareness and experience of individual group members may diverge to the extent that group consensus reality and social action become impossible. Interaction between individuals' cognized environments via language and other symbolic means makes possible a significant overlap in vicarious experience despite the inability of every individual to have the same history of direct experiences. It is upon a proper analysis of the mechanisms by which cognized environments become adaptively synchronized that an integration of cognitive (or subjective) and social theories becomes possible.

    Formal sign systems (like symbolic logic, and arithmetic, geometrical and algebraic formulations) make possible the expression of abstract cognized relations about both the world and the being that are content-free. Knowledge of essential or abstract patterns in relations may be expressed and transmitted without the necessity of concrete sensory fulfilment. Formal signs are the symbolic artifacts of abstract thought; that is, thought about the logic of ideas and relations. Moreover, they are typically grounded in the intuitive grasp of the essential processes of consciousness itself.

    And as we have said, all four levels of symbolic activity may be operating in the same event. Imagine, if you will, a lecture being given by a professor on the topic of quantum physics. You are a student in the class and while you are attending the highly abstract, mathematical material on the board ( formal signing ), your brain is simultaneously tracking visual and somaesthetic cues in the environment for change ( symbolic activity ), you are relating to the professor and your classmates in part as an interaction between social statuses ( SYMBOLIC activity), and the professor and you are communicating in natural language ( signing , perhaps replete with metaphoric allusions) to better enable an understanding of the formulae on the board.

    This is the end of this Tangent. You may want to return to the Day Five discussion of the symbolic function, or head for the tutorial index .