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Symbol and Existence:  A Study in Meaning

Review by Stephen Dawson, in Reading Religion, August 2021 

          Walker Percy’s novels are often characterized as existentialist, and likened to the creative work published by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Like them, Percy’s philosophical thinking is not mere window dressing, but deeply infuses his fictional engagement with reality. He published a handful of articles in academic journals and even wrote a full, systematic treatment of his philosophy. This work, Symbol and Existence: A Study in Meaning, has never been published in its entirety until now. Percy scholars, no doubt, welcome the belated publication of this work. But should it be of interest to a larger audience? In the following review I give a positive response to that question.

          Let me start by sketching Percy’s project in Symbol and Existence, which was to develop what he calls his “radical anthropology.” His intention has many affinities with William James’ notion of radical empiricism. James, we recall, calls for the full scope of human experience to be opened to empirical inquiry. Similarly, Percy wants to recognize human persons in their real plenitude by taking into account their universal biological nature and their particular, irreducible existence. He is quick to note that recognizing the full measure of persons does not entail the rejection of empirical methods of inquiry. Percy’s ambition is to combine and integrate scientific and humanistic inquiry fruitfully. Radical empiricism is the method, we might say, for practicing radical anthropology.

          By themselves, science and humanism fail to grasp what distinguishes human persons. Detached from the sciences, humanistic inquiry (which Percy identifies with phenomenology) falls into solipsism. That is, I can declare myself to be a real, existing person and not simply a reacting organism in its environment, but I cannot affirm the real existence of anyone else. But hardheaded, white-jacketed empiricism is no panacea. Detached from the humanities, scientific inquiry degenerates into scientism. The problem with scientism, Percy contends, is that it can recognize human beings only in part as organisms embedded in an environment by reason of biological necessity. From the perch afforded by scientism, human beings are fundamentally no different than any other life form. Radical anthropology is thus a scientific humanism that integrates the sciences and the humanities. It is only by such an integrative or multidisciplinary inquiry that human beings can be grasped in their plenitude qua persons.

          Percy’s great philosophical insight is that language, particularly the human capacity to create signs, provides the nexus where empirical humanistic inquiry can take place. Particular languages are empirical systems of signs in which human beings are enculturated in order to refer to reality and to respond meaningfully to others. But, Percy asks, is language nothing but signification, nothing other than the mechanics of sign-function in which signs are merely nominal signals announcing things? Such a narrow construal of language, he argues, overlooks the “relation of denotation” in which the sign names the thing; thus, symbolization is the process through which real things become articulated as signs. Indeed, symbolization, or the “symbolic-meaning situation,” is the subject matter of Percy’s radical anthropology.

          The symbolic-meaning situation is inclusive of the sign-function, but cannot be reduced to it. Two relationships structure this situation. The first is the aforementioned relation of denotation, or what Percy calls the “relation of quasi-identity.” This relation allows for the ongoing creation of new symbols and revision of old symbols by means of hermeneutic engagement with the world. The second is the “relation of intersubjectivity.” Any symbolic-meaning situation requires at least two persons: a namer and a hearer—one who makes the symbol, and the other for whom the symbol is intended as meaningful. Percy describes this relation in terms of “a flash of affirmation, the sudden advent of a mutuality toward the thing intended” (66, italics original), and compares it with Martin Buber’s notion of the “I-Thou” bond. The symbolic-meaning situation frames Percy’s anti-Cartesian epistemology. Knowing is primarily a social process, one actively carried out through the hermeneutic engagement of symbols. The self-conscious subject, far from being the private endowment of the individual organism, emerges from the symbolic-meaning situation and is socially constructed by means of language within what George Herbert Mead describes as the “empirical matrix of social interactions” (152).

          Alas, symbolization is not a simple triumph of human creativity and knowing. Real things are not only revealed through symbols; they are concealed as well. The means by which human beings know is at once the same means by which they fall into ignorance (which Percy describes in terms of “symbolic simulacrum” [105]). How does one break through the simulacra? Percy gives two options. One is to break the interpreter, often through an ordeal or trauma of some sort. He gives the example of Prince Andrey in War and Peace rediscovering the wonder of clouds as he lay wounded at Austerlitz. The other is to break the symbol. Art is a powerful means of breaking through the simulacra foisted on human beings through their unthinking symbolic engagement. Art promotes awareness of the world by breaking old symbols and creatively renewing the process of symbolic engagement.

          Symbols are sacramental for Percy. While hermeneutic interpretation, like any practice, can dissolve into stale ritualism, the active engagement of symbols is anagogic insofar as they guide the interpreting person toward awareness and, ultimately, knowledge of the world and self. Percy’s radical anthropology reveals the thoroughgoing relationality of human beings in the act of constructing reality dialogically through the transformative processes of symbolization. Percy’s most profound conclusion he leaves for readers to draw on their own: human beings are radically contingent—on each other, on nature, and ultimately on God the creator—though they avoid awareness of this condition. When contingency registers in human experience, it does so as despair; it is overcome, Percy suggests, by finding authentic completeness in God.

