Symbol and symbolic consciousness

General Information

Journal rubric: Theory and Methodology

For citation: Kulagina N.V. Symbol and symbolic consciousness. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 5 (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

A Part of Article

The term “symbol” is a widely used notion and at first glance its meaning seems absolutely clear. But in fact its meaning has much in common with such notions as “a sign”, “a metaphor”, “an allegory”, “an emblem”. Very often they are got mixed up. The symbol as we understand it is a specific means of human relation to the world and in this regard it should be distinguished from other conceptions, relative as they are yet different mediators of human relations with the surroundings. Let us take a sign as an example.

The main property of a sign is its ability to represent something different from what it is. Its ability to appeal to the qualities of one object using the quality of another one is its main sense. The meaning of the sign as its functional quality displays itself only in course of sign activity. Its specificity can be regarded as handling some perceived objects instead of the others. The process of attaining sense is common for both a symbol and a sign, and results in confusion of these terms.

The familiarity of the processes of symbolizing and signing are provided by the ability of both to manifest the thing, the generalized meaning of which (its notion) can be extended and used to handle another object as if it were the previous one even if it doesn’t look exactly as the original. In combination of one object with the sense of another one the symbol as well as the sign emerges.

Having established the similarity of a sign and a symbol it is necessary to uncover their difference.

As a rule the sign and the signed are different in sub- stance and do not have either formal or essential link. The symbol and the symbolized though different in sub- stance possess the internal (E.Fromm) or natural (F. de Saussure) link. This link is regarded as internal because there doesn’t exist any physical resemblance between the symbol and the symbolized.

An ascertainment of this link has got a mediated character and is based on analogy or association principle. In respect of a symbol analogy plays a role of a constructive principle as it implements the symbolic transmission.

If the objects are analogous in form, function or structure, they are essentially relative. Even if they are different on existential point they are similar in their symbolic characteristics and are thus interchangeable. Symbolic potential can be presented as a process of “beading” various objects on “a string” of sense, the process of combining them and making them equal to one another. In that way symbol is regarded as integrity, a gestalt, a sense unit, containing deep-laid meaning and able to shape the natural phenomena with attained symbolic functions into something absolutely different by dint of a number of analogies and associations following one after another.

One more difference between the mediators in the question is as follows. Any sign possesses a stable meaning and “resists” the plurality of its interpretations. In contrast a symbol accumulates the variety of object’s senses and can be presented as centre gradually providing disclosure of the senses. For a sign policemy is an obstacle injurious to its rational functioning in a mono-semantic context. And in contrast the more a symbol is ambiguous the more meaningful it is.

The content of a symbol is a substance of a higher level than the one typical for a sign and this is the main difference between two of them. Abstract ideas and notions, universal principles and regularities, values and senses — all those invisible cultural objects that defy our imagination and are hard to define and express — are symbolized consciously.

There exists one more difference between a sign and a symbol and it is connected with an existential sub- stance of the last. Signs in general are rationally cognizable and are the part of thinking whereas symbols usually exceed the area of thinking and can only by under- stood, i.e. included in an integral experience both individual and collective. Symbols are the definite ways of perception, processing and transmitting of existential facts acquired spiritually which in their turn are essential components of emotionally colored collective or individual experience.

Symbols are always emotionally dependent and are able to arise certain psychological states which ultimately become their identification. Provoking emotions symbols attach a meaning and a value to the content they represent. Symbols always contain values and belong to a certain personality. Values are exteriorized in symbols and in their turn are able to exert emotional impact on people.

The difference between the sign and the symbol makes it possible to differentiate between several types of consciousness and correspondently represent various positions of a person in his/her relations with the surroundings.

A symbol and a sign as two main modes of representing the sense design two types of conscious functioning and as a result two ways of behavior and activity regulations. Each type of consciousness goes through 2 stages of cultural development: the initial one, appealing to the archaic strata of culture, connected with a symbol as a method of sense orientation in the world around, and a later one, connected with attainment of scientific knowledge.

The author hypothesizes that it is necessary to assign in the integral structure of a consciousness a specific type of it where symbolic formations are especially active. These areas of consciousness are responsible for generation of unconscious attitudes, individual senses and motives which manifest themselves in a non-reflexive, a non-sign form, i.e. as symbolic consciousness. Sleep and real life in dreams, reminiscences of the past and child experience, rituals and beliefs, myths and parables, fairy tales, games and art — those are the modes of a symbolic consciousness filling the sense life of a human being.

All the important things in our life accompanied by emotions belong to the symbolic ones. Symbols reflect the sense that our activity provides. Symbolic consciousness faces the depth of our being and operates images and not concepts. Thus symbolic functions of consciousness provide the integrity of a human world perception and define the possibility of an individual sense of a person become the part of the world they live in.

A symbolic consciousness erodes the border between the archaic and the modern consciousness and becomes a sort of a bridge between two of them. The development of the higher forms of thinking does not expel imaginative- symbolic structures but replaces the point of their location. The dominance of logic-sign thinking in modern culture doesn’t have a natural origin. It takes start in child- hood with the process of intensification of the activity of brain structures and is connected with the prevalence of right hemisphere’s type of information processing.

Emphasizing the symbolic consciousness as a special type, it is necessary to bear in mind that in reality it is closely connected with other types of consciousness. They are not completely isolated from one another. At the same time being the measure of different forms of consciousness, symbols as mechanisms of symbolic consciousness preserve a kind of specificity when functioning within these forms of consciousness.

Contemporary philosophy and methodology of science are to depart with an illusion to control and articulate scientific cognitive means only by rational components of a consciousness. It looks like that clearly defined scientific concepts derive from some prior beliefs for which intuition, symbolism and irrational consciousness are typical and which link the human consciousness with a wholeness of individual being.  

Information About the Authors

Natalia V. Kulagina, PhD in Philosophy, Director of the Humanitarian Editorial Office Projects at the Moscow Representative Office of the "Piter" Publishing House, Moscow, Russia, e-mail:



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