[excerpts] Social Psychology


[excerpts] Social Psychology: Homo Symbolicus

April 2017

Selection #1: A Clue to the Nature of Man: The Symbol by Ernst Cassirer

This essay selection sent a charge through my body at 2am in the morning. His simply typology of receptor system, effector system, and symbolic system is powerful. It’s powerful because it elegantly unifies two different disciplines. He connects the abstract/philosophical ideas of symbolic interactionism, to the biological/psychological level.

"In the human world we find a new characteristic which appears to be the distinctive mark of human life. The functional circle of man is not only quantitative enlarged; it has also undergo a qualitative change. Man has,a s it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to the environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality. There is an unmistakable difference between organic reactions and human responses. In the first case a direct and immediate answer is given to an outward stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed. It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and complicated process of thought. At first sight such a delay may appear to be a very questionable gain. many philosophers have warned man against this pretended progress…It is not an improvement but a deterioration of human nature to exceed the boundaries of organic life.

Yet there is no remedy against this reversal of the natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress is thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves  man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imagined emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. “What disturbs and alarms man,” said Epictetus, “are not things, but his opinions and fancies about the things.”

From the point of view at which we have just arrived we may correct and enlarge the classical definition of man…The great thinkers who have defined man as an animal rationale were not empiricists, nor did they ever intend to give an empirical account of human nature. By this definition they were expressing rather a fundamental moral imperative. Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as animal rationale, we should define him as animal symbolicum. By doing so we can designate his specific difference, and we can understand the new way open to man- the way to civilization."


Selection #2: Chapter: Boundaries and Contradictions in The Production of Reality by Jodi O’Brien

On Man as Potential, as having no Essence (remarkably similar to Sartre’s phenomenology).

"In the book The Sword and the Stone by T.H. White, a wise old badger tells his young apprentice, Wart, how all creatures of the earth came to be as they are. According to the badger, God assembled a multitude of embryos before him on the sixth day of Creation and explained that He was going to hand out gifts. The embryos could each choose two or three gifts. These gifts would serve as a set of tools that would mark the creatures’s unique existence on earth. The embryos chattered excitedly upon themselves about the possible combinations of tools each might ask for. When the time came, each embryo stepped forward and requested tits fits from God. Some asked for arms that were diggers o garden forks, some chose to sue their arms as flying machines, and others asked for bodies like boats and arms that were oars. On of the lizards decided to swap its entire body for blotting paper. Still others asked to be able to use their mouths as drills or offensive weapons. Finally, it was the turn of the embryo called “human.” This small, naked creature approached God and stammered shy, “I have considered your generous offer, and I thank you for it, but i choose to stay as i am.”

“Well chosen,” thundered God. “In deciding to retain your embryonic form you will have use of all the fits that mark the being of each of the other creatures. You will exists always as the potential: the potential to take up and put down the tools of the other creatures, the potential to create uniforms and tools of your own and to wear and discard them as you see fit. You have chosen wisely, human We wish you well in your earthly journey.”

An important lesson of symbolic interactionism is that humans exist as embryonic potential. We are capable of creating, taking on, and casting off various identities and cultural institutions. Our potential is limited only by our imagination and our ability to assemble the materials necessary to realize our visions. As social beings, the ability to create shared meaning is the distinctive mark of our species."