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But even even those whose nervous systems are working will and which are cut out a good deal of see external world still lit in a lot. And it is here of course that language comes in and that we we impose order by means of language. We abstract and categorize and pigeonhole things in their various categories and so are able to create this order in which we do our living. We not only have this I think it is kind of inborn capacity not merely on the neurological level but also on the linguistic level for abstracting and then for turning things
into symbols. We also quite clearly enjoy the manipulation of symbols I mean we love the symbols and we like fitting them together into extraordinarily complex patterns and systems which give us sometimes the reality and sometimes the illusion of understanding what the world is all about. We do this with it back with a kind of play it's a kind of art for art's sake. I think if we look at the symbol systems which men of various cultures have produced we are greatly struck by the fact that many of them quite clearly have absolutely no biological value would call or they are the most elaborate kind of genes which we impose which we play and which are through whose rules we look at the world and of course when one examines the. History
looks into the what has happened in various cultures. We see that these games which we produce these structures symbolic structures which we build up for. May often be not merely not useful to us but also maybe positively harmful. For example take the case of an extraordinarily intelligent people the Greeks in spite of the rationality and development of science and they still believe that astronomy had a kind of special human meaning. And what we see is a very curious event in history that this belief could be absolutely disastrous. On a certain day I think it was the twenty seventh of August 413 B.C. there was an eclipse of the moon this day.
Nick Yes in the Greek army were seated inside of queues and they were thinking of going home. They were obviously not succeeding in their effort but there was an eclipse of the moon and as everybody knew that the moon is extremely unlucky and no one should travel for at least a month with this new cast decided to remain for another month and in the course of that month his fleet was totally destroyed and all his army was captured and another disastrous example of what happens when we start playing with us in full systems and build up these fantastic structures are taught some is provided by the Aztecs. The Aztecs also had curious views about the nature of astronomy they thought that. The sun would get tired if he wasn't constantly supplied with food and that the best food for the sun was human blood in
the hearts of victims and they used to rape their neighbors and carry off huge numbers of. Prisoners whom they would rip the heart out of the voters dedicated to the sun. What was the consequence of this the consequence was that when the tiny band of the neighbors of the Aztecs drawing the Spaniards and the. Regime came to an end very very rapidly and we as I say these are extraordinary. Gleeful. Manipulations of symbols built up into all kinds of my thought and pseudo philosophies and pseudo sciences in the history of the world and sometimes they are quite
good but sometimes they are profound. And yet men will go on cherishing them such is the first of all the extraordinary psychological inertia. He he won't he dislikes changing even that which is obviously extremely inconvenient. And secondly he has of course said there's a kind of vested interest in these things and he tends to regard them in some way a secret as we see from the case of Socrates and from many of the heretics throughout the ages that it is extremely dangerous to start questioning the validity of these symbol systems. I would like to speak briefly about. Simple systems which are rather nearer to us. Let us take the case of the Middle Ages why didn't the Middle Ages develop anything resembling
modern science such as this. Is given by the great. French historian of mediæval art. What he says is this in the Middle Ages the idea of the thing was always more real than the thing itself. The study of things for their own sake no thought for men. The task for the student of nature was to discover the eternal truth which God meant each thing to express but when we inquired what was the eternal truth which was exposed to be expressed by each thing we find of course that it was not the laws of nature as we speak of and which was not the regularities which can be discovered by observation and also which require for their discovery the sacrifice of many prejudices and even of common sense as we're discovering. From that the eternal truths which were to be discovered in things where
notions deduced by logicians drawn other notions and fantasies which could be found in books which were regarded as or thought of to teach so that. We have I must confess that when I read the literature of the Middle Ages I begin I be entertained and amused by this curious anthropomorphic good of the world. But in a very little while I find myself not merely profoundly bored but also feeling a sense of terrible oppression. One seems to be shut into a kind of prison. There are no windows in this middle medieval world. Everything in Gerald Manley Hopkins is words which mean what is the phrase What is it. And there is this terrible
human quality about you. He wears men's margin shares men smell this. I do find extremely depressing in the mediæval picture but it was all it was impossible for human beings given the simple system which they accepted without question. Most of them get outside this prison and in a much more recent case we have a very interesting example of the impossibility of getting beyond the simple system. We have a very good example of this in the history of hypnosis subject I happen to be very much interested in. If you look at the history of hypnosis in the first half of the 18th the 19th century you were astonished to find that extremely intelligent men refused to