          Outside of the province of Percy studies, two broader audiences would likely appreciate Symbol and Existence. One audience is made up of readers interested in theories of mind but unimpressed by idealist or materialist accounts. Another would be philosophers of religion who are dissatisfied with mainstream philosophical treatments of religion, in particular the narrow concentration on the rationality of traditional theism. Percy’s semiotic approach presents an intriguing means of bridging belief and practice and opening the experience of religious practice for empirical inquiry. Percy’s work is, furthermore, a refreshing reminder that philosophy is not the exclusive province of professional or academic philosophers. Symbol and Existence should appeal widely to both Percy specialists and to the philosophically adventurous alike.

Stephen Dawson is associate professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lynchburg.


Review of Walker Percy’s Symbol & Existence

Review by Micah Mattix in The American Conservative (November/December 2019)

Review by Brian A. Smith, in Perspectives on Political Science
April 2021, Vol. 50, No. 2, 138–141

           Today, most people remember Walker Percy for his fiction. His debut novel The Moviegoer won the National Book Award in 1962, and fans of his comic-apocalyptic Love in the Ruins could be forgiven for thinking that we in the United States increasingly inhabit something out from the darker regions of Percy's imagination. Yet, Percy's thinking and ideas ranged widely, and I believe that he ought to be taken at least as seriously as a social theorist and philosopher, as as a novelist.

           I remember my excitement when I discovered Percy's lifelong fascination with understanding the human person in a key that was both scientific and philosophical. His novels hint at the depth of his thinking about these matters, and his essays present a picture of a mind at work on small parts of a complex whole that no single piece of his could quite address. Until recently, one had to piece his views on the matter together by discovering common threads among about twenty essays on various subjects, approaching them indirectly with his satirical self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, and extrapolating from themes in his novels.

           Beginning in the early 1950s, Percy began drafting Symbol & Existence, which he hoped would articulate the "radical anthropology" necessary for regaining our sense of self. After several attempts at revision, he ultimately abandoned the project when he found success as a novelist. While sections of the manuscript would make their way into the aforementioned essays in philosophical and literary journals, the book fills in the gaps that readers formerly had to fill in themselves.

           Percy presents the book as an inquiry into the nature of language and its place in our life, and a diagnosis of how both materialist science and phenomenology fail to comprehend the full wonder of human personhood. What's striking about this account is that Percy, a deeply faithful Roman Catholic, begins with almost entirely empirical grounds of argument, and then proceeds by induction to an account of what language actually is. He occasionally gestures toward the metaphysical and theological implications of his argument, but largely lets the reader think through what accepting his radical anthropology might mean for grasping what it is to be human.


Materialism's discontents

           Symbol & Existence diagnoses the great divide in the Western mind, which Percy argues is not methodological so much as it is metaphysical, a split "so great that the two sides no longer even have the means of arguing with one another" (13). On the one side stands the dominant spirit of the age, that of science and purely materialist philosophy, and the means it uses to describe our life. Materialist philosophy reduces distinctly human things to the subhuman; it denudes the relational person into the realm of impersonal causes and effects. On the other we find approaches that take the self seriously, and that speak powerfully of "the nothingness of self, the alienation, the boredom, the anguish" of human persons, and why these sentiments cannot "be disposed of as an individual malfunction," and instead ought to be recognized as perennial elements of our existence (20).

           Percy believed that the most dangerous characteristic of postwar American intellectual life was the growth of scientism. Science formed the spirit of the age, and as a medical doctor, it was a spirit that Percy himself understood. He repeatedly lauds science as a way of knowing and studying reality, as a vital path to improving the human estate, while also criticizing the overextension of its dominion to areas it is ill-suited to understand. He observed that "there is always the temptation to elevate this elegant method to a totalitarian worldview. Any precision instrument is as dangerous as it is precise. But the real danger is that one should be unaware of the danger" (5).

           Scientists often tend—quite unempirically—to reduce the entirety of reality to what they can measure or understand in materialistic and mechanistic terms. If we can describe animal behavior with a stimulus-response model, why not human beings? Many natural processes in human life can be adequately understood this way. B.F. Skinner's behaviorism in this respect is simply the forerunner of contemporary neuroscience's efforts to reduce the human person to brain waves.

           At the end of this road looms "the raw aching void of existence, one's own existence, which is the great leftover in the otherwise magnificent corpus of objective science" (7). Most Americans—scientists included—distract themselves from the existential questions that their work raises, and throw themselves into distractions to cope with this.

