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What Is A Symbol

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Nedum Aniemeka
SOSC 12100
February 17th 2014

Collective Thought vs. Individual Thought: Discussing the Categories of Understanding

When discussing the use of symbols in both Durkheim and Strauss’ works, it is important for us to look at how both thinkers talk about the categories of understanding. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim believes the categories of understanding are grounded in the social, using Australian totemism to explain how the primitive mind used symbols derived from collective thought to create the ways in which we categorize ideas in society today. In saying this, he was adopting both an empiricist and a priori approach in explaining the categories. He states that the categories are inherent to human nature, but only
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In the hunt at a distance it is the reverse” (Pg. 52). The use of menstruating woman in hunting eagles is an illustration of how symbols are only meaningful when understood in relationship to other symbols. While in most rites, a menstruating woman is usually regarded as harmful, when used in eagle hunting she is a powerful tool. To put it simply, while in one system she is considered one thing, in another system she is considered something completely different. This is how Strauss believes we form categories and classifications.
Though Durkheim does not have such an in depth look at how humans understand relationships within categories, he does discuss what he believes are the origins of classifications in his work. As Durkheim highlights in his analysis of Australian totemism, the most important part of the religion is the feelings of kinship you feel with fellow members of your clan. Because of these strong connections you feel to your totemic group, there is an internal bond that consequently places you into a certain “category”. According to Durkheim, this is the same kind of logic that results in a genus –the way that we sort humans into totemic groups is the same way that we try to find similarities between things in nature and then classify them accordingly. Furthermore, he writes “the only groupings of that kind with which experience acquaints
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