… no list gives, no rule generates, a set of pairs (symbol, interpretation) such that each occurrence of a symbol finds in it its prefigured treatment.
This is from Rethinking Symbolism by Dan Sperber (1974):
Two criteria have, by turns, served to delimit the field of symbolism. According to the first criterion, the symbolic is the mental minus the rational; according to the second, it is the semiotic minus language. In one case as in the other, it is a residue.
… I am among the Dorze of southern Ethiopia and I am studying their symbolism. Someone explains to me how to cultivate fields. I listen with only half an ear. Someone tells me that if the head of the family does not himself sow the first seeds, the harvest will be bad. This I note immediately. [Sperber goes on to give several more examples of that kind.]
… I note then as symbolic all activity where the means put into play seem to me to be clearly disproportionate to the explicit or implicit end, whether this end be knowledge, communication or production — that is to say, all activity whose rationale escapes me. In short, the criterion I use in the field is in fact one of irrationality. I don’t know that other anthropologists proceed differently.
There are thus three possibilities: either the criterion of irrationality is worthless and thinking we are delimiting the field of symbolism we are only gathering the bric-à-brac of our ignorance; or else, as mystical minds would have it, the criterion of irrationality is the right one, and symbolism is not open to scientific investigation; or else the criterion of irrationality delimits symbolism — albeit approximately — without defining it, which will require explanation.
The second criterion — that symbolism is the semiotic minus language — seems to displace the first. Indeed, it is said, there is no irrational symbolism, there is only poorly interpreted symbolism.
… The word ‘meaning’ has so many meanings that it always fits in somehow. It is said indifferently that the word ‘moon’ means the moon, that ‘Hear, hear!’ means approval, that fever means illness, and that the election of the new president means nothing good. Meaning and reference, meaning and connotation, meaning and diagnosis, meaning and prognosis, are confused. But what may be confused harmlessly in ordinary speech should be carefully distinguished in philosophical or scientific exposition. Especially in the latter one should not introduce the notion of meaning without having sufficiently circumscribed it, having shown that it is relevant and that it leads to better work.
… The one single condition that would permit the consideration of symbolism as a code is not fulfilled: no list gives, no rule generates, a set of pairs (symbol, interpretation) such that each occurrence of a symbol finds in it its prefigured treatment. Here I run up not only against the postulate of many scholars, but even against the common sense that knows a transitive verb ‘to symbolise,’ and for which it is necessary that symbols symbolise something. Yes, but what?
… The semiologist, not at all discouraged, looks for what symbols symbolise, and since the answer is neither in the field of his intuition nor in that of his perception, it must be that it is hidden: either one hides it or it hides itself. Whence come the only two possible semiological views: cryptological symbolism or unconscious symbolism. [ Sperber will argue against both of these views.]
To be continued …