           Consider an important example of the consequences of this "leftover" in what Percy called "the antinomy of science." When materialists study culture, they tend to look to any given culture's contents in an entirely functionalist way. That is, they view a myth or any other system of religious belief not in terms of its truth or falsehood, but merely "as serving an immanent function within a cultural system, just as a biologist construes an activity of ants in an anthill" (26). The antinomy Percy identifies "lies in the circumstances that the very activity that the scientist-spectator rejects as false for himself, he regards as true for the culture under observation" (27).

           A scientist thinking in these terms will never take the products of culture seriously on the terms of truth and falsehood that he would demand for any scientific holding—and never wonder whether that demand for truth might be a clue to something more. At the same time, he would want to be able to argue against evil political projects, but would find himself unable to "make a serious objection on the basis of his science against the Nazi or Communist state" (28). Just as the scientist would be existentially isolated in his in alienation, he would find himself morally adrift against wickedness.

           Efforts to grapple with the human condition on solely materialist grounds therefore founder because of this refusal to engage seriously with what to any non-specialist would probably be obvious: what makes human beings truly distinctive is our use of symbols to create culture. Soon after children can talk, they construct elaborate worlds out of words, craft personas for play which they put on and take off again in rapid succession, and constantly make art. Ironically, it seems that utility is what human beings have to taught; our creativity flows from our nature.

           Any systematic mode of inquiry worth the name would account for the creative rather than environmentally-responsive aspects of our life together using every available tool. Rather than critique science as a method, however, Percy instead asks for scientists to be more scientific in their search for certain knowledge: "if one wishes to be sure, why not push back the starting point of our science one last notch and begin at a point anterior to existential belief?" (141) Practitioners of materialist science generally refuse to examine their own foundational assumptions. They assume that language and consciousness are explicable in purely cause-and-effect terms, when instead, they should search for something that more adequately describes human life.

           Compared to the scientists, phenomenologists and existentialists might be on firmer ground in accepting that human language and consciousness are distinctive and irreducible, but having done so, they move on too quickly to the bigger picture:

It is not only the existentialists who have noticed—as who can fail to notice—that there is throughout the modern world an almost universal experience of estrangement, of uprootedness, of homelessness. Does anyone seriously believe that this sense of alienation is a passing symptom of the post-war years? Does anyone seriously believe that this is a malfunction of the individual organism, a medical symptom to be set right by an objective-empirical discipline, by unearthing a particular historical cause, by readjusting a subconscious tensional system? (21)

           Alas, anyone familiar with the scope of scientism's failures in the 20th century knows that these questions answer themselves in a depressing "yes, of course some very influential people still do."


A proposal for reform

           Science's characteristic blindness to these failures necessitates radical treatment. Percy undertook to show that a proper understanding of human beings would contain both philosophic and scientific elements, grappling with the way we are simultaneously spiritual and biological creatures. And what is the most distinctively human capacity that is simultaneously the most fundamental? Percy believed the answer to this question was language.

           He was not alone in this answer. Many scientists would agree with him, but incorrectly assume that their ordinary method can plumb the full depths of language. In truth, they flatten it. To begin with,

           The attitude of the objective-minded man toward language, from the high school psychology student to the linguist, from Locke to Bloomfield, may therefore by summarized as follows: language is a system of signs to which one learns to respond meaningfully; man also applies signs to things as their names and rearranges signs in sentences, which refer to a state of affairs in the world (46).

Percy defines a sign as "an element" that "performs the function of directing the attention of the organism to something else" (50). The trouble here is that the full reality of language transcends the simple cause-effect or stimulus-response chain that reducing language to a system of signs requires.

           Language does not just perform the function of signing, it denotes our relationship with the world: "Denotation is a peculiar relation that the symbol bears directly to the object—the symbol is the name of the object" (54). While this might seem like a minute distinction without much of a difference, much hinges upon it. Percy explains:

 It is the function of denotation that is radically different from any kind of signification.... Dogs are said to understand names and they do. When I say "James" to James's dog, he looks for his master. He responds intelligently to a word-sign. But when I say "James" to you, James's friend, you say, "What about him?" You think about James.... The dog lives in a pure stimulus-response milieu: sign leads to thing.... the one thing that will never dawn in his mind is that the word "ball," a peculiar mouthy little explosion, is the name of the round rubber thing, or in the sense which so scandalizes the positivists: that is a ball (54).

           Consider: a dog might be curious about a new object in its home, but dogs do not bring intentions or ambitions into human life. Humans do. Human beings do not merely respond to cause-effect chains, we imagine, and then the products of our imagination lead us to dream, make plans, and set to work achieving them.

           Percy appropriately calls this a scandal to modern science, for man's use of symbols rather than signs represents "the first event in natural history which transcends the order of causality" (60). Symbols demand the recognition of a realm beyond that of cause-and-effect—a realm that the dogmatic follower of scientism rejects entirely.

