Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Understanding Symbolic Value: A Taxonomy

13th November 2015 is a date that will live in infamy. It was, of course, the day of the Paris terrorist attacks in which 130 people lost their lives. It was the deadliest attack in France since WWII, and the deadliest in Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. One interesting feature of the attacks was the response they engendered on various social media outlets. In the aftermath many people took to sites like Twitter and Facebook to proudly display images of the Eiffel Tower (mocked up as a peace symbol) and the Tricolour on their profiles. Indeed, Facebook explicitly offered people the option of adding a Tricolour-overlay to their profile pictures as a mark of solidarity with the people of France.

These gestures were not without controversy. While most accepted that they were well-meaning, some lamented the fact that equivalent gestures were not made in response to similar attacks that occurred just prior to the Paris attacks in Beirut. Whatever the merits of that particular argument, the whole debate itself is testimony to the power of symbols in human life. It seems clear that symbols like the Tricolour are taken to have value, and that the use of those symbols in certain contexts has additional value (if viewed as a symbol of solidarity) and, indeed, disvalue (if viewed as a symbol of exclusion or a lack of solidarity with non-Western peoples).

Why is it that symbols take on such value-laden connotations? And what is the precise nature of symbolic value? These are questions that Andrew Sneddon tries to address in his article ’Symbolic Value’, which I recently stumbled across in the Journal of Value Inquiry. The article is an exercise in expository clarification. It is synoptic and abstract in nature. It does not concern itself with particular debates about the moral value of symbols but, rather, with the preliminary question of why it is that symbols feature so prominently in such debates.

I liked the article a lot. It helped me to clarify my own thinking about symbolic value. Consequently, I want to share some of the key insights here, starting with Sneddon’s general characterisation of symbols and his delineation of two distinct types of symbolic value.

1. What is a symbol anyway?
Sneddon adopts C.S. Peirce’s characterisation of symbols. According to this characterisation, symbols have three main components: (i) the symbol itself, i.e. some object, practice, word (etc.) that stands for or represents something else; (ii) an interpreter who determines what it stands for; and (iii) a ground of representation, i.e. something that justifies some particular interpretation.

An example will help. There is a painting on the wall in front of me. This painting is a symbol. In addition to its aesthetic merits, it represents or stands for something else. In this case, the painting is a representation of the city of Galway (where I currently live). It was purchased by someone with whom I am particularly close so it could also be said to represent their love and affection for me. I am the interpreter: I am the one that imbues the painting with this representational meaning. There are grounds for my particular interpretations. One of these grounds is the resemblance between the painting and the actual city of Galway. The painting depicts buildings and geographical landmarks that are distinctive of the city. Another ground is causal history, i.e. the fact that it was purchased by a particular person at a particular time. This causal history is arguably what makes it a symbol of love and affection. The grounds of interpretation are interesting as they can come in several different forms. Sneddon mentions resemblance, convention, stipulation and causal connection in the article as prominent grounds for interpretation.

There are three points that are worth emphasising about symbols before we address the values that attach to them. First, symbols can be communicative but they need not be. Communication involves someone (or some group of people) trying to communicate with another person (or group of people) via a symbol of some sort. In communicative contexts, the attitudes and intentions of the communicator are often a relevant factor in the interpretation of the symbol. But symbols do not always have communicators. All you need for a symbolic practice is an interpreter with some ground of interpretation. This is important because it means that objects or practices could be taken to have symbolic value, even if no one creates them for a symbolic purpose. The second point is that symbols can be (but need not always be) polysemous. That is to say, the same symbol can legitimately be taken to represent several different things. This also has ethical significance because it affects how strong claims to symbolic value are in specific contexts.

The final point is that symbols are hugely important in human society. This is obvious. Some anthropologists and historians have even referred to us as the symbolic species. Harari’s recent and popular overview of human history, Sapiens, provides an interesting twist on this view. It argues that symbolic representations play a decisive role in human history. For better or worse, human societies are marked by the fact that they create imaginative representations (religious origin myths, social hierarchies and prejudices, money, scientific theories) that are then overlayed onto the reality they experience. These imaginative representations blend with that reality, at least in our experiences of it. This is all mediated and maintained through symbols.

2. Two Types of Symbolic Value
That’s all by way of introduction. One of Sneddon’s primary contributions to the analysis of symbolic value is his attempt to delineate two main types of symbolic value, with the second type breaking down into two sub-types. They are:

Symbols as a mode of valuing: The symbol has value in virtue of that which it represents. So in order to understand the value of the symbol you must understand the value of that which it represents.
Symbols as a ground of value: The symbol has value in itself, apart from that which it represents. There are two ways in which this can happen:
Hybrid cases: The symbol has value in virtue of that which it represents, but this doesn’t explain all the value that attaches to the symbol (i.e. the symbol itself must ground some value)
Pure cases: The symbol alone has value, in and of itself, apart from that which it represents (though to be symbol it must be taken to represent something).

This taxonomy may make little sense without some concrete examples. So let’s go through a few.

