When I think of symbols, I default to a rather literal sense of them. In my Introduction to Anthropology class, I put up the symbol for radiation, say there is nothing inherent in that symbol to tell us what it is, rather we put meaning on it – the symbol then tells us, beware of radiation. And thinking about early symbolism is often presented in a similar way. Pigments from Bombos caves, those must have been used to indicate group and individual identity. Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional jokes meets Geertz’s system of symbols…
But when I write, I am often trying to feel my way, to find a way to express and configure and connect. Not always – good science writing requires trying to express complicated ideas in a literal way, but that is often helped along by metaphors and comparisons. And when I take a photo, it is not the meaning of the photo that captures me, but the composition and trying to catch a moment that works within larger constellations of happenings in my life and the lives of others.
A graduate student of mine sent me this article, Thinking in maps: from the Lascaux caves to modern knowledge graphs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff over at Ness Labs. It opens:
“What do hieroglyphs, flowcharts, road signs, and knowledge graphs have in common? They’re all thinking maps. Humans have been thinking in maps since the very first symbolic communication systems.
While thinking in maps may first bring to mind the idea of cartography, a map does not need to be geographic—it can be any symbolic depiction of the relationship between elements of some physical or mental space, such as themes, objects, or areas.
In the December 2007 edition of Philosophy of Mind, Professor Elisabeth Camp, whose research has focused on forms of thoughts that do not fit standard models, wrote: “Thinking in maps is substantively different from thinking in sentences.””
And immediately I am struck by how my approach to symbols is one based in “thinking in sentences” – symbols tell me things. Figurative renderings, not so much. But any symbolic relationship between elements could count… That opens a much wider field for how to think about symbols and cognition in the past and the present.
The songlines of indigenous Australians operate more in this figurative realm, as stories and maps and music all together. Nganyinytja, a Pitjantjatjara woman, tells us:
“We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks. The hills and creek beds they created as they dwelled in this land surround us. We learned from our grandmothers and grandfathers as they showed us these sacred sites, told us the stories, sang and danced with us the Tjukurpa (the Dreaming Law). We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories. We continually recreate the Tjukurpa … ”
This figurative relationship is illustrated so well in this video with Elwyn Henaway demonstrating how the patterning works.
Now back to the original article: