We have already introduced the idea of the symbolic function during Day Two of this tutorial. Let me summarize what I have already said and then go on to expand on the issue.

Much of the activity of the higher cortical processes of the brain are employed in projecting meaning upon sensorial events. That means that the development and activity of the cognized environment is thoroughly symbolic in nature.
The symbolic function refers to the relationship between the object as constituted within the multimodal sensorial sphere of dots and the cognitive, neuroendocrine and other somatic processes that become intentionally associated with the object. The symbolic function refers to the property of the nervous system by which partial information about the operational environment derived from the senses is associated neurologically with a far greater field of cognitive associations.
The object of awareness is mediated by a network of cells that provides within its intrinsic organization a partial meaning of the object. This object with its partial meaning is commonly called a "symbol." The cognitive material that becomes intentionally associated with the object -- that is, the conceptual, imaginal, affective, metabolic and motor systems that are linked to the network formed between the prefrontal "subject" and the sensorial "object" -- function to extend and elaborate the meaning of the object for the subject. The greater cognitive field completes the meaning of the symbol and becomes the symbol's "signification."

The neurocognitive act -- the "in-forming" -- of the conscious brain relative to some transcendental event or object in the operational environment is a movement away from the thing-in-itself "out there" to an integration of sensory patterns detected from the thing with associations stored in memory that allow us to make sense of the thing. Keep in mind that the primitive function of cognition that we inherit by virtue of our species' neurognosis is to find food without becoming food. Thus neurocognitive acts are a balance between verity and adaptation -- precisely the polarity in-forming the concept of truth in William James' pragmatism. [Biogenetic structural theory has implications for understanding the concept of information that you may want to check out.]

The Transcendental

Because cognized environments are neurognostically specialized to experience and know the operational environment from an organism-centered point of view, it is obvious that the operational environment is transcendental relative to the ability of any organism to experience or know the operational environment. As we have seen, the cognized environment is a system of points of view, a system of knowledge about abstract patterns sensed in, and projected upon the operational environment, and there is always more to know about the operational environment, or anything in it, than can be known.

We model the operational environment in an adaptively isomorphic way. "Isomorphic" means that the elements and relations comprising a neural model are not the same as those of the nexus in the operational environment being modeled. And just as there is more to a real airplane than there is to a model airplane, so too is there "transcendentally" more to the nexus -- any nexus -- than there is to the model producing our experience of the nexus.

Therefore, there always exists a set of boundaries to knowledge, a zone of uncertainty imposed by: (1) the limits to spatial discernment and discrimination of the sensory systems, (2) the capacity to apprehend and anticipate temporal and causal relations, (3) the complexity of adaptive intelligence (in a Piagetian sense) brought to bear on the object, (4) the neurognostic constraints upon the initial organization and later development of models, and (5) the emotional loading inhibiting awareness in particular directions. In a word, we cannot experience (i.e., sense, perceive, imagine or cognize) what we cannot or will not model.

Keep in mind that I am not proposing another mind-body (mental-physical) dualism here. Our actual body, including our brains and all of our neural structures, are part of our operational environment. Just as anything outside of our body is transcendental relative to our comprehension of it, so too are our body and its processes. Henceforth in this tutorial, let me call our entire being as a transcendental object, our capital-S Self . The term we all use to label our personal model of our Self is our ego .

Our ego model associates our knowledge, understanding, feelings and habitual actions relative to our model of our Self. And our ego has a zone of uncertainty relative to our Self, just as any other model has a zone of uncertainty relative to its referent. Altogether, the zone of uncertainty of our cognized environment is the directly experienceable interface between the transcendental nature of the Self and world.

The Symbolic Function and Truth

Consideration of the transcendental nature of the operational environment has added considerable complexity to our understanding of consciousness, for it is quite impossible to comprehend conscious acts apart from the symbolic function of cognition.

It follows from what I have already said that when organisms in the operational environment produce a sensory event in their nervous system, the sensory event is already an isomorphic abstraction of patterns in the operational environment. Sensory events then penetrate into a field of associative structures that add their functions to the momentary and intentional organization of conscious network. Thus the entire field of experience arising within the organism's sphere of dots is pregnant with interpretation and meaning, and is thus symbolic.

It is precisely at this juncture in our analysis that we could easily hive off from awareness of the operational environment and make the claim, as many postmodernists in fact do today, that truth can have nothing whatever to do with reality and everything to do with the history of meaning. But the source of this egregious error is the failure to keep squarely in mind that the nervous system that generates the sphere of experience is itself a part of the operational environment. Moreover, the nervous system and its neurognostically grounded, cognized environment are the product of millions of years of evolution in favor of an adaptively veridical system of models of reality. In short, our brains are neurognostically "wired" to know the operational environment, and to know it with remarkable verity.

Evocative, Fulfilling and Expressive Modes

The object of awareness may be alternatively the evocator, the fulfilment and the expression of meaning. In the evocative mode of the symbolic function, the object arising in the sensorium is then configured by the multiple associations of meaning -- it is literally re -cognized. The sensorial object may or may not have been stimulated by a nexus in the operational environment and external to the individual's nervous system. In either case, we would say that the symbol has penetrated (or as we say in some of our writings, symbolically penetrated ) its meaning. That is, the network mediating the object has evoked a wider field of entrainments constituting the "meaning" of the object.

