The symbolic imagination

The difference between human and animal intelligence is only in part a matter of quantity, of greater horsepower.  In fact, chimpanzees are not that much dimmer than we are.  It’s the quality of our intelligence that causes the enormous gulf between ourselves and other species:  we are the only symbolic animals on earth.  We represent things by other things.  We can imagine objects and times that we have never experienced – and some, like centaurs or King Arthur’s Camelot, that never were.

The survival value of this capacity has often been remarked upon.  We have built culture and science entirely as aggregates of symbols.  Yet, as this article in the online Scientific American suggests, symbolic reasoning doesn’t come easily to infants and very young children:  it takes time to realize that a picture is a representation plus an object, not just a pure object like, say, a hat or a ball.

Language – the most complex symbolic system – plays a part in developing our understanding, as we discover that objects have arbitrary sounds that represent them.  Children who fail to learn a language by puberty lose the capacity for symbolic thought.  Like the Wild Child in Truffaut’s movie, which was inspired by a real-life case, these children experience reality with an animal-like immediacy stripped of symbolic embellishments and categories.  Like animals, these unfortunates are amoral.

The relation between the symbolic imagination and morality is complex, to put it mildly.  We not only describe the world by symbols:  we also place ourselves within this virtual universe, and seem to demand, for reasons spiritual or Darwinian, a significant place given to each of us in the drama of existence.

The symbolic imagination conceives of a representation of self – good mother, brave warrior, honest merchant – that is entirely virtual and ideal, and often at odds with reality, but that also shapes our behavior most powerfully in the direction of the ideal we have conceived.  The surprise is how frequently we approximate the envisioned ideal:  the virtual me.  And we need only think of the 9/11 firefighters to see that, on occasion, we will give up our lives rather than destroy the integrity of this vision.

Here is something the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who have otherwise obtained many insights into the drivers of human behavior, have yet to explain:  why, if individual survival is the prime mover of all life, we should ever die for an idea of ourselves.


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