A Philosophical Look at Walker Percy

Guy W. Stroh

“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us . . . . The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all litterateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, etc. , the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. . . . What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. I say that our new world democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in certain superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary and esthetic results . . . . It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.” (Vistas 63).

How strange, or perhaps not so strange, that this 1871 diagnosis of American life by the poet Walt Whitman is so similar to that of Walker Percy writing about and diagnosing what he calls “the modern malaise” a hundred years later. Percy in fact says “the real pathology is not so much a moral decline, which is a symptom, not a primary phenomenon, but rather an ontological impoverishment; that is, a severe limitation or crippling of the very life of twentieth-century man.” (Signposts 214).

Percy shares with Whitman and others the belief that the serious writer is a physician of the soul. As both novelist and philosopher, Percy is a tireless diagnostician of the seemingly endless ways in which man gets lost and manages to foul up his life. However, Percy is not a cynic or misanthrope. He does not celebrate the malaise he describes nor does he lower his expectations for human beings. In fact, Percy has great expectations for his fellow human beings. This, as I see it, is Percy’s basic philosophy or faith that keeps him going in the face of all the troubles and failures he delineates with so much skill. He uses his talent as a novelist, philosopher, and diagnostician not to entertain his readers or call attention to himself and his technique. Yet, he does have a wicked sense of humor and he is not afraid to bring sharp criticisms even against his heroes or those he admires. He admires and borrows from a good number of writers and thinkers including so-called existentialists like Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marcel, and Heidegger and pragmatists such as Peirce and Mead. Like Sartre and Heidegger, he is fascinated with the ontological problem, more specifically with the problem of what it is to be a human being. Like Peirce and Mead he is fascinated with the mind-body problem, the emergence of consciousness as well as the emergence of signs, symbols and language as a key to unraveling the mystery of man’s consciousness or mental life. He agrees with Peirce that man would have no thoughts or mental life without the use of signs or symbols. He further agrees with Peirce that meaning is a triadic not a dyadic relation that cannot be reduced to any stimulus-response mechanism. Sounds and sights may operate as signs or signals in the life of many animals. It is an obvious fact that animals respond to signals and also engage in signaling in many ways.

However, for Percy signals are not symbols. Symbols are carriers of meaning or, we should say, shared understanding between two or more selves or persons. A symbol as a word is not used to signal anything but rather to refer to it, to name it and identify it so that whatever it names can be fixed for thought, understanding, interpretation, and so on. This fixing or connecting of the symbol with what it means is necessary so that consciousness or intersubjectivity can arise—so that I can talk to myself or to you and so that you can do the same. For Percy, consciousness is inherently social or intersubjective. Here he sides with Mead and Marcel and shows his agreement with important elements within the otherwise disparate traditions of pragmatism and existentialism. These two prominent movements of twentieth-century thought are not usually viewed together or as having that much in common. Pragmatism is usually viewed as an exclusively American phenomenon and existentialism, in this century at least, as French and German. Pragmatism is usually viewed as an empirical philosophy, and even a naturalistic and scientifically-oriented one, while existentialism is often viewed as phenomenological or as a form of essentialism and as not experimentally- or scientifically-oriented and certainly not as a form of naturalism.

