The Order of Things

April 24, 2005 | 27 comments
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My discussion of belief and practice has in its background a larger discussion concerning what it means to be religious. I take it that religion is a way of being, of having and being oriented in a world, and that happens, ultimately, in practices rather than beliefs: practices have their meaning, and so, associated beliefs, as part of a religious ordering of the world. (Note 1: I am using the word “world” here as it is used in philosophy, “the place in which humans dwell.” It is not the same as “the earth” and almost always include the universe. Note 2: What follows is an edited, paraphrased, and expanded version of something I published, “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures).

To be religious is not to assent to particular propositions or assertions, though assent to beliefs follows from the fact that one is religious. The devils also believe (James 2:19), but it would be odd to describe them as religious. Instead, to be religious is to recognize–to reverence–the sacred and to live in a world of which the contents, including beliefs, are ordered by the sacred. For religious people, the sacred is the real, and the real is manifest in symbolic order. The sacred is the order of things as a whole, and religion gives us that order.

This goes against most of the ways we think about religion today. When we talk or think about religion, we usually do so as if religion were one of several regions of life. On this view, there are many regions of my life: the world of work, the political world, the family, the world of morality, the academic and scholarly world, the economic region, the world of leisure, and so on. Religion is one of these regions of our lives, and some people’s lives may have no such region. Though we engage in activities that involve the various regions of our lives, we assume that each is, strictly speaking, separate from the others, though possibly overlapping; in themselves, each region is on an equal footing with the others, and each region is differentiated in value from any other only by my valuing of it, in other words by my interests, desires, or needs. The relations between the regions and their relative values are ultimately decided subjectively (or intersubjectively).

My claim is that, however religious people, under the seduction of contemporary thought, might describe religion, it is not one of several possible regions of my life. Instead, it is the field within which any other regions or aspects are marked out and related to each other. Religion is that which makes regions possible and which gives the world as a whole unity, order, and meaning in and through symbols. (That is the point of the story of Creation–all three chapters of it–and, thus, also of the temple ritual. I include under the heading of “symbols” the scriptures and ordinances, for example. On my view, a symbol is a material object that incarnates more than merely its materiality; a symbol is not merely “something that stands for something else by vague resemblance.” ) On the religious view, as I understand it, we can still speak of regions of human endeavor and interest, but ultimately those regions, such as economics or morality or the political, get their meaning in themselves and in their relations to each other, as well as their relative weight and importance from religion rather than from our valuing. Religion is life in a world that is ordered symbolically.

Of course rational ordering and symbolic ordering are not necessarily at odds with one another. Within a symbolic order, rational discourse is one of the forms in which the real is manifest. Therefore, it is not opposed to symbolic ordering, but a possible part of any symbolic order. Nevertheless, there is an asymmetry between a rational order and a symbolic order. Though every symbolic order includes the possibility of rational discourse, if the order of the world is rational, then symbolic discourse cannot be made an instance of reason, except as a parasitic form of reference, in other words, as ambiguous or “poetic” speech (as in much philosophy see, for example, the work of John Searle). The symbolic order can include the rational order without making it ephemeral, but the reverse is not true.

My view of religion means that just as beliefs can only be understood as they are associated with practices, practices make no sense except as elements of life in a symbolic order, an order in which the world is what it is because of the Divine. It also means that the supposed conflict between religion and reason is not the conflict of two different spheres of existence. It is the conflict between two different ways of ordering the world, symbolic order and rational order, and it is a conflict only from a point of view that misunderstands religion as one of the possible spheres of existence or reason as the ultimate ordering of the world.

The brief description of my position ends there. You can easily stop and go no further. But I am going to say a little by way of historical background (caricatured because there is no room to do more):

The current dominance of the reason is a consequence of the failure of the symbolic order, a failure that resulted in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Descartes’s work is a good place to see the symptoms of this change (particularly Discourse on Method). He points to the failure of the symbolic order when he tells us that he needs something by which to adjudicate between the various plausible opinions he learned in the schools. Religion can no longer do that, so he find himself in a chaos in which nothing can be known or trusted (part I). Prior to the Reformation, the Church had given the world its order, but that order has failed for Descartes. Something other than religion must order life as a whole, including religion. Religion has ceased to give order to the world and has become one of its regions.

