Skip to main content
Select Source:

Symbol

SYMBOL

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the symbol refers to all indirect and figurative representations of unconscious desire (symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, parapraxes, etc.). This conception of the unconscious symbol depends on a relation of general substitution where one thing takes the place of another; but unlike the term's conventional meaning, defined by the conjunction between the symbol and what is symbolized, the unconscious symbol is defined by a disjunction between symbol and symbolized.

Freud clarified this conception of the symbol following the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), describing it as a mnemic symbol subsequent to his research into hysterical symptoms. In the case of a "standard" symbol, the connection between the symbol and what is symbolized remains, as in the example that Freud gives of the knight who fights for his lady's glove but who knows full well that the glove owes its importance to her. In this synecdoche of part for whole the conjunction of meaning is clear. With hysteria however, it is the loss of the connection between the symbol and what is symbolized that is noteworthy: "The hysteric, who weeps at A, is quite unaware that he is doing so on account of the association A-B, and B itself plays no part at all in his psychical life. The symbol has in this case taken the place of the thing entirely" (1950c, p. 349).

As a result of this disjunction of meaning, the affect that was bound to what is symbolized attaches itself to the symbol. In both instances the substitution assumes a similarity between the symbol and what is symbolized (A/B), and thus emerges the tension at the very heart of symbolic substitution between a nonsensical literal interpretation and a symbolic interpretation that supports a surplus of meaning because of the very denial or negation [négation ] precluding the pure and simple assimilation of the two terms in question. In the case of the hysterical symbol, it is the impossibility of invoking denial that would explain the symptom's apparent absurdity.

What might appear here as a simple relation of substitution between two terms the symbol and what is symbolizedallows, in fact, for an interpretation where meaning might attributed according to context. The symbol's abundance derives from its polysemy, but only reference to a regulated system of interpretation can lend precision to the symbol, hence the requirement to define the system and determine what it is that permits this regulation.

Freud hesitated between two rules of interpretation. Either it depends on individual contextspecifically, a person's individual associations, which permit them to discover hidden meaning, as in the hysterical symptom or in dreamsor on collective contextspecifically, a work of transindividual culture that clarifies meaning, as in "symbolic dream-interpreting" (1900a, p. 97). On the subject of the dream, he depicted sexual symbols that did not arouse associations for the dreamer but that the analysis would supply by referring to the symbolism of collective compositions (myths, tales, proverbs, songs, etc.); this enabled him to rediscover the correlation between the manifest and latent symbol. This obscure and concealed comparability appeared to be based on a relationship of equivalence (a tree for the male sex organs, a cave for the female sex organs), but also occasionally on a relationship of proximity (nudity symbolized by clothes and uniforms).

If symbols are multiple, the field of what is symbolized is highly limited, relating ultimately to the domain of sexual instinct. The theory of a predetermined and stereotyped sexual symbolic, in the service of an oneiric representability, corresponds with Freud's wish to contest Jung's theory of symbolism, whose conception of the "libido-symbol" ends up denying the importance of the sexual instinct in psychic behavior. Ernest Jones's key paper, "The Theory of Symbolism" (1916), seeks moreover to reinforce the Freudian theory of "symbolic dream-interpretation"; for Jones all true symbolism is the substitute for repressed drives/instincts: "Only that which is repressed is symbolized and only that which is repressed requires symbolization."

It is a question then of finding a rule of interpretation that can substantiate the discovery of the unconscious. To back up his theory Freud adopted the linguist Hans Sperber's theory of a primitive language [langue ] parallel to the primitive language system [langage ] of sexuality in which all symbolic connections would appear as traces and relics: "That which today is linked symbolically was in all probability formerly linked conceptually and linguistically." Freud is thus compelled to set out from a real anteriority, in a proximate association, or identity even, that belongs, through a similar association, to language and to a process of symbolization that is inseparable from the work of instinct.

Thus, the theory of the symbolic designates more of a structural demand than a clinical truth. In clinical terms, Freud always mistrusted instant symbolic interpretations and preferred to rely on individual associations that allowed him to uncover a linguistic usage that would justify the use of a symbolic representation.