While Percy finds elements to admire and use in both traditions, he is not much impressed with labels and does not often use them. He takes ideas he likes from Mead and Peirce, not because they were both pragmatists or because he likes their pragmatism, but because he finds that some of their ideas fit-in-with and help illuminate his own ideas of language, consciousness, and man—themes that he is really interested in. The same may be said for his use of so-called existentialists like Sartre, Marcel and Heidegger. Percy is no disciple of Sartre, Marcel or Heidegger, but he admires their fascination with the existence or ontological problem—what it is to be a human being. He is very selective in what ideas he takes from them, just as he is highly selective in what he takes from the pragmatists Peirce and Mead. In a 1989 letter to his friend and Peirce scholar, Ken Ketner, he admits that “I am a thief of Peirce. I take from him what I want and let the rest go, most of it.” (Thief 130). He also says that “I am frank to confess
a prejudice in favor of Mead’s approach to consciousness as
a phenomenon arising from the social matrix through language.” (Message 266). This acceptance of Mead’s social approach to consciousness, however, does not involve an acceptance of the rest of Mead’s views; it does not, for example, endorse Mead’s behaviorism, which Percy views as yet another, perhaps complicated, dyadic view of consciousness in terms of stimulus and response. Signaling and gesturing, however prominent and important in animal and even human life, are nevertheless, for Percy, not symbolizing. He agrees with Peirce that a symbol proper is neither an icon nor an index, it is neither a picture nor a footprint. There is a direct causal or dyadic relation between a photograph and what it pictures just as there is between a footprint (index) and the foot that made it. But there is no direct causal, dyadic relation between a symbol and what it means. A symbol may be a word, a sentence, a narrative, a treatise. A written or spoken word or sentence can only function as a symbol for someone who can understand or interpret it. A symbol is not a material thing, cause or effect but, rather, a shared form or function.

According to Peirce, an “index is physically connected with its object; they make an organic pair, but the interpreting mind has nothing to do with this connection, except remarking it, after it is established. The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist.” (Peirce 114). Peirce goes on to claim that while every physical force reacts between a pair of particles, every intellectual operation involves a triad of symbols. For a sign to become a symbol a third factor is required beyond the sign and its object, to tie the two together, to produce a meaning that can be shared and repeated. Symbols require the use of some general rule or law which icons and indices do not. An icon only requires resemblance, an index only a brute fact or causal connection. But a symbol requires a thought or mental operation. The word tree is a symbol, not an icon, since it does not at all look like what it means. Neither is the word tree an index; the word tree is not caused by trees as a footprint is caused by a foot. The word tree gets its meaning by virtue of a rule or law that connects it to its object. Sometimes Peirce calls this connecting link an interpretant or a translation. Symbols are generals not particulars. For Peirce we only think in signs. “These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo. A symbol, once in being, spreads among peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows.” (Peirce 115).

For Percy, a symbol is the vehicle for the conception of anything and is a basically human invention or product. He gives credit to Susanne Langer and Cassirer for driving home the point that the human mind is responsible for what he calls the universal symbolific function. For Percy, man does not merely live in a biological, physical environment; man lives in a social world, in a culture of some sort. But cultural life is impossible without symbols. “If we consider culture in a broader, yet more exact sense—the sense in which Cassirer considered it—we will see it as the totality of the different ways in which the human spirit construes the world and asserts its knowledge and belief. These are the ‘symbolic forms’: language, myth, art, religion, science.” (Message 222). He goes on to say that if we carefully consider these symbolic forms we will discover that each is a kind of assertion. Peirce had earlier claimed that “Icons and indices assert nothing.” (Peirce 111). It is only through the symbol that assertions of all kinds can be made. For Percy “language, when it is spoken, is a tissue of assertions. Religion is not a museum of cult objects but a living tissue of beliefs, professions, avowals. The central act of myth and religion is the act of belief or worship. There is no such thing as an isolated word in speech; it is only to be found in dictionaries. The heart of science is not the paraphernalia of the laboratory; it is the method, the hunch, the theory, the formula. The art work is not the paint on the canvas or the print on the page; it is the moment of creation by the artist and the moment of understanding by the viewer.” (Message 223).

Percy is not much interested in the details and technicalities of Peirce’s innovative work in logic, but he does see that symbolic or mathematical logic, as a powerful tool in advancing this subject, is entirely dependent on the power and precision of new symbolic forms to assert and organize our inferences or reasonings. All science is a tissue or connection of assertions made possible through symbolic forms. But what is important here for Percy, is that this issues in or produces a paradox or antinomy. Although science characteristically makes assertions, “that which science asserts is not itself an assertion but a space-time event. Science asserts that matter is in interaction, that there are energy exchanges, that organisms respond to an environment, etc. But the assertion itself is a pairing of elements, a relation which is not a space-time event but a kind of identity asserted by an asserter.” (Message 221).