Finding nothing that orders our opinions, our claims to reasonable beliefs, Descartes must give a rational method for ordering them: reason must ground itself. Yet the necessity of grounding reason in itself would never have occurred to an ancient Greek or a medieval Christian, Jew, or Muslim because, whatever the many differences between them, for each, the exercise of reason occurs within an ordering that is prior to and fundamental to reason. Whether physis or Divine creation, reason has a ground that is, on a modern view, nonrational. (In spite of that, it is possible to identify the ground of reason, in the narrower, modern sense, with reason itself, as ancient and medieval philosophers generally did.) Even those thinkers, such as the Averroists, for whom the truths of reason and the truths of faith are ultimately commensurable do not assume that something is true because it is rational. Instead, something is rational because it is true. Truth–for the religious person, the divine order that shows itself in symbols–grounds reason; reason’s being is granted by the symbolic ordering, even if the rational order and the symbolic order are ultimately identical.

This means that those in the centuries before modernism did have a means for adjudicating between various plausible opinions. For Christians, the Church provided those means and order came to the world through that means. Descartes’s inability to adjudicate between differing opinions and his subsequent search for a method shows us that, by his time, a radical shift had already taken place, a shift away from an understanding that finds the use of reason within what is given by a symbolic ordering. Prior to modernism, the world had been given order by the Divine and reason was a tool for dealing with and in that order, though not itself the source of order. However, the loss of the Divine as a ground left reason and the world without moorings and, so, required something like the four-part rational method that Descartes prescribes (II.7-10).

This loss of the Divine as ground shows up in the difference between modern and religious understandings of certainty. Prior to modernism, Christian certainty was the certainty of salvation, a certainty given by the life of faith. Thus, though Christians had certainty, that certainty did not include a complete apprehension of the rational (in other words, of the mind of God), though it was also consistent with the rational. With modernism the ground shifted: since certainty is no longer given, it must be achieved; one must have a method for gaining certainty. This difference between certainty being something given and certainty being something resulting from the application of a method is perhaps the largest single difference between the religious view and the rationalist view.

As we can see in Descartes, the method for achieving certainty is necessarily a rational method, and the rational is thought of as self-revealing. Based on the biblical teaching that humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), early modernism rethinks human reason and at least implicitly models it on the mind of God, a mind that is understood, strictly and theologically speaking, capable of only purely theoretic understanding. As a result, modernism assumes that the use of the proper method, a self-grounding method, will, at least in principle, lead one to the complete capture, the complete apprehension, of the rational (which, though no longer identical to the mind of God continues to be thought in the same terms: for example, as self-revealing and atemporal). This shift changes the meaning of everything–the rational, certainty, method, knowledge–in such a way that the religious understanding becomes inaccessible to modern thought, perhaps incomprehensible, at best naive and primitive.

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27 Responses to The Order of Things

  1. Russell Arben Fox on April 24, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    “Religion is life in a world that is ordered symbolically.”

    “Whether physis or Divine creation, reason has a ground that is, on a modern view, nonrational.”

    “This difference between certainty being something given and certainty being something resulting from the application of a method is perhaps the largest single difference between the religious view and the rationalist view.”

    All excellent observations, Jim, and ones I fully agree with. You summarize your argument very well. Still, I feel a need to emphasize one particular question: in what sense, if any, is this position incompatible with the concern I laid out in my comment on your other post?

    You write that “religion means that just as beliefs can only be understood as they are associated with practices, practices make no sense except as elements of life in a symbolic order, an order in which the world is what it is because of the Divine.” Why to you assume that the symbolic is only apprehended through practices–why are not belief systems themselves, our thinking in regards to the world, similarly what they are because of a morally real order of things which they (we) encounter in our thinking? In other words, I don’t see why embracing the primacy of the symbolic in matters of meaning requires the presence of practices in order for there to be any thought. You recognize, of course, there is more to “thought” than a rational ordering which aspires to challenge or replace the symbolic. There is also our conscious apprehension of and affirmation of the symbolic itself.

