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Díaz Nafría, José María
 Incorporated contributions
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general, semiotics, MTC
 German Symbol

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Lucas Ammelung (15.12.2019, contribution elaborated within the Seminar "A Journey through Philosophy and Information" facilitated by J.M.Díaz at the Hochschule München) 

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Abstract: In this article, the author tries to define the word symbol etymologically and then continues to give explanations from different fields. The fields explored are Symbols according to Kant and how the Kantian idea is being developed by Cassirer, following up by Hegel’s and Cassirer’s view of Symbols in Art and the aesthetics. Afterwards, this article is explaining how Symbols differ in a Religious context and how symbols are used in Psychoanalysis. Lastly, for the sake of completeness Symbols in Information theory and an economical context are being briefly illuminated.



The Symbol

The word symbol hails from the Greek word “Symbolon”, which means “token, watchword”. The word symbolon is derived from the word “Syn” which means “together” and “Bállō” meaning “I throw, put”. So translated word for word it means “put together”. This characterizes the essence of the symbol quite well, as it always has two levels, the physical and the cognitive level necessary to understand the symbol. (Kast, 2016) 


However, because symbols are ubiquitous in human society since ancient times, there is not one universal definition that can be used. Therefore, I will try to illuminate a few key areas of symbolism. 


The most common definitions describe Symbols as perceivable signs which serve as a proxy for a non-perceivable meaning, or in a very narrow view as any picture or character which is used to shorten or depict another object, meaning or process (Krüger, 2002). In other words, it is an outward sign with a meaning behind it. These meanings can have multiple layers and are the vehicle for complex communication (Womack, 2005).


But to make sense of symbols we also need to explain the myth. The myth functions as a mediator between people of the same culture to view and understand reality in the same way. This means reality not only consists of data or facts, but also of mediating form which organizes the experience and put it into conformity with present structures (Trachtenberg, 1984). These myths, therefore, put symbols into context and explain why not all symbols are understood universally.



Kant on Symbolism


The theory of Kant (1790) on Symbols is briefly explained in The Critique on Judgment he differentiates between schemata and symbols by categorizing those terms as either being rooted in the physical world (schemata) or if they can only be understood by the mind but cannot exist in the real world. He further elaborates by saying that all a priori knowledge has to be one of the other, while schemata express a direct link to the Term and symbols express an indirect link to it. Schematas with their direct link can explain Terms with a demonstration, whereas symbols only create an analogy to describe the term. So according to Kant symbols are a form of knowledge removed from the physical world, but accessible to the mind.


Homo Symbolicus


According to Ernst Cassirer, Humans are beings that express their emotions, thoughts and knowledge in symbols and that culture can be summarized as a construct of symbols with importance. The importance of this is that humans are the only beings, which can live in a symbolic world as well as in a natural world. In this world symbols are not an extension to knowledge, but they are the foundation of knowledge (Hülst, 1999). Groß (1995) describes how Cassirer goes further as to say that all human interaction with the environment is partially symbolic, as we have started mentally organizing our environment since the beginning of mankind. Every interaction with the environment is driven by an activity and therefore there is also a function of meaning in these objects. The stronger the intensity of those activities, the stronger the meaning that is being charged into the object. Through this process, the appearances are not for themselves anymore but exist in a structure of meaning. In this world, the Kantian definition of the symbol is shining through, as Cassirer defines his symbolism as perceivable by senses, while also having a non-perceivable sense which is immediately recognizable. According to Cassirer the symbol does not stand for the presentation of something absent, nor does it stand for a differentiated image, but it is the essence of the instance that gives sense. Only in the synthesis of sensory information and a pre-existing way of thinking, the myth, does the existing being of the world exist. This synthesis removes the duality of matter and the mental world. In the symbol, both are inseparably linked, and the symbol represents the interplay of form and matter.