Science is obviously a product of culture, just as culture is a product of its people with their artifacts and activities. Science and culture are both phenomena that can be regarded as space-time occurrences or events. But if we only regard them as space-time events or phenomena-we are missing something, or leaving something out, which is crucial to their very reality or identity. As Percy urges, science and culture are assertive, they make cognitive claims, truth claims, validity claims, etc. These claims may be expressed as formulas like F=ma, as rules like “murder is wrong” or as creeds like “all men are created equal.” Examples can be multiplied. However, Percy’s point is that while these claims or assertions are part and parcel integral to science and culture, they are not space-time phenomena or events. The formulas F=ma and E=mc2 are integral to physics and its study of space-time events, but these formulas themselves are not space-time events. What difference does this make? What is the problem here? The problem is that if scientific method restricts itself to the study of space-time events then its own formulas, laws or principles cannot be brought within its own methodology or studied scientifically. On the other hand, if science insists on bringing its own formulas, laws or principles into the realm of space-time events, it has to trivialize them by ignoring their real, symbolic meaning. Empirical science has to restrict itself to the study of space-time events, but it cannot do this without forfeiting the cognitive meaning, truth or validity of its own formulas or claims. The formulas of science are not simply marks on paper at some particular place and time. They say something, they assert claims that, it is hoped, are true and meaningful. This, then, as Percy urges, is an antinomy or impasse—either way we go, we get nowhere. Empirical science has to confine itself to space-time events, but it cannot do this, for then it will have no meaningful formulas, laws or principles. We can, of course, try to ignore this problem but, unfortunately, it will always come back to haunt us. We can also engage in other more subtle or sophisticated ways of dodging the problem by labeling it as purely semantical, metaphysical or philosophical—a problem just about words, foggy thoughts or far-out ideas that do not really matter or make any sense. We can even take the extreme position that the formulas, laws or principles of science are simply useful fictions, or make-believe.

These evasions of the antinomy, Percy believes, will do no good, since they presumably pretend to say something or assert a solution to the problem, which they cannot do if what they say is true. Percy alleges that “it is ironical but not unfitting that science, undertaken as a total organon of reality, should break down not at the microscopic or macroscopic limits of the universe but in the attempt to grasp itself.” (Message 233). He also refers, approvingly, to Whitehead’s humorous remark to the effect that while scientists have indeed learned a great deal about the universe over the years, philosophers of science have been equally determined to deny that such knowledge is possible.

It is Percy’s point that culture, science, man and his characteristic mental life with its use of language will all remain incoherent or unintelligible unless we adopt a more radical and fruitful way of viewing them. Just as we cannot understand what science and culture are apart from language and what it asserts or means, and just as we cannot understand language itself apart from its symbolic forms—so we cannot make sense of symbolic forms unless, and until, we come to grips with the agent who makes and uses all these forms. That is, we need a coherent anthropology, a theory, a philosophy of man. If we have an incoherent view of man, and Percy thinks there is plenty of evidence that we do, then we will also have unintelligibility and even antinomies in our views of everything else.

