symbol

symbol

[sim-buhl]
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.

Element of communication intended to represent or stand for a person, object, group, process, or idea. Symbols may be presented graphically (e.g., the red cross and crescent for the worldwide humanitarian agency) or representationally (e.g., a lion representing courage). They may involve associated letters (e.g., C for the chemical element carbon), or they may be assigned arbitrarily (e.g., the mathematical symbol ∞ for infinity). Symbols are devices by which ideas are transmitted between people sharing a common culture. Every society has evolved a symbol system that reflects a specific cultural logic; and every symbolism functions to communicate information between members of the culture in much the same way as, but more subtly than, conventional language. Symbols tend to appear in clusters and to depend on one another for their accretion of meaning and value. Seealso semiotics.

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Notation of one or two letters derived from the scientific names of the chemical elements (e.g., S for sulfur, Cl for chlorine, Zn for zinc). Some hark back to Latin names: Au (aurum) for gold, Pb (plumbum) for lead. Others are named for people or places (e.g. einsteinium, Es, for Einstein). The present symbols express the system set out by the atomic theory of matter. John Dalton first used symbols to designate single atoms of elements, not indefinite amounts, and Jons Jacob Berzelius gave many of the current names. Chemical formulas of compounds are written as combinations of the elements' symbols, with numbers indicating their atomic proportions, using various conventions for ordering and grouping. Thus, sodium chloride is written as NaCl and sulfuric acid as H2SO4.

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The musical instrument is spelled cymbal.
A symbol is something --- such as an object, picture, written word, a sound, a piece of crap, or particular mark --- that represents (or stands for) something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. Symbols indicate (or serve as a sign for) and represent ideas, concepts, or other abstractions. For example, in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain, a red octagon is the symbol that conveys the particular idea of (or means) "STOP".

Common examples of symbols are the symbols used on maps to denote places of interest, such as crossed sabres to indicate a battlefield, and the numerals used to represent numbers. Common psychological symbols are the use of a gun to represent a penis or a tunnel to represent a vagina. See: phallic symbol and yonic symbol.

Language and Symbols

All languages are made up of symbols. In his work, On Interpretation, Aristotle teaches that:
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience, and written words are the symbols of spoken words.
The word "cat", for example, whether spoken or written, is not a literal cat but a sequence of symbols that associates the word with a concept. Hence, the written or spoken word "cat" represents (or stands for) a particular concept formed in the mind.

Another example of the symbol "cat" would be an object, such as a stuffed animal, that is referred to as a cat. The stuffed animal resembles (or exhibits similarity) to a real cat. One can view the object and see the semblance to the real creature that is known to have fur, is soft to the touch, and purrs.

The study or interpretation of symbols is known as symbology, and the study of signs is known as semiotics.

Etymology

The word "symbol" came to the English language by way of Middle English, from Old French, from Latin, from the Greek σύμβολον (sýmbolon) from the root words συν- (syn-) meaning "together" and βολή (bolē) "a throw", having the approximate meaning of "to throw together", literally a "co-incidence" (Zufall), 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.

The symbolate

A technical term for an object that serves as a symbol is a symbolate. For example, a scepter is a material object that serves as the symbol of royal power. In addition to being a symbol, a scepter can be picked up and wielded. However, the scepter fulfills its symbolic purpose when it is wielded by a monarch.

Objects have physical properties; a scepter is essentially a rod with ornamentation. The rod only becomes a symbol of power when people (1) view a scepter held by the hand of a monarch and (2) accept the monarch's authority (or right to use power).

An alien from outer space might describe a royal audience as follows: A Homo sapiens wrapped in fibers reflecting light at the high end of the visible frequency range moved an ornamented rod against gravity, at which time other individuals ceased emitting complex sound waves. A human would say that the monarch dressed in a purple robe waved the scepter to silence the crowd.

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 paragraph above are cultural objects: the monarch, the robe, the scepter, the language, and the subjects.

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