So the reading continues from yesterday’s post.
In the previous episode, Taylor introduced his definition of religion and the main crux of his argument that religion is everywhere and is very dangerous seemed to be contained in the phrase “figure(s) schemata” – religion is a type of network of symbols, myths and rituals that “figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose.” However, Taylor adds, this would seems like a very traditional definition if not for an additional element: religion is also a network of symbols, myths and rituals that “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure.” When I first read this definition, I thought Taylor was trying to say something like this: religion is a certain type of network of elements that, as a network, acts in a constructive and a destructive way. Now that I’ve looked at it again, due to the form of the verbs “figure” and “disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure,” it seems that Taylor is referring not to the network’s figuring and disfiguring, but to the work of the “symbols, myths, and rituals” which, I suppose, means that religion is a type of network that manages to put together symbols, myths and rituals that act here creatively, there destructively.
Once Taylor returns from his description of “complex adaptive networks” that he borrows from physics, he launches into a rather interesting, even if somewhat imaginary, description of how our “cognitive activity” works: here one finds all kinds of interesting diagrams, suggestions (“data” – “information” – “knowledge” – “meaning” movement), insightful comments and more. The basic idea is to understand how understanding works, or to be more precise, how “schematization” functions. After Taylor is done with the basics, he writes:
At the highest level of schematization, symbols and myths integrate sense experience, information, and knowledge into patterns that provide meaning and purpose. Since the relation among these different levels and operations is simultaneous rather than sequential, different cognitive operations mutually condition each other. The images, concepts, and symbols through which the world is organized emerge from and change with the data of experience, which they simultaneously shape. The nonlinearity of these operations creates an interactive cognitive network. Even at this microlevel, the structure and operational logic of the cognitive network conform to the complex adaptive systems. Proliferating connections lead to adaptations, which lead to new connections, which lead to further adaptations… (19)
This is a very exciting and interactive, even if not completely innovative, way of describing the working of human cognition – reminds me of some of Leibniz’s discussions, minus the jargon of “complex adaptive networks.” So clearly the word “figure” is going to be very important for Taylor’s argument which makes one wonder why, instead of sticking with some more or less ready-made theory of what it means, he decides to consult American Heritage Dictionary? Why this particular dictionary? (Random cartoon reference: “Why the cemetery? I wondered, but my dreams were too strong…”) “Drawing on the multiple meanings and nuances of figure, the imagination can be understood as the activity of figuring through which figures emerge.” (20) This activity of figuring is a complex activity of creation of figures and disfiguring that keeps imagination working and is a necessary condition of further refiguring. Where all of this comes from is not very clear – is it an exercise in cognitive psychology? is it a lesson from physics of networks? Taylor never cites any sources in this particular section. Why is it so important? Not because there are no sources cited, he has a right to present his own view of cognition, even if it is only based on his own intuitive grasp of the matter. It is important because the whole argument is based, in a way, on this very description – things will get increasingly more complex, theories and examples will come from increasingly more distant intellectual places, but the main idea will remain the same: “These two sides of imagination,” Taylor writes, that is the two sides of figuring and disfiguring that he just presented as being at work, “correspond to the two moments of religion. While figures structure and stabilize, figuring disrupts, dislocates, and destabilizes every ostensibly stabilizing schema, even as it invites a new schematization.” (20)
This is where my understanding of the book’s argument got stuck – I kept returning to these pages again and again after discovering the next cool thing Taylor got carried away presenting to the reader – how does it work, again?
- Religion is defined as a network of elements that figure and disfigure;
- Cognition is investigated and it is discovered that at its core is imagination that “informs cognitive processes through the activity of figuring” (20);
- This activity of figuring is described in terms of necessary forming and deforming, putting together and taking apart, stabilizing and destabilizing, i.e. basically “doing it” and “undoing it”;
- Voila, religion is discovered to be corresponding to these moments of imagination – how convenient!
Is it just my inquisitive mind or does it sounds a bit fishy? Why not say: “So it looks like what I have originally defined in terms of ‘religion’ turns out to be a simple basic function of human cognition… Bummer! Good night, everyone…”
Now, of course, it is easy to see how religion is so invisibly active everywhere and why no one really understands what it is and how dangerous it is – if basic cognitive activity of “making sense” and “making meaning” are already “religious,” then it is easy to see where this is going to be going, isn’t it? But let’s tag along, maybe something cool will happen on the way – who knows?
Well, perhaps we are being a bit impatient here. Taylor tells us that since religion is a network of symbols, myths, and rituals that figure schemata, it is important to take a look at these symbols, myths, and rituals. From what I understand so far, religion is a symbolic network that is defined as a network of elements that figure schemata and create meaning and purpose. However, this is how any network that figures works, according to Taylor, so all he said so far was simply that religion is like any other network that figures schemata – what makes this network a special kind of network is the type of issues it is dealing with: “To function religiously, symbolic networks must address theological, anthropological, and cosmological issues.” (22, my emphasis) Does that mean that religion is a symbolic network that functions religiously? Does that mean that any symbolic network becomes religious as soon as it addresses certain issues (a certain combination of issues)? Religions then is redefined here as a specific function of any symbolic network with figuring-disfiguring as an activity of any network. If Taylor wants to maintain his original proposition that it is religion that we see everywhere with its symbols, myth, rituals figuring and disfiguring and (this one comes in quietly but stays throughout the book) refiguring things, then he must either argue that everything is religious (and then nothing is religious) or try to specify what makes something religious. The book starts with a mood that makes one suspect that the first option will be pursued, but now only 20 or so pages into the argument, the second option appears to be an option Taylor will at the very least attempt to prove. Or does he want it both ways because in the end, he argues, everything is connected to everything else anyway?