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sign representing something that has an independent existence. The most important use of symbols is in languagelanguage,
systematic communication by vocal symbols. It is a universal characteristic of the human species. Nothing is known of its origin, although scientists have identified a gene that clearly contributes to the human ability to use language.
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. 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 nominalismnominalism,
in philosophy, a theory of the relation between universals and particulars. Nominalism gained its name in the Middle Ages, when it was contrasted with realism.
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 and realismrealism,
in philosophy. 1 In medieval philosophy realism represented a position taken on the problem of universals. There were two schools of realism. Extreme realism, represented by William of Champeaux, held that universals exist independently of both the human mind and
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. A secondary linguistic symbolism is writingwriting,
the visible recording of language peculiar to the human species. Writing enables the transmission of ideas over vast distances of time and space and is a prerequisite of complex civilization.
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. Another, still connected with language, appears in systems of logiclogic,
the systematic study of valid inference. A distinction is drawn between logical validity and truth. Validity merely refers to formal properties of the process of inference.
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 and mathematicsmathematics,
deductive study of numbers, geometry, and various abstract constructs, or structures; the latter often "abstract" the features common to several models derived from the empirical, or applied, sciences, although many emerge from purely mathematical or logical
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 (see also numbernumber,
entity describing the magnitude or position of a mathematical object or extensions of these concepts. The Natural Numbers

Cardinal numbers describe the size of a collection of objects; two such collections have the same (cardinal) number of objects if their
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Modern science has in its development profited from the conciseness provided by many symbols. In chemical symbols, for example, each elementelement,
in chemistry, a substance that cannot be decomposed into simpler substances by chemical means. A substance such as a compound can be decomposed into its constituent elements by means of a chemical reaction, but no further simplification can be achieved.
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 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 formulaformula,
in chemistry, an expression showing the chemical composition of a compound. Formulas of compounds are used in writing the equations (see chemical equations) that represent chemical reactions. Compounds are combinations in fixed proportions of the chemical elements.
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 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 religionEgyptian religion,
the religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt. Information concerning ancient Egyptian religion is abundant but unsatisfactory. Only certain parts of Egyptian religious life and thought are known; whole periods remain in the dark.
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, in which the symbol of the god often appeared more frequently than the likeness of the god himself. Greek religionGreek religion,
religious beliefs and practices of the ancient inhabitants of the region of Greece. Origins

Although its exact origins are lost in time, Greek religion is thought to date from about the period of the Aryan invasions of the 2d millennium B.C.
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, 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, candlecandle,
cylinder of wax or tallow containing a wick, used for illumination or for ceremonial purposes. The evidence of ancient writings is not conclusive as to the history of the candle; words translated "candle" may have meant "torch" or "lamp," and the "candlestick" was
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; incenseincense,
perfume diffused by the burning of aromatic gums or spices. Incense was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and is mentioned in the Old and the New Testaments. It is also found in the major religions of Asia.
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; liturgyliturgy, Christian
[Gr. leitourgia = public duty or worship] form of public worship, particularly the form of rite or services prescribed by the various Christian churches.
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; sacramentsacrament
[Lat.,=something holy], an outward sign of something sacred. In Christianity, a sacrament is commonly defined as having been instituted by Jesus and consisting of a visible sign of invisible grace. Christianity is divided as to the number and operation of sacraments.
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; see also iconographyiconography
[Gr.,=image-drawing] or iconology
[Gr.,=image-study], in art history, the study and interpretation of figural representations, either individual or symbolic, religious or secular; more broadly, the art of representation by pictures or images, which may or
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Modern patriotism, particularly in the United States, has found a revered symbol in the flagflag,
piece of cloth, usually bunting or similar light material, plain, colored, or bearing a device, varying in size and shape, but often oblong or square, used as an ensign, standard, or signal or for display and decorative purposes, and generally attached at one edge to a
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, which began, like all heraldryheraldry,
system in which inherited symbols, or devices, called charges are displayed on a shield, or escutcheon, for the purpose of identifying individuals or families.
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, 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 FrazerFrazer, Sir James George,
1854–1941, Scottish classicist and anthropologist, b. Glasgow, educated at the universities of Glasgow and Cambridge. He is known especially for his masterpiece, The Golden Bough,
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 in comparative religion and those of Sigmund FreudFreud, Sigmund
, 1856–1939, Austrian psychiatrist, founder of psychoanalysis. Born in Moravia, he lived most of his life in Vienna, receiving his medical degree from the Univ. of Vienna in 1881.

His medical career began with an apprenticeship (1885–86) under J.
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 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.


Something that stands for or represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, deriving its meaning chiefly from the structure on which it appears.


