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Symbol and Symbolism


SYMBOL AND SYMBOLISM . [This entry presents a history of the study of symbolism: issues, theories, and approaches. For an explanation of symbols from various religious traditions, see Iconography.]

Understanding symbolism as a particular mode of religious thought begins with some consideration of what one means by the term. Most generally, a symbol is thought of as something that stands for something else. However, it is not a simple matter to identify the particular mode of "standing for" that provokes an observer to call something a symbol, as opposed to any of the other terms we use to designate figurative devices, like sign, figure, metaphor, image, receipt, token, or allegory, to name just a few. Although different definitions have been used throughout the long history of semiotics, a certain consistency exists in the characteristics thought to be specific to "symbol" (Greek sumbolon, late Latin symbolum, Italian simbolo, German Symbol, French symbole ). These defining characteristics have consistently granted the idea a special relevance to religion. While various objects have been called symbolsincluding the purely arbitrary signifiers used in mathematical or scientific notation and, in the ancient period, the tokens of identity used in diplomacy and as markers of business agreementa large subset of these appear in contexts that deal specifically with figuration of the divine. In particular, a symbol, as opposed to other forms of signification, tends to be understood as a representational mechanism that renders transcendent realities into tangible forms.

This article surveys the general outlines of the study of symbolism by proceeding historically, highlighting certain key contributions relative to the study of religion and focusing attention on some of the main theoretical issues.

Points of Origin

Though the Romantics created the modern apotheosis of the symbol, they did not invent the idea. The symbol has a rich premodern history, which, while not determinative, renders comprehensible certain habits of thought that animate the concept's later history. The term originated in Greek. The neuter noun, sumbolon, is formed from the verb sumballein (prefix sun + the verb ballein ), which can mean many things but whose least marked sense is "to put" things "together." In 1931, Walter Müri disproved conclusively the notion that the noun is derived from the notion of a thing "put together" with something else. Philological considerations argue against this interpretation and also against the idea that symbol indicated, from its inception, an unspecific and general association between things. (This sense would have required sumblêma, which is uncommon and attested very late.) Neuter nouns in omicron formed from other -ballein verbs consistently mark the instrument by which the action of the verb is completed. Consequently, if the noun had actually been derived from the verbal sense of "put together," it would have yielded the sense of a device used to put other things together, and this suggestion turns out to be awkward in the face of attested ancient usage.

The neuter noun in the classical period regularly designated one of the two halves of a deliberately broken piece of material (a terracotta shard, for example) that were distributed to the two parties to an agreement in order to provide a secure authentication, at some future date, of their original arrangement. One sense of the verb sumballein stands out clearly, given knowledge of the philological parallels, as the best explanation of the evidence for the noun. The verb has a well-attested sense of "to agree," which positions the symbol as a device by which agreement is completed. Symbols seal the deal, so to speak. In the classical age, this context is by far the most common. Symbols appear as authenticating markers in many different fields, including in hospitality arrangements, in business, and in diplomacy. Although this background sets, at first glance, a kind of intuitively satisfying background for understanding the later history of a representational device, on closer inspection, it is too humble to have served as the origins for the master concept of figuration that appears later. A "receipt" and a "passport" are, after all, a far cry from a mode of representation that mediates between humans and the divine. Two other contexts need to be considered; these will explain the ways in which a narrow term of authentication gains a broader meaning and will show that symbols had, even in their earliest days, certain unique representational powers.

First, in the mystery religions and famously among adherents of the Pythagorean sects, the term sumbolon designates a particularly significant kind of authentication. It is the secret password or short, enigmatic verbal formula that verifies membership in a particular cult. These symbols carried the added power to authenticate a cult member as he or she ascended a ladder of spiritual wisdom. Knowledge of the secret symbol allows a person to gain access to higher tiers of enlightenment. In the deepest expression of this aspect, the symbol can be used after death to give the deceased access to the regions of the blessed, where souls live in splendor after their separation from their bodies. These symbols are indeed passports but ones that facilitate the movement of humans toward the divine, and so set up conditions more congenial to the later development of the idea. This background underlies the early Christian usage of the Latin symbolum for the Apostle's Creed.

The second important context for understanding the symbol's later history is in the field of divination. A different Greek term, the masculine sumbolos, which emerges from a different sense of the originating verb sumballein, applies here. In addition to the idea of agreement, the verb carries a meaning of "to meet." Again, on philological parallels, the masculine noun in omicron indicates a thing or person doing the action of meeting, and so comes to indicate that which one meets. In the field of divination, chance meetings of many kinds played an important role, and sumbolos is the most general term for these. Because of the prominence of the neuter form (and of neuter forms in the language of divination more generally) the masculine term tends to become assimilated to the neuter. By the classical period, it had outgrown its specific use to describe an ominous chance meeting and had become a general term for a divine sign of any kind. The symbol as divine sign forms the second important background idea to the later development of the concept. In a kind of mirror image of the symbol in the Mysteries, the divine sign also facilitates movement of the divine toward the human. In both contexts, human aspirations for the divine are expressed in concrete form.

These early manifestations of the notion of the symbol contain two important aspects. First, a current of secrecy is present throughout. The symbol marks a form of sign that brings something to light, and yet it means something that is not apparent to the uninitiated. In other words, the symbol has an esoteric or "closing" function, as well as an exoteric or "disclosing" one. Later theories of the symbolic will tend to preserve this esoteric dimension and draw on the power that secrecy always bestows. In addition, the symbol in the mystery context points to a performative dimension to symbolic representation. It has the power to enact a change in the one who wields it.

