A symbol is an object that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or material entity. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures, or visual images and are used to convey ideas and beliefs. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for “STOP”. On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols fornumbers. Alphabetic letters are symbols for sounds. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose symbolizes love and compassion.
Psychoanalysis, rhetoric, and archetypes
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who studied archetypes, proposed an alternative definition of symbol, distinguishing it from the term sign. In Jung’s view, a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise. An example of a symbol in this sense is Christ as a symbol of the archetype called self. For example, written languages are composed of a variety of different symbols that create words. Through these written words humans communicate with each other. Kenneth Burke described Homo sapiens as a “symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal” to suggest that a person creates symbols as well as misuses them. One example he uses to indicate what he means by the misuse of symbol is the story of a man who, when told that a particular food item was whale blubber, could barely keep from throwing it up. Later, his friend discovered it was actually just a dumpling. But the man’s reaction was a direct consequence of the symbol of “blubber” representing something inedible in his mind. In addition, the symbol of “blubber” was created by the man through various kinds of learning.
Burke goes on to describe symbols as also being derived from Sigmund Freud‘s work on condensation and displacement, further stating that symbols are not just relevant to the theory of dreams but also to “normal symbol systems”. He says they[clarification needed] are related through “substitution”, where one word, phrase, or symbol is substituted for another in order to change the meaning[clarification needed]. In other words, if one person does not understand a certain word or phrase, another person may substitute a synonym or symbol in order to get the meaning across. However, upon learning the new way of interpreting a specific symbol, the person may change his or her already-formed ideas to incorporate the new information[clarification needed].
Jean Dalby Clift says that people not only add their own interpretations to symbols, they also create personal symbols that represent their own understanding of their lives: what she calls “core images” of the person. She argues that symbolic work with these personal symbols or core images can be as useful as working with dream symbols in psychoanalysis or counseling.
William Indick suggests that the symbols that are commonly found in myth, legend, and fantasy fulfill psychological functions and hence are why archetypes such as “the hero,” “the princess” and “the witch” have remained popular for centuries.
Paul Tillich argued that, while signs are invented and forgotten, symbols are born and die. There are, therefore, dead and living symbols. A living symbol can reveal to an individual hidden levels of meaning and transcendent or religious realities. For Tillich a symbol always “points beyond itself” to something that is unquantifiable and mysterious: the symbol’s “depth dimension”. Symbols are complex, and their meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves. When a symbol loses its meaning and power for an individual or culture, it becomes a dead symbol. The Greek Gods might be an example of symbols that were once living for the ancient Greeks but whose meaning and power are now gone.
When a symbol becomes identified with the deeper reality to which it refers, it becomes idolatrous as the “symbol is taken for reality.” The symbol itself is substituted for the deeper meaning it intends to convey. The unique nature of a symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible.¢¢