Symbol and Existence

A Study in Meaning; Explorations of Human Nature

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Walker Percy
Kenneth Laine Ketner, Karey Lea Perkins, Rhonda Renee McDonnell, Scott Ross Cunningham
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , October
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Walker Percy’s novels are often characterized as existentialist, and likened to the creative work published by figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Like them, Percy’s philosophical thinking is not mere window dressing, but deeply infuses his fictional engagement with reality. He published a handful of articles in academic journals and even wrote a full, systematic treatment of his philosophy. This work, Symbol and Existence: A Study in Meaning, has never been published in its entirety until now. Percy scholars, no doubt, welcome the belated publication of this work. But should it be of interest to a larger audience? In the following review I give a positive response to that question.

Let me start by sketching Percy’s project in Symbol and Existence, which was to develop what he calls his “radical anthropology.” His intention has many affinities with William James’ notion of radical empiricism. James, we recall, calls for the full scope of human experience to be opened to empirical inquiry. Similarly, Percy wants to recognize human persons in their real plenitude by taking into account their universal biological nature and their particular, irreducible existence. He is quick to note that recognizing the full measure of persons does not entail the rejection of empirical methods of inquiry. Percy’s ambition is to combine and integrate scientific and humanistic inquiry fruitfully. Radical empiricism is the method, we might say, for practicing radical anthropology.

By themselves, science and humanism fail to grasp what distinguishes human persons. Detached from the sciences, humanistic inquiry (which Percy identifies with phenomenology) falls into solipsism. That is, I can declare myself to be a real, existing person and not simply a reacting organism in its environment, but I cannot affirm the real existence of anyone else. But hardheaded, white-jacketed empiricism is no panacea. Detached from the humanities, scientific inquiry degenerates into scientism. The problem with scientism, Percy contends, is that it can recognize human beings only in part as organisms embedded in an environment by reason of biological necessity. From the perch afforded by scientism, human beings are fundamentally no different than any other life form. Radical anthropology is thus a scientific humanism that integrates the sciences and the humanities. It is only by such an integrative or multidisciplinary inquiry that human beings can be grasped in their plenitude qua persons.

Percy’s great philosophical insight is that language, particularly the human capacity to create signs, provides the nexus where empirical humanistic inquiry can take place. Particular languages are empirical systems of signs in which human beings are enculturated in order to refer to reality and to respond meaningfully to others. But, Percy asks, is language nothing but signification, nothing other than the mechanics of sign-function in which signs are merely nominal signals announcing things? Such a narrow construal of language, he argues, overlooks the “relation of denotation” in which the sign names the thing; thus, symbolization is the process through which real things become articulated as signs. Indeed, symbolization, or the “symbolic-meaning situation,” is the subject matter of Percy’s radical anthropology.

The symbolic-meaning situation is inclusive of the sign-function, but cannot be reduced to it. Two relationships structure this situation. The first is the aforementioned relation of denotation, or what Percy calls the “relation of quasi-identity.” This relation allows for the ongoing creation of new symbols and revision of old symbols by means of hermeneutic engagement with the world. The second is the “relation of intersubjectivity.” Any symbolic-meaning situation requires at least two persons: a namer and a hearer—one who makes the symbol, and the other for whom the symbol is intended as meaningful. Percy describes this relation in terms of “a flash of affirmation, the sudden advent of a mutuality toward the thing intended” (66, italics original), and compares it with Martin Buber’s notion of the “I-Thou” bond. The symbolic-meaning situation frames Percy’s anti-Cartesian epistemology. Knowing is primarily a social process, one actively carried out through the hermeneutic engagement of symbols. The self-conscious subject, far from being the private endowment of the individual organism, emerges from the symbolic-meaning situation and is socially constructed by means of language within what George Herbert Mead describes as the “empirical matrix of social interactions” (152).

Alas, symbolization is not a simple triumph of human creativity and knowing. Real things are not only revealed through symbols; they are concealed as well. The means by which human beings know is at once the same means by which they fall into ignorance (which Percy describes in terms of “symbolic simulacrum” [105]). How does one break through the simulacra? Percy gives two options. One is to break the interpreter, often through an ordeal or trauma of some sort. He gives the example of Prince Andrey in War and Peace rediscovering the wonder of clouds as he lay wounded at Austerlitz. The other is to break the symbol. Art is a powerful means of breaking through the simulacra foisted on human beings through their unthinking symbolic engagement. Art promotes awareness of the world by breaking old symbols and creatively renewing the process of symbolic engagement.

Symbols are sacramental for Percy. While hermeneutic interpretation, like any practice, can dissolve into stale ritualism, the active engagement of symbols is anagogic insofar as they guide the interpreting person toward awareness and, ultimately, knowledge of the world and self. Percy’s radical anthropology reveals the thoroughgoing relationality of human beings in the act of constructing reality dialogically through the transformative processes of symbolization. Percy’s most profound conclusion he leaves for readers to draw on their own: human beings are radically contingent—on each other, on nature, and ultimately on God the creator—though they avoid awareness of this condition. When contingency registers in human experience, it does so as despair; it is overcome, Percy suggests, by finding authentic completeness in God.

Outside of the province of Percy studies, two broader audiences would likely appreciate Symbol and Existence. One audience is made up of readers interested in theories of mind but unimpressed by idealist or materialist accounts. Another would be philosophers of religion who are dissatisfied with mainstream philosophical treatments of religion, in particular the narrow concentration on the rationality of traditional theism. Percy’s semiotic approach presents an intriguing means of bridging belief and practice and opening the experience of religious practice for empirical inquiry. Percy’s work is, furthermore, a refreshing reminder that philosophy is not the exclusive province of professional or academic philosophers. Symbol and Existence should appeal widely to both Percy specialists and to the philosophically adventurous alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is associate professor of religious studies and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Lynchburg.

Date of Review: 
August 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

American author Walker Percy (1916–1990) was one of the most prominent Southern writers of the twentieth century. Known for his poetic style and depiction of alienation in modern American culture, Percy was the bestselling author of six fiction titles, including the classic novel THE MOVIEGOER (winner of the 1962 National Book Award), and three works of nonfiction. Educated at the University of North Carolina and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, he was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Kenneth Laine Ketner is P.W. Horn Professor and director of the Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism at Texas Tech University. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Oklahoma State University, an MA in Folklore and Mythology from the University of California at Los Angeles and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Karey Lea Perkins has taught literature, writing, and philosophy for over thirty years. She holds a BA in English and a BA in Religion from Wake Forest University, an MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an MA in Philosophy and a PhD in English from Georgia State University.

Rhonda Reneé McDonnell is a professor of American Literature and Composition at Northern Virginia Community College. She holds a PhD in American Literature from Arizona State University.

Scott Ross Cunningham is assistant director for Research Operations at The Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism at Texas Tech University. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Texas Tech University and is ABD in Educational Psychology at Texas Tech University.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.