On these bases, the term symbol came into slightly broader use around the Mediterranean in the wake of Alexandrian Hellenization after the third century bce. In addition to divine omens of all kinds, as well as magico-religious cultic formulas, the term designated allegorical representations of the divine in poetic texts, and cultic manifestations of divinities with their traditional accoutrements, such as accompanying birds or distinctive dress. These two developments show the newfound usefulness of the notion of the symbol in conceptualizing the ways in which divinities (which in a Hellenistic context could make increasingly extravagant claims to transcendence) might somehow be captured in more tangible forms. This use is an abrupt departure from the classical practice and is surely due to the influence of the usages in divination and in the mysteries. So the symbol began to describe that particular mode of representation through which, for example, Homer's all-too-corporeal gods or traditional cultic forms of anthropomorphic divinities might relate to a transcendent divine principle as it was beginning to be understood. It is perhaps not a surprise that a parallel (and pivotal) context emerged in the Greek Magical Papyri, in which a symbol meant a magical amulet or token. It marked a divinely charged material object that had some sort of numinous power to produce tangible effects here on earth. It was intended to describe a reproduction of the divine in material form rather than a representation per se.

Symbols in Late Antiquity

In late antiquity, the symbol took on a new life, one that marked a crucial stage in its development. The post-Plotinian Neoplatonists explicitly married the Pythagorean password to enlightenment, the omen, the material representation that renders the traditional god in tangible form, the allegorical representations of the divinities in poetic texts, and the amulet of the magicians in order to produce a systematic theory of the symbol as a master device of representation. The first stage in this development begins with the work of Iamblichus (c. 245c. 325), who followed Plotinus' lead in making philosophy a soteriological pursuit. Drawing on the Pythagoreans for inspiration, he claimed that different levels of knowledge required different forms of discourse. Scientific knowledge might be reached adequately through likenesses and images, but esoteric wisdom of the divine superstructure of the cosmos required a secret language of symbols. In his On the Mysteries, Iamblichus further develops this idea in relation to what he saw as the secret symbolic language of the Egyptians. Knowledge of the hieroglyphs was spotty in late antiquity, and ignorance of this language contributed greatly to its perceived capacity to carry the most profound wisdom. Iamblichus also devoted a great deal of attention to justifying a form of ritual praxis, part of his comprehensive philosophical-religious discipline, in which symbols play a critical part. They are required to activate the rituals; more specifically, they are the material items or secret language that invokes the divine presence. This notion implies that symbolic figuration relies not on mimetic imitation but on the invocation of true presence.

These developments led to the work of the great follower of Iamblichus, Proclus (d. 485). Proclus created a highly developed symbol theory that played a central role in his metaphysics, his theory of ritual, and his views on figuration of the divine in language or in the arts. All the post-Plotinian Neoplatonists understood that the transcendent principle of the universe, the One, radiated out from itself the whole of the universe, with each successive layer of reality imitating what had come immediately before it. This view made the cosmos a kind of cascading theophany. Yet they also tried to comprehend Plato's famous conundrum that representation is always and everywhere a movement away from, rather than closer to, the truth. The Neoplatonists had to work within two views: that the material world is a theophany and that it is a shadow world of hopelessly decayed imitation. More often than his predecessors, Proclus uses the "symbol" precisely to resolve this tension. In his theory, most clearly articulated in his Commentary on the Republic, symbolic figuration does not involve imitation based on resemblancein other words, Plato's objections do not apply to it. Instead, the symbol reproduces the real presence of its referent; it operates according to invocation and not according to imitation. Drawing on an apothegm he knew from the Chaldean Oracles, a text of dubious provenance that became a holy book for the Neoplatonists, Proclus stated that as the higher orders create the cosmos through imitation, they sow "symbols" throughout it. Proclus thought these symbols were nodes of divine radiance nestled within our tragically decayed world of imitations. These secret symbols can be harnessed by the knowledgeable poet, philosopher, or ritual practitioner, in order to render the divine in a suitable material form. This theory allows him to construct a defense of Homer, construct a metaphysics that mediates between the divine source and its mundane effluxions, and develop an explanation for how the divine might actually be made present in ritual praxis.

While Proclus is not particularly well known in the wider contemporary history of ideas, his thought regarding the symbol has had a long-standing and definitive influence. Certain key Romantic philosophers recovered his corpus in the eighteenth century, and their theories will be discussed below. Proclus's ideas also greatly influenced a person who became the single most important authority on figuration of the divine for medieval readers of the Bible. Shortly after Proclus's death, a body of work emerged that came to be attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, Paul's convert mentioned in Acts 17:34. This pseudepigraphical collection of texts reinvented Proclus's theories of symbolism to help the early Christians understand the representation of the divine in cult, in texts, and in Dionysius' emanationist metaphysics. Dionysius reworked Proclus's theories for an understanding of the Christian sacraments (in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy ), hierarchical tiers of beings (in the Celestial Hierarchy ) and the places in Scripture where the divine is figured in physical and sometimes even entirely corporeal form (in the Divine Names ). Dionysius's mystical hermeneutics applied to all aspects of the divinely infused world, from scripture to church to cosmos. When his corpus was translated by John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, it quickly became the authoritative guide for medieval clergy trying to understand how the Scriptures could assign tangible qualities to the transcendent godhead. (The corpus also served as a guide for Christian mysticisms of many varieties across medieval Europe, both in the east and the west.) In his Summa theologica, Thomas Aquinas cites Dionysius some seventeen hundred times, more often than any other writer except Augustine of Hippo.

