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Notes on All the Robert Bellah Lectures (posted so far) on the Sociology of Religion, Spring Semester, UCB, in 1996

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University of California at Berkeley Spring Semester, 1996

Department of Sociology             Professor Robert N. Bellah

Sociology 112

Sociology of Religion

Excerpts Prof. Bellah’s lectures for Theological Consideration with comments by Peter Krey in the footnotes

January 15, 1996 to February 26, 1996

Overcrowding made it impossible to follow the class discussion from outside the door in the hall.

Jan. 18th: Missed Lecture.

Jan. 23rd:    For the study of the Sociology of Religion it is important to be able to bracket out your own belief. A radical atheist or a person who believes theirs is the true faith might not be able to do this. Just take the attitude, “It might be true.” Generalities are made here about religions, but nothing applies to them all.

What is reality? Berger and Luckman wrote a book entitled The Social Construction of Reality. From Alfred Schutz we also discover that reality is not a given. Defining reality delivers real power far superior to that of Bill Gates. Psychology and sociology overlap enormously here. This power is derived from the capacity to set the ideological agenda in the society; setting the parameters for what can be taken seriously; what is real and what isn’t real. For example in the scientific field that power determines who gets tenure and who not, and that concerns whose view of reality is accepted. When a scholars views are not considered real, their suffering becomes very real. Balancing the budget deficit is another example. Who now questions it? Will it redistribute massive new wealth to the rich?

To repeat: What is reality? Berger and Luckman wrote a book entitled The Social Construction of Reality. From Alfred Schutz we also discover that reality is not a given.[1] Defining reality delivers real power far superior to that of Bill Gates. Psychology and sociology overlap enormously here. This power inherent in defining reality is derived from the capacity to set the ideological agenda in the society, i.e., setting the parameters for what can be taken seriously, what is real and what isn’t real. Balancing the budget deficit is a particular example. Who now questions it?[2]

There are three approaches to religion:

1) the cognitive propositional

2) the expressive experiential

Using a Noam Chomsky expression, there is a deep structure to all religions and there are surface structures. Psychology has a preponderance in our society.

3) the cultural linguistic

Religion is a whole way of life. Learning religion is like learning a language with a whole grammar into which one is inducted over a long period of time. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred creating a moral community. This moral community is critical. Private religion violates moral community. This definition of religion marginalizes private religion.

Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly and awoke, not knowing if his waking state was a dream or his dream was his waking state. Was he Chuang Tzu or a butterfly? This example concerned alternate realities and identities.

Alfred Schutz noted in 1930 that realities come in multiples and it is not just one thing. The wide awake grown up man sees reality of the world very differently from the way it is seen by a child. Reality could be gendered according to some feminist epistemology. But it would seem to be possible to move between these gendered realities.

Thy World of Daily Life

It is characterized by a natural attitude of which we are not conscious. Reality is what it seems to be, and what it seems to be I will take for granted is. This world as given in the reality of daily life is not experienced in the full immediacy of absolute “hereness and nowness”. It always thinks: “What next?” And thus does not live in the radical sense of the here and now. The latter is a different reality, which is dominated by a practical and pragmatic interest of doing something and getting it done. Or thinking about what one hasn’t done yet and has to do.

Schutz was a phenomenologist and described how in the world of daily life one brought about a projected state of affairs by bodily movements, i.e., working. Thus it is changing things from how they are to how we/they/or professors prefer they be. Because the world of daily life concerns striving beyond working, and is about concerted effort, it always entails the background element of anxiety (to which we return after describing its sense of space and time).

In the world of daily life standard time and space are used. Clock time, in other words, and measuring-stick space, which is mechanical and utterly featureless: twelve o’clock midnight is the same as twelve noon; twenty miles whether coast land or hills, it does not matter. Nothing is pertinent here but exact measurement. The world of work is built on our common agreement on time and space. And standard time is very recent in our history. Not long ago every town had its own time. The railroad changed this and now standard time dominates us so completely we do not think about it.

Schutz was Jewish and hailed from Austria and then Germany.  A fundamental anxiety underlies the reality of daily life. It derives from the knowledge that we all must die. Subliminally we are aware of the fragility of things. Nothing will last. People will abandon us and we ourselves are mortal. As a child Professor Bellah himself was taught the children’s prayer:

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

In the same fragility of life, children still die even now. Thus this anxiety plays into our working and striving. So that a big hole will not open in front of us, we always have to work very hard to keep things going. This characterizes the epoché.  Such doubt needs to be bracketed out. We do not raise that question. Children are more into the here and now because they are less into working. And they perceive the world differently. In taking a trip from his town into Basel, his child stepped out of the car and exclaimed:

“Look! The sun came with us!”