           Any science that purports to take human beings seriously must, then, grapple with both the material and mental dimensions of human language. While many scholars in social science now recognize the existence of an intersubjective realm—one where symbols exist and, indeed, form the medium through which we experience all reality—in 1950, this was far from the case.

           Even today, it isn't always true that those who see language in this full reality grasp the implications Percy drew out of this. For example, Percy recognized that human knowledge is fundamentally constrained by our capacity to symbolize our experience. When Percy wrote that "we know nothing directly and of itself—the 'angelic knowledge' of Maritain—but only through the mirrors of something else," he recognized the error of a tradition arising in the eighteenth century and shaping minds to the present. This "magic epistemology" of empiricism offers a view of cognition where we presume ourselves capable of conscious thoughts arising directly from experience, about which we offer labels—but proceeds without grasping the degree to which all conscious thought depends on the prior constraints imposed by the symbolic frames we grow into throughout our lives (93).

           While this overview aims at the essence of Percy's argument, the book itself offers a great deal more to those interested in the philosophy of social science in general, and the issues posed by language in particular. Symbol & Existence proceeds systematically, exploring the ideas of Suzanne Langer, Edmund Husserl, and many others. Percy patiently advances a highly technical argument about the characteristic blind spots of contemporary science and how understanding symbolization correctly might shift our perspective. Rather than delve much more deeply into how Percy proceeds, however, I hope I can entice you to read the book by pointing out some of the consequences that follow from the book's central ideas.

           You might wonder what failing to recognize the symbolic dimension of the human person actually costs us, especially if we conclude that the scientist's objective approach is what earned us the information revolution and all the other benefits of modern life. Percy believed that in following the rigorous logic of empirical science, scholars had lost sight of the human person. Sometimes it takes an outsider to crystallize what ought to be common sense for those who study a subject.

           Percy tells us that "To give something a name, at first sight the most commonplace of events, is in reality a most mysterious act, one which is quite unprecedented in animal behavior and imponderable in its consequences" (178). Once you accept that what is truly distinctive about human beings is their ability to symbolize, and you recognize all of human life is lived through a mesh of symbols—that is, an immersion in a culture, a place, and a way of being—these symbols and their bearers intuitively possess value.

Conversely, the act of reducing symbols to signs is also to reduce the meaning and value of personhood itself. Some of what is lost is obvious: if we are just like the other animals, only with another stimulus-response channel we call language, a certain devaluation sets in. But other elements of this are less intuitive.


The joy of naming

           The essence of man as symbol-user is that he desires to know and be known to others under the auspices of language. We give names to our children and their world becomes real when they transcend the relative darkness of simple sign-usage and walk in the intellectual daylight of symbols. Percy reminds us that one of the great joys of human existence is that of "knowing what was not known—and asserting it" (32). Whether this happens through the elaboration of theory or simple storytelling, we yearn for that moment of recognition when another person sees what we see and understands our thoughts.

           Objective-empirical approaches to human existence would deprive us of that joy, and place the would-be knower in contradiction with himself. Consider the standard story commonly held today by "knowing" scientists: If we tell a child that human beings are just an easily-explicable sack of meat that responds to their environment, the very real feeling of symbol-asserting joy stands in direct contradiction with what they are assured is their reality. That same person, charmed into graduate study in a field, will be locked into that existential torment Percy described—seeing their self as a castoff remainder under the auspices of dignity-demeaning theory. This I noted above, but the consequences of that view are dire.

           While Percy observes that alienation will always be with us, to understand language rightly is to grasp that what happens when we make a friend or attend a great seminar discussion is literally the co-creation of a new world—a proliferating garden of symbolic meanings unavailable to those not present, and that forms a communion of minds that was not there before. Martin Buber called true communication the creation of the "I-Thou" relationship, and Percy puts added conceptual flesh on what this means. As we associate words with events, they change in our consciousness—they are transformed in and through their connotations because our minds process them in their extended context (80–81). A table from the furniture store may just be a table, judged on esthetics or function alone. But a table made by your grandfather, and passed down to you, a part of your home around which you learned to play cards and imbibed family lore, becomes something quite different.

           If we follow Percy on this point, this means that our world of mass psychiatric treatment and pharmacological intervention is in large part a world rent asunder by failed intersubjectivity, and human beings have been sundred from themselves and others by way of misconceiving themselves in relation to the world. Thus, while man's basic condition is alienation, it is the peculiar trait of one's self, that if it tries to grasp its own existence as a what in the same way as it succeeds in grasping other "things," it will inevitably fall prey to impersonations.... The motto for the plight of the self surrounded by a gallery of dense symbol-thing entities is: this is water, that is a chair, you are Ralph, but what am I? (111)

           Percy's point here is subtle. Consider the question at the end: he asks not the typical authenticity-driven question "who am I?," but "what am I?" At face value, one can imagine Percy satirizing those straining to discover one's "true" self as so many children of Rousseau do and understand why he rejects it here. But this latter question actually cuts deeper into what it means to be human; it demands we grapple with our nature as spirit and flesh while also coming to terms with vast gulf that separates human beings from other creatures.

