Monday, 11 August 2014


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
For other makes use of, see Symbol (disambiguation).
"Symbology" redirects here. For other makes use of, see Symbology (disambiguation).

A red octagon symbolizes "stop" even without the word.
A symbol is an object that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual picture, belief, action, or material entity. Symbols take the kind of words, sounds, gestures, or visual images & are used to convey ideas & beliefs. For example, a red octagon could be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for numbers. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose symbolizes love & compassion.

In cartography, an organized collection of symbols forms a legend for a map.

Contents [hide]
one Etymology
two Definitions
three Symbols & semiotics
four Psychoanalysis, rhetoric, & archetypes
five Paul Tillich
6 Role of context in symbolism
6.1 Historical meaning
6.2 Context
7 Symbolic action
8 See also
9 Notes
ten Outside links


The word derives from the Greek symbolon meaning token or watchword. It is an amalgam of syn- "together" + bole "a throwing, a casting, the stroke of a missile, bolt, beam." The sense evolution in Greek is from "throwing things together" to "contrasting" to "comparing" to "token used in comparisons to decide if something is genuine." Hence, "outward sign" of something. The meaning "something which stands for something else" was first recorded in 1590, in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.[1]


Later, expanding on what they means by this definition Campbell says:

In thinking about the effect of a symbol on the psyche, in his seminal essay The Symbol without Meaning Joseph Campbell proposes the following definition: A symbol is an energy evoking, and directing, agent.[2]

"a symbol, like everything else, shows a double aspect. They must distinguish, therefore between the 'sense' and the 'meaning' of the symbol. It seems to me perfectly clear that all the great and small symbolical systems of the past functioned simultaneously on levels: the corporeal of waking consciousness, the spiritual of dream, and the ineffable of the absolutely unknowable. The term 'meaning' can refer only to the first but these, today, are in the charge of science � which is the province as they have said, not of symbols but of signs. The ineffable, the absolutely unknowable, can be only sensed. It is the province of art which is not 'expression' merely, or even primarily, but a search for, and formulation of, experience evoking, energy-waking images: yielding what Sir Herbert Read has aptly termed a 'sensuous apprehension of being'.[3]
Heinrich Zimmer gives a concise overview of the nature, and perennial relevance, of symbols.

"Concepts and words are symbols, as visions, rituals, and pics are; so are the manners and customs of every day life. Through all of these a transcendent reality is mirrored. They are so lots of metaphors reflecting and implying something which, though thus variously expressed, is ineffable, though thus rendered multiform, remains inscrutable. Symbols hold the mind to truth but are not themselves the truth, hence it is delusory to borrow them. Each civilisation, every age, must bring forth its own."[4]
In the book Signs and Symbols, it is said that A symbol \. is a visual picture or sign representing an idea -- a deeper indicator of a universal truth.[5]

Human cultures use symbols to express specific ideologies and social structures and to represent aspects of their specific culture. Thus, symbols carryover meanings that depend on one�s cultural background; in other words, the meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned.[6]

Symbols are a way of complex communication that often can have multiple levels of meaning.[6] This separates symbols from signs, as signs have meaning.

Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge.[7] Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which they live, thus serving as the grounds on which they make judgments.[8] In this way, people use symbols not only to make sense of the world around them, but also to identify and cooperate in society through constitutive rhetoric.

Symbols and semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and signification as communicative behavior. Semiotics studies focus on the relationship of the signifier and the signified, also taking in to account interpretation of visual cues, body language, sound, and other contextual clues. Semiotics is linked with both linguistics and psychology. Semioticians thus not only study what a symbol implies, but also the way it got its meaning and the way it functions to make meaning in society. Symbols permit the human brain continuously to generate meaning using sensory input and decode symbols through both denotation and connotation.

Burke goes on to describe symbols as also being derived from Sigmund Freud's work on condensation and displacement, further stating that symbols are not relevant to the theory of dreams but also to "normal symbol systems". He says they[clarification needed] are related through "substitution", where word, phrase, or symbol is substituted for another in order to modify the meaning[clarification needed]. In other words, if person does not understand a positive word or phrase, another person may substitute a synonym or symbol in order to get the meaning across. However, on learning the new way of interpreting a specific symbol, the person may modify his or her already-formed ideas to incorporate the new information[clarification needed].

The square and compasses, symbol of the Freemasons
Psychoanalysis, rhetoric, and archetypes[edit]
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who studied archetypes, proposed an alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign. In Jung's view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or exact. An example of a symbol in this sense is Christ as a symbol of the archetype called self.[9] For example, written languages are composed of a variety of different symbols that generate words. Through these written words humans communicate with each other. Kenneth Burke described Homo sapiens as a "symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal" to recommend that a person creates symbols as well as misuses them. example he makes use of to indicate what he means by the misuse of symbol is the story of a man who, when told that a specific food item was whale blubber, could barely keep from throwing it up. Later, his mate discovered it was actually a dumpling. But the man's reaction was a direct consequence of the symbol of "blubber" representing something inedible in his mind. In addition, the symbol of "blubber" was created by the man through various kinds of learning.

Jean Dalby Clift says that people not only add their own interpretations to symbols, they also generate personal symbols that represent their own understanding of their lives: what he calls "core images" of the person. He argues that symbolic work with these personal symbols or core images can be as useful as working with dream symbols in psychoanalysis or counselling.[10]

William Indick suggests that the symbols that are often present in myth, legend, and fantasy fulfill psychological functions and hence are why archetypes such as "the hero," "the princess" and "the witch" have remained popular for hundreds of years.[11]

Paul Tillich

When a symbol becomes identified with the deeper reality to which it refers, it becomes idolatrous as the "symbol is taken for reality." The symbol itself is substituted for the deeper meaning it intends to convey. The distinctive nature of a symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible.

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Paul Tillich argued that, while signs are invented & forgotten, symbols are born & die. There's, therefore, dead & living symbols. A living symbol can reveal to an individual hidden levels of meaning & transcendent or religious realities. For Tillich a symbol always "points beyond itself" to something that is unquantifiable & mysterious: the symbol's "depth dimension". Symbols are complex, & their meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves. When a symbol loses its meaning & power for an individual or culture, it becomes a dead symbol. The Greek Gods might be an example of symbols that were one time living for the ancient Greeks but whose meaning & power are now gone.

Role of context in symbolism

Historical meaning[edit]
This history of a symbol is of plenty of factors in determining a specific symbol's apparent meaning. Consequently, symbols with emotive power carryover issues analogous to false etymologies.

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A symbol's meaning may be modified by various factors including popular usage, history, & contextual intent.

The context of a symbol may alter its meaning. Similar five-pointed stars might signify a law enforcement officer or a member of the armed services, depending on the uniform.

Symbolic action

Symbolic action may overlap with symbolic speech, such as the use of flag burning to express hostility or saluting the flag to express patriotism.[12]

A symbolic action is an action that has no, or little, practical effect but symbolizes, or signals, what the actor desires or believes. The action conveys intending to the viewers.

Symbolic actions are sometimes derided as slacktivism.

In response to intense public criticism, businesses, organizations, and governments may take symbolic actions than, or in addition to, directly addressing the identified issues.[13]