The Romantic movement

The turning point for contemporary interest in symbolic theory, and the most convenient point at which to begin a brief account of its modern life, occurred around the middle of the eighteenth century, among a group of thinkers and literary figures who have come to be known collectively as the Romantic movement. Their concern with symbolscharged by their reading of the late-antique Neoplatonists, but less the outcome of any single current of symbolic theory than a constellation of ideas scattered throughout the disciplines of Western academiawas one aspect of their general spirit of resistance against what they perceived as the dangerous excesses of eighteenth-century rationalism. With the Romantics, the "symbol" grew in importance and became the most prominent vehicle for the view that figuration, now considered in its most general terms, is a root process defining the human being and, importantly, that figuration, considered as a mental process, resides in a position of priority over even rational thought itself.

One of these Romantics, Johann Georg Hamann (17301788) reflected the general mood, though not the academic rigor of the times, in arguing the merits of poetic discourse as the "mother tongue of humanity." In protest against Kant, this most difficult and oracular of Romantic authors saw the perfection of knowledge not in abstraction but in symbols, since symbols enable one to view all the phenomena of nature and history as revelations of a divine communication. His contemporary, Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803), who was taught by both Kant and Hamann, was more balanced in his approach to the Enlightenment and its representatives. For Herder, the task of aesthetics lay in the search for a universal logic of artistic symbolization; to this end, he developed his own theory of the evolution of language, giving a central role to folk poetry. His use of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (17121778) model of human growth as an analogy for the course of history and its progress away from the childlike innocence of the "noble savage" was widespread in the Romantic movement. Similarly, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 17721801) also defended the primacy of imagination and poetry as a means to produce the symbolism of a higher reality, and he drew special attention to the "magical" power of symbolic words. Among theorists of literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834), influenced by F. W. J. Schelling (17751854) and the late-antique Neoplatonists, found the symbol to be a powerful representational tool that had the unique capacity to grasp the transcendent in physical, palpable form. The symbol, he thought, becomes "consubstantial" with its referent.

Together with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (17421799), a physicist with a mystical bent who was actually anti-Romantic, the self-avowed psychological novelist Karl Philip Moritz (17571793) merits mention for drawing attention to dreams as symbolic expressions of the inner self. The first major achievement in this area came after the turn of the century, with Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert (17801860), whose views of the dream as an abbreviated hieroglyphic language later earned him recognition by Freud as a forerunner of modern psychological dream interpretation. The work of Carl Gustav Carus (17891869) on dream interpretation has more immediate links to modern psychology, however, because of the extensive and systematic use he made of the notion of an unconscious mind, a notion that incidentally was widespread among the Romantics. Carus's distinction between relative and absolute layers of the unconscious, and his argument for a participation of the latter in a sort of universal, pantheistic life force reflected in dream symbols, were an inspiration to theories later developed by Jung after his break from Freud.

One side effect of the Romantic movementperhaps the one that, more than any other, carried the attention to symbolism over into the nineteenth centurywas the variety of opinion it sparked among classical mythologists, both among those sympathetic to the Romantics and those opposed. Scholars such as Samuel Clarke (16751729), Johann Ernesti (17071781), Christian Heyne (17291812), and Johann Hermann (17721848) reinterpreted the gods and heroes of ancient Greece as symbols expressing a primitive level of philosophy or psychology. The very tools of allegoresis that the medieval theologiansfollowing a tradition going back to the Greek philosophers and literary criticshad used to reveal the hidden wisdom of the ancient myths were used to discredit its symbolic importance. Moritz, among others, objected to the reductionism in such interpretation and argued for the primacy of understanding the historical conditions of classical antiquity. The complaints of Jacques Antoine Dulare (17751835) against "symbolizing" what were basically pragmatic cults and beliefs typified the new and more empirical approach to the symbol that was gaining strength. This foment of opinion generated many later efforts to link a personal meaning of symbols to a general morphology of nature myths, such as are described in the work of Georg Ferdinand Frobenius (18491917) and Paul Ehrenreich (18551914).

One key figure, whose systematic treatment of symbols united the influences of the Romantic movement with the study of classical mythology, was Georg Friedrich Creuzer (17711858). Creuzer was steeped in late antique ideas about the symbol. He produced editions of Proclus and other key Neoplatonists which helped to re-awaken the Neoplatonic spirit of the symbol. Employing a comparative approach that used materials from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as India and Persia, he tried to develop a theory of symbolism that would at once respect the pragmatic meaning of symbols as carriers of concrete tradition (including the scientific) and the religious meaning of symbols as the force to unify (sun-ballein ) spirit and matter. Objections to Creuzer's work, however, in particular to his attempt to show the influence of Oriental symbolism on Christian symbolism, arose on every side, the most devastating of them from the pen of the classicist Johann Heinrich Voss (17511826). Even scholars in the early twenty-first century often deny Creuzer the important place he deserves in the history of the study of symbolism.

Perhaps the best known of the Romantic students of symbolism is Johann Jakob Bachofen (18501887). A historian devoted to the non-literate ancient world, he turned to myth as a guide to understanding the distant past, and from there developed a highly particularized exegesis of symbols. While Bachofen appears to have carried on his work independently of Dulare and Creuzer, he shared their concern for developing a universal, abstract theory of the symbol rooted in the facts of history. For him, the fundamental theme of the ancient mythsand hence also the basis for the symbols that myths interpretwas that of gynecocracy, or mother right. Although modern scholarship has since discredited this idea, along with most of his other historical arguments, the remarkable imagination and suggestiveness of Bachofen's work has kept it alive among those concerned with a general theory of the symbol.