  1. a SIGN (see SIGN, sense 2) in which the connection between the meaning and the sign is conventional rather than natural (SIGN, sense 1).
  2. an indirect representation of an underlying meaning, syndrome, etc. as, for example, in religious symbolism and RITUAL, or PSYCHOANALYSIS (see also METONYMY, LÉVISTRAUSS).
Apart from the utterly central role of LANGUAGE in social life, symbolic communication occurs in a variety of further ways (see SEMIOLOGY, BODY LANGUAGE).



(1) In science (logic, mathematics, and so forth), a sign.

(2) In art, a universal aesthetic category manifested through comparison with the related categories of the image and with signs and allegory. In a broad sense, a symbol can be defined as an image, formalized in terms of its signification, or as a sign furnished with the integrity and inexhaustible multiplicity of meanings of an image. Every symbol is an image, and every image is, at least to some degree, a symbol. However, the category of the symbol indicates the image’s transcendence of its boundaries and the presence of some meaning indissolubly merged but not identical with the image. The structure of a symbol consists of an objective image and a deep meaning that form two poles inconceivable without each other, because beyond the image, meaning loses its phenomenality, and without meaning, the image dissolves into its components. But image and meaning are also distinct, and the symbol is revealed in the tension between them. In becoming a symbol, an image becomes “transparent”; meaning “shines” through it, presented as semantic depth and perspective. The basic difference between a symbol and an allegory is that the meaning of a symbol cannot be deciphered by a simple effort of reasoning. It is inseparable from the structure of an image and does not exist as a rational formula invested in the image and later extracted from it. The specific characteristics of the symbol, as opposed to the category of the sign, must be sought in this context. In non-artistic (scientific) sign systems, polysemy is a mere impediment that prejudices any rational interpretation; whereas with symbols, the more ambiguous a symbol, the more meaningful it is. The very structure of a symbol is intended to give a holistic image of the world reflected in each particular phenomenon.

The semantic structure of a symbol has many levels and depends on the active, internal effort of the perceiver. Thus, in the symbolism of Dante’s Paradise, one may focus on the theme of overcoming human alienation through personal and supra-personal unity (the Point of Light and the White Rose). This emphasis may then be shifted to the idea of a world order exhibiting an inviolable regularity, mobile equilibrium, and multifaceted unity (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”). These meanings are not merely present to an equal degree in the internal structure of the work of art. They also overlap. Thus, in the image of cosmic equilibrium, one may see only the sign for moral and social, or human, harmony, but the signifier and the signified may be interchanged, and the idea would then proceed from human to universal harmony. The meaning of a symbol is objectified not as a presence but as a dynamic tendency; it is not given but attributed. Strictly speaking, this meaning cannot be elucidated by reduction to some unambiguous logical formula but can be explained only by correlating further symbolic chains with it, bringing about greater rational clarity without attaining pure concepts. One can reasonably view Beatrice as the symbol of pure femininity and the mountain of Purgatory as the symbol of spiritual ascent for Dante. Ultimately, however, one is left with “pure femininity” and “spiritual ascent”—which are still symbols, but intellectu-alized and more like concepts. This circumstance continually confronts not only the reader’s perception but also scholarly interpretation.

Although the symbol is as ancient as human consciousness, in a philosophical and aesthetic sense it is only a relatively recent product of cultural development. The mythological understanding of the world assumes an indissoluble identity between a symbolic form and its meaning, excluding every reflection on the symbol. In classical culture this point of view changed with Plato’s attempts to construct a derivative, or truly symbolic, philosophical mythology. For Plato, it was especially important to delimit the symbol from prephilosophical mythology. Hellenistic thought constantly confused symbol and allegory. The idealist dialectic of Neoplatonism took the crucial step toward distinguishing the symbol from rational forms. Plotinus contrasted the sign system of the alphabet with the symbolism of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which suggest to our intuition an integral, indissoluble image. Proclus challenged the Platonic critique of the traditional myth, pointing out that the meaning of a mythological symbol cannot be reduced to any logical or moral formula. The Neoplatonic theory of the symbol was introduced into Christianity through the writings of Dionysius the Areo-pagite, who described all that is visible as a symbol of the invisible, hidden, ineffable essence of god. According to Dionysius, the lower orders of the world hierarchy symbolically recapitulate the higher orders, making it possible for human thought to ascend a scale of meaning.

