February 17th 2014
Collective Thought vs. Individual Thought: Discussing the Categories of Understanding
When discussing the use of symbols in both Durkheim and Strauss’ works, it is important for us to look at how both thinkers talk about the categories of understanding. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim believes the categories of understanding are grounded in the social, using Australian totemism to explain how the primitive mind used symbols derived from collective thought to create the ways in which we categorize ideas in society today. In saying this, he was adopting both an empiricist and a priori approach in explaining the categories. He states that the categories are inherent to human nature, but only exercised through the experiences of the social. On the contrary, Strauss’ approach to explaining symbols and the categories of understanding is purely a priori. According to his writings in The Savage Mind, similarities in myths and mythical structures point us to the conclusion that all human minds are wired the same –this is the only way that we could see the same structures come up in myths all over the world. Thus, Durkheim uses a reductionist breakdown to explain the development of symbols and consequently the categories of thought since primitive times, whereas Strauss uses a structuralist analysis to flesh out the relationships between symbols of different times and cultures. Durkheim defines what he believes a symbol is when discussing Australian totemism. As described on Pg. 208, “the totem is above all a symbol, a tangible expression of something else.” In totemism, it is not the object that the clan members worship that is important, but the meaning that the members attach to that object. For example, the churinga, one of the objects that clan members used in totemic rituals, is in itself simply a piece of wood or a stone (Pg. 121). However, once the totemic mark of a clan is drawn onto it, it takes on a new meaning of the importance of the totem to the clan. Thus, a symbol serves as a tool that can be used over and over again to recall certain experiences or ideas to a person. This is similar to Strauss’ idea of signs (sign=symbol in Strauss’ text), as he says that signs recycle previously available meanings (Pg. 20). However, while Durkheim uses the churinga to show how symbols can be used to recall past experiences, Strauss uses the example of the bricoleur (Pg. 22). As a sort of intellectual handyman, the bricoleur uses past experiences to create new structures or rather, he uses symbols to make sense of things unfamiliar to him. Thus, we already see how Strauss’ perception of the symbol is different from that of Durkheim’s. Furthermore, Strauss does a much deeper examination of the interpretation of symbols than Durkheim does. Specifically, Strauss believes that a single symbol is not enough to designate a certain meaning or message to a person, they must also understand how that symbol relates to others within that system of symbols to know what it actually means. Thus, a letter in an alphabet does would not mean anything to us if we did not understand it within the context of the entire alphabet. The letter “a” is symbolic because we know it is not any of the other letters in the alphabet. The example that Strauss uses to illustrate this concept is that of eagle hunting among the Hidatsa. This ritualistic act relies on the duality between the hunter and its prey; one exists on the ground and the other in the sky respectively. What is special about eagle hunting is the use of menstruating women to improve chance of capture (Pg. 51). While the presence of a woman on her period is usually detrimental to a hunt, in the case of eagle hunting, many factors about menstruation that are negative are reversed and therefore make it a useful tool in the ritual. For example, Strauss mentions the way in which a semantic point of view can be used to see the advantage in using...
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