We’ll start with symbols as a mode of valuing. This is probably the most common and intuitive case. Here, there is something in the world that we take to be valuable and we construct a symbol to represent and remind us of that value. In an earlier post, I discussed the famous example of symbolic rituals demonstrating respect for the dead from the work of Herodotus. The Greeks symbolised their respect for the dead by burning their bodies on a funeral pyre; the Callations symbolised their respect for the dead by eating the bodies. Both found the others’ rituals bizarre, but both agreed on the underlying value: that the dead deserved respect. They merely represented that value in different ways. The symbol had value in virtue of what it represented.

In his paper, Sneddon uses a different example. He considers the various statues around Canada that commemorate the victories of the women’s suffrage movement. Here, it is that victories that are deemed important and valuable. The statues have value in virtue of the fact that they represent and mark those victories. If someone defaced the statues, it would usually be taken as a lack of respect for those victories (unless we had some evidence to suggest the attack was motivated by some other factor, e.g. hatred for the artist). So, again, it is that which is being represented that confers value on the symbol.

This is to be contrasted with cases in which the symbol itself is a ground of value. Sneddon notes that there are relatively few ‘pure’ cases of this type. The far more common type is the hybrid case. Such cases often follow a pattern: the symbol starts off by having value in virtue of that which it represents, but over time, due to complex historical and social factors, the symbol itself starts to have some independent value. Sneddon provides one good example of this. Indeed, it is so good that I need to preface my discussion of it with a warning. In the next paragraph I am going to mention (not use) a word for black people that is deemed so incendiary that one usually has to refer to it by using a harmless euphemism. However, I am going to drop that typical convention because it illustrates the point that Sneddon is trying to make.

The word, of course, is ‘nigger’. The word is a symbol, as are all words: it is used to refer to black people (particularly, though not exclusively, black people in the USA). It has tremendous disvalue. Part of this is because the word is, for historical and cultural reasons, a highly derogatory and dehumanising way of referring to black people. But this history does not explain all of the disvalue that attaches to the word. The word itself now has its own disvalue. This is clear from the fact that people cannot even mention the word without provoking a negative reaction. Instead, they have to mention the word indirectly by using the euphemism ’N-word’.

This suggests an interesting test for whether a symbol grounds value. The test relies on the philosopher’s use/mention distinction. When one uses a word one tries to get the listener to look past the word itself to that which it represents. Consider a sentence like ‘there is an apple on the tree’. In that sentence, I use the word ‘apple’ to describe something on a tree. I try to get the listener to see past the word to the object in the real world. Contrast that with a sentence like ‘the word ‘apple’ has five letters’. In that sentence, I mention the word ‘apple’ and try to draw the reader’s attention to the word itself, irrespective of that which it represents. One’s reaction to the use and mention of symbols can say a lot about the value that attaches to them. If the symbol is merely a mode of valuing, then we would expect uses of the symbol to be the way in which to provoke a value-laden reaction. But if the symbol itself grounds value, then we would expect mentions of the symbol to provoke such reactions too. This is clearly what happens in the case of a word like ‘nigger’. So let’s formalise this into a test:

The Use/Mention Test: One way of testing to see whether a symbol itself grounds value is to see whether mentions (as opposed to uses) of the symbol provoke a value-laden reaction. If they do, then it could indicate that the symbol has value independent of that which it represents.

Sneddon does discuss this idea in his article, but doesn’t formulate it into a test as I have done. This might be because the use/mention test works well in the case of words, but not so well in the case of other symbols. I’m not sure about that though. I think it could work in other contexts. Consider visual images. The Danish cartoons controversy suggests that at least some (I know this is disputed to an extent) visual representations of the prophet Muhammad are highly offensive. This is presumably because of the value that attaches to that which is being represented. But some of the media reaction to that event suggested that symbol itself may ground disvalue. Media outlets refused to even show the cartoons as part of their news coverage about the controversy. In other words, they refused not only to use the symbols but to mention them as well. This might be indicative of disvalue attaching directly to the symbol. That said, there is a good competing explanation of the media reaction: they were afraid to ‘mention’ the cartoons for fear of reprisal.

Thus far, I have been talking about hybrid cases in which the symbol has value in virtue of that which it represents but that doesn’t account for all the value. Are there any ‘pure’ cases, i.e. cases in which all the value is grounded in the symbol? Sneddon admits that examples of this sort are relatively harder to come across but does suggest one: Serrano’s Piss Christ. This was a photograph created by Andres Serrano which depicted a crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine. The work courted considerable controversy, largely because of its symbolism. Now, it is possible that much of the (dis)value in this case is attributable to what is being represented. But Sneddon suggests that someone could object to the work on purely symbolic grounds. In other words, they might think that the work harms no real person, nor violates their rights, nor undermines their virtues, but nevertheless is morally problematic. I imagine that the hypothetical objector here is a purely secular one, who does not accept the Christian story in any way, but is worried about the meaning of the symbol itself. I’m not sure if this is a perfect example of a purely symbolic ground of value, but it may gesture in the general direction of one.

Anyway, that’s all for this particular post. The goal has been to consider different forms of symbolic value. Nothing in this post should be construed as making a claim about the general importance of symbolic value in human life. I’ll do a follow up post looking at that issue.

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