The Symbolists

The Symbolist movement was one of literary esotericism that formed among a group of French poets in the final two decades of the nineteenth century. The leading thinker was Stéphane Mallarmé (18421898); after his death, it virtually came to an end. Although its roots may be traced to the philosophies of Hegel and Schopenhauer, the Aesthetic movement in England, and the mystical writings of Swinburne, the movement took shape basically as a reaction against the impact of scientific realism on the literary arts.

Unlike the Romantics, who had been more concerned with the interpretation of specific symbols or the development of a general theory about symbolization processes, the Symbolists were preoccupied with creating symbols of ideal beauty appropriate to their age. While the Romantics were overtly political and publicthe idea of the "noble savage" that was so dear to them provided part of the intellectual backdrop to the French Revolutionthe Symbolists deliberately withdrew from the vulgar sentiments of public life. Theirs was a quasi-metaphysical, highly theoretical attempt to idealize absolute Beauty, to promote its contemplation, and at the same time to create it by restoring a musical sense to poetry and by using highly symbolic terms. Given to theorizing about symbols in esoteric terms, as these thinkers were, it is no surprise that their influence was restricted. In other respects, too, the major proponents of the movement seemed intentionally to flout existing traditions. Mallarmé used Christian ritual symbolism to erect a metaphysics designed to explain symbols. Charles Baudelaire (18211867), who may be credited as the first poet to exalt the value of symbols, did so by inverting the symbols of Christianity into a sort of diabolism. Paul Verlaine (18441896) also gave more popular form to the principles of Mallarmé by locating them within a Christian context. In fact, however, all of the Symbolists stood firmly outside of the Christian frame in their search for an alternate center to their aesthetic-mystico-religious sensibility: ideal Beauty.

Although the Symbolist movement was short-lived, and its theories have long since fallen out of favor, it did have an impact on symbolism in literature by cross-fertilizing it with anthropology, classics, and religion. The American counterpart of the movement, represented by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Henry James, as well as European post-Symbolists such as Rainer Maria Rilke and William Butler Yeats, shared many of the Symbolists' instincts about the mystical dimension of symbolism. Despite the movement's lack of influence on the study of symbols then being undertaken by philosophers and anthropologists, its reorientation from the objective world of facts to the evocative, psychological power of symbols brought the symbolic process itself to the surface, thereby foreshadowing developments in the twentieth century.

The Rise of Modern Anthropology

By Bachofen's time, the influence of the Romantic movement on the study of symbols had begun to wane. Ethnological data gathered directly from primitive societies was beginning to accumulate, and the empirical method for the study of symbols, including those of the ancient world, was becoming more disciplined. Important work was done by Lewis H. Morgan (18181881) on Native American sacrificial rites; by William Robertson Smith (18461894) on Semitic sacrifice; by Henry Clay Trumbull (18301903) on the comparative study of sacrifice in India, China, the Near East, Africa, and Central America; by John Ferguson McLennan (18271881) on marriage symbolism; and by N. D. Fustel de Coulanges (18301889) on the influence of religious symbols on ancient Greek and Roman civil institutions. These and other works of the period contained a new rigorous approach to analyzing the data, coupled with an attempt to translate the meaning of symbols into abstractions more suitable to the modern critical mind.

This new scientific approach did much to demystify the study of occult and secret symbolic traditions, as well as to open the way to a more objective study of sexual symbolism in primitive culture and religious rites. The censure that Creuzer and Dulare had encountered a century before began steadily to weaken.

No doubt the most important figure of this period is Edward Burnett Tylor (18321917), rightly credited as the founder of modern cultural anthropology. Tylor's contribution to the study of the symbol has no direct links to the Romantics. Drawing instead from mid-nineteenth-century British philosophy, which had been rocked by evolutionary theory, he formulated a rather rationalistic and often condescending view of symbols. The myth-making faculty of primitive peoples that F. Max Müller and the brothers Grimm had helped to rediscover interested Tylor as a potential clue to the evolutionary development of mind, and led him to uncover a fundamental animism at the source of the symbolic process.

Another important influence on symbol theory at the time was James G. Frazer (18541941). His monumental study on the notion of the slain god, The Golden Bough, which had grown out of his work on nature symbolism and relied heavily on insights from Robertson Smith, not only influenced students in all fields of symbolism, but also affected scholars of literature. The sheer scope and wealth of Frazer's achievement, however, tended to overshadow the lack of development in his theory of symbols. And, as had Tylor, he bypassed important questions raised by the Romantics and the Symbolists.

At the start of the twentieth century, interest in symbolism continued to strengthen and to gain respectability among academics. Typical of this trend was Franz Boas (18581942), whose work on primitive art symbols led him to a number of interesting but controversial conclusions about the relationship between religious ideas and the literalization of natural symbols. The major influence at the time, however, came from the work of Émile Durkheim (18581917). Turning away from the nineteenth-century bias toward treating symbols as discrete entities with meanings in themselvesand thus turning his back on the Romantics and the Symbolists alikeDurkheim sought to uncover their social implications. He did not care very much about any inner reality in symbols, nor did he care where they came from; he was interested only in their effect on the society that used them. To this end, he proposed the revolutionary idea of viewing society as a system of forces conditioned by the symbolizing process: symbols were social because they preserved and expressed social sentiments. In assuming that non-empirical symbolic referents must be distorted representations of empirical reality, many critics later argued, Durkheim had viewed symbols too narrowly and failed to appreciate their polyvalent structure. While his concern with symbolic referents may have prevented him from exploring the wider reaches of symbolic significance, the boldness of his hypothesis laid a challenge before students of the symbol that retains its force in the early twenty-first century.