[Question: If mentally challenged people have delusions, and if we argue that the reality of daily life is just another delusion, then how can it be shared? Dreams and delusions are individual.][3] Prof. Bellah’s response: The world of daily life is a socially constructed world, a collective representation, in Durkheim’s words. Realities are different in different subcultures. Thus what is being described here is not a psychology, but we are concerned with shared beliefs and these can be true or untrue. Think of the tulip mania in Holland. This was a common delusion.

Our selfhood is not a given. Selfhood in Bali is very different from our definition of it.

Occasionally daily life has intrusions which do not fit the rules. But this is experienced as strange. Bob Dillon’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” comes to mind:

“Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

When this happens something lifts the brackets of the epoché.

Thus the reality of the daily world is not the only reality any of us live in. No one can stand to live in it all the time. Some can’t stand to live in it at all. We leave it when we sleep. And here dreams are necessary as sleep. The structure of dreams is almost antithetical to the reality of the daily world and its space and time. To escape we also day-dream. At home we switch on the TV. One study speaks of the happiness quotient involved, and finds that TV leaves its viewers mildly depressed. But it gets us out of the reality of daily life with its anxieties and concerns. But TV can produce its own anxiety. But that is not real but play-anxiety.

Games represent another multiple reality. They are not played in the world of daily life, but in an artificial world as a parody of daily life. The latter is simplified to having one clear goal, that of winning. Games have a means-ends structure. Our lives do not. Games violate standard time and standard space. In a football game one hour is really more like three hours. Clock time is not equal to game time. In football the space is arbitrarily limited to end at a line. Thus the limiting of space gives it intensity. If we care too much about who wins or loses, then games do not do much for our psychic states.

Travel also helps get away from daily life.

Church services put us into a different reality.

Science operates in an alternate reality. It does not wish to discover useful answers, but merely how the world is. Practical and pragmatic concerns are in all the sciences, but they do not predominate. Science cannot accept the brackets of the daily world, of the epoché, because it looks beneath the surface. What is really going on is not what seems to be going on. The earth goes around the sun, according to science. But can anyone in this room demonstrate that this is really so? We still take it on faith. Even science cannot doubt everything at once. On the other hand, systematic doubt cannot characterize the daily world. It would drive you nuts. Science however uses systematic doubt.

Art responds with more immediacy to realities. If we were to open ourselves to great works of art enough, they might say to us: “Change your lives!” Such masterpieces pull us into themselves so deeply that they lift the brackets and place us into question.

We tend to think daily reality is really real and all others are not quite real. Even our dreams. Even the university is not quite the real world. But the insulation of the university makes it more real rather than less real. Our culture, however, denies these alternate realities, while other cultures have considered other realities much more real. Especially religious reality has been considered that way. From the world of daily reality, they will all wake up, because daily life is a dream. It is an illusion that one is a ruler another a herdsman. The Buddha exclaimed that the world is a burning house – get out of it. Daily life is an illusion and those who put their trust in this world are lost and deluded. Such a religious reality is a direct frontal assault on the reality of daily life and a variation of outcomes results. In tribal religion the reality experienced in the great ceremonials is really real in comparison with hunting and gathering and digging in the fields. There is a contest for what is really real among alternate realities. In our culture, daily life makes religious reality go under. If it is asked whether religious reality is merely an escape from daily reality, then one needs to take account of the fact that the realities of daily life for different cultures are also different. Cultural variability demonstrates that reality also has some variability.

[1]Alfred Schutz, The Problem of Social Reality, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962).

[2](This note is added by Peter Krey.) A good portion of our national debt (18%?) will be redistributed to the rich giving them massive new wealth. If we owed the national debt to ourselves, repayment would not be a redistribution-of-wealth problem. But when Reagan made huge tax cuts in the 1980’s, while increasing military spending, the tax cut amounts needed to be borrowed from the financial community and the people of wealth here and abroad, to whom our government is now beholden (yes) for over 15% of tax income for debt service. I write these figures from memory from the New Grollier Encyclopedia, but I believe they are pretty accurate. P. Krey.

[3]These words are the approximate sense of the question that I myself asked Prof. Bellah.

