Are Symbols the Basis of Human Thought?

Numbers & SymbolsThe Big Question
Artwork by: Eleanor Bennett

In today’s world, it is impossible to look at anything without being influenced by symbols.

We have been conditioned from birth to recognize and interpret the constant bombardment of visual and cultural stimuli. From the universal smiley face and heart, to letters and numbers, humans have successfully created a system so remarkably efficient that even lines on a page can represent the deepest of our emotions.

It may seem unlikely to say that symbols form the basis of human thought, given how prone we are to act on intuition or spur-of-the-moment impulses. E​ven if our logical processes work by way of symbolism, how can we be certain that we are acting based on abstract symbolism, and not based on the natural, ingrained processes that we attribute to our animal kin? Before exploring how symbolism can dictate how we think, however, we must determine the true meaning of a symbol.

There are so many ways to think about the various aspects of symbolism. A symbol might be a material object that represents an abstract idea, a character or marking that stands in for some sound, or even an image that holds a meaning separate from its face value. Even within these definitions, however, there are specifications: cultural symbolism, communicative symbolism, linguistic representation, mental symbolism, and icons, to name a few.

One large category, cultural symbolism, describes an object or action that represents a larger, more abstract idea in a culture, depending on the culture interpretation. An often debated example would be the Star of David: ancient beliefs in the Middle East and North Africa attributed it to mean magic and fortune, while today it is known as a symbol of the Jewish people.

There is also communicative symbolism, where certain body cues and expressions are interpreted intuitively, depending on the situation. It is largely agreed and emphasized in pop culture that a bright smile indicates a warm attitude, whereas a frown indicates disapproval or sadness. Similarly, a slouched back reveals discomfort and disinterest, whereas a straight back is a sign of intrigue.

A problem often encountered when discussing symbols is the distinction between the word and other similar ideas. When we hear the word “symbol,” the image ​evoked is a visual image that stands for a greater idea. However, there is a distinct difference between “signs” and “symbols,” as symbols play a far more versatile role in our thought processes than their former.

Signs can be used for linguistic representation, where a language that had previously been solely orally communicated was represented by symbols that stood in place of syllables, letters, or entire words. According to the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a sign stands for something that is already known. It only carries one specific meaning, whereas symbols are living, breathing ideas. They cannot be clarified as material imagery, instead carrying both sense and meaning. While “sense” refers to the meaning within the society or to the individual perceiving the symbol, the meaning is the greater, multilayered definition that can be agreed on as the definition. Written language, for instance, combines symbols to create words, which stand in place of complex ideas. Humans use these words to form phrases and sentences – to communicate.

Not only have humans created and interpreted symbols since primeval times, but we continue to create and find meaning within the various symbols in our lives. Even serving as patterns, symbols can help us discern what is favorable and unfavorable. Symbols facilitate discussion, allowing different perceptions to connect within one similar set of knowledge. They also take on a life of their own, especially when comparing how the same “symbol” can mean radically different things for different cultural groups. The ubiquitous heart shape, for instance, is a symbol of love and romance today. However, in Roman times, it represented the now-extinct silphium plant, which was a popular contraceptive.

"The same 'symbol' can mean radically different things for different cultural groups."

American literary theorist Kenneth Burke supports the idea that symbols are a necessary form of human communication, describing how we are a symbol-based species. This is made clear in various literary archetypes, such as the “hero” and the “villain”. Drawing from the studies of Sigmund Freud, Burke wrote how symbols could substitute for one another in the form of analogies, where understanding could be reached through the use of different symbols as synonyms.

The pastoral counselor Jean Dalby Clift writes in Core Images of the Self: A Symbolic Approach to Healing and Wholeness that people are not limited to a ​finite set of symbols. This concept applies not only to material iconic symbols, but to body language, words, even abstract symbols. ​Throughout the course of our lives, we create and abandon symbols at will. As a child, I distinctly remember my grandmother buying me Christmas sweaters every winter, despite the fact she didn’t celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, through my toddler years, the sweaters were a symbol of my grandparents’ love. As I grew up, I discovered that the lovingly bought sweaters of my past had become unfashionable; they began to symbolize something outdated.

Symbols are subject to the whims of the person or people they serve. Depending on the culture or society, meanings of a symbol may change. For instance, the symbolic value of the Greek gods changed over the ages. The ancients Greeks revered and feared their deities, worshipping them daily and offering sacrifices in their honor. Their gods symbolized great power and order. Today, we tend to associate these gods with mythology, or legends. We do not see or worship them in the same way as the ancients Greeks; but many of them still hold similar symbolic representation.

Like symbols, human thought is ever-changing. According to James R Hurford, language evolution researcher at the University of Edinburgh, one of the primary factors differentiating humans from animals is our ability to acquire and use mental symbols. These representations are created in the mind of each individual, used to interpret the incredible complexity of our physical world. They are difficult to describe because they represent indirect realism, where the representation depends entirely on the individual. Nevertheless, we all possess the ability to express these symbols through pictures or words.

Symbols may not have always been a major part of human thought, but it would be foolish to say that they do not form the basis of our thought processes today. All of our communication occurs through the use of ​symbols as vehicles for higher level understanding. They are an element of our ability to interact socially, to perceive and interpret the material world, and to establish our identities. Symbols are occasionally difficult to perceive, perhaps due to their mutable nature. Still, symbols determine so much about how we interact. Not only would it be unlikely to imagine life without symbols – it would be impossible.

Sharon Lin is a freshman at Stuyvesant High School. She enjoys playing golf and flute, and frequently meditates on the philosophy of the mind. Outside of writing, she is involved in the Spectator, her school’s newspaper, Lincoln-Douglas debate, and Technology Students Association (TSA).

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