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (18811955) owed much to Durkheim in the former's approach to symbols as meanings that give expression to sentiments in individuals in order to regulate collective needs or preserve relations and interests important to a particular society. Despite Radcliffe-Brown's numerous intuitions and descriptive distinctions, as well as a more scrupulous grounding in direct fieldwork than his predecessor, his work suffers from a certain lack of theoretical clarity by comparison.

Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942) shared many of Radcliffe-Brown's views, but Malinowski approached symbols with a keener sensitivity to their linguistic implications and a more complex theoretical understanding of them. Rather than viewing words as having meaning in themselves, he saw them as entirely relative to their context, where they both communicate conventions and organize behavior. Like all symbols (of which they are the prototype), words modify the human organism in order to transform physiological drives into cultural values. Although Malinowski confused speech with language, and so was driven to generalizations that contemporary linguistic theory no longer accepts, his main concern was in classifying and interpreting symbolic forms to show how the process of symbolization affects the formation and function of culture. He succeeded in undoing the generalized symbolic interpretations of myths that some anthropologists had inherited from the Romantics.

R. R. Marett (18661943) attempted to trace the origins of religion to pre-animist beliefs in superhuman forces, but these efforts were armchair investigations from a scholar who preferred common sense to actual work in the field. Despite their limitations, however, his reports had high literary value and considerable influence on many other theoreticians working in symbolic theory. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939), most often remembered for his attempt to relate the origins of religion to a "prelogical" primitive mind that shared in the realities of nature by means of what he called participation mystiquea position that he retracted later in lifealso deserves credit for highlighting the need to study symbolic thought and behavior.

Although the contributions of these pioneers continue to be recognized and supported by field studies, scholars hold many diverse opinions as a result of increased sensitivity to the complexities of symbol theory. Social scientists have become increasingly aware of the methodological assumptions underlying their own behavior and of the effects of psychological factors, the critical apparatus of philosophical hermeneutics, and advances in linguistic theory.

Victor Turner (19201983) developed an important theory of symbolism from his studies on ritual in the late twentieth century. Particular symbols can be understood, he argued, only by setting them in their wide "action-field context," considering their immediate role in ritual, and observing the particular patterns of behavior associated with them. Turner saw this series of expanding contexts as giving meaning to the symbol; furthermore, he focused attention on the context of the interpreter. His approach helped to clarify the distinctions between exegetical meaning (given by indigenous informants), operational meaning (derived from observation of a symbol's use), and positional meaning (deduced from its place in the totality of symbols). The psychological functions that Turner accorded symbolsto guard against excessive emotion and to serve as a catharsis to express feelingsinitially were controversial but now have become commonplace.

Ever since Durkheim, anthropologists have emphasized the pivotal role of social structure (as both matrix and offspring) in the symbolic process, but the concrete forms of many symbols have caused scholars to investigate the ways that these symbols reflect the visible world of nature. In his researches on Semitic religions, Robertson Smith suggested that symbols of divinity, even those clearly wrought by human hands, were originally drawn from earth symbols. Mary Douglas has taken a more developed and inventive approach to natural symbols, linking the origins of symbolization to the structure and processes of the human body. She reminds her colleagues that the modern study of symbols needs to consider symbols generated by social structures that may alienate people from themselves, from one another, and from the earth.

Modern anthropological theory owes much to Claude Lévi-Strauss and his research in linguistics and depth psychology, particularly in the realm of myth and symbol. Instead of the functional approach championed by Malinowski, or the more traditional symbolic approach that described symbols primarily in terms of their meanings, Lévi-Strauss's structuralism resurrected interest in myths and symbols as phenomena more basic than the meanings they convey, the social functions they fulfill, or the social systems that give them shape. Symbols belong to their own systems, he asserted, within which they are subject to certain basic relationships and patterns of transformation. His attempt to locate a universal human nature in some common, relatively stable mental structures underlying all variations in behavioral expression has helped to revive the Romantics' quest for a generalized theory and to preserve sensitivity to insights in symbolic theory developed in other disciplines.

Depth Psychology

Although some Romantics and others developed psychological theories of the symbol in the nineteenth century, these theories did not gain prominence until the twentieth century, notably in the work of Freud and Jung.

Sigmund Freud (18561939) founded his psychoanalytic movement on a theory of symbols whose refinement he pursued throughout his life. Freud used the dream symbols of the neurotically disturbed as fundamental data for his theories of how one's perception of the past is distorted, displaced, condensed, and filtered according to the internal conscious and unconscious dynamics of the psyche. So startling and compelling were his ideas that by the early years of the twentieth century they had become essential lessons for students of symbolism. W. H. R. Rivers (18641922) and Charles Seligman (18731940), both British, were among the first anthropologists to incorporate his ideas into their ethnographic work. In 1935, Jackson Lincoln made a daring application of Freud's method of dream interpretation to primitive culture; after him, Géza Róheim (18911953) used Freud's ideas in his studies of myth and folklore. Freud's concept of condensation, applied early on by Edward Sapir (18941939), has appeared in the work of such contemporaries as Victor Turner and Mary Douglas. Even those who, like Malinowski, were repelled by Freud's neglect of social factors, or who, like Lévi-Strauss, rejected the primacy Freud gave to the sexual meaning and etiology of symbols, have had to acknowledge the significance of unconscious factors in the formation of myths and symbols.

