Walker Percy Wednesday 184


IF IT IS TRUE that both Anglo-American empiricism and European existentialism contain valid insights, then in respect of the failure to make a unifying effort toward giving an account of all realities, the former is surely the worse offender. For the existentialists do take note of empirical science, if only to demote it to some such category as problem Seiendes, or passionate abstract. But the empiricists are notably indifferent toward existentialism. In the empirical mind, existential categories are apt to be dismissed as “emotional” manifestations, that is, as dramatic expressions of a particular historical circumstance, or-what is worse-as exhortatory, and deserving the same attention as any other pulpiteering. Such notions as dread, Dasein, boredom, and the dichotomies authenticity-unauthenticity, freedom-falling-prey-to, aesthetic-ethical, will inevitably appear as reducibles-if they have any meaning at all. Whatever significance they have will be assumed to yield itself in their objective correlates.

That empiricism has not found a fruitful method of dealing with these distinctively human realities is no mere normative judgment but may be inferred from the confusion of the social sciences themselves. If there is an unresolved dualism of questioner-and-nature in the professed monism of the empiricist, its difficulties do not become apparent as long as the questions are asked of nature. The canons of induction-deduction hold good: data, induction, hypothesis, deduction, test, verification, prediction, planning. But as soon as the data come to comprise not the physical world or subhuman biology but other questioners, other existents, the empirical method finds itself in certain notorious difficulties (1) The imperialism of the social sciences. As long as there is one datum man and several disciplines, each professing a different irreducible–i.e., cultural unit, libido, social monad, genetic trait-there is bound to result a deordination of the sciences of man with each claiming total competence and each privately persuaded that the other is pursuing a chimera. (2) The transcending of the questioner by his own data. Sociological material resists fixed inductions. A familiar example is the transposition of a biological method, the human subject conceived as an organism with an inventory of “needs,” with “cultural needs” as well as caloric needs. But the delineation of a “cultural need” tends to bring about the transcendence of this need by the very fact of its delineation. (3) The practice of smuggling in existential activities in a deterministic discipline. In psychoanalysis, for example, which in Freud’s words derives all mental processes from an interplay of forces, the crucial act of therapy is the exercise by the patient of a choice, that is, the assumption of a burden of effort in overcoming resistances. (4) The uncritical taking for granted or the equally uncritical ignoring of consciousness and intersubjectivity. Behaviorism ignores both, but what account can behaviorism give of the behavior of the questioner himself? The sociologist and anthropologist practice intersubjectivity; that is, they are not content merely to observe the externals of cultural traits they try to understand the meaning of them. But what account are they prepared to give of this intersubjectivity? If Kant called it a “scandal of philosophy” that intersubjectivity had found no solution in the thought of his day, it is no less a scandal now.

Perhaps the difficulties arise not through an innate limitation of empiricism-an experiential and heterodox empiricism which, according to Hocking, would include the method of Gabriel Marcel-but because of what Dawson calls the religious presuppositions of a naturalist social science. The doctrinal precondition of this particular kind of “theological” sociology is that (1) the sociology is of the same order of determinism as physical science, (2) man is a fixed social unit, an integer, and can be regarded as a receptacle of quantifiable needs. Having laid down such a substratum, the social scientist deprives himself of the means of taking notice of existentialia in his data, let alone of giving an account of them.

But the existentialists suffer in their own way from the same deordination of the ways of knowing as the empiricists. In the Anglo-American view, existential insights appear to be “in the air”-either manifestly reducible or insufficiently grounded by causal strata. The confusion among the existentialist only confirms these suspicions. To some (Kierkegaard) the existentialia are psychological, to others (Heidegger) ontological, that is, they are the constituent traits of Dasein. Phenomenological bracketing is taken by the empiricist to be a confession of causal rootlessness.

The need of the empirical sciences of man is of an insight, a proper empirical finding, that will introduce an order of reality, a reality of existential traits, which latter, if they cannot be reduced to supposedly prime elements or verified by measurement, can at least be validated experientially and hierarchically grounded in a genuinely empirical framework.