    It seems to me that this interpretation must clearly be a possibility under your account which speaks of “the failure of the symbolic order,” or at the very least an “order [that] has failed for Descartes.” How can symbols “fail”–especially given that, in the context of the time (early modern Europe), Descartes was still very much a participant in and respector of the “practices” which presumably instantiated that order? (No, Descartes didn’t live a fully orthodox live, but neither was he anything like Voltaire.) The answer, of course, is that he no longer believed the order. That is, he could no longer affirm it–the practices were no longer conjoined with affirmation in his moral life, making the ground they presupposed incomprehensible to him. He responded with doubt–if the grounds were not apparent, he must rigorously search them out through a purely rational method. But Descartes, while unfortunately terribly influential in the history of philosophy and Western civilization, was hardly the only one to acknowledge and respond to the fact that the symbolic order taught by medieval Christendom enabled very little by way of human affirmation or will; from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, many thinkers refused the lure of reason, and insisted that the symbolic was still a reality, one which remains to be instantiated through our submission to the Augustinian truth that there is a loving God who willed–believed in, if you will–that order first. That perspective, I think, gets the relationship between belief and practice most correct.

  2. Clark on April 24, 2005 at 9:49 pm

    On my view, a symbol is a material object that incarnates more than merely its materiality; a symbol is not merely “something that stands for something else by vague resemblance.” )

    About the only place I’d quibble is the above. Why does a symbol have to be material? Can’t ideas be symbols?

    Actually one quick question as well. Your second sense of world is the Heideggarian “world.” But is your first sense of world – the one religion deals with – simply “the All.” I’m still a little fuzzy on that. You say you use it as philosophers use it. But it seems a bit unclear.

  3. Clark on April 24, 2005 at 10:20 pm

    Russell: Why to you assume that the symbolic is only apprehended through practices–why are not belief systems themselves, our thinking in regards to the world, similarly what they are because of a morally real order of things which they (we) encounter in our thinking?

    One answer might be the pragmatic one. The meaning of anything can only be found in its practical consequences. Practical not in the sense (as is often erroneously taken) to be how it changes us. But rather the practices we’d engage in to determine if something was indeed this thing we think it is. Thus for a pragmatist hardness’ meaning is wrapped up in the practices we use to see whether something is, in fact, hard.

    Applying the same reasoning, how can we say what a symbol means except through the practices we’d engage in to see when a symbol is manifest. i.e. is appropriate.

  4. Jim F on April 24, 2005 at 11:47 pm

    Russell: I feel a need to emphasize one particular question: in what sense, if any, is this position incompatible with the concern I laid out in my comment on your other post?

    I don’t understand whether you are asking me whether what I say here is incompatible with what you said in that post or whether you are asking whether it is incompatible with what I said in my other post. Perhaps what I said in my response to your comment will clear that up. If not, let’s try again.

    Why do you assume that the symbolic is only apprehended through practices–why are not belief systems themselves, our thinking in regards to the world, similarly what they are because of a morally real order of things which they (we) encounter in our thinking?

    Because thinking and belief are not the same. Thinking is itself a practice. Belief is the content of that practice. Without a practice in which it inheres, the content has no existence. Plus what Clark said.

    You recognize, of course, there is more to “thought” than a rational ordering which aspires to challenge or replace the symbolic. There is also our conscious apprehension of and affirmation of the symbolic itself.

    Of course, but that is an act, not a belief.

    Descartes, while unfortunately terribly influential in the history of philosophy and Western civilization, was hardly the only one to acknowledge and respond to the fact that the symbolic order taught by medieval Christendom enabled very little by way of human affirmation or will; from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, many thinkers refused the lure of reason, and insisted that the symbolic was still a reality, one which remains to be instantiated through our submission to the Augustinian truth that there is a loving God who willed–believed in, if you will–that order first. That perspective, I think, gets the relationship between belief and practice most correct.

    (1) Descartes was just a very handy example for showing why the Renaissance and Enlightenment turned to self-grounding reason (and some of the consequences of that turn), nothing more. (2) We may agree about the Augustinian truth, though I suspect that you wish to take this in a more “Lutheran” direction, and I prefer to keep it in a more “Catholic” one.

    Clark: Can’t ideas by symbols?

    I’m not positive. I don’t think so, but I’m not confident enough to say “no” without some worry. At least for now, I think that symbols have to have be material, though they can be as “immaterial” as writing. I would have to come up with another name for what you are calling symbolic ideas, though I don’t have one. Nevertheless, I think they are phenomenologically different than material symbols, so I reserve the name “symbol” for the latter.