Carl Gustav Jung (18751961) had less influence than Freud on students of symbolism, but his research continues to stimulate interdisciplinary studies, and it has won respect in many depth psychology circles which are inimical to Freud. By seeing symbols not merely as private symptoms of unresolved repressions, but as expressions of the psyche's struggle for realization and individuation, Jung encouraged a more positive assessment of many neglected esoteric and mystical traditions from both East and West. His ideas affected the work of the Sinologist Richard Wilhelm (18731930) and the Indian scholar Heinrich Zimmer (18901943). In contrast to Freud, Jung has not attracted much attention from philosophers, but he has offered certain anthropologists, such as Paul Radin (18831959), a balance to Freud's excesses. Mythologists such as Joseph Campbell and Károly Kerényi (18971973), as well as numerous critics of art and literature such as Herbert Read (18931968) and Maud Bodkin, bear the stamp of Jung's symbolic theory clearly in their work. Although his methods of scholarship and use of data were controversial, both during his lifetime and afterward, Jung remains a testament to the power exerted by the study of symbolism over the inquiring intellect.

Philosophy and Religious Studies

Although philosophers and theologians have been interested in the problem of symbols since the time of the Neoplatonists, twentieth-century symbolic theory became something of a cottage industry among philosophers interested in or influenced by the field of semiotics.

Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) took the first important step in this direction. His distinctions among the terms sign, symbol, index, and icon posed a number of fundamental questions that continue to intrigue many philosophers; in fact, his research provided a stimulus for anthropologists and historians to forge similar distinctions in their own work. In 1923, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards published The Meaning of Meaning, which disseminated Peirce's categories and stimulated interest in his ideas. American philosopher C. W. Morris also incorporated new insights from semantics and social psychology into the sphere of philosophical logic.

Ernst Cassirer's (18741945) work was much more ambitious in scope. He viewed the philosopher's task as the quest for the human spirit at work in culture, and coupled this outlook with his neo-Kantian leanings to produce a theory of "symbolic forms" as the basis to all human apprehension of the world. Although Cassirer's apparent neglect of criteria for verification has made him easy prey to later generations of scholars, his attempt to develop a consistent theory of mind grounded in the symbolic function represents a bold step beyond the purely logical frame of Peirce. His most notable successor in this regard has been Susanne Langer, best known for her aesthetic theory.

Among contemporary philosophers who have grappled impressively with the legacy of symbolic theory and with data from psychoanalysis, anthropology, and linguistics, the work of Paul Ricoeur stands out for the wide influence it has enjoyed among students of religion. For Ricoeur, "thought" needs something to "think about," and what it thinks about are symbols. The proper task of philosophy is hermeneutics, which he understands as the recovery of meaning through attention to the symbol-making function that begins with language and carries over into every person's attempt to be rational.

Religious studies in the twentieth century have become so closely bound to the study of symbols and the symbol-forming process that one is almost unthinkable without the other. The role that Mircea Eliade (190786) played in this chapter of Western intellectual history is hard to overestimate. In an impressive array of studies in the history of religions ranging from primitive societies to esoteric traditions, Eliade gradually constructed a comparative view of the phenomenon of symbolism that at once incorporates the gains of other disciplines and informs them with fresh insight.

The study of symbolism has also left its impression on modern theological studies. By introducing the philosophical hermeneutic tradition into biblical research, Rudolf Bultmann (18841976) redefined the domain of scriptural studies. In the area of systematic theology, Paul Tillich (18861965), whose dependence on existential hermeneutics is equally apparent, though at a more abstract level, argued throughout his work for the positive and indispensable role that symbolism plays in religious language. Conversely, he tried to show how the place of the symbol in human culture argues for the notion of an "Unconditioned" as a universal solvent of human consciousness.

General Symbolic Theory

A symbol usually is something concrete and particular that represents something else, usually abstract and generalized. The symbol often becomes a focal point for thoughts and emotions associated with its referent, or a trigger for associated habits. While the symbol itself is typically easily perceived, its referent may not be. Indeed, theorists commonly define a symbol in such a way that its referent is unclear, particularly with the powerful and lasting religious symbols, which generally resist direct connection to a single definable referent.

Theories of symbolism can be differentiated according to the factors that are judged to be formative in the symbolizing process (such as tradition and convention, biological needs and processes, the occurrence of natural phenomena, the structure of the human psyche, and divine hierophanies and revelations). A common, though largely tacit, assumption in most modern theories of symbolism is that the capacity to generate and use symbols is a core technology unique to the human species. This assumption exists as a prerequisite for, rather than an epiphenomenon of, the capacity for higher-order mental activity. Cassirer made this point forcefully in referring to symbolization as the root of all social communication, calling human beings homo symbolicus. Susanne Langer extended the argument further, viewing symbolization as one of the most basic and primitive functions of mind. Symbols appear not only in rational, discursive thought and behavior but also in the arts, which Langer attempts to define as varieties of "virtual" behavior. Theorizing of the symbolic process, therefore, typically involves theorizing of the structure of the psyche itself in order to explain how meaning is created and handed down as humans reproduce. The British linguistic analysts and those of the Vienna Circle also contributed to symbolic theory: they were concerned with discovering the invariable patterns by which meaning enters into human communication and with disposing of the distorted patterns by which meaning is turned into nonsense. Moreover, Freud's point of departure in the neurotic symptom and Jung's search for archaic, archetypal patterns both represent attempts to describe the universal structure of mind in terms of symbol-making processes.