Freud's theory of the symbol cannot therefore be separated from a conception of symbolization, which bears out the fact that the psychoanalytic approach is more a tripartite theory of interpretation, where it is necessary to consider the subject who symbolizes, than a theory of translation seeking to proceed via the simple substitution of one term for another. Freud's uncertainty demonstrates the difficulty of constructing a theory of the symbol while making allowances for the symbol both as a motivated sign (the symbol for Ferdinand de Saussure, corresponding to a natural analogy between symbol and symbolized) and as an arbitrary sign (the symbol for Charles Sanders Pierce, corresponding to the standard rule governing the signifier and signified, in other words to the arbitrary linguistic sign).

What is problematic with this theory of the symbolic is the conception of symbolization as a failure of sublimation rather than as its accomplishment. This opposition marks a return in too radical a fashion to the opposition between a symbolism of the unconscious and a symbolism of language. Post-Freudian theorists have sought to reconcile these different aspects of the symbol, whether through a semantic perspective associated with the image, as in the case of Melanie Klein and post-Kleinian theorists, or through a syntactic approach associated with language, as in the case of Jacques Lacan. It is a question in both cases of reviving the Freudian intuition of the symbol as the result of a process of symbolization. To Klein's interpretation of the imaginary, which retains a certain psychological realism, Lacan opposed reference to the symbolic order that represents an intellectualization of the unconscious.

The approach to symbolization as a process presupposes the preservation of that which Freud, rather awkwardly, wished always to have prevail: namely, the necessity for a dualism, for the articulation of a viable distinction between the symbolism of the image and the symbolism of language. The truth of Freudian empiricism in the theory of primitive language, like the original proximity of the symbol, is no doubt to mark the importance of this fundamental proximity of the psyche with the body as the juncture between representation and affect, between meaning and primitive animism, characteristic of the hallucinatory satisfaction of desire.

Alain Gibeault

See also: Anagogical interpretation; Archetype (analytical psychology); "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; Compensation (analytical psychology); Complex (analytical psychology); Dream symbolism; Idea/representation; Infantile psychosis; Negation; Psychology of the Unconscious, The ; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Self (analytical psychology); Symptom-formation; Mnemic symbol; Symbolic, the (Lacan); Symbolism; Thought-thinking apparatus; Visual arts and psychoanalysis.

Bibliography

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5, 339-625.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

Jones, Ernest. (1916). The theory of symbolism. Papers on psychoanalysis. Boston: Beacon.

Further Reading

Segal, Hanna. (1978). On symbolism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 59, 315-320.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Symbol." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Symbol." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

"Symbol." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

symbol

symbol, sign representing something that has an independent existence. The most important use of symbols is in language. To say so, however, does not solve the perennial philosophical questions as to the nature of the linguistic sign. Signs are usually iconic, or related to what they signify, whereas linguistic signs are generally arbitrary. The question remains whether the word chair stands for any chair, for a particular chair, or for the idea of a chair—a problem often involved in philosophical arguments for nominalism and realism. A secondary linguistic symbolism is writing. Another, still connected with language, appears in systems of logic and mathematics (see also number).

Modern science has in its development profited from the conciseness provided by many symbols. In chemical symbols, for example, each element is represented by one or two letters (e.g., carbon, C; zinc, Zn). Some symbols are derived from non-English names, e.g., Ag for silver (Latin argentum). A chemical formula is written in chemical symbols.

In art a distinction of terms is introduced that modifies the term symbol. Although the drawings at Altamira are considered symbolic in one sense (i.e., a drawn reindeer is the symbol for a live reindeer), they are said not to be symbols in another more common sense, since they are partially iconic. If the artist had merely drawn two horns to represent an entire reindeer, the two horns might be said to be a symbol for a reindeer. Such symbolism is all-pervasive in every kind of art, especially because it lends itself to rapid, comprehensive, and compact use.

Religious symbolism is best known in its more ancient form from the discoveries of archaeologists; this is especially important in the study of Egyptian religion, in which the symbol of the god often appeared more frequently than the likeness of the god himself. Greek religion, on the contrary, seemed to eliminate symbols of gods in favor of actual images. In Judaism and Christianity religious symbolism is important, notably in the prophetic passages in the Bible and in the uses of public worship (see, for example, candle; incense; liturgy; sacrament; see also iconography).