During the Middle Ages this type of symbolism coexisted with didactic allegorism. During the Renaissance considerable emphasis was placed on the intuitive perception of the symbol in its unfolding multiplicity of meaning, but no new theory of the symbol emerged. The baroque and classical periods saw the revival of a taste for learned abstract allegories. Only the aesthetic theory of German romanticism consciously contrasted the classicist allegory with symbol and myth, viewing them as an organic identity of concept and image (F. W. J. von Schell-ing). According to A. W. von Schlegel, poetic creativity is an “eternal symbolizing.” The German romantics’ interpretation of the symbol drew on the mature thought of Goethe, who believed that all forms of natural and human creativity signify and proclaim living, eternal becoming. Unlike the romantics, Goethe linked the elusiveness and indissolubility of the symbol not with a mystical other world but with the vital intrinsicality of the principles, expressed through the symbol. Opposing the romantics, Hegel emphasized a more rationalist, significatory aspect of the symbol, based on conditionality (“the symbol is above all a kind of sign”).

In the latter half of the 19th century most scholarly research on the concept of the symbol (J. Volkelt and F. T. Vischer) was inspired by Hegel, but the romantic tradition continued to flourish, especially in J. J. Bachofen’s study of myth. In aesthetics the romantic tradition was revived at the end of the century in the literary theory of symbolism. In the 20th century the Neo-Kantian E. Cassirer made the concept of the symbol the broadest possible concept of the man’s world: “man is the symbolic animal,” and language, myth, religion, art, and science are symbolic forms by means of which he brings order to the chaos surrounding him.

The psychologist C. G. Jung, rejecting S. Freud’s assertion that psychopathological symptoms are symbols, followed the romantic tradition and interpreted the entire wealth of human symbolism as the expression of fixed figures of the unconscious—essentially indissoluble archetypes. The potential danger in the Jungian symbology lies in a tendency to blur completely the boundaries between symbol and myth, transforming the symbol into an element lacking a stable, meaningful foundation. In M. Heidegger’s irrationalist philosophy the problem of the analytic interpretation of the symbolism of poetry is generally banished, for the sake of the “pure presence of the poem.”

Marxist-Leninist aesthetics analyzes the problems of symbol and allegory as particular varieties of the image, taking as a point of departure the theory of art as a specific form of the reflection of reality.


Guber, A. “Struktura poeticheskogo simvola.” In Trudy GAKhN, Filos. otd., issue 1. Moscow, 1927.
Losev, A. F. Dialektika khudozhestvennoi formy. Moscow, 1927.
Losev, A. F. Filosofiia imeni. Moscow, 1927.
Bachelard, G. La Poétique de l’espace. Paris, 1957.
Burke, K. Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1966.
Cassirer, E. Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, vols. 1–3. Berlin, 1923–31.
Frenzel, E. Stoff-, Motiv- und Symbolforschung, 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1966.
Levin, H. Symbolism and Fiction. Charlottesville, Va., 1956.
Symbolon: Jahrbuch für Symbolforschung, vols. 1–4. Edited by J. Schwabe. Basel-Stuttgart, 1960–64.



Letter or combination of letters and numbers that represent various conditions or properties of an element, for example, a normal atom, O (oxygen); with its atomic weight,16O; its atomic number,816O; as a molecule, O2; as an ion, O2+; in excited state, O*; or as an isotope,18O.
(science and technology)
A design used on a diagram to represent a component or to identify specific characteristics, quantities, or objects.
A sign letter or abbreviation used on a diagram or in an equation to represent a quantity or to identify an object.


1. an object, person, idea, etc., used in a literary work, film, etc., to stand for or suggest something else with which it is associated either explicitly or in some more subtle way
2. a letter, figure, or sign used in mathematics, science, music, etc. to represent a quantity, phenomenon, operation, function, etc.
3. Psychoanal the end product, in the form of an object or act, of a conflict in the unconscious between repression processes and the actions and thoughts being repressed
4. Psychol any mental process that represents some feature of external reality


In data compression, a unit of data (byte, floating point number, spoken word, etc.) that is treated independently.
References in classic literature ?
Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends.
When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die
He perceives the independence of the thought on the symbol, the stability of the thought, the accidency and fugacity of the symbol.
Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false.
The schools of poets and philosophers are not more intoxicated with their symbols than the populace with theirs.
There is no one, not even the hermetics, who does not find in the symbols of the grand portal a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph.
So now I was in possession of C, O, and M, and I was in a position to attack the first message once more, dividing it into words and putting dots for each symbol which was still unknown.
Accepting it as correct, we are now able to say that the symbols stand respectively for N, V, and R.
Pertaining to symbols and the use and interpretation
Rachel explained that most people had hitherto been symbols; but that when they talked to one they ceased to be symbols, and became--"I could listen to them for ever
The proposition that two and two are four follows by purely logical deduction from definitions: that means that its truth results, not from the properties of objects, but from the meanings of symbols.
This similarity is a physical fact, not a matter of symbols or words; and it certainly seems to be indubitable in a way that many judgments are not.