Metaphysical Narration, Science, and Symbolic Form

By Verene, Donald Phillip | The Review of Metaphysics, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Metaphysical Narration, Science, and Symbolic Form


Verene, Donald Phillip, The Review of Metaphysics


This essay addresses two questions: (1) Is the search for scientific truth a self-sufficient activity? or (2) Does scientific right reasoning depend upon a form of truth-telling that lies beyond the limits of scientific investigation? Put differently, is there a sense of metaphysics as a form of human culture that is the embodiment of this general sense of truth-telling?

The answers to these questions involve the relationship of science, philosophy, and metaphysics. As a means for answering them I wish first to examine Ernst Cassirer's conception of science as a symbolic form. Then I wish to join this conception with Giambattista Vico's conception of metaphysical narration. Cassirer understands science, like culture, as arising from the distinctively human power to form the world through symbols. Scientific truth depends upon a particular use of this power of symbolic formation that exists within that system of symbolic forms we call culture.

Vico understands the "civil world," or culture itself, to arise from a special sense of imagination (fantasia) that forms universals within its narrations. Within these narrations are stated the primordial truths of human culture upon which science is later to depend. My aim is to put Cassirer's conception of science together with Vico's conception of metaphysical narration. It is a long-standing point that scientific thinking involves metaphysical presuppositions. My interest is not in the interconnection of science and metaphysics as a traditional logical or epistemological question, but in their interconnections as cultural activities. I wish to approach this through Vico's original association of metaphysical knowledge with the basic human act of narrating a truth.

I

Science as Symbolic Form. Cassirer's notion of the symbol is a transformation of the Kantian notion of the "schema," that is, the notion of a "sensuous-intellectual form" that lies at the basis of knowledge. Kant reaches this notion of a schema through a process of making distinctions within his transcendental analysis of the elements of experience. Cassirer wishes to find this schema in experience as a phenomenon. He does so in his discovery of the symbol as the medium through which all knowledge and culture occur. Cassirer understands his philosophy as an idealism that he, in fact, traces back to the problem of form in Plato, but he insists that the object of which he speaks is truly "there." It is not a creation of the mind of the knower. This is a point on which he insisted in a lecture to the Warburg Institute in 1936, "Critical Idealism as a Philosophy of Culture," and later, to his students at Yale in the 1940s.(1) The notion of the perceptual object as something "there" being pregnant at the same time with something that is "not there" Cassirer connects to Leibniz's term praegnans futuri, as well as to the psychology of perception.

In his full phenomenology of knowledge (Erkenntnis), which Cassirer claims derives most directly from Hegel rather than Kant or Husserl, he distinguishes three basic functions of consciousness.(2) These might be thought of as basic ways in which sensory content is symbolically pregnant for the knowing consciousness. The expressive function or Ausdrucksfunktion does not separate knower and known. It forms the object mimetically. It is the object "felt" and portrayed as a benign or malignant force. Culturally this function is developed in the symbolic form of myth. The representational function or Darsteuungsfunktion enacts a separation of knower and known. It is typified by the analogical power to "liken" things into groups, to develop a referential relation between knower and known and attain a logic of classification of objects. Cassirer sees this as tied to the powers of language, of logos as separated from mythos. This is the power of language to organize the world as a system of discrete objects. The significative function or Bedeutungsfunktion is the power of the knower freely to construct symbol systems through which the known can be ordered and which themselves can become elements in wider systems of symbols. …

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