How much worse is our state if the very symbolically-rich theories we use to comprehend our plight deny the most important truths about our existence: that we are intentional-desiring creatures, capable of reasoning and self-discipline, but easily led astray by desire; that our language and our culture deserve respect, and that we individually deserve to be treated with dignity. Once we contemplate the staggering denial of these facts about human personhood in the present age, the reasons for the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicide become all too clear.

           We are ever in search of home, Percy tells us, not merely for our bodies, but for our souls, which long for the presence of someone beyond ourselves. Where signs draw our momentary attention to an object and nothing more, symbols can overcome the abyss of solitude and enter us into communion with our fellow man. The fullness of language bridges this gap and makes the full range of human relationships possible.

           Whatever follows the present crisis of the West, Symbol & Existence ought to become a new starting point for a new social science that deals "with that unique joy which marks man's ordainment to being and the knowing of it" (211). Language invites us to wonder, express love, and allows us to give voice to our intuition that there is something more to reality than what we can see, touch, taste, and hear.

Percy provides us a hint of where to start recapturing that joy, and reorienting us to certain truths about our existence. We stand in dire need of institutions and disciplines that can take his insights further.

Symbol, Existence, and the Whole Nine Yards

Review by Stacey E. Ake, published in the South Atlantic Review, Winter, 2022

            I first discovered Walker Percy when I was in grad school. I remember the moment exactly—I was standing in the one aisle of Svoboda’s bookstore in State College. It was around two o’clock. The title Lost in the Cosmos had caught my eye, and, as I stood there perusing the book, I knew I had found the link between CS Peirce and Søren Kierkegaard that I had been looking for. Callooh! Callay! I had had no idea how to bridge the triadicity and apparent objectivity of Peirce with the subjectivity and call to individuality of Kierkegaard. Even though Cosmos is ostensibly a self-help book, it had a lovely digression into semiotics and the revelation of language to Helen Keller. I understood the axis of intersubjectivity immediately. After years of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, the idea of Fourthness—that semiosis occurred between two subjects considering and naming an object—made so much sense:  I devoured everything by Percy I could find.

            However, unlike Kierkegaard and much like Peirce, Percy’s thought was only available in essay format, ranging from discussions on bourbon and what it means to be a Catholic in the South to in-depth looks at Existentialism and Hermeneutics. Just as many Peirce scholars wish fervently that the man had written one large tome instead of a series of essays and monographs—of course, such a tome would be Kantian or Hegelian in volume—Percy scholars wished much the same thing. In Symbol & Existence: A Study in Meaning: Explorations of Human Nature (2019, Mercer University Press, 271pp.), we find our wish has been fulfilled. The product of the research of Karey Perkins, Symbol & Existence is taken from four different manuscripts found in the archives of UNC-Chapel Hill. While the manuscripts seem in the most part to be copies of each other and thus very similar, SE2 (Symbol & Existence 2) was used as the basis for the current book given the completeness of that text.

            As a text, Symbol & Existence is an overview of Percy’s philosophical project, dating originally from the 1950s. However, with his inability to get his philosophical work published (except as stand-alone journal articles) and with the success of his 1960 novel The Moviegoer, Percy turned his focus from straight philosophy to fiction. This, of course, is not an unusual step for an existentialist. Existentialism is a philosophy of and about living one’s life, and novels are ways of showing how some people (should) live out their lives. We see such sallies into fiction in the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and, to a certain extent, in Kierkegaard. As anyone who is familiar with the novels knows, Percy’s essential question about the nature of the human being as a uniquely languaged and despairing creature haunts all his fictional works.

            In Symbol & Existence we have an organized explanation of Percy’s work. Instead of having to draw inferences from a sentence here, a phrase there, a desultory article, we can read a linear presentation of Percy’s thought. Although some of what is being presented in Symbol & Existence has been published elsewhere, especially in The Message in the Bottle, much of what is in the book is formerly unpublished work. Furthermore, as with any philosopher, previously published work profits from being put into context within the philosopher’s own thought.

           One thing that is surprising about the book is the relatively few references to Peirce and Kierkegaard. I most associate Percy with these two thinkers. However, what we find in Symbol & Existence is the deep and broad intellectual foundation that Percy had for his work. We think of the axis of intersubjectivity as somehow a development of the work of Peirce. In fact, it is taken from Martin Buber’s concept of the I-Thou.