believe the evidence of their senses. They saw these hypnotic phenomena for example women and doctors would see hypnotic operation an operation being carried out an amputation being carried out under hypnotic anesthesia. And would say that it wasn't true. I mean they would say that the man was obviously just pretending he didn't feel pain. In order to annoy the doctors or that in some way the operator was bamboozling them. I mean it is absolutely incredible when you read the history of this and also to read the way in which great pioneers in this field who demonstrated for example that they could reduce the mortality rate from surgery of 29 percent to 5 percent by using hypnotic anesthesia is simply hounded out of the medical profession for what they did instead of being treated as saviors of society not a
tour. They were attacked because it was impossible for their orthodox colleagues to get outside the prison of the symbol system in which they had been brought up. Much more recently William James of course had the same complaint about his colleagues in regard to a subject in which he was deeply interested in what is now called extrasensory perception. And he says again and again that the evidence which was considerable which I think is still more considerable now was simply disregarded because it did not make sense in terms of the symbol system which was then fashionable and rather than. Extend the system so as to embrace the new facts new facts were rejected in order to retain the system in this context I would like to quote
a remark which my grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley made about Spencer. He said that Spencer's idea of a tragedy was a deduction. Now it's quite obvious that our present symbol systems are a good deal wide and more comprehensive which were current in the Middle Ages. I think historians of the future will look back and note with astonishment with the way in which. Attachment to our present kind of symbolic picture of the world has blinded us to facts which to them will be completely self-evident I mean I don't know what these facts are but I think we can say without any doubt a hundred or two hundred years from now people
will look back and think we're incredible but in the middle of the 20th century when such and such facts were so. Obvious staring people in the face that their attachment to their particular of a particular symbol system was so strong that they could not in diseased pectic could not take them and incorporate them into the general picture of knowledge. The moral of all of this seems to me clear that we somehow that we have to make the best of both to make the best of the world of immediate experience. Which I haven't been able to discuss at any length today even at which I hope to discuss it in a later lecture. The world in which we receive Him is in a state of receptivity. Needless to say no experience is absolutely immediate because all our experiences are to some extent condition by the
cultural media in which we have grown up. The symbol system which is imposed upon us by our language. But there are degrees of immediacy I mean we can be much more immediate or much less immediate in the way we experience the external world. And as I say the problem which seems to me to confront us both collectively and individually is how to make the best of these two worlds to to make the best of this precious world of the world which the newness of the Spirit is and course is all the life's golden tree years ago to say is to make the best of this world of pure receptivity and also to make the best of the of the symbolic and above all the linguistic work. Our business is first of all I think to find methods for training ourselves in being more aware. Of. Internal and External Data. That
also means for continually refining and improving the symbol system which we use in order to impose sentence and meaning upon the world. After all one of the great intellectual developments of the 20th century has been a development in the field of linguistics. We do know much more about the nature of language and about its limitations and its capacities than was known in the past. I think it is very important that this knowledge should go down right into the roots of education. I mean that it's possible to teach some of this knowledge to quite small children and to develop the teaching as young people grow up so as to make them more aware of the relationship between the symbolic in which they have to do their thinking and the world of immediate experience in which they do their most a very static and
spiritual and physiological living so that I mean in fact. We just have to stress once more this fact which I have spoken about several times is that we are amphibians and it is our business to. Get on as I do to get the mics in and out of all the universe use to which owing to our strange MTV s nature we have access and this is something I shall go on in developing in their later lectures which as I say we are not typical amphibians that we are not merely amphibians in relation to to immediate experience and to add to symbols but we are amphibians in other respects too. And we here as I see the final in all of this as tight as I can see is that we must somehow do to make the
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What a piece of work is a man
Symbols and immediate experience, part 2
Producing Organization
WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program presents the conclusion of a lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Symbols and Immediate Experience."
Other Description
Aldous Huxley presents a lecture series in which he asks, "how did our ancestors think of human nature and in what terms ought we to think about it?"
Broadcast Date
Media type
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
Speaker: Huxley, Aldous, 1894-1963
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 61-56-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:17:30
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Chicago: “What a piece of work is a man; Symbols and immediate experience, part 2,” 1961-10-15, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 9, 2022,
MLA: “What a piece of work is a man; Symbols and immediate experience, part 2.” 1961-10-15. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 9, 2022. <>.
APA: What a piece of work is a man; Symbols and immediate experience, part 2. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from