The need of existentialism-in the empirical view at least-is a deliverance from Kantian subjectivity, whether it be Sartrean or Jasperian. As Collins puts it, the task is to take account of Kierkegaard without surrendering to Kant. This is to be achieved, as far as the sciences of man are concerned, not by a precipitous search for a regional ontology, such as the ontologizing of the existentialia of the Dasein, but by an “open” experiential empiricism which tacitly posits the world. After all, scientific method has never had much use for the Kantian Copernican revolution. But in the empirical view, the ordination of the sciences, if it is to be accomplished at all, must be accomplished from “below,” that is, from an empirically valid substratum.

The necessary bridge from traditional empiricism to existential insights may have already been supplied-unwittingly, and from the empirical side of the gulf-by the study of that particular human activity in which empiricism intersects, so to speak, with existentialism- language. It is the discovery of the symbolic transformation as the unique and universal human response.

Its crucial importance lies in its recognition as belonging to an order radically different from the purely behaviorist or causal theory of meaning. As Susanne Langer points out, any attempt to reduce the symbol function to a signal process will leave out precisely that which is unique in the symbolic relationship. A symbol is the vehicle for the conception of an object and not a term in a reflex schema which directs the organism to a referent.

The inadequacy of doctrinal empiricism and the deliverance of the symbolic transformation are perhaps best illustrated by beginning with the emblem of positivist semiotic, Ogden and Richards’s triangle symbol-reference-referent. This relation is alleged to be a refinement of the signal-significatum relation and is to be conceived in a strictly causal context. Meaning is a stimulus-response sequence in which reference follows symbol in the same way as dog salivation follows the buzzer signal. As Charles Morris puts it, a symbol is nothing more than a signal produced by the interpretent which acts as a substitute for some other sign with which it is synonymous. Thus in the absence of food, when the buzzer sounds, hunger cramps may come to be a “symbol” for food.

What is omitted in this schema is the obvious but nonetheless extraordinary characteristic of symbolization-that the symbol denotes something. It is the name of something. It is the vehicle by which we are able to speak and perhaps to think about something. The relationship between symbol and conception is generically and irreducibly different from the purely causal order of signal-significatum.

It is the very indispensability of the role which symbolization plays in cognition which prevents our seeing its unprecedented character. The most graphic warrant for its uniqueness and for the qualitative difference between the signal world and the symbol world is the unwitting testimony of blind deaf-mutes like Helen Keller and Laura Bridgeman. Of the many consequences of the insight into the uniqueness of the symbolic function, there are two or three which are particularly relevant to our purpose.

Once it dawns upon one, whether deaf-mute or not, that this is water, then the first question is What is that, and so on, toward the end that everything is something. There has come into existence an all-construing mode of cognition in which everything must be formulated symbolically and known intentionally as something. There is a need for formulation of such a degree that that which is not fixed and formulated by the symbol is the source of a disability before the thing which, depending upon the formidability of the thing, can range from a simple insentience-not “knowing” the thing because it has not been named for one-to acute anxiety before a pressing something which is unformulated.

Besides the symbol, the conception, and the thing, there are two other terms which are quite as essential in the act of symbolization. There is the “I,” the consciousness which is confronted by the thing and which generates the symbol by which the conception is articulated. But there is also the “you.” Symbolization is of its very essence an intersubjectivity. If there were only one person in the world, symbolization could not conceivably occur (but signification could); for my discovery of water as something derives from your telling me so, that this is water for you too. The act of symbolization is an affirmation: Yes, this is water! My excitement derives from the discovery that it is there for you and me and that it is the same thing for you and me. Every act of symbolization thereafter, whether it be language, art, science, or even thought, must occur either in the presence of a real you or an ideal you for whom the symbol is intended as meaningful. Symbolization presupposes a triad of existents: I, the object, you. Hocking suggests that the symbol arises from the direct experiential knowledge that “We are.” But surely it is that the “We are” follows upon and is mediated by the symbolization, the joint affirmation that this is water.

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