            What is also surprising—but perhaps it should not be? —is how prescient and how relevant Percy’s work is for today. Nothing he writes about comes across as dated. I found this oddly comforting. While some of the thinkers he cites are no longer on the tips of our tongues, the ideas Percy developed from them still seem fresh and remain pointed. For instance, Percy was deeply influenced by Susanne Langer’s 1951 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. In fact, the last part of Percy’s Introduction is called “The New Key” wherein he thanks Langer for giving him “the clue.” The clue is that there is a literal factual truth (perhaps best explicated by the scientific method) and a symbolic mythical truth. The understanding of this distinction and the fact that this pushes Percy to see the reason behind the failure of scientism as a worldview articulates for him an intuition that he already had. Although she might have planted a seed in Percy’s thought, it does not fully germinate until he uses Langer’s notion of the denotational aspect of words (the naming of objects) to understand the episode of Helen Keller in the wellhouse and her understanding of the naming of water.

            While we perhaps see Heidegger’s influence on Percy most saliently in the 1980 novel The Second Coming, we find that Heidegger articulates what Percy feels about the nature of human nature. There is Being, and there are beings. When man loses contact with Being, he will try to find himself in beings, and he will be unsatisfied. We tend to associate Kierkegaard in Percy’s work as the source of the emptiness in man, but this idea came to him through Gabriel Marcel, who was another source for Percy’s notion of the intersubjective.

With his fluid and peaceful style, it is easy to forget how erudite Percy really is. In order to undertake this work, Symbol & Existence, as well as his fiction writing, Percy had to have knowledge of anthropology (Levy-Brühl, Malinowski, and Mead), psychology—whether good or bad (Freud and Skinner, of course), linguistics (Korzybski and Sapir), and philosophy—one is impressed by his use and rejection of Husserl and Cassirer. Of course, there is also his knowledge of science, given his background as a physician, and the depth of his understanding of theology, arising from his well-researched personal beliefs.

            What we also see in Symbol & Existence is Percy’s intent to find a way to “prove” empirically the nature of man by means of his own understanding of semiotics. Unlike his later work, in which he doesn’t seem to need to “prove” his ideas about the nature of humanity, here he seems to want to do so. I suspect this is a response to the behaviorists who were riding high in the 1950s. In his later work, he instead leaves his readers with questions. His goal is to leave the reader with an aporia, an aporia that might give rise to doubt about the efficacy of the 20th century scientific worldview.

            As with much, if not all, of Percy’s work, this is a readable and well-documented overview of his philosophy. It is not overly technical, so those people interested in Percy’s thought, not just Percy scholars, will enjoy and learn from Symbol & Existence. From my perspective, it is a shame this wasn’t published sooner. I would have loved to hear a debate between Percy and Noam Chomsky.


The Therapy of Symbols, Review by Joshua P. Hochschild

In Humanum2020 - Issue One


            Elon Musk recently predicted that language would become obsolete. He envisions a “neurolink device” directly inserted in the brain allowing people to share thoughts without the mediation of speaking and listening.

            Tech reporters gleefully shared this as a bold prophecy of progress, but consider Musk’s strange assumptions about language, consciousness, meaning, and human nature. On Musk’s account language is not essential to communication. Musk even described “eloquence” (in strikingly poetic language) as merely “clever compression of content”: taking concepts and feelings, encoding them in a foreign medium, and transmitting them for someone else to decode. Forming and interpreting “mouth noises,” he said, is an inefficient way to share understanding; so much can be lost in the “compression” and “decompression.” Technology will render this step unnecessary, and one day traditional speech will have gone the way of campfires, utilized only “for sentimental reasons.”

            These intriguing ideas were shared on a podcast in which Musk and his interviewer, and their listeners, had no trouble arriving at understanding. But note that by Musk’s reasoning, in addition to “mouth noises,” we should also be able to dispose of ink shapes, tone of voice, and even facial expressions. From Musk’s pristine Cartesian perspective, we aren’t essentially embodied creatures, but more like angels, capable of purely spiritual apprehension, once freed from the awkward and purely accidental constraints of beastly biology.

            Invoking Descartes highlights the fact that Musk envisions only a new technological path to an old dream of mind-body separation. But it is precisely this unoriginal Cartesianism that is most strange about Musk’s vision. Technologically, Musk may very well be correct (at least up to a point, sophisticated devices could facilitate some forms of intersubjective translation). More unsettling is how he thinks neuro-engineering confirms a very peculiar theory of how language works, and what human beings are.

For diagnostic perspective, nobody could be more helpful than Walker Percy (1916‒1990). If you know a little about Percy, you know he was a novelist. If you know a bit more, you probably know that he was a student of human nature, first as a scientific practitioner—a medical doctor—and all along as a philosopher. The broad scope of Percy’s theorizing has been widely appreciated. Peter Augustine Lawler, for instance, made Percy the centerpiece of his analysis of “postmodern” politics and the capstone of his exploration of Americans as spiritual “aliens.” But in both he recognized the centrality of Percy’s attention to language.