The Meaning of Religious Symbols

The problem of symbolic meaning introduces a consideration of hermeneutics and of semiotic logic. To the extent that they invoke a hermeneutics, religious symbols ask the scholar to consider what qualitiessubjective, objective, or bothdefine a symbol as religious. Next, the researcher must determine whether a possible religious symbol is actually functioning as a living symbol or should instead be classified as some other form of communication. What works as a symbol in one age may, even within a given tradition, cease to be relevant in the next age. Naturally, the same precept applies to differences among various cultural settings, and even among individuals. Problems like these underlie the distinction between a synchronic study of symbols, which seeks to locate a symbol within a certain living context or fund of symbols, and a diachronic approach, which looks for invariable patterns in religious symbolism. While many anthropologists take the synchronic approach, Lévi-Strauss represents the diachronic approach. His work on patterns of binary opposition has tried to bracket the question of the concrete meaning of symbols in order to concentrate on the deep structure of the symbol-making mind. Most students of the religious symbol part from him on this point. Many, in fact, would say that Lévi-Strauss himself subsequently departed from this position by arguing that one cannot clarify the process of signification without beginning with the concrete meaning of concrete symbols.

Turning to semiotics, religious symbols raise equally fundamental questions. Early in the twentieth century, the Swiss linguistic theoretician Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) set the tone for much of general symbolic theory. He had three objectives: to identify the signifier, to determine just what it is signifying, and to describe the mechanism by which the signifying process takes place. Yet another aspect, one that Saussure purposefully neglected in his own work, has proved to be essential to many of the most creative modern studies of religious symbolism: namely, the nature and extent of the relationship between signifier and signified, apart from the actual mechanism by which it is established.

Mircea Eliade made one of the boldest attempts to describe this relationship in terms appropriate to religious symbolism. Echoing the Symbolists and Romantics, Eliade contended that the symbol reveals certain dimensions of reality that would otherwise elude understanding. For him, these deeper dimensions are disclosed not only through the reflection of the interpreter of the symbols, but also in the "internal logic" of the symbols. This idea, however, depends on the premise that there is something contained "in" the symbol that is being disclosed. He and Rudolf Otto, call this embedded something "the sacred," a reality of an order distinct from the natural and possessed of a power beyond humans' comprehension and control. This shift away from the knowing subject does not deny the opening assertion that symbols are constituted as such subjectively, nor that they are basically cultural phenomena. Rather, it moves away from the anthropological approach to one that seeks to remove the arbitrariness from the symbol, through an assertion that the symbol reveals something else, something outside the closed system of human cultural production. This attitude opens a path to understanding "natural symbols" that goes beyond investigations into the natural capacity of mind, and establishes symbolic conventions in order to capture invariable patterns of meaning that those conventions communicate.

Jung's research into "natural symbols" gradually deflected his mature work away from models of the psyche and questions of physiology toward a search for "archetypal" patterns of meaning by which symbols could be classified and interrelated. Although his early work with Freud had convinced him of the need to see the symbolic process at work in the psychic appropriation of physiological processes, Jung eventually placed greater emphasis on the religious and spiritual significance of universal patterns that appear in the individual experience of symbols.

Opinions vary widely regarding the general nature, classification of forms, and function of symbolism in culture and psyche, and the problems multiply when considering the actual interpretation of particular symbols. The topic is commonly divided into two areas: a general hermeneutics, or rules for interpreting symbols, and actual exegesis within a given hermeneutics. Many scholars have attempted to produce universally applicable lexicons of symbols purporting to decode the secrets of dreams, religious imagery, esoteric traditions, and the like. A philosophical approach to hermeneutics that is more congenial to scholarly endeavors and closer to the goal of the Romantics is Ricoeur's restatement of one of the symbol's oldest characteristics: that a symbol both reveals and concealsthat it possesses both a symptom-hiding and a truth-proclaiming dimension. In this view, meaning and the interpretation of meaning are essential and complementary moments in the general phenomenology of the symbol: interpretation involves refining the symbol and looking to the interpreter to reveal everything condensed in the symbol. The symptomatic dimension of the symbol, for Ricoeur, finds its clearest exponent in Freud, who attempted to reduce all symbols to some repression of desire. (Ricoeur found Jung too obscure and difficult to follow.) To Freud's "hermeneutic of suspicion," which is basically a process of "demystification," Ricoeur adds a hermeneutic standpoint long preserved in the West through Christian interpreters of the words of the scriptures: opening oneself up to the inexhaustible "kerygmatic" (teaching) capacity of the symbol.

The Endurance of Symbols

The idea of the symbolic has proved compelling across the centuries and over many disparate cultures. This may have as much to do with what the symbol hides as with what it puts on display. Among the different types of figuration of which humans have conceived, symbols most consistently promise revelationbut they earn this capacity through an equal and opposite tendency to mystify. From the early passwords of the mystery religions, to the secret hermeneutics of Pseudo-Dionysius, to the Romantics' vehicles toward the transcendent, to Eliade's promise of divine disclosure, the symbol is a repository for the perennial desire of humans to see their gods. Since direct revelation lies out of reach, one settles for an image, a representation that is usually called a symbol. At the same time, the more this mode of figuration promises, the more it takes away. Clouds of mystery thicken around the signified to the precise degree that the signifier comes more clearly into view. At last, face-to-face always turns out to be not yet.