In the fulfilling mode of the symbolic function, the process is reversed and the network of multiple associations "desires" or anticipates the object for its fulfilment. Fulfilment may involve an imagined object or an object stimulated by events in the operational environment. In the latter instance there may well be a motor component to acquiring the fulfilling object. The individual may go seeking the desired object. We would say in this case that the symbol has fulfilled its meaning.

The expressive mode of the symbolic function, being a specialization of the fulfilling mode, occurs when the intentional network selects an object that signifies its meaning for the purpose of communication. If the communication is between cognized environments (whether between humans or non-human social animals), then a symbolic act would obviously involve expression at one end of the process and evocation at the other end. Thus we would say that a symbol has expressed its meaning.


The relationship between expressive symbolism and direct experience is not a trivial one. In fact, it rests right at the foundation of how we do anthropology, and how we are to interpret symbolic and textual materials.

Presuming that anthropologists, by means of participant observation, successfully attain the experiences intended by the mythical dramas, ordeals, drug trips, ritual techniques and other aspects of an alien culture's mythopoeia, how then do they describe those experiences so that the experiences become publicly available data? There are those who argue that the higher the state of consciousness, the more ineffable is the experience attained. Others would argue that no experience is outside the capacity of symbolic description. I want to steer a course between these extreme positions, for the former is rather both too cut-and-dried and cultish to be scientifically useful, and the latter seems pretentious and naive.

In a very real sense all experience entails an ineffable quality. No matter how skilled one is in communication, one always recognizes a discrepancy between direct experience and experience communicated vicariously to others using some form of symbolic expression. As George Herbert Mead once noted in his Mind, Self, and Society , communication between people, even between people of the same society, involves a process of adjusting cognition ("attitude") of all participants in the relationship to an exchange of symbols: The very nature of this conversation of gestures requires that the attitude of the other is changed through the attitude of the individual to the other's stimulus. In conversation of gestures of the lower forms the play back and forth is noticeable, since the individual not only adjusts himself to the attitude of others, but also changes the attitudes of others. The reaction of the individual in this conversation of gestures is one that in some degree is continually modifying the social process itself. It is this modification of the process which is of greatest interest in the experience of the individual. (Mead 1934:179)

The interest of the communicant is the transmission of experience vicariously to other communicants, and must inevitably contend with the discrepancy between the relative richness of experiencing and the relative poverty of expressing what has been experienced. One way to conceive of this discrepancy is in terms of what C.S. Lewis called transposition : ...we are all quite familiar with this kind of transposition or adaptation from a richer to a poorer medium. The most familiar example of all is the art of drawing. The problem here is to represent a three dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper. The solution is perspective, and perspective means that we must give more than one value to a two-dimensional shape. Thus in a drawing of a cube we use an acute angle to represent what is a right angle in the real world. But elsewhere an acute angle on the paper may represent what was already an acute angle in the real world: for example, the point of a spear or the gable of a house. The very same shape which you must draw to give the illusion of a straight road receding from the spectator is also the shape you draw for a dunce's cap. As with the lines, so with the shading. Your brightest light in the picture is, in literal fact, only plain white paper: and this must do for the sun, or a lake in evening light, or snow, or human flesh. (C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast , 1965:75ff)

The key to understanding the problem of transposition is in the phrase "adaptation from a richer to a poorer medium." This is because in order for an adequate transposition from a "rich" to a "poor" medium to occur, there must be knowledge of the former as meaning or intentionality evoked by the latter - - or as Lewis says, "It is clear that ...what is happening in the lower medium can be understood only if we know the higher medium" (ibid:82). The issue of transposition in ethnographic work arises precisely because all symbolic expressions may be considered as "poor" media relative to the experiences being expressed, or the experiences being evoked, by the symbols. Symbolization in natural human discourse is never more than the finger pointing at the moon, never the moon itself.

And the transpositional quality of expression is fundamental to, and perhaps even evolutionarily prior to, the form of social institutions that depend upon symbolic understanding, which means that the set of limitations imposed by expression on the mutual adjustment of cognitive processes in institutions must be clearly understood before the institutions themselves can be understood. Again, as Mead noted, "One may seemingly have the symbol of another language, but if he has not any common ideas (and these involve common responses) with those who speak that language, he cannot communicate with them; so that back even of the process of discourse must lie co-operative activity. The process of communication is one which is more universal than that of the universal religion or universal economic process in that it is one that serves them both" (1934:259).

This point must be repeatedly emphasized: the intentionality of symbols is never greater than the cognitive and experiential associations evoked by the symbols in the individual neurocognitive system. Yet the cognitive and experiential reality unfolding in any human brainmind is far richer than any symbolic medium can possibly describe. Experience is thus transcendental relative to symbolic expressions of experience. The exclamation "swimming is fun!" invokes relatively little information for one who has never been in the water, relatively more information for one who has swum, and a great deal more information for one who is an Olympic-class competitor. There are severe limits to how much information about the experience of swimming can be communicated by a professional swimmer to a person who has never been near the water, no matter what symbolic system is being used. And yet remarkably little symbolic communication is required between swimmers to evoke the awareness of a shared experience.

The symbolic function of the human brain has, of course, evolved over the long period of the emergence of the hominid line. I will carry on in a Tangent on this topic you may want to check out.

Well, we have again reached the end of a tutorial session. If you would like to move on to Day Six you may do so, or you may go back to the index and note where you would like to come back to.