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  • Theory in BlackTeleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture
  • Lewis R. Gordon (bio)

My aim in this essay is to explore some challenges in the philosophy of culture that emerge from its often repressed but symbiotic relationship with what Enrique Dussel calls “the underside of modernity.” 1 Philosophy of culture and its forms in various disciplines of the human sciences have often avowed French, Germanic, and Scottish roots, through a repression or denial not only of the African, Native American, and Oceanic peoples who function as sources of taxonomical anxiety but also of such sources from “within,” so to speak; Spanish influences, for instance, with their resources from Jewish and Muslim social worlds, acquired a peripheral status. Throughout, as I have shown in An Introduction to Africana Philosophy, there have been those who thought otherwise, and their stories reveal the centering of the question of “man” in the modern world in a movement that led from his definition to his conditions of possibility.2 To study these conditions calls for identifying the subject of study, the main difficulty in studying such a subject, and the reasoning behind such claims. In studying culture we study the being or beings that create culture, which, drawing upon the work of Ernst Cassirer, I argue is a phenomenon marked by a transition from signification to symbol. Cassirer’s articulation of the distinction is worthy of a lengthy quote:

we must carefully distinguish between signs and symbols. That we find rather complex systems of signs and signals in animal behavior seems to be an ascertained fact. We may even say that some animals, especially domesticated animals, are extremely susceptible to signs. A dog will react to the slightest changes in the behavior of his master; he will even distinguish the expressions of a human face or the modulations of a human voice. But it is a far cry from these phenomena to an understanding of symbolic and human speech. The famous experiments of Pavlov prove only that animals can easily be trained to react not merely to direct stimuli but to all sorts of mediate or representative stimuli. A bell, for example, may become a “sign for dinner,” and an animal may be trained not to touch its food when this sign is absent. But from this we learn only that the experimenter, in this case, has succeeded in changing the food-situation of the animal. He has complicated this situation by voluntarily introducing into it a new element. All the phenomena which are commonly described as conditioned reflexes are not merely very far from but even opposed to the essential character of human symbolic thought. Symbols—in the proper sense of this term—cannot be reduced to mere signals. Signals and symbols belong to two different universes of discourse: a signal is a part of the human world of meaning. Signals are “operators”; symbols are “designators.” Signals, even when understood and used as such, have nevertheless a sort of physical or substantial being; symbols have only a functional value.3 [End Page 193]

No doubt most readers will confirm Cassirer’s observation on signs and our sharing their communication with animals. Signs are more referential here; they lack a schism between meaning and referent. But symbols emerge at the breakdown of such isomorphism. The symbolic, which Cassirer ultimately explores in his philosophy as symbolic forms, exemplifies the relationality of signs at more complex levels. These levels of meanings offer relations constitutive of reality in ways that could also be understood as grammar and structure.4 This “being,” the human being, distinguished by its immersion in this world of meaning, however, is also both signifying and symbolic, and is so in a way that challenges study, as [End Page 194] W. E. B. Du Bois showed in his article “Sociology Hesitant”;5 it is a free being, a being with a future, who constructs meaning in a world already created by other such beings, a social world.

The approach I thus use in this essay is not a linear narrative but rather a series of observations and reflections touching upon several problems raised by this initial one about the social world. My reason for doing...


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pp. 193-214
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