Parallel to the theorizing of Alfred Schutz on daily reality we have the thinking of Abraham Maslow concerning Deficiency cognition and Being cognition.[1] In the latter what he describes as peak experiences come close to what tribal people experienced as “the felt whole”. (See the chart.) Maslow would argue that D – experience characterizes the anxiety of daily life. It is a mode of relating to the world in a partial reality, a deficiency reality. One is not concerned with how things are, but how to use them. One is concerned with manipulation, even of people. Things and people are used to get ahead. In deficiency reality the full immediacy of being in the presence of anything is absent or severely limited. In contrast to this, Maslow speaks of B-cognition in which participation is predominant, that is, “being with” – and being with is its own end. This is the classical ideal type which predominates in B-cognition. Not how to use, but to be open to totality has primacy.

D-cognition has a complete split between subjects and objects. I am clarifying that I am me and not you. I am an independent person relative to anyone. Thus parents cannot nor can you tell me what to do. This goes into our very self definition.

In B-cognition the subject/object split is for the moment abandoned. If I am really with you this moment, the distinction between you and me is not gone, but not salient. In D-cognition there is a great sense of difference from the Other. I am me! Such an emphasis makes a big deal about the Other. But for Being cognition there is no other.

Another distinction between B and D cognition is that in the latter one looks at things as means, because one always looks ahead. But in the former, the means is its own end. We are a very means oriented culture and hence we are very manipulated, while also being keyed into standard time and space. B-cognition is a-spatial and atemporal. Eternity is not endless existence in time but out of time. Something going on forever and ever is not heaven, but the worst nightmare. First Maslow did not have the question of religion in mind at all. B-cognition can occur in all kinds of places. He called them peak experiences, and occurring in athletic feats they can rival contemplative graces. Joe Montana reports entering a “zone.” He reports no longer hearing the crowd – all become one. The difference between player and game, dance and dancer disappears. The minute you worry what will happen next it is gone and you are out of the zone. This is an experience of the felt whole. The feeling proceeds through participation.

Is this experience in sports the same as a religious one? Richardson speaks about feeling a finite whole, while in religion one feels an infinite whole. But is there really a distinction? A finite whole is like the immensity of the ocean, or the presence of another. Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan of the eighteenth century spoke of an infinite whole. -There came into my soul and was as it were, diffused through it, a sense of divine being. How excellent that Being was. And wrapped with him in heaven. And he wanted that excellence to remain his whole life. He continued about feeling the general rightness of all things, and perfect being.

In life dominated by deficiency cognition things are not that great. The consideration is how to respond to the next challenge. This is the expressive experiential point of view (See p. 1 above) with cultural definition.

Another peak experience comes from P. Havel, the current president of Check Republic, who had it when he was in prison. It is recorded in his Letters from Prison.

On a hot cloudless day Havel gazed into the crown of a gorgeous tree that stretched over the fences alongside the watchtowers of his prison. Its branches quivered in the fragile sky. And he went into a vision – all his memories became co-present with an acceptance of the inevitable sovereignty of being. (That is merely the gist of a much longer description of his vision.) Being is one of the definitions of God. Havel felt he was trembling at the abyss of meaning, standing at the edge of the finite. I was struck by the love, he said, I don’t know from whom or from what. He described participation, rightness of things, personal well being.

These experiences are often expressed aesthetically in music or poetry. Wallace Stevens brings in an awakening: Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake, to watch a definition become certain. A cock crows on the left and all is well. Not the balances we achieve, but the balances that happen, moments of awakening, sit at the edge of sleep. Behold the academics as structures in the mist. (These notes should identify his poem so that it could be more accurately transcribed.)

Is there a method to achieve enlightenment?

Sit in order to be enlightened and you will not be. It cannot be manipulated. The sense of enlightenment comes or doesn’t come by itself. You cannot force it. These are trance states. Sometimes dances or bodily movements induce trance states. People in sports don=t seek them, it suddenly comes to them. Quiet meditation and prayer are the background for it often. Taking the Eucharist can be shattering, an incredible experience – when you know you are the body of Christ. Certain things set it up and make it more likely. Samsara is the world of suffering. Even in the world of deficiency something can break.

Can it be achieved through morality?

Morality has a prohibitive and punitive aspect, but also a positive aspect, an attraction to the good component. The former is quintessential to the problem. But for Plato beauty equaled the good. Morality is constraint but also attraction to good. Morality has a special relation to Being cognition.

