the symbol

Mon, 7 Feb 1994 14:04:04 CST

I don't like repeating, but Homer Barnett's early use of the concept of symbol,
almost 20 years before Geertz and Schneider got into the game, is some of the
most creative, modern, and profoundly important work in the second half of the
20th century. For those of you who like an evolutionary approach, his
_Innovation: the Basis of Culture Change_ and _Qualitative Science_ takes the
idea of recombination and shows (a) how symbols recombine in new analogies to
reshape people's ideas of order and (b) how it is the combinability of symbols,
NOT their unitary nature, that makes recombination processes and new analogies
possible. What I like least about Schneider's approach and that of Dawkins
and others is the focus on "units." I don't see that as necessary, and indeed,
it tends to skew the analysis in favor of a basic-meaning/metaphorical
extension approach that bedeviled semantic analysis (e.g., of kinship
terminology) for so long. Barnett is not the lightest rteading around, and
in his early work, he depended heavily on psychological concepts, this being
the only metalanguage available at the time for him to talk about what he
knew. It's more than worth the effort, and it offers more inthe way of
testable hypotheses than White's work ever did.
Mike Lieber