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A symbol is "an arbitrary or conventional sign" or "something that stands for or suggests something else" (Merriam–Webster).

A symbol, in its basic sense, is a conventional representation of a concept or quantity; i.e., an idea, object, concept, quality, etc. In more psychological and philosophical terms, all concepts are symbolic in nature, and representations for these concepts are simply token artifacts that are allegorical to (but do not directly codify) a symbolic meaning, or symbolism.

Spoken language, for example, consists of distinct auditory tokens for representing symbolic concepts (words), arranged in an order which further suggests their meaning.

Nature of symbols

The nature of the symbol and the process of symbolization are deeply rooted in the human nervous system. The relationship of that system to consciousness, thought and subjectivity is not understood, although there are some theories of partial explanation.

The tokenization of objects may be conscious or unconscious. Perhaps the closest mechanism to it is to be found in the conditioned reflex of behavioral science. If the reward of a given response is coupled with another stimulus (the token) repeatedly, the other stimulus acquires the same power to elicit the response as the original reward.

Putting aside all questions of the degree to which behavioral science characterizes the complex behaviors of man, conditioning certainly plays a part in symbolization. In essence the human organism emits the same operant behavior toward a placebo or token as it would toward the original. Moreover, the token may bear no resemblance in any way to the original and be of no functional use to it.

A symbol can be a material object whose shape or origin is related, by nature or convention, to the thing it represents: for instance, the cross is the main symbol of Christianity, and the scepter is a traditional symbol of royal power.

A symbol can also be a more or less conventional image (i.e. an icon), or a detail of an image, or even a pattern or color: for example, the olive branch in heraldry represents peace, the halo is a conventional symbol of sainthood in Christian imagery, tartans are symbols of Scottish clans, and the color red is often used as a symbol for socialist movements, especially communism.

More often, a symbol is a conventional written or printed sign (specifically, a glyph), usually standing for anything other than a sound (symbols for sounds are usually called graphemes, letters, logograms, diacritics, etc.). Thus mathematical symbols such as π and + represent quantities and operations, currency symbols represent monetary units, chemical symbols represent elements, and so forth.

Symbols can also be immaterial entities like sounds, words and gestures. The ringing of gongs and bells, and the banging of a judge's gavel, often have conventional meanings in certain contexts; and bowing is a common way to indicate respect. In fact, every word in a natural language is a symbol for some concept or relationship between concepts.

A symbol is usually recognized only within some specific culture, religion, or discipline, but a few hundred symbols are now recognized internationally. See list of common symbols and List of symbols.

Symbols can also be analysed by parsing them into the artifact and the metafact. An artifact is a humanly constructed object that can be perceived by the senses. It can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or felt. In contrast, a metafact is a human constructed object that can only be held in the mind. A favorite song, the concept of a nation or a cause, or the idea of economic value are each metafacts. When artifacts and metafacts combine, they form a symbol. A woven piece of cloth is just an artifact until it is invested with the metafact of a cause or a nation, then it becomes a flag, and that flag is a symbol. A stamped piece of metal is just an oddly shaped bit of metal until the stamped image stands for a measure of economic value, then it becomes a coin. The difference is in the metafact captured in the symbol.

The symbolate

Many symbols are known to be such; for example, a scepter is a symbol of royal power. And yet, this same conscious symbol has an unconscious obverse: the scepter. We take it to be an object and speak of its history, evolution and uses, as though you could pick up scepters in the scepter orchard like apples in an apple orchard or gold nuggets in a gold field.

Natural objects have chemical and physical properties and behave in certain ways. What are the properties of a scepter? In trying to answer this question we encounter a kind of diffuseness or vagueness. Finally we have to admit that there are no scepters in physical actuality, and furthermore, no king, no subjects and no language.

An alien from outer space might describe a royal audience as follows. An individual homo sapiens wrapped in fibers emitting light at the high end of the visible frequency range moved a cylindrical rod against gravity, at which time other individuals ceased emitting complex sound waves. A human would just say that the king dressed in a purple robe waved his scepter to silence the multitude.

What is the difference between these two meanings? Leslie White approached the question in an effort to define cultural objects, such as a law, a constitution, a marriage ceremony. All the nouns in the story are in this category: the king, the robe, the scepter, the language, the subjects.

The essence of a cultural object is that it is a token in the process of symbolization. White therefore defined the symbolate as an object created by the act of symbolization, just as an isolate is created by the act of isolation. The scepter stands for royal power, but before this act of symbolization it did not exist. It was created by its use as a symbol. We are conscious of the symbol, but not of the symbolate.

Symbolates are real objects. The act of symbolization endows the rod with a power it did not possess previously. Rods have no effect on audiences, but scepters do. However, the power does not reside only in the rod. Its location is diffuse, some in the people, some in the king, some in the audience. Man lives in a world of diffuse powers and possibilites and therefore creates symbolates to describe and manipulate it.

Use of symbols

Human beings' ability to manipulate symbols allows them to explore the relationships between ideas, things, concepts, and qualities - far beyond the explorations of which any other species on earth is capable. The discipline of semiotics studies symbols and symbol systems in general; semantics is specifically concerned with the main meaning of words or other linguistic units.

Literary works are often admired for their artful use of symbolism, i.e. the use of words, phrases and situations to evoke ideas and feelings beyond their plain interpretations; these uses are the subject of literary semiotics. Religious and metaphysical writings are also known for their use of esoteric symbolism. Alchemical writings made extensive use of symbols for spiritual and chemical processes (which they also saw as symbols of each other). The interpretation of dreams as symbols of one's experiences is a main feature of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology.


The word "symbol" came to the English language by way of Middle English, from Old French, from Latin, from the Greek σύμβολον súmbolon from the root words σύμ- (sym-) meaning "together" and βολή bolḗ "a throw", having the approximate meaning of "to throw together", literally a "co-incidence" (zu-fall), also "sign, ticket, or contract". The earliest attestation of the term is in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes where Hermes on seeing the tortoise exclaims συμβολον ηδη μοι "symbolon [symbol/sign/portent/encounter/chance find?] of joy to me!" before turning it into a lyre.


  • Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged, W.A. Neilson, T.A. Knott, P.W. Carhart (eds.), G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, MA, 1950.

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