The best books for grasping how language and symbols relate to the human condition

The Books I Picked & Why

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

By Gregory Bateson

Book cover of Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Why this book?

Gregory Bateson, an intellectual maverick, had an evolutionary rule named after him when he was a teenager, (his father was a famed geneticist), was the formulator, along with Jurgen Ruesch, of the double-bind hypothesis of schizophrenia, and was a pioneer in the field of mammalian communication. Given its wide range of address to issues within evolutionary biology, psychiatry, anthropology, systems theory, cybernetics, and communication theory, this is a classic “must read” collection of short essays. Bateson’s unrelentingly original and provocative analyses provoke thought and defy any easy categorization. At the very least, he shows how mammalian play, as multileveled interaction, paves the way for the evolution of human language, and also, how human interaction, with its multiple logical types and different kinds of learning, occurs at various levels of abstraction.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Birth and Death of Meaning

By Ernest Becker

Book cover of The Birth and Death of Meaning

Why this book?

Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist whose synthesizing of psychology, sociology, and anthology is unrivaled. This book, technically the first in a trilogy of his mature works, paves the way for his Pulitzer Prize wining book, The Denial of Death. Essential reading for anyone who is interested in a broad-based general theory of the human being, this book helps readers appreciate the vital role that symbols play in human life. It reveals how the human organism, a symbolic primate, grows to epic proportions and takes on new moral dimensions through symbolic activity. This is also important background reading for what today is known as, Terror Management Theory, Becker’s most substantial empirical legacy.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

By Erving Goffman

Book cover of Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior

Why this book?

Erving Goffman was a Canadian sociologist and the founder of the “dramaturgical” tradition within sociology, where metaphors of the stage and theatre are brought to the analysis of everyday life. This particular book is a collection of his early essays concerning “encounters,” or what happens when people, wittingly or unwittingly, come face-to-face and share information, handle interpersonal incidents, and manage identities. With surgeon-like precision, Goffman engages in “micro-sociology” analyses, nuanced descriptions of the ritual expression games in which interactants engage when they come into each other’s presence. The book is a delight to read partly due to Goffman’s uncanny ability to verbally capture the most subtle of expressions and to sum up relevant dynamics within interpersonal interaction; many of his sentences bear the fine-grade clarity of high-definition TV.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

By Susanne K. Langer

Book cover of Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art

Why this book?

Susanne K. Langer was a philosopher of aesthetics, and a specialist in the nature of symbolism and language. This classic book, dedicated to Alfred North Whitehead, contains her now somewhat famous distinction between “presentational forms” and “discursive forms,” which refers, roughly to symbolism such as sculpture and architecture which present much-at-once, and symbolism such as music and language which disclose their meaning linearly over time. She also brilliantly lays out her views on “Language,” where in a chapter by that name, she critiques instinct theories, challenges naïve views, and speculates on how human beings are evolutionary descendants of singing, dancing, pantomiming apes.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Rhetoric of Religion

By Kenneth Burke

Book cover of The Rhetoric of Religion

Why this book?

Kenneth Burke was Shakespeare scholar, biblical scholar, poet, novelist, literary critic, rhetorical theorist, the father of “Dramatism,” and a ferocious homegrown, self-taught intellect, and this book is Burke at his best. It boldly addresses the vital role that language plays in human life and religious thought, advocates a thoroughgoing study of theology not to assess any veracity therein, but rather, as a specimen of language use, for, whatever else theology may be, it is, at the least, verbal, and, the study of religious language reveals much about human motives and self-understanding. This book also touches upon some of the interesting relations between money, guilt, and the Christian notion of redemption. It ends with an “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” which is a lengthy mind-blowing fictional dialogue set in Heaven between “The Lord” and “Satan” regarding “the word-animal,” and it playfully draws out important connections between language, negativity, property rights, time, and the human experience of freedom.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists