Saturday, 15 December 2007

A dramatic diversion

A bit off-topic but I liked this passage from Kenneth Burke about the nature of reality. He developed a theory called dramatism which is similar in approach to the Narrative Paradigm that I have posted about before. I think it really puts the nature of our belief systems in perspective.

"Can we bring ourselves to realise… just how overwhelmingly much of what we mean by "reality" has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol systems? Take away our books, and what little do we know about history, biography, even something so "down to earth" as the relative position of seas and continents? What is our "reality" for today (beyond the paper-thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present? In school, as they go from class to class, students turn from one idiom to another. The various courses in the curriculum are in effect but so many different terminologies. And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced first hand, the whole overall "picture" is but a construct of our symbol systems. To meditate on this fact until one sees its full implications is much like peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss. And doubtless that’s one reason why, though man is typically the symbol-using animal, he clings to a kind of na├»ve verbal realism that refuses to realise the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality."


Giles said...

What a great quote. I have often wondered how people speak so confidently of the past (I am mainly thinking of people who call themselves 'traditionalists') as if they can see and feel it, when we all know it is a construct of what your chap here is calling symbols. Great to read it put so much better than I could manage.

Once you peer into that abyss, you realise the arbitrariness of what is considered as being 'there' in our past or our culture, and slightly more annoyed by the way it is obsessively 'defended' by conservatives of all ilks.

Tom P said...

Yep it's really quite a powerful insight isn't it? t's amazing how much we take for granted that we 'know', and build our belief systems around, whereas is reality much of what we 'know' is really just mental furniture that defines our picture of the world.

I like the idea of beliefs as 'symbols' too. I quite often find when I am thinking about types relationships within the financial system in particular I am picturing machinery (with certain functional parts) that you can make 'work' a certain way. Yet in reality these relationships are typically a set of agreed shared meanings. That a) means that they can be rewritten quite easily (I wonder how long the vogue for regarding shareholders as 'owners' in a meaningful sense will last) and b) explains why 'systemic' attempts to refomr te system often come a cropper.