In B-cognition realities come together. Objects can have different realities. Havel saw the world tree. But it could be just another tree. An object can have another meaning from the one it has in the world of working. Communion bread and wine, for example. A symbol has an ordinary meaning in one realm and can have another meaning in another realm. In the world of daily life we are constantly surrounded by symbols or potential symbols: a tree, a room, a teacher, can mean a lot of other things. Part of us thinks about it in our consciousness. We can train ourselves to become sensitive, but it is of itself. It cannot be manipulated.

Maslow himself had a B-cognition as the Dean of Brandeis University. (Brandeis is located in a suburb of Boston.) A procession was going to take place, and he was expected to attend in full regalia. He had always avoided these processions as silly rituals. We often say, AThat is just a ritual.@ But without rituals we would not be human. He was the dean, so he could not very well avoid the exercise. As the procession began to move, he suddenly saw it stretch out before him. He saw Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Freud and others before him, all in their place until he himself took his place. Behind him were all his students, and his students’ students yet unborn. He experienced an apprehension of the academic procession of academic learning extending backward through time and space, seeing the real basis of the university. If we no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, then it is gone. There is no wholesale knowledge outlet for the consumer society, no ideology factory, but a community devoted to the search for meaning, and if only for a job, all is lost.

Kenneth Burke makes >beyond= into a verb, and speaks of ‘beyonding’.  It is symbolic transcendence. There is something deeper, something truer. One can be trapped in the world of dreadful immanence, totally captivated in the deficiency world with no way out. Like Weber one can be trapped in the iron cage. Sole response can be determined by desire and need. Thus one needs beyonding. One needs to break the dreadful fatalities of this world of realities. To hold everyday reality as the paramount reality is a dangerous assumption. It is just a necessary one for a time. But those locked into this time fail to overcome the deficiencies, and thus ceremonies are necessary, practices whose goods are internal to them. They are not means to an end. It is not what we achieve, but what happens. Meals, sports, concerts, the Sabbath, day of rest, rituals, Time, in part, out of time, with the anxieties of life temporarily allayed. A break seems to be essential.

[1]Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1968).


January 30th. I missed this lecture.

February 1, 1996

The point when religious structures were distinguished from social ones is important. Formerly religion was a whole way of life. It is in a late development that religion becomes a restricted sphere.

Bodily actions are central to religion at every stage, as well as materiality in the sacraments. The notion that art, music, poetry is other than religious is quite recent.

Narrative mode of expression stands in contrast to logical or experimental demonstration, which has more prestige in our society. But here in the social sciences the latter are more ambiguous. For example, narrative is necessary at the center of history for it to be able to understand itself.

Myth stands in contrast to how it really is. The former has no concern for when or whether it happened. Saga, however, has rooting in historical experience.  In oral history the meaning of its accounts were shaped by the concerns of later historical elements. It is a huge project to try to isolate the historic elements in the Bible. But Judaism is a historic, not an archaic religion. The Bible does not contain myth, but saga, with mythical elements. The Bible is not tribal (i.e., primitive). They believe it happened.

Facis [from the Latin facio?] points to a fact, a made thing.

Facis points to fiction, a made thing.

But history is also a made thing.

History, at least in a book, also has a plot. Historians want to tell how it actually was, but that is hubris. History is narrative.

Q. (Moving up in the chart gets you into B-cognition.) [See post with Bellah’s first two lectures.]

Anecdote: Bellah was at the Princeton House of Studies and had an opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest mathematicians and physicists. They are not into the everyday realities of life. Their wives had to come to the door in order to get them and take them home. Music reached them the way normal human interaction could not. This also shows the interrelationship of math and music.

A question arose whether or not Genesis did not have to be considered a myth. What Mid-eastern myth starts off with God? For a very long time Genesis was considered history. The stories were not perceived as myth, and they were not meant to be myths. The stories were at odds with myths and intended as critique of myths. But they have mythical elements.

Q. If our faith and religion are restricted in our society, and every society is inescapably religious, then what is the real religion of our society?[1] Every society has a faith, has a religion, and it can be called humanistic rationalism (The Right is not crazy.) or civil religion. You can’t get rid of it even if you don’t like it. You can only reform it.

A Buddhist apprentice, Ishida Baigan, (Ishida is his family name), practiced meditation.  While nursing his mother, he opened the door, the doubt of his former life scattered, fish swam in the water, birds flew in the air, everything is natural and he rejoiced. He related his experience to his teacher who was not satisfied, because the I remains. There must be nature without the I. In other words the element of subjectivity must be overcome. Then he experienced the serenity of the great sea and the cloudless sky and their distinction disappeared.

