Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sign and Symbol

I started reading a book by Charles Williams called Descent Into Hell. In the first chapter there is an argument going on about how to portray the Chorus in an experimental play that is being put on. At some point there is dispute about whether the play is 'symbolical' or 'significant'. The modernist lady is pushing for the symbolic character of all art, whereas the sensible says it must be significant. A remark is made at some point about how anyone could possibly still think such a thing.

This is not the first time I have encountered this distinction. It has turned up every single year in my education. The first place I can remember is in Aristotle's De Interpretatione, where we discussed nouns and verbs. Again while reading Martin of Denmark on the modes of signifying. The place when we discussed it most was in reading Viete and Descartes in junior math. In algebra, one works with symbols. These marks do not of themselves 'mean' anything, but they are assigned and can be manipulated without attention to the things they symbolize. This is different from signs which require that you attend to the thing signified if a sign is really working as it ought. I did not think much of the distinction at the time, but I'm starting to see more in it.

Currently we are reading St. Thomas on the sacraments (which are signs of sacred realities) and I remember that St. Augustine started his treatise on Christian doctrine by distinguishing things and signs. A sign (hehe) that this distinction has become more important is that I am repulsed when I hear people call them symbols. The difference (as far as I can tell) is that the sign points to something beyond itself. Words necessarily mean something, point to something if they are really words.

Something worth attending to: there are natural signs but not natural symbols. This should highlight the exclusively artificial character of symbols. Natural signs are everywhere; as many as there are effects of causes. Smoke is a sign of fire, dark clouds signify a coming storm, a woman's unusually large middle signifies a child growing within her. In Aristotle's logic, we learn about the argument through sign (enthymeme), and though it seemed so weak compared to the syllogism, we rely on it for our knowledge of so many things. We need to trust that the appearance of nature is significant. Something in the modern philosophers reject that. Descartes doesn't want to learn from others, Hume denies cause and effect, and Kant doesn't allow that certitude can come from without.

This is not to say that symbols are bad. The creeds which the Church profess are often called symbols. Yet one must not jumble them with signs, for they are different in their what and their purpose. Since much of our learning will come by hearing or reading words, and words are signs, we must inquire into signs in order to root our intellectual life. The roots of the tree which has every discipline as its branch is logic.

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