    As for the term “world,” I mean to use it in the Heideggerian sense for religion as well as for philosophy.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on April 25, 2005 at 6:57 am

    You responses, Jim, both on this thread and the other one, make it clear that when I wrote my comments I was treating “(the state of) belief” and “thinking” as the same thing, whereas you see the latter very clearly as an act distinguishable from belief, which is the “content” of one’s thinking. In collapsing the latter into the former, I thus missed an important aspect of your argument about the nature of actions. My apologies. I still think there’s a point to my criticism, but I think I’m going to need to refresh my memory of Heidegger’s “What is Thinking” before formulating it.

  6. anon on April 25, 2005 at 8:30 am

    Jim,

    Hard reading, but well worth it. Can you recommend further reading on the topic? I suspect I would never make it through a book, but I’m willing to give my best efforts to an article or two.

  7. Jack on April 25, 2005 at 10:47 am

    Jim,

    I really like this post. I’m hungry for it and I’m not sure why. It seems like the ordering of which you speak, in LDS “theology” (have to be careful how we use that word around here) might be suggested by such scriptural phrases as “seek ye first the Kingdom of God”, or “with an eye single to my glory”, or “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, might, mind and strength”, etc. Inasmuch as this ordering permiates the Bible, my question is: whence the primacy of rationalism? Is it due to a deficiency in religion per se? Or is it due to a particular kind of evil which seeks to usurp the primacy of religion?

    I ask this question because I cannot get away from the fact that much of what I’ve been struggling with, psychologically, over the last couple of years has it’s roots in a fautly way of thinking which seems to mirror the false creeds of the apostasy. That is, if we get the “order” wrong, at some point we’re going to find ourselves at a dead end–as if we’ve taken a wrong turn in a maze. In my case, some of my beliefs about God were (and still are, I suppose) dead wrong–beliefs that I inherited from a long and glorious family tradition (as I’m sure we all do). Inevitably, I did run into that brick wall. “My” religion was no longer sufficient to sustain me. Since then I’ve tried to make sense of the world by means of a more rational approach, and let me tell you, it doesn’t work. It’s like trying to hold a gallon water in a tea cup. You’re running all over the place unbridled, unchanneled.

    This brings me to some of Russell’s thoughts. What would cause one to run into such a brick wall if not for false beliefs which lead to false thinking/practices? As a matter of fact, I would say that many of my practices would have been correct had they had the right belief behind them. At any rate, I can’t explain very well with words how thinking about getting the order right has brought a lot of solace to my mind. Everything lines up, I can make sense of it. And that which doesn’t belong is easy to discern. But even so, I can’t say that this change in thinking has to do with a focus on practice. It seems like it has to do more with a will to believe that things are a certain way–and maybe that’s an act of sorts…? This is where I think I might lean a little more toward Jim S’s views on beliefs & practices.

    I must sound like I’m warming up for the opera–me–me–me–me–me. Thanks for letting me have this little threadjack.

  8. Jim F on April 25, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    Russell: There is certainly no need for apology. I doubt that I can make myself clear without these kinds of exchanges, and sometimes not even then.

    Anon: I’m afraid that I don’t have any particular articles to recommend. Perhaps the piece from which I adapted this would be helpful. But this isn’t a common topic for writing (though it relies on a kind of “common sense” among certain philosophers), so there are few articles on it. I think that Alistair MacIntyre’s work is related, but it is generally book length. Perhaps Russell can suggest something. Short of that, I think the only answer is to read a lot of contemporary philosophy.

    Jack: Whence the primacy of rationalism? Is it due to a deficiency in religion per se? Or is it due to a particular kind of evil which seeks to usurp the primacy of religion?

    I think that the answer is “none of the above.” I’m not sure that rationalism is primary today. A look at contemporary culture certainly gives reason to doubt that it is. And even when rationalism has dominated intellectual pursuits–perhaps it still does–there have been different stripes of rationalism. But, as I tried to explain in the fifth paragraph, from a religious point of view there is no necessary conflict between reason and faith, though if we have a certain understanding of reason, we will see them in conflict. I’m sure that Satan can use that to his advantage, but I would not explain what seems primarily to be an historical change as the result of evil, especially since, in spite of some of its problems, that historical change had a great deal to do with making the world ready for the Restoration.

