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Etymologically, the word "symbol" can be traced to the Greek, συμβάλλειν, which means to throw together or simply to place together, as when two things are juxtaposed for the purpose of comparing them. In one of its noun forms, the comparing or setting together refers to the custom of tallying or dovetailing the two halves of a broken coin, called "symbols," in order to establish the identity of one or both of the persons possessing the matching halves. The abstract and more general use of the term still retains this notion of one thing (usually material and visible) calling forth its complement or better half (usually something that is immaterial and unseen). Thus, hugh of saint-victor describes the symbolic process as "a comparison of the visible forms for the showing forth of the invisible" (In hierarch. coel. 2.1.941; The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 11:204a). Throughout the medieval period symbolism plays an important role not only in architecture, heraldry and art but also in military and mercantile enterprises. The fundamental conception always includes a movement from the material symbol to something in a spiritual or suprasensible order.

In the patristic era the liturgical creeds pronounced by candidates at the time of Baptism were called symbols, probably because they were collections of dogmatic statements "brought together" as succinct expressions of basic Christian truths (see creed). More recently, the study of the various beliefs and doctrinal tenets of the different Christian denominations has given rise, among Protestants, to a branch of theology known as comparative symbolics.

Symbol as Representative Form. While most of the contemporary uses of the word reflect the original idea of a comparison or juxtaposition of two things, the variety of symbols is so great that it is almost impossible to provide a definition that will satisfy every instance. Perhaps the best way to define the symbol is to contrast it with other representative forms that, like the symbol, stand for or point to something beyond themselves:

Images (pictures, statues, photos, etc.) imitate what they represent, whereas symbols need not resemble what they symbolize. It is sufficient if the symbol suggests or is associated with its meaning.

Signs (dinner bell, traffic light, smoke) announce some fact or give notification. Their role is practical and instrumental (see sign). Save for mathematical symbols, which some authors call signs, the typical symbol provides inspiration rather than notification. It functions as a rallying point for meaning, representing what is complex in a simple way. This is especially true of emblems, flags, or conventionalized drawings.

Gestures (shrugging the shoulders, bowing the head) express or embody their meaning as spontaneous, visible extensions of inner attitudes. While many gestures are symbolic, not all symbols are gestures or actions.

Analogues involve some perfection common to several beings of different orders, with the shared perfection being found either formally or causally in each but with references to one (see analogy). With symbols, however, the perfections to which they refer need not be present in the symbol either formally or causally. A flag neither causes nor contains the "spirit" of a nation. By association and convention, this colored bit of cloth comes to represent that spirit, but of itself the cloth neither participates in nor causes the quality it stands for. On the other hand, some symbols involve a tacit analogy, as when ritual ablutions are understood to bring about spiritual purification on the analogy of the cleansing properties of ordinary water. It should be apparent that symbols based on an underlying analogy that is ontologically rooted in the nature of things are bound to be richer and more fertile than those resulting from convention or casual association. If Sacraments, like Baptism and the Eucharist, make use of water or bread, it is because these elements are natural symbols for spiritual cleansing and nourishment, and the implied analogy is clear.

Kinds of Symbol. Of the endless variety of symbols, three categories may be singled out for special attention.

Arbitrary Symbols. These symbols are not found in nature but are established by decree, for example, the plus sign in mathematics or the notation used in music. They are sometimes called stenographic or code symbols.

Associative Symbols. Here the symbol and its meaning are joined in virtue of an implicit middle term with which they are connected either naturally or because of some historical event. Thus, a key is a natural and almost inevitable symbol for authority because of its association with ownership or stewardship. The dove and the olive branch stand for peace, no doubt because of the story of Noah.

Evocative Symbols. These symbols suggest their meaning by engendering certain attitudes and feelings rather than by direct statement. Symbolists, both in art and literature, seek to communicate an impression in a nonconceptual way by the use of color or word combinations, as when a lurid green is employed to suggest envy.

There are also instances in which symbols symbolize still other symbols, as when the printed word symbolizes the spoken word, while the spoken word symbolizes thought that, once again, represents something beyond itself. One might even say that all finite beings symbolize and point to something beyond themselves, and that God alone is a nonsymbolic Being. It should be noted, however, that symbolism alone does not provide a conclusive argument for the existence of God. Symbolism can be effective only when the symbol and its meaning are known or at least vaguely suspected; otherwise the symbol is incapable of eliciting an affective response. If we know that God exists, ritual gestures and symbolic rites can deepen our understanding of divine things. But an atheist cannot appreciate the significance of most religious actions since he is not convinced that they refer to anything real.

The Religious Symbol. Since symbols need not imitate what they represent, and since they usually refer to something that is in a different and higher category, they are ideally suited for expressing not only abstract notions and mental operations but also spiritual and religious truthsnone of which can be pictured in any literal way. While some symbols are so conventionalized and instrumental that they are totally unlike what is symbolized, the majority of symbols do bear some natural relationship to their meaning. Moreover, they usually have an emotive quality whereby they evoke in the knower not simply an intellectual assent but a nonneutral or affective response. Now it is precisely in the area of these "charged" symbols that we find forms that have the greatest elevating thrust or power of self-transcendence. Here must be situated the various kinds of liturgical and sacramental symbols that are so indispensable in communicating a sense of the sacred. Gestures (lifting the arms in prayer, prostration, the ritual kiss), as well as various material elements (water, fire, oil, incense, breath), all lend themselves spontaneously to the process of religious intention.

If the most pregnant religious symbols stand somewhere between the extremes of iconic (pictorial) and stenographic (code) representation, the reason should be evident. Pictorial symbols are too literal; they leave little to the imagination. Therefore, they do not elicit the kind of inner activity that projects the subject beyond what is immediately seen or heard. On the other hand, while code symbols are active creations of the human mind and while they do prescribe difficult mental operations, they are affectively neutral and lacking in depth. Useful in solving technical problems because of their univocity and invariability, they do not plunge the spectator into the mystery of being.

But primordial elements like water and fire are suggestive of cosmic forces. It is not this particular water or this particular fire that cleanses or purges. It is the very essence of water or fire as an expression of God's creative power that is invoked. A symbol, or a symbolic gesture like prostration, immediately and directly portrays man's essential and existential relationship to the Creator and it is a relation of total dependence and subordination. Nothing equals the spontaneous power of the appropriate symbol to project the mind towards the absolute, and not only the mind but the heart as well; for religious symbols are nonneutral, that is, they are charged with affectivity and intelligibility. For this reason any spirituality that tries to eliminate symbolism in its cult tends to diminish man himself, since it is an attempt to reduce the human spirit to a naked intelligence. The Incarnation of the Son of God and the dispensation of the Sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace are but two of the many divine accommodations to the needs of man in his spatiotemporal condition.

Since symbolism avoids the complexities of formal analogy and since it provokes an immediate ascent or movement of transcendence in the beholder, it offers one of the simplest and most powerful vehicles for expressing man's spontaneous attitudes and affections in his secular as well as in his religious life.

See Also: logic, symbolic.

Bibliography: p. foulquiÉ and r. saint-jean, Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique (Paris 1962) 703704. g. faggin and a. colombo, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:622627. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 14.2:292539. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 3:194196. j. m. somerville, "Language as Symbolic Function," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 34 (1960) 139151. h. musuril lo, "History and Symbol: A Study of Form in Early Christian Literature," Theological Studies, 18 (1957) 357386. g. vann, The Paradise Tree: On Living the Symbols of the Church (New York 1959).

[j. m. somerville]

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).


G. Ferguson (1961)

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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’.

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

2. An identifier in a program.