Modern patriotism, particularly in the United States, has found a revered symbol in the flag, which began, like all heraldry, as a means of recognition. Trade symbols are sometimes quite widespread; although the wooden Indian signifying the tobacco shop has disappeared, barber poles are still common. The investigations of Sir James Frazer in comparative religion and those of Sigmund Freud in psychology, extreme though they may be, have shown that human beings tend always to use a wide symbolism, even in thinking itself, to cover ideas they avoid out of fear, propriety, or some other motive.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/symbol

"symbol." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/symbol

symbol

symbol Most generally, any act or thing which represents something else. More particularly, the smallest meaning-unit in the semantic fields of rituals, dream, or myth. In psychoanalysis, a symbol is an act or object representing a repressed unconscious desire. Symbols usually signify many things; that is, to use Victor Turner's phrase (The Forest of Symbols, 1967), they are multi-vocal. The link between symbol and referent is not always arbitrary, as with sign, but may be motivated by an association of attributes (for example, the crown as a symbol of monarchy).

Much of the research on symbolism has been done by social anthropologists rather than sociologists. For example, in Purity and Danger (1966), the British anthropologist Mary Douglas uses cross-cultural examples, including Hinduism, the Old Testament, and Western beliefs in hygiene, to argue that dirt is the symbol for matter out of place in a society's classification system. Clifford Geertz, the American cultural anthropologist and noted proponent of symbolic anthropology, has argued that human behaviour is fundamentally symbolic and therefore laden with meaning for social actors. The primary task of the ethnographer is to understand the ‘webs of significance’ which people themselves have spun. Thus, for Geertz, anthropology (and by implication sociology) is not an experimental science, looking for universal laws, but an interpretative science in search of meaning. ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ (in Daedalus, 1972)
is a classic example of Geertz's symbolic analysis. See also SAUSSURE, FERDINAND DE; SEMIOLOGY; SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

"symbol." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

SYMBOL

SYMBOL.
1. Something that represents something else, such as a drawing of a heart pierced by an arrow, standing for romantic love. In principle, anything can symbolize anything else, temporarily or permanently, especially something concrete or material used to represent something abstract or non-material, if an association can be formed between them: for example, a river symbolizing the flow of life; a circle symbolizing completion; a light symbolizing God. A word, phrase, image, character in a story, etc., may, in addition to its immediate nature and purpose, have symbolic status: for example, in ORWELL'S allegory Animal Farm (1945), the dogs symbolize the police in a repressive state. In the discussion of art, literature, language, etc., the term symbolism may refer to symbolic meaning as a whole, to the use of symbols, or to the disposition to invest things with symbolic meaning.

2. A mark, figure, character, etc., alone or in combination, that serves to designate something else, such as in the chemical formula O, representing oxygen. Compare SIGN. See NOTATION, SEMIOTICS.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"SYMBOL." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"SYMBOL." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/symbol

"SYMBOL." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/symbol

symbol

sym·bol / ˈsimbəl/ • n. a thing that represents or stands for something else, esp. a material object representing something abstract: the limousine was another symbol of his wealth and authority. ∎  a mark or character used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process, e.g., the letter or letters standing for a chemical element or a character in musical notation. ∎  a shape or sign used to represent something such as an organization, e.g., a red cross or a Star of David. • v. (-boled, -bol·ing; Brit. -bol·led, -bol·ling) [tr.] archaic symbolize.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-1

"symbol." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-1

symbol

symbol originally (in late Middle English), symbol denoted a formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian Church, in particular, the Apostles' Creed. This use is first found in the writing of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (c.250), who used Latin symbolum for the baptismal Creed, this Creed being the mark or sign of a Christian as distinguished from a heathen.

The current meaning, a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract, is recorded from the late 16th century.

The word comes via Latin symbolum ‘symbol, Creed’ from Greek sumbolon ‘mark, token’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

"symbol." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

symbol

symbol.
1. Representation of something, e.g. sacred, such as the elements of the Eucharist.