    As for orders: I don’t think that each religion is a completely separate order of reality. Broadly speaking, religion is a way of living that in accord with a symbolic order. But it seems to me that most Christians live within essentially the same symbolic order. Unfortunately, however, I’m just a philosopher, not an anthropologist. So, though I think it makes sense to speak of a symbolic order, I’m in no position to try to outline how particular belief systems or cultures relate to each other vis-a-vis symbolic ordering.

    As for your final question about brick walls: why should we assume that beliefs lead to practices rather than that beliefs are parts of practices? Insofar as the word “belief” refers to things we do rather than only the conceptual content of those things, beliefs are practices. My argument is, first, that we ought not to separate belief and practice as we commonly do, and second, that when we don’t separate them, it turns out that our analyses are analyses of practices rather than beliefs. However, as is often the case, I suspect that what I have to say has little practical application.

  9. Clark Goble on April 25, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Jim, I confess I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a symbol must be something material and “concrete.” I’d note Peirce’s sense is much broader. Further I just don’t see how it can deal with the obvious way we deal with mental symbols.

  10. Jim F on April 25, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    Clark Goble: It is my acquaintance with Peirce that makes me vaguely uncomfortable with not including mental symbols in the category of symbols. As I said, however, it seems to me that there is a distinction, in terms of how experience as well as, perhaps, in terms of how they operate, between the two kinds. Perhaps that distinction is not enough to justify two different terms for them and I’ll have to rethink how I talk about symbols. In the mean time, I don’t think that potential problem creates problem for what I say about symbolic ordering, does it?

  11. Jack on April 25, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    Jim,

    RE. brick walls. There are things that I do for one reason or another. Let’s say that I’m being a good mormon boy (and I really am trying) and doing all of the things I should be doing such as taking care of my family, praying, reading scripture, going to church, etc. etc. etc. Now let’s say that, for one reason or another, over the years I have developed a view of God which is very Thor-like–a god who is waiting to throw down a thunderbolt on my head at the first opportunity. How does this influence what I do, or better said, how I do what I do? For me, this course inevitably led to a brick wall. There came a time when it simply didn’t make sense anymore. It didn’t match the instructions that I thought I was receiving from a reliable source–namely the church and the gifts that pertain to it. So, something had to give. And when it gave I was left with virtually nothing to hang on to in terms of belief–a real no-man’s land (believe me, you don’t want to be there). Since then, I’ve been slowly getting back into the groove of doing those things I think I should be doing, but for slightly different reasons (and that slight difference makes a world of difference). So here I am again taking care of my family, praying, reading scripture, going to church, etc. etc. etc., but with a different set of beliefs behind it. What does this mean? I don’t know…It probably means that I haven’t understood what you’re talking about. But even so, in my own experience it seems like there are ways in which beliefs incite practices, and if not incite, then inform them in such a way so as to temper them. And if beliefs can temper practices, then it would seem that in certain instances they have primacy over practices.

  12. Clark on April 25, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    I’m sorry, I didn’t quite follow that. It’s because of Peirce that you find non-material symbols problematic? Or because of Peirce that you find symbols being solely material problematic?

    Also, are you speaking of Peirce’s notion of symbols or his notion of icons? There are important differences between the two. A symbol might be something that stands for something else. But an icon does so because of some similarity.

    Does this matter to your point? I think so. For instance in terms of materiality then the symbolic ordering is an ordering terms of things. But what counts as a thing? We can talk about sacred space, but can we talk about time? Perhaps, if we stretch materiality. But if we allow the broader sense, then we can see why beliefs can become important in a sacred ordering. After all a belief often is a symbol. Further belief even in traditional religion ends up being more a symbol whose meaning outstrips our ability to conceive of it. Thus a Catholic can talk about the Trinity as a mystery while valuing it as a symbol and thereby discuss it as belief.

    The reason I think the non-materiality of symbols must be possible is that without it we are committed to the real being purely material. i.e. a symbol manfiests more than itself because the material is more than we experience as. But it is left as material. The immaterial, if real, must also be able to do this.

  13. Jim F on April 26, 2005 at 11:39 am

    Jack: Let’s say that, for one reason or another, over the years I have developed a view of God which is very Thor-like–a god who is waiting to throw down a thunderbolt on my head at the first opportunity. How does this influence what I do, or better said, how I do what I do?

