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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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Something that stands for or represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, deriving its meaning chiefly from the structure on which it appears.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


  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).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


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.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


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
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


In data compression, a unit of data (byte, floating point number, spoken word, etc.) that is treated independently.
Copyright © 1981-2019 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.
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