The mind-boggling (and mind-blogging it appears) question on my mind as of late seems to be one of the oldest in the philosophy book, “What does it mean to be human?” I can’t wrap my brain around what makes us different from non-human animals. Every dialogue I’ve ever had on this topic can’t help but acknowledge the difficulty of answering this question. In many ways this inquiry, especially in science, has only led us to discover the ways in which we are more similar than different from the rest of life. Common answers include our ability to self-reflect and wonder (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s view), have rationality (Aristotle’s view), or even the lack of a specialization at all (Brian Swimme mentioned). Many anthropologists and philosophers would disagree with some of the former reasoning and responses. New fields of research such as cognitive ethology, could indicate nonhuman animals are self-reflective, make tools, and use symbols. According to Ernst Cassirer, German philosopher who lived between 1874 and 1945, the uniqueness of being human derives from our ability to create symbolic forms. I disagree with Cassirer and believe it isn’t just the creation of symbolic forms, but the way in which we eventually transcend and question them that makes us distinctively human.
Cassirer in An Essay On Man refers to humans as animal symbolicum, or symbolic being, describing the way we construct culture through creating representational communication. Humans use symbols to help us interpret our external world by creating meaning and concepts. We cannot know whether or not animals create symbols, think, or understand, but we can partially witness what they do with or without that ability. Symbolic form for Cassirer comprises of language, myth, art, science, and history. All of these examples show how a complex system of symbols produces an entire culture and different way of reflecting upon existence.
So much of being human feels as if we desperately seek a relationship to the whole and through this end up categorizing and naming everything we come into contact with to create a knowing and meaning about it. Through our “need to name” we ultimately seek a relationship to Self/whole/other. This reason makes anthropology and cosmology so vitally important (and also why so many rely upon science and religion for these same reasons), as they give us a way of relating. In the end it seems to be what we want most as way of orienting ourselves and fulfilling this desire to share and communicate our experience. This philosophy of culture shows we are not just a “social animal” and instead an animal who wants an identity. We crave self-knowledge as affirmation of identifying as individuals. This way of orienting separates us from the whole as a necessary process of unity.
Cassirer not only acknowledges the way in which we use symbolic form to give us something to grasp and hold onto, he also recognizes them as “artificial.” This is where we begin to glimpse how Cassirer represents pre-Integral thought; he accepts that language, and the other ways we use to orient ourselves, were self-created and therefore cannot be objective. The beauty and ultimate paradox of symbolic form remains even with the facts and knowledge created by our symbolic forms, we still don’t have clarity. As humans we have shaped and invented a world in which we live into — one which may or may not be accurate. Yet, even if our understanding may not be precise, we still need symbolic form because it is the only way we have to attempt to grasp the deep mysteries of being alive.
Cassirer hints at the idea that our thoughts and ideas eventually transcend and surpass themselves through examination – the exact process he participates in and also the great task of philosophy. As humans we have built up a universe and then question what we have built. Philosophy has a deep need to orient and then reflect upon and discern this very orientation. It establishes a relationship and then seeks the assumptions living behind it. Without symbolic form humans could not have this skill, other animals may not (that we know of) analyze their symbols or signals. This could be a unique trait of human beings as the interpreters of our interpretations.
Cassirer does the hard work for us of by establishing the distinction of symbolic forms and reflecting upon it; in this way we are able to identify as an animal philosopicum, instead of a mere animal symbolicum. In doing so we don’t just reflect upon who we are, we actually create a new world for us to live into, and then once again question whether or not it even exists.