Percy thinks that a way out of this incoherence is available to us and that Charles Peirce gives us a place to start. “We now know, at least an increasing number of people are beginning to know, that a different sort of reality lies at the heart of all uniquely human activity—speaking, listening, understanding, thinking, looking at a work of art—namely, Charles Peirce’s triadicy. It cannot be gotten round and must sooner or later be confronted by natural science, for it is indeed a natural phenomenon. Indeed it may well turn out that consciousness itself is not a ‘thing,’ an entity, but an act, the triadic act by which we recognize reality through its symbolic vehicle.” (Signposts 287). To develop a more coherent view of man we need to develop a richer and more adequate view of reality. We cannot limit reality to space-time events or facts since no collection of facts can manifest a law. Any law goes beyond any actual facts and determines how facts will be governed in the future (Peirce 78). Law is what Peirce calls thirdness and Percy triadicy. For both, laws, or true general patterns, are real or really operate in the world. To deny this would be denying all science and common sense. But, also, laws or thirds are symbolic forms, the very common notions or shared understanding among humans that allow for intersubjectivity and consciousness. Solipsism or the solitary mind theory—the view that only I can be sure that my thoughts or experiences are real—is a reductio ad absurdum of itself, since in denying any mutual understanding between one mind or self and another it denies any understanding of itself, or what it is saying in any possible future, or from one moment to the next. A consciousness entirely enclosed within itself—a Cartesian consciousness—would have no symbolic forms with which to think, nor would it have anything to think about.

Percy agrees with the traditions of phenomenology and existentialism—with Husserl and Sartre—that consciousness is intentional, that consciousness is always a consciousness of something. But he also goes beyond them in several important respects. For Percy consciousness is always a consciousness of something as something and for you and me or for others. Agreeing with Mead and Marcel, consciousness is social, intersubjective, and linguistically- or symbolically-determined. As Percy says, “Consciousness: Conscious from con-scio, I know with. Consciousness is that act of attention to something under the auspices of its sign, an act which is social in its origin. What Descartes did not know: no such isolated individual as he described can be conscious.” (Lost 105). Although Descartes did not present consciousness as social or as linguistically-determined, he did recognize that the best evidence we have for its reality is linguistic, or the real use of words and language. “There is no one of our external actions which can assure those who examine them that our body is any thing more than a machine which moves of itself, but which also has in it a mind which thinks—excepting words, or other signs made in regard to whatever subjects present themselves, without reference to any passion.” (Materialism 22). Descartes also claimed that “it seems to me very remarkable that language, as thus defined, belongs to man alone.” (ibid. ). He also argued that “all men, the most stupid and the most foolish, those even who are deprived of the organs of speech, make use of signs, whereas the brutes never do anything of the kind.” (Materialism 24). In other words, Descartes had thirdness, or a linguistic and intersubjective view of consciousness or mind, right under his nose. That he chose, nevertheless, to present it as isolated, and consequently solipsistic, is unfortunate, for his great influence led to, or greatly fueled, the unintelligible gulf or split between mind and body which persists to the present. Its consequences for understanding how man is related to other human beings and the rest of the natural universe are just as bad or even worse. Descartes, it may be said, virtually created the mind-body problem. In his penchant to keep mind or thought pure and rational, he had to isolate it or cut it off from all else including the body, which he could not really do since he firmly believed in interaction.

Descartes’ mind-body dualism, for Percy, is not only a disaster for theory, or for a proper understanding of man and mind, but a practical disaster as well. As now imbedded in common sense it perhaps lies at the root of the “modern malaise,” or man’s loss of self or alienation from himself and his world. Percy believes that the existentialists have given us vivid portraits of this alienation or loss of meaning. For example, Heidegger writing in 1935 says, “The spiritual decline of the earth is so far advanced that the nations are in danger of losing the last bit of spiritual energy that makes it possible to see the decline.” (Metaphysics 31). Heidegger goes on to characterize this decline as confusing intelligence with mere cleverness, reducing intelligence to a mere tool. For Heidegger, “Science today in all its branches is a technical, practical business of gaining and transmitting information. An awakening of the spirit cannot take its departure from such science. It is itself in need of an awakening.” (Metaphysics 40). Heidegger claims that spirit or mind, once construed as mere utilitarian intelligence in the service of mass culture, becomes a mere holiday ornament or decoration. And Percy himself has given us portraits of this malaise, just as pungent and just as clear. But none of the famous existentialists, with the possible exception of Marcel, have given us even the start—at least—of a way out of this trouble. For Percy, man may be better off now, in certain ways, than ever before, since he has the advantage of advancing science and technology to give him better schools, medicine, government, jobs, churches, and social life. Yet with all this splendor, life is disappointing, dull and boring, and full of crime, violence and a lack of meaning. If Percy can echo and further document this malaise a hundred years after Whitman, then this would seem to show that modern man continues to be in deep trouble and does not realize it. For Percy, it is a sad fact that modern man knows more about his world than he knows about himself. Man also lives with the false hope that the same methods used with great success in science and technology can be used to cure his depressions, addictions, boredom, and violence. But this is not true. Man continues to get lost and make trouble for himself. Percy asks, “Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments? Why did Mother Teresa think that affluent Westerners often seemed poorer than the Calcutta poor, the poorest of the poor?” (Lost 122). He answers this by claiming that this “paradox comes to pass because the impoverishments and enrichments of a self in a world are not necessarily the same as the impoverishments and enrichments of an organism in an environment.” (ibid.).

