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Day 253 – What is Not There – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series of articles on a philosopher who really jacked me up: Kenneth Burke. In my previous article, I referenced some of his more popular theories, namely that humans are agents of symbolic action. The language that I am using is a premier example of how we constantly engage in the use of symbols to transfer meaning to each other. We have taken this to a whole new level with LLMs (Large Langage Models), where we are literally training machines to use the symbolic structure we created to provide satisfactory responses to our queries. I am not sure what it says about life in general, that we have now got to the point as a species that we are creating models that automate the process of hierarchical classification.

If you were a religious person, you might realize that there was a significant amount of truth buried in the Towel of Babel story from ancient times. However, Burke really blew my mind when he started to theorize about why humans use symbolic action in the first place. What is the motive? Nietzche indicated this pressure to communicate, but perhaps there is something more as well. What is the existential question, the spark that gave conscious thought a reason to develop? The simple answer is “God.” Yet peel that concept back a little, and you will really fry your noodles. What if the very concept of an idealistic self that exists outside of ourselves that created us, is the actual spark? Meaning the very concept of God is the origin of all living thought.

Kenneth Burke did not necessarily dive into that concept, but he did ponder what it was that inspired hiumans to be ‘goaded by hierarchy.’ His answer was quite simply that we have the ability to understand what is not there. What is missing that we do not have. That is a concept foreign to all other animals, that idea that something could exist that does not exist strikes right at the heart of what has become known as ‘western thought.’ Which, btw, is ridiculous. Plato may have originated this idea of the perfect form being conceived of by the early humans. Still, there were certainly many other cultures that considered and understood the same concepts.

Think of the universal games that we teach young children before they can really form language. We teach them games of peek-a-boo and discovery games to find what is missing. This is universal; every culture has these practices because we all inherently know the “god” like thinking that is required to aid us in continuing the process of intellectual development. So what is it that inspires us the most? The ability to conceive of what is NOT there.

The NOT is what moves us, motivates us, and gets us to build, create, and establish. It is how we create civilization and formulate complex languages. Form hierarchies. Establish rules and guidelines. We are able to conceive of the NOT, and because of that, we are able to tell when something is better or worse than another thing. This is the fundamental basis for human thought, and it is interesting that the opposite of God, in most religious traditions, is not hellfire and brimstone, but rather the void or the absence of all thought.

I am not here to argue one way or another or pontificate on humanity’s existential nature, but this concept of the NOT is a powerful tool for understanding what motivates people to create systems and hierarchies, what motivates us to build structures where there is none?

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