05x | CR Book I, Chapter 4

Our symbols and their limitations [1941]

In its quest for emancipation from oppression, a
man seeks contact with the objects of both his
oppression and liberation through signs or symbols.
No deliberate effort at self-emancipation can pro-
bably do without such symbols. All kinds of sym-
bols seem to act as much as bridges as as clouds.
They usually go less far in relieving anxiety
than we are inclined to believe. It is a common
misuse of symbols by philosophers that, by claim-
ing a universal validity for their symbols they
try to compensate for their being rejected by
their fellow-beings. One must pay special attent-
ion to the nature of the symbols used so as not
to overestimate their importance and value!

In this treatise we seek contact with reality
with the aid of the sight and sound of English
words, put together according to the rules of Indo-
Germanic syntax. Rather abstract words are chief-
ly employed, words which give little to senses, im-
agination, blood or viscera. The sentences they
form claim to be tolerably 'correct', to be arguab-
le, to be discussible, within limits, rationally, and
to be tested by reference to observed facts. Their
meaning can not completely be detached from the
particular language used, and it is transposed
more easily into Greek and German, than into, say,
Latin, Wallon, or Bantu. The sentences form an un-
rhythmical, and esthetically not particularly gra-
ceful prose, and they are written down in alphabe-
tical letters. Their meaning is accessible only to
those who have spent much time on metaphysical
brooding and psychological research.

A similar experience could be expressed by
means of the sight (and to a lighter extend the
sound, touch, and kinesthesis) of buildings,sculp-
tures, paintings, numbers, or visions, by the sound
of music, or by the sight, sound and kinesthesis
of magical ritual; or by using words quite differ-
ently - magically as spells, charms, mantras, dhara-
nis; concrete words as employed in the Mysteries
of the ancient world; concrete statements, as in
Zen; words formed into stories, or myths; or used
for metaphors, riddles, eye-opening koans; or the
words may appear to sight not as alphabetical
letters, but as ideograms, ideographs, pictographs,
hieroglyphics. The meaning of the words may be de-
liberately oracular, or cryptic, as among shamans
and alchemists. Their accessibility may depend on