Awakening symbols

Is it possible for one person to be “enlightened” separately from others? We might ask the same question about a single symbol.

Is it possible that one single symbol could be awakened in isolation from all others? Probably not. Just as objects in the world always exist in a context of other objects, so symbols are always connected to a network of other symbols. This does not necessarily mean that symbols can never be disentangled from each other. To make a rather simple analogy, males and females always arise in a species together: their roles are completely intertwined, and yet this does not mean that a male cannot be distinguished from a female. Each is reflected in the other, as the beads in Indra’s net reflect each other.…

The fact that a symbol cannot be awakened in isolation does not diminish the separate identity of the symbol; in fact, quite to the contrary: a symbol’s identity lies precisely in its ways of being connected (via potential triggering links) to other symbols. The network by which symbols can potentially trigger each other constitutes the brain’s working model of the real universe, as well as of the alternate universes which it considers (and which are every bit as important for the individual’s survival in the real world as the real world is).

Hofstadter (1980, 359-60)

On this page, Hofstadter is referring to the instantiation of symbols in the brain, perhaps as ‘a neural network plus a mode of excitation.’ But what he says here is consistent with the concept of ‘symbol system’ in Turning Signs, with Peirce’s use of the word ‘symbol,’ and with his remarks about the ‘perfect sign.’

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