Symbolism in Art and aesthetics


Hegel's early view on symbolism is coined by the classic Greek view on symbols, which could also be found in one of his contemporaries, Schelling. The view on symbols was defined by the unbreakable metaphysical relationship between the visible and its invisible meaning. This identity of the relationship is “God” and it can only be depicted by art. So, the purpose of art is to depict the ideational and general in the real and special (von Schelling, 1966). In the same vein, Hegel describes symbols as signs, however, the difference between a sign and a symbol is that a sign has no relationship with itself, but only with the given meaning. The symbol, however, is supposed to visually represent the meaning it is representing, while already having the meaning in itself. This means the symbol bridges the visible with the invisible. However, the visible cannot adequately explain the invisible, so there is a deeper meaning in the invisible part of the symbol. Another strong influence on Hegel was Creuzer, who separated his definition of symbols in the floating and the brevity. The floating is similar to the classical greek view, it defines the symbol by its incongruency of form and meaning, so the dichotomy of visible and invisible. The brevity describes how symbols even though short can let you figure out the meaning behind the symbol, without explaining it. Floating and brevity according to Creuzer are part of the mythical or divine symbolism, it tries to measure the unmeasurable by showing the religious belief in a physical form (Kwon, 2009). This divine symbolism can be found in Hegel's aesthetics as well in the inadequacy between visible and invisible.

Now that we have defined Hegel's symbolism, we have to use it on his views on Art. He postulates that in the “symbolic art” the idea is still abstract and trying to find a proper form and only through a change of the natural form can a true inadequacy be achieved. He calls this inadequacy in art “the sublime”. This definition needs to be clarified as Hegel separated symbols into three tiers based on the criteria of the difference between meaning and form. The first group is when the meaning and the form are still in unity, and so nature and the divine are still one. However, Hegel argues that it is not strictly speaking a symbol, as a true symbol needs to divide the form and meaning. The second tier conforms to this criterion as the form and meaning are separate, thus nature has lost its divinity. Lastly, the third tier also divides form and meaning, but additionally, the meaning doesn’t need divinity. Thus, the meaning of the symbol can relate to emotions or thoughts (Kwon, 2009).


As we illuminated earlier, Cassirer views humans as living in a symbolical world and therefore it does not surprise that this also finds a way into his thoughts on art. In his view, art is neither an expression of emotions nor is it meant to make people feel emotion when they view art. To him, artists do not try to express their erratic spirits with only them having access to it, but instead, they are trying to give insight into their symbolic world and how they perceive it and express it through their art. He suggests that artists explore the true shape of experience, with their art. So not the shape of a lifeless thing, but one of the myriad possible experiences. The artwork abstracts those “feelings” and allows them to be put into a physical form. With this physical form, it becomes concrete and palpable, this physical representation of the symbolic world within the artist allows the viewer to feel the life of the artist. The symbolic formation thus can articulate and create the aesthetic. Cassirer argues that through this function, art bridges the “You” and “I”, but it does not establish intersubjectivity. For true intersubjectivity, a direct and unchanged link must be established, but because the “I” or “You” necessarily must come into contact with the “bridge” or work of art, a change of understanding occurs. Through the work of the artist, the work leaves the sphere of the artist and moves to a sphere perceivable by others and importantly outlive the moment and can be perceived time and time again. Hence art is capable to stabilize and solidify the symbols. One aim of art is then to create a work that through symbolism can express the feelings and views of the artist for contemporary and future audiences and offers a deeper peer into our world (or at least the world of the artist) and show the true shape of experiences to others (Pollok, 2016)



Symbols in religion according to Machle (1953)


Another different way to view symbols is to look at them from a religious perspective and see how they differ from non-religious symbols. The first way to differentiate from other kinds of symbols is by the group which is using the symbols. By definition religious symbols are only symbols for people in that religion, they may be understood by people outside this group, but the true metaphysical comes from within the religion. Another distinction is that this group defines itself, at least partially, by these symbols. Terms like God are used in multiple religions. However, the meaning changes from group to group as Allah may be translated as God, but the symbol of God is very different in each religion. The intension or connotation of religious symbols also has a different factor than non-religious symbols. Symbols don’t classify in a religious context, but they have inherent power or importance to the referend and are used to give this power a name. Lastly, the substitution of Symbols is not always possible in a non-religious context, but for example, in Christianity, the Ichthys and the cross both serve as a Symbol for Jesus to the believers.