    My view is that your view of God is part of your practices rather than their cause. Changing your beliefs is part and parcel of changing your practices–in Heidegger’s terms, your being-in-the-world. That being doesn’t have parts–beliefs on the one hand and practices on the other. Each of what appears to be parts (and which can, for certain purposes of analysis, be divided) is really an aspect of a whole. What I am arguing for is the unity of being-in-the-world. For rhetorical purposes I’ve done that by focusing on practices, but perhaps that is misleading.

    Clark: I didn’t quite follow that. It’s because of Peirce that you find non-material symbols problematic? Or because of Peirce that you find symbols being solely material problematic?

    Because of Peirce I find it problematic to say that symbols are solely material. My awareness of his work on symbols, icons, etc., makes me suspicious that the position I’ve taken is inadequate. But I also have problems with his notion of symbols. I don’t think a symbol stands for something else. I think it incarnates something else, gives it materiality. Thus my focus on materiality.

    However, as your last paragraph says–though in my words–my refusal to separate beliefs from practices may well be in contradiction (at least in spirit) from my insistence on keeping symbols separated from the immaterial. One way to deal with that is to broaden what I mean by “material” so that it can include more than the concrete. Doing that would perhaps get me out of the difficulty to which you point. Since, for me, the important point is the excessive character of symbols not their concrete character, that move might allow me to the former without insisting on the latter.

    Ricoeur has a nice description of how symbols work that is, I think, helpful and probably shows a way out of my insistence on symbols as concrete: “Two levels of meaning are linked together in the symbol. The first meaning relates to a known field of reference, that is to a sphere of entities to which the predicates considered in their established meaning can be attached. The second meaning, the one that is to be made apparent, relates to a referential field for which there is no direct characterization, for which we are consequently unable to make identifying descriptions by means of appropriate references” (The Rule of Metaphor 299). (By the way, Ricoeur’s book, though a little bit out of date, is an excellent piece on metaphor and symbol. It is the first part of a series of works that work together to lay out his thinking: The Rule of Metaphor, Time and Narrative (3 vols), Oneself as Another, and Memory, History, Forgetting. I highly recommend the whole series as an important contribution to the kinds of discussions we are having–and I think that most of the problems of the earlier works are implicitly taken care of in the later ones.)

    However, though I see the need for some revision in my thinking about symbols, it still seems to me that there is a phenomenological difference between the concrete symbol and that “immaterial” one. However, as you note, that difference is not important to the position on being-in-the-world as symbolic ordering that I tried to outline here.

  14. Jim F on April 26, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    Here is a quotation from Albert Borgmann that serves as a nice summary of one of my fundamental theses: “A thing [. . .] is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely engagement. The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world” (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life 41).

    “Thing” refers to any entity, concrete or not. Replace “context” with “symbolic order” and you have a good precis of my position. I don’t think the replacement is a problematic one, since “symbolic order” is merely a designation of what I think it means for a religious context to be meaningful.

  15. Clark Goble on April 26, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Jim, as you know I’m deeply influenced by Ricouer. However I confess that it is on some of these matters that I find him problematic. However its difficult for me to quite put into words exactly where I see him as wrong.

    The problem with equating symbolic order and context is that of course a symbolic order (or rational order) implies more than just context. It implies values and “distance” (in something akin to the Heideggarian sense). The difference between a symbolic order and a rational order might be described in one way as keeping in mind the unconscious. Something that rational ordering neglects. Thus, I suspect, part of the reason that Ricouer is so interested in Freud. (Who I can’t stand)

    But perhaps I’m a bit wrong. I certainly am a holist, as are many. But I think that the whole nature of a symbolic order is a tad too vague for my tastes. I’ve been thinking on it for quite some time.

  16. Jim F on April 26, 2005 at 9:23 pm

    Clark, you are, of course, entitled to your tastes, but I don’t think one has to take Freud’s unconscious up as a way to think about symbolic order. A symbolic order is a world in which relations among things are, fundamentally, found in symbols and their meanings. Religion is a good example of a symbolic order: For a Mormon, the priesthood is real, divine Creation is real, heaven is real, and so on, and these things are incarnated in symbols in the world, for example in ordinances, and make the world the way that it truly is. Something really happens at the Sacrament table and when I partake of the bread and water. The ordinance is not “just a symbol” in the common way that phrase is used.