It can be the cry of a sparrow, something radically unexpected that wakes you up. Get the self out of the experience. In his second experience, the objective reality is in the forefront, and in the first it was his subjective interpretation. He was a single individual to the point of his second experience.

What he experienced can also be a group experience. It was primarily originally collective, a collective effervescent experience, which is the experience of a different and deeper reality. When the general effervescence is increasing, the group is dominated and carried away by an external power, in which a person does not recognize himself. The Greek word is ec stasis, to stand outside oneself, i.e., to become a new being. A mask is put on the face, and all the companions feel transformed in some way. An environment of exceptionally intense force metamorphosizes them. The language they use is close to that of being born again. The force takes people out of themselves and reveals to them another reality. Not the world that drags along is here, but the sacred power of reality itself. These are unitive events – like experienced in Pentecostalism. The I is gone, who is experiencing is gone; there is no subjectivity nor objectivity but Reality.

There is of course a “hard-wiring” potential for shifts of consciousness. But there is no cheap grace. Drunkenness or drugs will not do. You cannot get it out of a bottle. Because there is no religious atmosphere, you do not get into the B-consciousness.

Jean Piaget[2]

Children first see objects as extensions of their bodies. Early experiences are lived rather than thought, or thinking is living at that stage. But gradually, Piaget notes, for the child to hold in the mind without holding in the hand is an achievement. This is the grasp. (J. Brunner) Representation can be put to the guidance of action itself. Even after action-free imagery has developed, the child needs to do what it is talking about. This is enactive representation. We can give a verbal instruction of how to tie a knot. But it is not learned until it becomes a body motor, sensory-motor habit. It becomes an embodied recipe for certain kinds of actions. Only in this sense can we speak of representations.

The seeing becomes important, but centered on the face relating to holding, feeding, warming and comforting. Seeing is embedded in global human relation.

Religion is always in part bodily. But this brings one problem: we can get sick because of our bodies. Religion has an important role here. Sabaton is rooted in bodily health.[3]

Birth and death are almost always central for religious systems. There is the importance of the rhythm of bodily motion. Concerted physical movements can induce B-cognition. Things can be thought out or danced out. Dancing can be a highly complex and highly intelligent form of activity. But it is embodied. Meditation is an extremely refined use of the body. (Note that the word “use” is very problematic here.) But it is sitting. The pain in the knees kill you. That painful sensation gets better, long devotees report, but it never completely goes away. Breathing is an important form of religious action.

W. B. Yeats wrote an example of enactive representation about six days before his death in 1950?

I know for certain my time will not be long.

I am happy and full of energy.

Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.

I must embody it in the completion of my life.

Our culture makes knowing anti-physical. If I can’t embody it, if I know it just mentally, it is not there. Christianity rests its truth on the Incarnation, on the embodied truth.

A question was asked concerning the enactive mode of representation. We cannot do without the world of working. A degree of means-ends thinking is pretty essential to avoid catastrophe. If we remain in the unitive state then we are always looking up, and then we fall into a hole.

Here we are making an analogy between the development from childhood to adulthood and the evolution from primitive social fusion to a higher differentiation as society.

To think with a pencil in hand is one thing.

To think without a pencil in hand is an achievement.

To think with a pencil in hand is another achievement again.

A symbol means all kinds of things.  Rockets all over the map.

Some mean the conceptual by it. But Piaget means things rooted in something separate from the body. Piaget speaks of being with a child beside a cathedral in which the bells began ringing with a deafening noise. In his office, the child makes a lot of noise next to his desk. “You are bothering me.” He says to the child.

“You can’t bother me. I am the church.” Piaget noticed that the child was enacting the bell from the church.

When the child starts becoming loose from the enactive stage the game Peek-a-boo becomes its favorite. The deep structure of Peek-a-boo is controlled disappearance and reappearance of a face or object. Children are fascinated with the game. It is preverbal. When played by the mother or with a familiar face the child responds with laughter. But with a stranger it collapses into tears. The game plays with its deepest fears, those of being left. It brings the child to the edge of terror. But it has a ritual delight. There is the loss of the care giver, or loss of object and return. It is a rousing of anxiety and allaying it, also not unknown to religion.

Paul Ricoeur holds that religious symbolism is the central point of religious representation. Subjectivity and objectivity are not radically separate. Both are going on in the representation of a child and in religion. There is regression and progression, double regression and return to discovery. We have the surveyor, staff, and guide, cosmos and psyche, and the great hierophanies. There are great symbols that reveal the sacred: light, water, sun, iconic symbols. The little girl as the church. Images are full of muscles and they do not only affect the brain, but induce enactment.

