Re: intersubjectivity

Tim A. Connor (
Sun, 20 Apr 1997 22:59:37 -0700 (PDT)

On Sat, 19 Apr 1997, Gary F. Blanchard wrote:

> What does 'the capacity to symbolize' mean?
> What does one do, or is one witness to, when 'symbolizing' occurs?
> What IS a symbol?

I'll quote Geertz here, just because he says it better than I could: "[A
symbol is] any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a
vehicle for a conception--the conception is the symbol's 'meaning'.... The
number 6, written, imagined, laid out as a row of stones, or even punched
into the program tapes of a computer, is a symbol. But so also is the
Cross, talked about, visualized, shaped worriedly in the air or fondly
fingered at the neck, the expanse of painted canvas called 'Guernica' or
the bit of painted stone called a churinga, the word 'reality' or even the
morpheme '-ing.' They are all symbols, or at least symbolic elements,
because they are tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from
experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas,
attitudes, judgements, longings, or beliefs."

The capacity to symbolize is, therefore, the capacity to produce tangible
formulations of conceptions and to apprehend the conceptions embodied in
those tangible forms. It depends on specific parts of the brain that are
more developed in humans than other species; it seems that chimps and
gorillas can be taught to symbolize (to some extent), but that only humans
do it spontaneously (as far as we know to date).

It should be clear from the above that while some human behavior is always
symbolic (language most obviously), almost any human behavior or it's
product can be. I am symbolizing as I type these words; you are
symbolizing as you read them (I suppose one could distinguish between
expressive and receptive symbolizing). And it is by this exchange of
symbols that we come to better construe each other's symbolizing. It is a
recursive and multi-leveled process, and not one that is entirely
reducible to overt, observable behavior. We are, after all, talking about
meaning, which is constructed in the interpretation as much as in the

> What is it 'to construe'?
> What kind of process / action / event is this?
> What is its nature?

"By construing we mean 'placing an interpretation': a person places an
interpretation on what is construed. He erects a structure, within the
framework of which the substance takes shape or assumes meaning. The
substance which he construes does not produce the structure; the person
does....Construing is not to be confounded with verbal formulation. A
person's behavior may be based upon many interlocking
equivalence-difference patterns which are never communicated in symbolic
speech. Many of these preverbal or nonverbal governing constructs are
embraced in the realm of physiology....the overlapping functions
ofpsychological and physiological systems in this regard help to make it
clear that psychology and physiology ought not to try to draw preemptive
boundaries between themselves. We recognize that the psychological
notion of construing has a wide range of convenience, which is by no
means limited to those experiences which people can talk about or those
which they can think about privately" (Kelly).

An example: Imagine yourself sitting in a comfortable chair in a quiet
room, relaxed, maybe even a bit drowsy. I come up behind you and whistle
very loudly. The sharp contrast between silence and sudden noise triggers
neurons in your brain stem, and your reticular activating system sends
arousal signals throughout your brain, and also to your endocrine system.
Within a second you are wide awake, your heartbeat is accelerating, and
you are preparing for fight or flight--you have construed the sudden noise
as a potential threat (without any symbolic or even conscious processing).
As higher cortical functions are activated, you construe the noise as a
whistle and look around for the source. Seeing me, and knowing I'm not
dangerous, you reconstrue the whistle (at a higher level) as an annoying
prank, construe your own arousal as a false alarm, and feel it begin to
subside. You may then construe my behavior as an expression (a symbol) of
hostility toward you, and construe me as an inconsiderate jerk. You make
a sharp comment; I may then construe you as an oversensitive, humorless,
idiot and eliver a sarcastic retort; or I may construe your behavior as
the result of an adrenaline surge, construe my action as indeed
inconsiderate, and apologize for startling you. Which might lead you to
reconstrue me...And so on.

Are we making sense to each other yet?