Percy certainly does not claim that his diagnosis of the “modern malaise” is new or that he has all the answers to the problems he poses. Over two thousand years ago Socrates had called attention to the importance of self-knowledge and the folly of thinking that knowledge of other things, including the cosmos, is more important. Other philosophers, including Hume and Ryle, have called attention to how elusive the self is and how difficult, or seemingly impossible, it is to get hold of it.

Percy does claim that we now have a place to start. A Peircian view of thirdness can help by getting us to accept a wider conception of reality that includes selves and symbolic forms, and organisms and space-time events, without confusing the former with the latter or without trying to reduce the former to the latter. Percy is not against science or against reduction. But he is against what he considers the height of false reduction—the reduction of the human being to a space-time being merely responding to various stimuli.

Percy’s attempt to combine elements of pragmatism and existentialism reminds us that another great thinker had, in effect, tried to do this before existentialism became a famous name. William James, who is responsible for making pragmatism famous, like Percy, had a medical degree and a very vivid style of writing. Also like Percy, James had a healthy faith in the potentials of human beings. In fact, it was James who coined the phrase—the will to believe—and it was James who denied that consciousness is a thing or entity, and claimed that consciousness is better thought of as a cognitive activity or function. Percy does not often cite William James, certainly not as often as he calls attention to Peirce. But James was the best friend that Peirce ever had and it is largely owing to James that the world came to seriously recognize Peirce’s contributions. And equally important, James, like Peirce, had that wider sense of reality that includes space-time events and symbolic forms, organisms and selves, matter and mind without trying to either reduce any of these to some other or isolate them from each other.

Percy insists that there is still much we do not understand about man, language, consciousness, and much we do not know as to how they fit together in the larger scheme of things. Percy’s 1983 book, Lost in the Cosmos, explores the problem of why man seems to be more fascinated with the strangeness of far-off galaxies, quasars and black holes than with the strangeness of man himself. The plethora of new books on the Big Bang, Supersymmetry, String Theory, and the New Physics certainly indicates a healthy interest in the frontiers of science. And the growing number of books on the Mystery of Consciousness, Mind and Brain, The Language Instinct, and The Language of Thought indicates a solid interest in these important topics. However, Percy’s point, I would insist, is that man, or the human being who undertakes all these explorations, cannot be left out of the search. Man will indeed remain lost in the cosmos if his nature or ontology is evaded as a problem and not pursued along with all the rest. Percy himself never claimed to know to his own, or to other people’s, satisfaction exactly how man fits into everything else. But to his credit, he did claim to know that we must try as best we can to fathom exactly what is man and why is he so strange?