When a child is first given a crayon it first begins with a random scribble, which is an enactive symbol. It has pleasure in the movement. The hand, line, crayon are all fused. The child is not making a picture, above all not about something. The child is the picture. The paintings of Jackson Pollack are of an adult who is two years old.

Then the child discovers shape, which is more than just an extension of the body. Then at three to four years of age it can draw more clearly bounded shapes like circles and squares. Adults with a strong difference between themselves and the world want the picture to be about something. There is a bounded form in the emerging self.

Mandela, rose window

With a central cross

There is a sense of order in both the self and the world. A drawing can be of a sun or a flower.

Then at four or five children are capable of drawing people identifiably. Then the drawing gets a face – and it is me – or the sun? a flower?  Me?

There are resonances

between the self and the world.

Rhoda Kellog and Scott O’ Dell in the Psychology of Children show that if a child is pushed to representation then it collapses, and then it becomes tedious and bored with the exercises.

Music. If images are full of muscles, then rhythms are characterized by bodily life. Music reaches right into the body. Although the mathematicians and physicists at Princeton were so disembodied, the music could reach them. At a concert the audience should not sit there like a stone. They were playing Vivaldi and Bach and all the musicians were moving, and the audience should too. Otto Klemper, who sat beside Bellah, could not keep still. Music is embodied. It comes out of enactment and goes back into it. Singing is enactment. It is body. To many worshipers, singing is the most important thing in the service.

In many pre-modern conditions music was a more central phenomenon in terms of how cosmic and personal reality came together. Pythagoras discovered that the scale had seven notes, and the planets moved in a musical progression. He heard the music of the spheres, which was an expression of the order of the cosmos. Singing is not just a form of self expression, but one is bringing oneself into harmony with the sounds and rhythms of the cosmos. Confucius takes music to relate to the inner rhythm of Tao and the state of the moral consciousness of people. He visited a number of small states in China. If he heard licentious music there, he said: This state cannot last long.

[1]This is another of my questions.

[2]Bellah is most likely referring to J. Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, or Judgement and Reasoning in the Child. A child’s conception of the world provides a recapitulation for the unitive event in religion developing into the mature conceptual stage of adults as well as religions.

[3] Note: Is Sabaton a Swedish sauna? It names a band. It can also be medieval foot and toe armor. I missed the reference and connection here.


February 6, 1996

Rhoda Kellog and Scott O’ Dell, Psychology of Children.

Music has the power to reach into the body.

We have Verbal symbolization

Poetic symbolization

Narrative symbolization

and Conceptual language.

We take the latter for granted, especially in the university, where we are saturated with it all the time.

Linguistic symbolization.  The relation of a sign and the object to which it points is [said to be] arbitrary. E.g., ‘dog’ and ‘chien’. We turn to the cognitive development of a child to shed light on the fact that the word and object to which it refers is not arbitrary. Piaget is questioning a child: They are discussing a picture of the sun.

“How did we know its name was ‘sun'”?

“Because it was yellow.”

He questioned it over and over again and never could disconnect the sign from the object. They just said it was the sun. There was no understanding that the ‘sun’ is an arbitrary name. For the children the name is an essential part of the thing. The name of the sun entails it. For children the sun is not a concept but for them, the object itself.[1]

Wallace Stevens calls the poem “the cry of the occasion.” It is part of the thing itself, not about it. Conceptual language is always about something. Thus the poem collapses. What is essential is lost. Archibald MacLeish writes:

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit.


As old medallions on the thumb….

Motionless in time,

As the moon climbs….

A poem should not mean

But be.

“A poem should not mean but be.” We should not ask, what does it mean? It is being at a different level of our consciousness. We have to be part of it. The quality of our participation gives poetry its particular force.

Performative language is not about something, but does something off in a ritual context. “I do” spoken in a marriage ceremony speaks the vows that make the action. Poetry is power. A metaphor can change the world. Unless we see speech acts and not descriptions, we won’t understand the force of the great sonnets of Shakespeare: sense and sensibility. Images and sounds reach into the body. This is accomplished by heightened language, condensed language does that too.

An example for what language can do: An urban pastor was called into the home of a dying mother by her daughter. The daughter explains that she does not know why she called the pastor. A friend had notified the pastor, because they had been estranged from the church a long while. She asked him to pray, but right there.

“Why not in your mother’s room?” the pastor asked.

“Because she has been in a coma a long time, and she would not hear you.”