One use of these symbols is the ritual, one of the central points of Religion. All religions have acted rituals in which a community joins together to evoke and refer to the power of the symbols, from the sign of the cross to religious chanting. These rituals express the belief and with that the self-image of that group and form part of the myth in the religion.


Symbols from a Psychoanalytical View


Symbols in psychoanalysis have four main definitions, first of all, symbols are repressed emotions and those emotions are entirely unconscious. Secondly, all symbols represent the idea of self and blood relations and range from birth through life to death. Then meanings of symbols are constant and universal, but there are many symbols to express this one idea. Lastly, symbolism stems from the relationship from the repressing tendencies and the repressed. Put in a simpler term the symbol takes the place of what is unattainable and replaces it. (Segal, 1978)

An important factor in psychoanalysis is how symbols are felt by the subject. Symbols can either be perceived to be a representation or they can be felt to equate the object. This is called sublimation and symbolization respectively, whereas the sublimation can be called a step forward from simple symbolism. In sublimation, the subject needs to modify the quality of the symbol to create a distinction between symbol and object (Segal, 1957).

In psychoanalysis only troubling emotion gets repressed and “only what is repressed needs to be symbolized” (Jones, 1918, P.158). Furthermore, according to Jones, these primary ideas like rage, love, and death are symbolized, but still, carry the same meaning and affective charge. For example, the symbol of the Phallus still carries the same impulses and conflicts, namely issues concerning sexuality or power. This symbol will become repressed again and show itself as branch, pole or snake, and its conscious meaning is lost and only accessible to the subconscious (McGlashan, 1989). Interpersonal relationships are a breeding ground for those primary ideas and thus the subject may project these symbols onto another person (object). Therefore, the subject inadvertently projects himself and his emotions onto the object. Through this projection, the subject now believes that the emotions projected on the object are the objects’ and not his anymore. This also plays a big role for symbols in religion according to psychoanalysts. In religion the relationship to God (or Gods) is regarded to be a close personal connection to the deity and therefore the Subjects’ projection process can also be projected onto the religious symbol. With the unconscious projection onto the religious symbol part of the Subject now resides in the object and for example attacks on the object are now directly linked through the subconscious to the subject (McGlashan, 1989).



Symbols in an economical context


Symbols have a strong connection to Brands, for example, the Logo of Apple or Mercedes are known worldwide and stand for high quality and expensive product, they combine rational and emotional connection to a brand. Therefore, it is important for brands to construct these Symbols, but symbols cannot be constructed purely by a brand. These complex origins are created by perception and history; therefore, they change continuously (Schmid & Meckel, 2008). However not only the logos can be symbols, but brands themselves are also symbols, they add up all the key elements in themselves, like history, communication, name, and trademark. For example, the brand Audi stands as a symbol for the high point of rally with their legendary Audi Quattro (Esch, 2005, pp. 115–117). The power of those symbols starts to shine when they become an integral part of the brand identity and help give more structure and meaning to the identity. The presence of a symbol there represents a key component for the brand development (Esch, 2005, p. 313)


Symbols in information theory


Nöth (2012) describes how Charles S Peirce defined the information value of symbols by the use of terms and propositions. Terms are symbols and are classes of objects and have characteristics. These terms are being linked by propositions to convey meaning. 

Terms additionally have intensions and extensions, also called breadth and depth. Extensions are the set of real things it can be attributed to, while intensions are connotations or attributes of this term, for example, the extension of “Human” are all Human beings, while the intension is “alive, thinking, etc”.

To finally quantify the information, we need to introduce another set of terms, quality, and quantity, these describe intension and extension respectively. Quantity is rather intuitively quantified as classes that are higher up in the classification have more possible objects to quantify, e.g. the class Mammal has more objects than the class Human. Quality, other than the name suggests, can be quantified as well, as the number of semantic features inherent to this class can change as well. As specifying the class increases the quality but decreases the quality an inverse proportionality can be observed. 



As I have shown one definitive answer to “what are symbols?” cannot be given as they vary widely with each discipline that use them, however the split nature can be observed in many of those disciplines.




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