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.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Symbolism: Selected full-text books and articles

The Heritage of Symbolism
C. M. Bowra.
MacMillan, 1943
Robert Goldwater.
Westview Press, 1998
Metaphor and Symbol
L. C. Knights; Basil Cottle.
Butterworths Scientific, 1960
Symbolism in Religion and Literature
Rollo May.
George Braziller, 1960
Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect
Alfred North Whitehead.
Fordham University Press, 1927
Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism
Mircea Eliade; Philip Mairet.
Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1961
Cultural Symbolism in Literature
Robert A. Hall Jr.
Linguistica, 1963
Language and Reality: The Philosophy of Language and the Principles of Symbolism
Wilbur Marshall Urban.
Macmillan, 1939
Symbol and Myth in Ancient Poetry
Herbert Musurillo.
Fordham University Press, 1961
The Critic's Alchemy: A Study of the Introduction of French Symbolism into England
Ruth Zabriskie Temple.
Twayne Publishers, 1953
Librarian’s tip: "The Symbolist Movement" begins on p. 153
The Living and the Dead: A Study of the Symbolic Life of Americans
W. Lloyd Warner.
Yale University Press, 1959
Church Symbolism: An Explanation of the More Important Symbols of the Old and New Testament, the Primitive, the Mediaeval and the Modern Church
F. R. Webber.
J. H. Jansen, 1938 (2nd Rev. edition)
The Tuning of the Word: The Musico-Literary Poetics of the Symbolist Movement
David Michael Hertz.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
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