The pastor insisted that the prayer should be said in the room where the mother lay dying. When the pastor began the Lord’s Prayer, the deeply familiar words reached into her body and pulled her back, because she started to pray the words with them. She remained conscious for a few days and could communicate with her daughter until she died.

Emile Durkheim speaks of a collective consciousness. These words had been said in unison 1,000 times together. 99% of the time speaking the Lord’s Prayer is routine. It is ‘ritual’ in a put-down sense. But 1% of the time, it does do it. Another mode of relating reached her.

Condensed language is the intimate language of a parent and a child, of lovers, words and expressions, unique, only in that relationship. In rocking a child, one says nonsense things, and some stick, become constitutive, trigger associations, touch the world of the shared experience, reach into the body.

In our rush to modernization, we have lost the art of memorization. Before its significance was understood. Foucalt said that it inscribed words on the body forever. Therefore we had a shared culture. Most of the culture any of us has is deeply rooted in the body, the way traditional cultures would have been.

Benedict Anderson speaks of reciting words together operating in forming national identity. They are banal words and times, but a commonality develops. That the words are spoken in unison is important, making the sounds together. This is an echoed physical realization of the imagined community.

In Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1913), Emil Durkheim described religious language as condensed, poetic, performative, and involving unisonality. Wallace Steven writes, “The heaven of Europe is empty, like a Schloss abandoned….” He writes about what did it: “Rust on the steeples. These stretched mother of pearl.” But then Stevens goes on to give it back: “There was a heaven once far beyond thoughts of regulation. The mind saw transparence. The doves of azure. Each man beheld the truth and knew it to be true.” This is something like a B-cognition by Wallace Stevens. God and imagination are one. Rhythm and poetry and heart beat.

Q. Is the religious performative the same thing that John Searle is speaking about? A. Yes. It is doing something with words.

2) Narrative is transitional. It falls between the symbolic poetic and the conceptual. Its language is loaded, but is still somewhat conceptual. There are literal descriptions of what was done. Forms of narratives are often governed by symbolic modes of representation as opposed to literal conceptual concerns. Mythical discourse takes place at the total level not that of the word, sentence, or story. An important question: Is plot in the world or is plot something we see in the world. The truth in narrative does not arise from the correspondence of its words to facts. But story is true at a much deeper level than the literal one. A poem translated into the conceptual has loss. A story also has loss when expressed in conceptual language.

Myth, like music, appears to be in time, but is actually outside time. It requires time to unfold, but it has a special relation with time. It requires time only to deny it. It catches and unfolds like a cloth flapping in the wind. (Claude Levy-Strauss has much to say about music and myth.) The temporal element is not the key. It enters e-ternity. Out-of-time. It deals with permanent truth, which is atemporal and permanent in time. In an adventure movie you gasp and cringe because you lose the distinction between yourself and the movie. You get into it. Narrative, in the same way, obliterates the distinction between you and what is going on – between the inner and outer, between the self and world. In such a way narrative operates differently from conceptual analysis.

In Masterpiece Theater: Final Act makes one identify with a monster, Richard III. He is unspeakably awful. Great plays make you identify, e.g., with Macbeth or Othello. We say “Don’t get upset. It is only a story.”   Would we say, “Don’t get upset. It is only a ritual”? It upsets us because it gets us at a level of truth that is there. We feed on narratives. Narratives keep us going. In a study it was found that narratives occurred every seven minutes between mothers and children. We tell stories to others and to ourselves.  Brunner holds that there is a constitutive function of narrative. We are looking for a plot, a story, so that our self and the world make sense. The self can be depicted as a story teller, which comes close to what it means to be a self. Telling a story to the self encloses one story in another. In this view the self is a telling. The story one tells about oneself to oneself is the self.[2]

There are screen memories, fiction and fact. Truth is not historical but narrative truth. And new narrative is necessary. Psychoanalysis can be presented as re-describing one’s life so that there is more life and possibilities in it than some of the tellings we tell ourselves.