    You seem to be thinking that symbolic order has something to do with not just a Freudian view, but a Jungian way of seeing the world. At least as I and others use the term, it absolutely doesn’t have the Jungian sense and doesn’t have much to do with the Freudian sense unless we radically reinterpret a great deal of Freud.

    In addition, I don’t think that symbolic order does imply more than context in a Heideggerian sense of that word. A context (or we could also say “world” here) is, after all, a meaningful whole. “Symbolic order” says something about the meaningfulness of that a particualr kind of context. Not every context is a symbolic order, but religion is a context or world whose order is given by the symbolic relations of the entities within it, a symbolic order. How is that any more vague than “context”? If anything it is somewhat more specific.

    Footnote: Like many others in recent European philosophy, Ricoeur is interested in Freud (though your “so interested” exaggerates his interest–Freud figures little or not at all in the books I referred to), and a great deal of that interest has to do with Freud’s discussion of the unconscious. But few of those interested in Freud are orthodox Freudians. Anyone interested in excess and in what we cannot know about ourselves can be said to be interested in the unconscious. Those people use Freud as someone with whom to have a conversation because he, with Nietzsche, started that conversation. (Freud seems to have gotten the notion of the unconscious from Nietzsche via their mutual friend, Lou Salomé.) He is no more than a source for beginning to think about a problem, certainly not an answer to that problem.

  17. Clark on April 26, 2005 at 11:36 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply your analysis depended in some way upon Freud. It was more an aside as something in Ricouer I just don’t quite fathom.

    If the symbolic order is just context, then I obviously have less of a problem with it. But then I wonder in what way that tells us something about religion? Is religion our context? A slightly expanded version what what many call a worldview? Doesn’t this simultaneously over expand religion as well as losing something important about religion?

  18. Clark on April 26, 2005 at 11:36 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply your analysis depended in some way upon Freud. It was more an aside as something in Ricouer I just don’t quite fathom.

    If the symbolic order is just context, then I obviously have less of a problem with it. But then I wonder in what way that tells us something about religion? Is religion our context? A slightly expanded version what what many call a worldview? Doesn’t this simultaneously over expand religion as well as losing something important about religion?

  19. Jim F on April 27, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Clark: In talking about Freud I was responding to your aside about Ricoeur rather than defending my analysis: I don’t think that Ricoeur’s thinking is particularly dependant on Freud, nor does it include elements that I can clearly identify as Freudian. As I said, none of the books I mentioned, books that he considers his primary work, touch on Freud much, if at all. His book on Freud (Freud and Philosophy) is, as I understand it, an attempt to use Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche to argue for a particular understanding of hermeneutics, as the subtitle, “An Essay on Interpretation,” suggests. (And it is clear from the fact that he focuses on the attack on religion by these three, that he is defending religion at the same time that he discusses them.) Ricoeur argued that “suspicion” and “skepticism” are not the same, that Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche were suspicious of existing truth and looking for another truth rather than skeptical of truth per se. His conclusion is that interpretation begins in suspicion (rather than skepticism) and that suspicion makes possible a “second naivete” which opens up new possibilities of being. (I think that, among other things, he was trying to formulate an alternative to Gadamer’s hermeneutics in the book.) I think his work in Freud and Philosophyhas interesting implications for religious intellectuals (concering, in particular, the relation between critique and faith), but that wasn’t part of my analysis.

    As for my analysis: Religion is not “just context.” Neither is it “a slightly expanded version of what many call a worldview.” It is a particular kind of worldview rather than an expanded one, a worldview that is ordered in the order of its symbols, symbols that have concrete (but perhaps not only concrete) existence–as sacraments, as ordinances, as rules for living, i.e., in practices. I don’t see how that either over expands religion or loses something important about it.

  20. Clark on April 27, 2005 at 11:40 pm

    I’ve not read Ricouer’s works on Freud, so I’m definitely discussing from ignorance. Further I’ll confess my dislike of Freud verges upon the irrational to a degree. I think that were he not claiming to be a scientist he’d not bother me nearly as much.

    Regarding your analysis of religion. I’m earnestly struggling to understand. But exactly how does someone non-religious not do the same? An atheist, for instance, might well also use a lot of symbols in the way you describe. I guess I just don’t quite see where one can draw the line between the religious and the non-religious. I’m sure the fault for not understanding rests with me. But it seems to me that all worldivews are in part symbolically ordered. It almost sounds like your opposition between the symbolic and the rational ends up being over transcendence and meaning. i.e. are symbols transcendent symbols, or do we see them as complete? But even that doesn’t quite seem to fit.

