As a follow-up to my previous entry, I'm going to leave Plato aside for the moment (preferring to leave the ins and outs of 'proper' philosophy to those better equipped than me to deal with it (step up, overlyconscious)), in favour of a more recent philosopher of meaning and the meaning of meaning. Soon after I wrote that nugatory musing on trees I came across the following passage, from Suzanne Langer's Philosophy in a New Key, in an anthology I happened to pick up:
If language is born, indeed, from the profoundly symbolific character of the human mind, we may not be surprised to find that this mind operates with symbols far below the level of speech. Previous studies have shown that even the subjective record of sense experience, the ‘sense-image’, is not a direct copy of actual experience, but has been ‘projected’, in the process of copying, into a new dimension, the more or less stabile form we call a ‘picture’. It has not the protean, mercurial elusiveness of real visual experience, but a unity and lasting identity that makes it a an object of the mind’s possession rather than a sensation.
In short, images have all the characteristics of symbols. If they were weak sense-experiences, they would confuse the order of nature for us. Our salvation lies in that we do not normally take them for bona fide sensations, but attend to them only in the capacity of meaning things, being images of things – symbols whereby those things are conceived, remembered, considered, but not encountered.
The best guarantee of their essentially symbolic function is their tendency to become metaphorical. They are not only capable of connoting the things from which our sense-experience originally derived them […] but they also have an inalienable tendency to ‘mean’ things that have only a logical analogy to their primary meanings. […] Images are, therefore, our readiest instruments for abstracting concepts from the tumbling stream of actual impressions. They make our primitive abstractions for us, they are our spontaneous embodiments of general ideas…
Now this is shading into the vast and nebulous gloom of that area of human thought known as 'the imagination', and I have no desire to try to get to grips with that kettle of particularly slippery fish. I would just note that theories of the imagination and the literary imagination in particular (since Romanticism, anyway; the following is no longer strictly the case, but nobody talks about 'imagination' or 'creativity' in literary theory nowadays anyway) have focused almost exclusively on the act of literary creation on the part of the creator – as if there were not a creative consciousness involved in the reception of a work of art, as if the reading of a book were somehow a secondary process, a blurred mirror-image of those operations involved in the writing of a book. This is clearly not the case: a whole different set of mechanisms is involved in reading: reading and writing are not isomorphic processes; reading is not the inverse operation of writing in the same way that the solving of a crossword puzzle is something like the setting of the puzzle in reverse order. Solving a crossword is a matter of reconstructing the fragments of meaning scattered to the four winds by the setter, by inverting the transformative operations involved in the initial deliberate concealment of meaning: it is a mental process whose parameters are more or less strictly demarcated by the conventions of the peculiar ideolect of crosswords. Books work entirely differently, because there are no parameters that transcend the sum of all books: the parameters that form symbolic understanding are continually reshaped with the reading of every new book.
Having said that, I find myself wondering whether those parameters were not in fact fixed more rigidly in the past: I’m thinking of the Renaissance episteme, and the limits to the symbolic imagination that were set in the humanist education. To write (or to read) literature in the Renaissance, one had to be fully versed in the Classical canon (which, for much of that period, meant in practice studying the works of perhaps a dozen Latin authors, plus a small number of 'modern classics'). The symbolific potential of any one semanteme was, therefore – must have been – conventionally defined much more sharply than the equivalent unit of meaning is for a reader today. If everybody's read the same stuff, then meaning making is surely more to do with a sort of collective consciousness than to do with an individual act of creativity – whether on the part of author or reader. And I presume that your averagely well-educated sixteenth-century humanist did generally know most of the names of trees and what they look like.
But what's this I see before me? Those vast vistas of contemporary critical theory where signifiers float free like colourful balloons and signifieds weigh anchor and sail over the horizon as meaning soars as gracefully and stupid as an albatross. A place where quality means nothing and art is as beautiful as a rusting, broken down locomotive, and poetry might as well be as badly written as this sentence for all it matters. No, this will not do at all.
I think that Langer's argument for the interanimation of sense experience and symbolic imagination cuts through this. If the passage from visual perception to mental image is not a straight line, not a simple case of copying (and it is now widely acknowledged, of course, that the notion of pure perception, a pre-conscious seeing uncoloured by individual experience and expectation, is a fiction), but a much more delicately calibrated process in which metaphorical associations play a primary role that is spontaneous and concept-forming, then aesthetic experience is something absolutely fundamental to language and to how the human mind works. It is something irreducibly complex and inaccessible to definition in language, but at the same time it is something real and true. And I suppose it is possible that not knowing what trees look like might actually enrich that experience rather than diminish it, because it opens up new vistas of thought ungrounded in concrete sense experience, by establishing new and unique neural sub-networks for thinking with. And I suppose that shaping of thought in turn might colour our perception of trees when we do finally encounter them in reality, so that our experience of walking through a wood becomes not a seeing of shapes and forms and colours but an act of intertextual reading of the great Book of Nature.
Incidentally, the Latin word for 'book', liber, is also the word for 'bark' [of a tree].