Man is strange because he has a mind and a body—a self that includes consciousness and self-consciousness, as well as a physical body that interacts with other physical bodies. Man is strange because he tends to view himself as an unfathomable combination of opposites. He is two things, not one, and these halves are opposed—the one extended in space and the other a mind or self that is not so extended. Man is strange because he cannot find an intelligible connection between these opposites. This strangeness produces not only a theoretical incoherence, but a practical one as well. How do you control or take responsibility for being not one unified being, but two beings at once, which are the reverse of each other? How can the mind or self, or consciousness, control or take responsibility for what its body does if the body is extended and located at some particular time and place while the mind or self, or consciousness, is somewhere else and not so located. A rock, a tree or an ape has no responsibility, but a human being does.

But man’s mind, consciousness, or superior intelligence is surely capable of controlling or taking responsibility for his life. Behavior can be controlled. Even animals can control and modify their own behavior. But responsibility is not merely control of behavior. Animals take care of their offspring, but they do not take or have moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires knowledge of what one is doing and recognition of some idea or rule of what is right or what one ought to do. Babies have no moral responsibilities but are capable of learning or acquiring them. But what is this sense of responsibility that they can acquire? The answer has to be, as Percy would say, thirdness, an understanding of symbolic forms, linguistic assertions, intersubjective ideas that can be shared by others. In other words, moral responsibility is not a dyadic relation between a stimulus and response, but a triadic relation involving a general idea or symbolic form. Responsibility is normative, involving a sense of value, in ways in which an organism responding to its environment is neutral and not normative. Just as there is nothing normative, valid or invalid, right or wrong in any reflex action, or even in
the complicated action of neural, chemical and electrical processes of the brain, there is something normative in every human thought or judgment that claims to be true, valid, right or cogent. Man is strange, we can say, because he can both respond to his environment like other organisms and also judge, evaluate, interpret, and live in his world in terms of symbols. According to Percy, we cannot really begin to appreciate man’s strangeness unless, and until, we see it as a perennial problem of confronting his dual nature as both organism and symbol maker or, as Percy often calls it, symbol monger. Man gets lost and makes troubles for himself because he is situated as an organism in a dyadic space-time world that he can never be completely at-home-in because he also inhabits a world of symbolic forms that is triadic and radically different. The trick is to recognize this and search for ways to coordinate the two. Unfortunately there is no simple way, or formula, to do this. There is, as Percy insists, the hope or faith that at least a start can be made, that some headway can be achieved. This faith or hope Percy gets from various sources, including pragmatists like Peirce and Mead and existentialists like Heidegger and Marcel. Percy’s originality is not at all lessened by what he takes from others, but is clearly enhanced by the skillful way he succeeds in selecting and coordinating what he takes. By pushing his ideas to their limits, Percy succeeds in keeping his eyes open and, what is more, he opens our eyes to new possibilities. If he was never satisfied in fathoming man’s strangeness, this can only encourage us to continue the quest.

I can think of no better tribute to Walker Percy than to pay to him the tribute the French philosopher Henri Bergson paid to William James. “He was stirred by an immense unrest, and went from science to science, from anatomy and physiology to psychology, from psychology to philosophy, tense over great problems, heedless of anything else, forgetful of himself. All his life he observed, experimented, meditated. And as if he had not done enough, he still dreamed, as he fell into his last slumber, of extraordinary experiments and superhuman efforts by which he could continue even beyond death to work with us for the greater good of science, and the greater glory of truth.” (Mind 218-219).

Rider University Guy W. Stroh

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind. Totowa: Littlefield Adams & Co., 1975.

Buchler, Justus, ed. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications, 1955.

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, Inc. 1959.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle, How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One has to do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975.

Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.

Rosenthal, David, ed. Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971.

Samway, Patrick, S. J. ed. A Thief of Peirce: The Letters of Kenneth Laine Ketner and Walker Percy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Samway, Patrick, ed. Walker Percy: Signposts in a Strange Land. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.

Whitman, Walt. “Democratic Vistas” from The Complete Works of Walt Whitman: Prose, Paumonock edition, Vol. II. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1902.