It was Ruth Benedict who suggested that culture is to us as water is to the fish of the deep. Because water is their medium of existence it is fundamental to all they know. Similarly we human beings dwell in oceans of symbols – layers and layers of forms to which we ascribe meanings. We perceive through symbols, interpret what we perceive through symbols, react to what we perceive by acting meaningfully, that is, symbolically. We create our visions, our expectations, our “worlds” through symbols.
This is no “airy-fairy” world, as some disparagingly characterize such a view, because such a world cannot exist other than materially: Symbols are always material. They are objects – always objects -- to which we ascribe meaning: flows of sound are taken to be meaningful utterances, marks on a page, a monument, or on the human body stand for other things. Material things invested with meaning are the fundamental building blocks of the human imagination.
I wanted my students to recognize how such intersubjective forms enable social life: as human beings we draw from funds of symbols representing the understandings we have acquired through experience in order to make sense of the flow of stimuli that bombard us every waking moment. With these symbolic forms we ascribe significance to those stimuli; we decide how to respond fittingly to the circumstance; and we act so as to convey our intentions, that is, meaningfully.
However, although trained by experience to perceive and interpret and act in familiar ways we are not automatons; we are agents, able to choose how to perceive, how to interpret, and how to respond. What we choose to see, and give significance to, and respond to are never the only possible ways to perceive, interpret, and act.
These are the fundamental concepts of my discipline that my students need to grasp. I hope to do better next time.