2. Familiar object used mnemonically to represent acts, persons, ideas, or anything, e.g. the Cross for Christianity, the means by which a Saint was martyred (attribute) (such as the gridiron for St Lawrence, the flaying-knife for St Bartholomew, a dove for the Holy Spirit).

3. Something representing what it is, unlike an allegory (which is a description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance: it therefore represents something it itself is not).

Bibliography

G. Ferguson (1961)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

"symbol." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

symbol

symbol summary of Christian belief, creed XV; something that represents something else XVI; written character XVII. — ChrL. symbolum — Gr. súmbolon mark, token, watchword, f. SYM- + *bol-, as in bolḗ, bólos a throw, rel. to bállein throw.
So symbolic(al) XVII. — F. symbolique or late L. symbolicus — Gr. sumbolikós. symbolize †agree, harmonize; have similar qualities (techn. term of early physics) XVI; be a symbol of XVII.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-2

"symbol." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-2

symbol

symbol
1. One of a set of distinct elements in the alphabet of a formal language. See signature, word.

2. An identifier in a program.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." A Dictionary of Computing. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." A Dictionary of Computing. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/computing/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

"symbol." A Dictionary of Computing. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/computing/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol

symbol

symbolbabble, bedabble, dabble, drabble, gabble, grabble, rabble, scrabble •amble, bramble, Campbell, gamble, gambol, ramble, scramble, shamble •psychobabble • technobabble •barbel, garble, marble •pebble, rebel, treble •assemble, dissemble, Kemble, resemble, tremble •Abel, able, Babel, cable, enable, fable, gable, label, Mabel, sable, stable, table •enfeeble, feeble, Keble •dibble, dribble, fribble, Gribble, kibble, nibble, quibble, scribble •Abu Simbel, cymbal, gimbal, nimble, symbol, thimble, timbal •mandible •credible, edible •descendible, extendible, vendible •audible •frangible, tangible •illegible, legible •eligible, intelligible •negligible • dirigible • corrigible •submergible • fallible • indelible •gullible •cannibal, Hannibal •discernible • terrible • horrible •thurible •irascible, passible •expansible • collapsible • impassible •accessible, compressible, impressible, inexpressible, irrepressible, repressible •flexible •apprehensible, comprehensible, defensible, distensible, extensible, ostensible, reprehensible, sensible •indexible •admissible, dismissible, immiscible, impermissible, irremissible, miscible, omissible, permissible, remissible, transmissible •convincible, vincible •compossible, impossible, possible •irresponsible, responsible •forcible •adducible, crucible, deducible, inducible, irreducible, producible, reducible, seducible •coercible, irreversible, reversible, submersible •biocompatible, compatible •contractible • partible •indefectible, perfectible •contemptible •imperceptible, perceptible, susceptible •comestible, digestible, suggestible •irresistible, resistible •exhaustible •conductible, deductible, destructible, tax-deductible •corruptible, interruptible •combustible •controvertible, convertible, invertible •discerptible • persuasible • feasible •divisible, risible, visible •implausible, plausible •fusible •Bible, intertribal, libel, scribal, tribal •bobble, Chernobyl, cobble, gobble, hobble, knobble, nobble, squabble, wobble •ensemble •bauble, corbel, warble •coble, ennoble, Froebel, global, Grenoble, ignoble, noble •foible • rouble • Hasdrubal • chasuble •soluble, voluble •bubble, double, Hubble, nubble, rubble, stubble, trouble •bumble, crumble, fumble, grumble, humble, jumble, mumble, rough-and-tumble, rumble, scumble, stumble, tumble, umbel •payable, sayable •seeable, skiable •amiable •dyeable, flyable, friable, liable, pliable, triable, viable •towable •doable, suable, wooable •affable • effable • exigible • cascabel •takable • likable • salable • tenable •tunable • capable • dupable •arable, parable •curable, durable •taxable •fixable, mixable •actable • collectible •datable, hatable •eatable •notable, potable •mutable • savable • livable • movable •lovable • equable • sizable • usable •burble, herbal, verbal

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"symbol." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"symbol." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-0

"symbol." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/symbol-0