    I guess I ought look up your original paper and see if I can figure it out.

  21. Rosalynde Welch on April 28, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Jim, you tease! Here you title your post after a Foucault must-read, but not a Foucault cite in sight! (Maybe the title was not a deliberate reference.)

    I think you’ve answered my question already, but perhaps you will clarify: on your view, religion is a symbolic order, but not the only symbolic order, right? I can think of a number of symbolic systems that might work as religion does, to order one’s subjectivity and practices, one’s being.

  22. Jack on April 28, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    Here’s my psychedelic interpretation: We exist as a “vibration” of sorts. Even our thoughts involve some kind of motion, something that acts on something else in the universe–an opposition as it were. Beliefs in terms of a creed do not exist in and of themselves, only as they are set in motion by virtue of practices–be they our thoughts alone–do they become substantial or exant in the universe. So, in a sense they are not really comprehended without practice and therefore become the very meaning of practice, or practice itself, I should say.

    The symbolic ordering of the universe gives meaning to practices because it is only in how we engage the world around us by virtue of those practices that we make sense of who and what we are. It is akin to the necessity of characters in a play working against a context. Without the context it would be difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend the characters. I have a tendency to agree with Clark, in that I don’t know what the difference between a “world view” and a “religious view” would be in this discussion. However, If we’re talking about an “ideal”, in the sense that the right order of things must understood in order to yield the correct understanding of who and what we are, then I would say that religion tends to dig a little deeper than most other “orders” in it’s attempt to uncover a meaningful, uh, what’s the word? I don’t think “context” is quite it. Creation? World?

    Well anyway, there’s my groovy two cents worth.

  23. Clark on May 2, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    I just noticed Rosalynde’s comment. Is what you are doing Jim more along Foucaltian lines? I may have to break out my Foucalt that I’ve not read in years. That may explain my inability to understand.

  24. Clark on May 2, 2005 at 6:16 pm

    I did some checking, but I still only find the symbolic order in its Freudian sense, its Saussurean sense or Lacan’s use of those two senses. I’ll admit I’m not up on Lacan, given my biases against psycho-analysis. But I couldn’t find much in Foucalt. Could you expand on your comments somewhat Rosalynde?

  25. Jim F on May 2, 2005 at 8:56 pm

    Clark: how does someone non-religious not do the same? An atheist, for instance, might well also use a lot of symbols in the way you describe?

    It isn’t a matter of how one uses symbols. It is a matter of how the world is. The Sacrament makes the world a different place for those who are believers. The point is that the world is (ought to be?) what it is for many Christians in virtue of the symbols–in their connections to one another, hence a “symbolic order”–that allow the world to show itself for what it is. I doubt that many atheists use symbols in that way, but I suppose it is possible.

    Rosalynde: I think you are the only one who got the joke. There may be other symbolic systems that order one’s being, but I think that religion is the most obvious one.

    Jack: I have a difficult time knowing where to start. One the one hand, I think you have a reasonable understanding of my point. On the other hand, I don’t resonate to your metaphors, so I don’t know what to say about them. A world view isn’t necessarily ordered symbolically. I think that a religion is (though I recognize that the term “religion” is very slippery, so I’ll just confine it to “religions of the Book” for this discussion).

    Clark: I think Rosalynde was just responding to the title of the post, which is the same as the title of one of Foucault’s books. Nothing more to it than that, I assume. I picked up the term “symbolic order” from Lacan, and I suppose that that there are connections between the way I’m thinking of it and his way, though they aren’t particularly intentional. I see the term as a way to describe one kind of Heideggerian world.

  26. Clark on May 2, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    Funny as I was looking through my excerpt from that book in The Foucalt Reader this afternoon trying to see if it was relevant.

  27. Jack on May 2, 2005 at 11:44 pm

    Jim,

    Thruthfully, I think the reason you don’t resonate to my metaphors is because I really don’t now very much about these things. I have almost zero back ground in philosophy which, no doubt, puts me in a different playing field all together sometimes. But even so, I sure enjoy the conversation and appreciate your input. Thanks!

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