Although symbols are a human creation, they seem to have a life of their own, describing a dimension of human experience that stubbornly resists humans' control. Consequently, they have become especially relevant in a world that has developed increasingly elaborate conceptions of its own utter self-containment. Technological advances and expansion of knowledgedizzying over the mere forty lifetimes that separate us from the classical Greeksstand as impediments to even entertaining the idea of human limitation. But the symbol endures, ready to reassert, via a rich language of human imagination and through a process that operates at the root level of human experience, the infinite expanse against which humans' most magnificent achievements must always, in the end, be measured.

See Also

Cassirer, Ernst; Eliade, Mircea; Iconography; Images, article on Images, Icons, and Idols; Jung, C. G.; Langer, Susanne; Myth, overview article.


Among the most extensive and readily accessible bibliographies on symbolism are those included in Juan Eduardo Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbolism, translated by Jack Sage (1962; 2d ed., New York, 1971), and Raymond Firth, Symbols: Public and Private (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973). Circlot's lengthy introductory essay offers a helpful overview of symbolic theory, particularly as it pertains to the interpretation of esoteric material. The first six chapters of Firth's masterful work constitute the perhaps most comprehensive treatment available of the rise and development of anthropological work on symbols; in addition, he covers the range of opinion regarding the relationship between symbol and myth. Other helpful sources are the introduction of C. M. Bowra in A Heritage of Symbolism (1943; reprint, New York, 1961), which contains a brief but authoritative account of the French Symbolists; and Otto Gruppe, Geschichte der klassischen Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte während des Mittelalters im Abendland and während der Neuzeit (Leipzig, 1921) and Jean Pépin, Mythe et allégorie: Les origenes grecques et les contestations judéo-chrétiennes (Paris, 1976), which contains detailed information on numerous thinkers in Western history who came to symbolic theory by way of classical mythology. For more information on the classical background, see Peter T. Struck, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers at the Limits of their Texts (Princeton, N.J., 2004).

An important study of the religious-symbolic qualities attributed to the written word is Alfred Bertholet's Die Macht der Schrift in Glauben und Aberglauben (Berlin, 1949). Harold Bayley's The Lost Language of Symbolism, 2 vols. in 1 (1912; reprint, London, 1974), despite its age, remains a classic study of the origin of symbolic folklore surrounding the emblem, including much material of directly religious interest.

Myth, Symbol, and Reality, edited by Alan M. Olson (Notre Dame, Ind., 1980), presents a good overview of the range of current symbolic theory; Jacques Waardenburg's notes provide a good deal of useful bibliographical material. A study by John Skorupski, Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology (Cambridge, U.K., 1976), draws careful attention to the contribution that recent British philosophy has made to clarifying the conflicts in anthropological opinion. Philip Pettit, The Concept of Structuralism (Berkeley, Calif., 1975) and Peter Munz, When the Golden Bough Breaks: Structuralism or Typology? (London, 1973) are both short but extremely helpful guides to the debate surrounding the work of Lévi-Strauss and its relationship to linguistic theory. In the latter half of his book, Munz does a particularly noteworthy job of isolating the principal theoretical problems faced by psychology, metaphysics, and mythology in trying to explain the symbolic process. In a provocative little book, Rethinking Symbolism, translated by Alice L. Morton (Cambridge, U.K., 1975), Dan Sperber argues forcefully against the underlying assumption of much current theory about symbols' meaningin particular the ideas of Freud, Lévi-Strauss, and Turneron the grounds that they work without meaning at all.

The opening chapter of Mircea Eliade's Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1961) is a helpful introduction to the basic philosophical position he has maintained rather consistently throughout his work; also see Eliade's "Methodological Remarks on the Study of Religious Symbolism" in The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, ed. Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1959). In Freud and Philosophy (New Haven, Conn., 1970), Paul Ricoeur lays out in detail his own theory of symbolism, in contrast not only to Freud's psychoanalysis but also to other philosophical schools. A straightforward history of modern hermeneutics that aids in connecting symbolism with contemporary Christian theology and exegesis work has been done by Richard E. Palmer in Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston, Ill., 1969). For a concise account of Paul Tillich's position and its major objections to psychological, sociological, and philosophical approaches to the symbol, see his essay "The Religious Symbol," Daedalus 87 (1958): 321. Jacques Ellul's The New Demons, translated by C. Edward Hopkins (New York, 1975), offers a good taste of his longstanding campaign against the mindless absorption of the sacred symbols of religious tradition into technological modes of thought. Gabriel Vahanian's God and Utopia (New York, 1977) and David A. Martin's The Breaking of the Image (New York, 1980) present contrasting but more positive approaches to the question of the future of religious symbolism in a technological society.

For some recent trends among sociologists of religion who are interested in the subject of symbolism, see the Proceedings of the Fourteenth International Conference on Sociology of Religion, Strasbourg, 1977. Jolande Jacobi's Complex, Archetype, Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung, translated by Ralph Manheim (Princeton, 1959), and a special issue of Rivista di psicologia analitica (no. 2, 1971) both provide handy introductions to the Jungian approach to the symbol. The volumes of the Eranos Jahrbuch (Zurich, 1934) and Symbolon (Basel, 1960) are a good source of information for current interdisciplinary work going on in the interpretation of ancient and modern symbolism, both Eastern and Western.

Peter T. Struck (2005)

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