In universities, Departments of Sociology have stories to tell. Scientific accuracy is not the point. Point for point accuracy is not the point. Johann Baptiste Metz said do not obscure intentional dangerous memory. For the nation state, [it is necessary] to tell a story to its people about that people to create that nation. The deepest disputes in history are not about facts, but about the story. What is the right way to tell the story? That is the issue. There is a strange mixture of forgetting and remembering. We have to be very careful about both. But you cannot tell anything you like. Who is to control our freedom? Kenneth Burke states that significant narrative has to deal with those things which we cannot forget. TROUBLE. Things that are just there. For example, Buddha’s birthplace is in Nepal, but India tells it is in Northern India. Someone dead, someone sick, someone old – off Buddha goes. Who has life without trouble? Who has a self without trouble? W.E.H. Stannen an Australian anthropologist speaks of the “immemorial misdirection of life.” Things go wrong right where you don’t want them to. Jesus’ disciples are horrified by the crucifixion. But the cross is the symbol that takes time and trouble into the heart of daily life. Thus the disciples are not to deny the crucifixion, but place it right into the heart of daily life and 1,000 times 1,000 times. It is enacted every moment. Every day is Good Friday.

Benedict Anderson says that national histories are involved in remembering our dead, who must be remembered so that they will not have died in vain.

Narratives have moments where we breakthrough trouble, but can’t stay there. It is just like we can’t stay in daily life all the time. Is this all just an illusion, just an opium for the people? Marx also saw religion as a cry from the heart of a heartless world. If religion kids us out of facing trouble, then it is no help. It needs to be taken up case by case. But most religions are not about that. To dismiss religion is a massive form of denial, which really shows an inadequate study of the subject.

In the transition to conceptual language, Brunner notes that logical propositions are most easily understood when they are embedded in a story. In the broadest sense poetry is also rational and there are categories in narrative too. Conceptual representation is not equal to rationality. Stories are organized by concepts. Religion is involved with the worst as well as the best things done to people. This is the empirical study of religion.

K. Burke notes the powerful story of Genesis chapters 1-3. Rephrased in logical entailment, these chapters concern the freedom to choose, which leads to the logical consequence of disobedience. “Do not do that!” a child is told. “No.” In the logic of the situation, given free will, Q.E.D., they eat the apple. The story is not antithetical to logic. One can tease the logic out of it.

At some point Piaget’s European children at age 7 or 8 begin to achieve the capacity to distinguish themselves from what it is we are describing or arguing about. “The sun did not come with me. I moved. The sun is not a part of me or is only in relation to me.” We learn to ‘decenter’ , which is a classic term coined by Piaget. Much goes on independently of us. We come to the end of our ego-centric period. The child learns to distinguish different points of view. George Herbert Meade speaks of the capacity to take the place of another. One can play baseball, a game in which one has to know all the player positions to be able to play. It is the self against the world, and baseball is a very complex game. The decentered world of late childhood approximates the world of daily life. Because the child does not fully dominate daily life, it is not so conceptual. It has not differentiated itself fully. But reverting back, in a special moment at the end of its first year, the child may take the spoon and feed its mother. That is a sign for not just give-me, but also, I-give-you. Of course, we never quite entirely reach the moment when we don’t think the world hinges on us, but we try.

When we conceptualize, we bracket ourselves and try to see the world as it is, as much as possible. The Greek philosophers had two concepts: 1)epistome and 2)doxa, i.e., 1) knowing, demonstratively, and 2) being of the opinion, which is always arguable. The first deals with objective argument which can be tested. What it tests is always saturated with opinion, doxa. Rhetoric persuades, but it cannot demonstrate. The epistemic can demonstrate, but it cannot persuade. And the world cannot run on epistemes alone.

When the world was de-contextualized and de-centered, a conceptual critique of myth enters, and in the 17th century, conceptual conscious representation arises. But in revolutionary triumph, one throws out from the past what cannot be thrown out. In the words of Yeats: “One cannot know the truth. One can only embody it.” Thomas Hobbes would say that there is no truth in speech, no truth in things spoken of. Only a proposition is true. In a text, the metaphorical is deception. The whole absurdity of metaphor needs to be thrown out. There is no such thing as a common good.” That is language gone crazy. Descartes comes in here. Rosenstock Husey yearning for a clean slate, which could be attained at twenty, exclaimed, “Would to God we had all been born at the age of twenty!” Hobbes and Descartes led to the Enlightenment and modern science. They went too far. This brought about the dark side of modernity, because they denied too much, rather than dealing with it. We cannot really live in the light of conceptual consciousness.

[1]Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, (Totowa. New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, & Company, 1976), p.69 and 86.

[2]A thought of my own that I attach to this lecture: In this version of the self the speech act and the self could be related if it were not a mere sentence as the basic unit, but a literal form, like a poem or story, or drama, or novel, etc, perhaps as unit. It may turn out that a higher level of such a complex speech act could be a person.


Written by peterkrey

August 19, 2010 at 12:21 am

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