            In whatever manner we experience Percy’s insight into the human condition—as novelist, as cultural critic, as therapist of the soul—it was the philosophical puzzle of language that got Percy started and remained the unifying thread of his whole career. Percy wrote essays on philosophy of language, and he considered language the key to understanding human nature, a theme treated throughout his life, up to and including in his 1989 Jefferson Lecture (delivered a year and a week before he died). Thirty years later we have, posthumously published, Percy’s planned philosophical treatise, Symbol and Existence, penned originally in the 1950’s.

            Percy’s first publication was a review of a book about the role of symbols in understanding the human condition (in Thought, 1954). This led to academic articles on the same topic in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1956) and The New Scholasticism (1958), which became the substance of the first half of the drafted book. The second half, elaborating further the connections between semiotics, epistemology, and metaphysics, was mostly written by 1960, with Percy piecing out and repurposing parts in The Modern Schoolman (1957), Journal of Philosophy (1958), and The Personalist (1960). A more literary chapter (“Metaphor as a Mistake”) appeared in Sewanee Review (1958).

            Percy may have worked on revisions in the 1960’s (when his first two novels were published) but by the 1970’s he seems to have given up on the scholarly monograph. His ideas probably found wider exposure anyway when packaged haphazardly as a collection of essays, The Message in the Bottle (1975). In 1977, Percy was especially coy about his reflections on language, even as he summarized them, in a brilliant postmodern self-interview for Esquire, “Questions They Never Asked Me.”

            Certainly by 1980, the scholarly project was displaced by a more ambitious and playful work-in-progress on science, language, and self-knowledge with the working title “Novum Organum.” (Noting the troubling rise of television-watching, Percy also hoped the new book would be more culturally relevant.) In 1983 it was published as Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, in which Percy practically dares his readers to tackle the central forty-page philosophical “intermezzo” on semiotic theory. The same year, he consigned two drafts of Symbol and Existence to the archives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

            Diligent editors have finally brought Percy’s abandoned philosophical monograph to light. There aren’t exactly new ideas here; technically, a bit more than half of the volume is “previously unpublished,” but Percy, creative and persistent, found a way to get his central ideas and arguments out in other forms. The advantage of this posthumous volume lies in seeing Percy’s most philosophical reflections handled in a more systematic and organized format. What previously had to be reconstituted from piecemeal fragments, scattered articles, and oddly personal cultural criticism we have re-collected in an original expository context.

            What did Percy think he could achieve by presenting his ideas in the format of a scholarly book? Here I outline his own summary of the work, with generous quotation from genuinely new material at the end.

            Percy considers his book less than a full “study of language” but a “modest excursion into semantics.” He has offered a “phenomenology” and a “lay reflection on the nature of language,” in order to “make a beginning toward a radical anthropology,” capable of uniting our life as both an organism responding to stimuli and as an assertion-making being. Only a “hybrid discipline like semiotics” brings out both the “behavioristic and assertory” dimensions of human life, so it is a path into “an objective science of man as an asserting organism,” man as “animal symbolicum, as the organism who uses symbols.”

            For Percy, this suggests “a radical therapy of the disease that has afflicted the vision of Western man for three hundred years: Cartesian dualism,” which cannot take account of man’s “basic symbolic orientation in the world.” To deal with “the normative and polar realities of human life, religion/myth, worship/idolatry, truth/error, true/that-which-is,” we need an alternative, non-Cartesian anthropology. This will take our experience of language seriously:

The fundamental act of symbolization is an affirming of the thing to be what it is through the auspices of the symbol. Each symbolic form, whether it be a name-giving, a proposition, a scientific hypothesis, a work of art, an act of worship, is an affirming of what is. The existence of things, of relations, of laws, of concrete forms, of God, is known and affirmed through the mediation of the symbol.

Recognizing the role of the symbol helps overcome “the observer-data split,” manifest in private or subjective consciousness versus public or objective reality. All of these are not only personally alienating but theoretically and empirically inadequate to actual experience. “We may express the authentic term of man’s symbolic orientation as a communion that affirms what-is through the mediation of the symbol.”

             Communion as intersubjective-consciousness is also why “the symbol has a fundamentally sacramental function” as “a sensuous thing that mediates a higher operation.” “The symbolic orientation achieves its actuality when it affirms being or, in other words, is a communion.” Both scientistic behaviorism and subjectivist existentialism get human experience wrong:

            Man is neither a pure consciousness marooned in a world of objects, nor a pure organism, an object among objects. He is instead spirit-in-organism, besouled body, a complex in which spirit achieves itself not in spite of organism, words, and the world, but because of them and through them.

            Percy’s approach to language is often credited to C.S. Peirce, but more important influences seem to be Susanne Langer and Ernst Cassirer (for semiotic theory) and Henry Veatch (for semantic realism); and the ambition of renewing metaphysical anthropology through language draws on Husserl, Heidegger, and Marcel. For the unification of existentialism and semantics, the Thomist Jacques Maritain may be Percy’s most signficant inspiration; it is from Maritain—including his promotion of John of St. Thomas’s (a.k.a. John Poinsot’s) “material logic”—that Percy seems to have learned to connect scholastic logic, metaphysics, and philosophical psychology in defense of a non-Cartesian, spiritually embodied conception of man’s nature and destiny.

            Whatever the philosophical lineage, we find in the final two pages a still-relevant rebuke to the trendy Cartesian transhumanism of today’s tech wizards, who see “man as a sort of angelic calculator”:

            The idealist is scandalized because the ‘error’ [of knowing a thing in and through a name] decrees that man may not forsake the incarnate, the concrete, the particular, for the ideal and the universal. He can never get away from the sensuous symbol, the word, the rite, the art form…. [T]his ‘error’ is nothing else than the means by which an incarnate spirit knows the world…. Man is in the world, not merely as an adapting organism but as the creature whose vocation it is to know the truth of being and give testimony of it.

We are not surprised that an old-soul Aristotelian poet sees this easier than a scientistic neophile engineer. The poet is most conscious of knowing things in and through words. The word—“which is after all only a mouthy little sound,” Percy admits—is what “the poet salvages… from its utility context and holds” so that in it we see “the thing in the word in another mode of existing, in alio esse.”

            Percy the philosopher helps us understand the perversity of imagining human life without language. The same insights may also help explain why his scholarly philosophy book didn’t find a publisher, and why podcasts are more popular than philosophy classes. Even if you could mainline meaning and argument, they are more natural, significant, and joyfully fulfilling shared by the storyteller or poet. Percy the poet knew that communion isn’t “sentimental”; it is our distinctive mode of being. The lecture-hall and library are more likely to become obsolete than the campfire.

            I’m glad to have this book, and Percy needed to write it. Did he need to publish it? It seems reflecting on the mystery, scandal, and joy of naming sufficed for him to find his vocation:

            What I perceive in all its intricate and iridescent reality is the thing itself as it has formed itself within the web of sound. No wonder the poet is seduced. Once he has savored this dangerous delight, it is enough to set him fondling words for life, turning them this way and that in the hope that one will catch this holy fire.

Joshua P. Hochschild is Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University and co-author (with Christopher O. Blum) of A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction. Follow him on Twitter @JoshHochschild.



Review by Cuiba, Gary M.  In Flannery O'Connor Review

Vol. 19,  (2021): 117-121,144. 

            The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up. (MM 72)

            Flannery O'Connor brought more wisdom to understanding symbols than did many of her literal-minded or self-confidently smart characters. When the foolish Enoch Emory in Wise Blood buries his clothes before putting on the gorilla costume, the narrator explains that it "was not a symbol to him of burying his former self; he only knew he wouldn't need them any more" (CW 111). And a seemingly superior Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" smiles when the seating on a bus makes it seem as if his proud White mother and a proud Black mother with a child have exchanged sons: "Though his mother would not realize the symbolic significance of this, she would feel it" (495-96). O'Connor knew that symbols were not matters of the intellect but "details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction." She rejected the practice of reading literature as if it were an algebraic exercise in finding the symbol and solving for its "x" value (MM 71). In post-war America, such a problem-and-solution approach might have been the legacy of popularizers of Freud who found symbols in the condensed texts of dreams and of formalist critics who focused on symbols as part of the technical workings of literary texts. O'Connor dismissed those who ". . . try to make everything a symbol. It kills me" (10 Feb. 1962, HB 465). Far more selective and evocative in her approach to symbols, she viewed them much as did Paul Tillich, whose Dynamics of Faith argued that symbols disclose levels of reality and ultimacy that would otherwise be inaccessible (Harper and Row, 1957, 42).

            Whereas O'Connor understood the symbol as a literary device that opened the text toward mystery, Walker Percy approached symbolization through his very different interests of anthropology and semiotics.  His starting point was Ernst Cassirer's definition of the human being as "animal symbolicum" (qtd. 65).   During the 1950s, when Percy worked on two novels that would never be published, he detailed a theory of symbols in a book that he never saw published as well.  Percy, whom O'Connor described to correspondents as "our mutual admiration" or "our friend Walker"... eventually found more acclaim as one of O'Connor's contemporaries in modern southern fiction than as a philosopher, but he made this early exploration of symbols a lifelong passion. He published parts of his book as various journal articles and as chapters in his 1975 The Message in the Bottle (Farrar).  Neither format did justice to its source.... 

            That Symbol & Existence exists now in this well-prepared edition from Mercer UP is itself a symbol of how its editorial team has worked for years with care and passion to publish this major contribution to Percy studies....

Read the entire review HERE.

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