Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 1: About signs

Human society would be unimaginable without symbols. They are used as a means of communication and to structure our social lives. They are essential to language and to art, but also lay the foundation stones for the invention of money, literacy and social institutions. Amongst all animals, only human beings have evolved the capacity to question their instincts, to wonder about how their lives might be different, even to ask why they exist. In his book The Symbolic Species, neuroscientist Terrence Deacon describes humans as living in a kind of virtual world, “full of abstractions, stories and impossibilities” and experienced only by themselves. We owe this virtual world to our species’ acquisition of symbolic thought. As the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it, “we think only in signs.”[1]

Yet we use words to refer to things every day with only a poor understanding how we do it or of the origins and nature of this fundamental capacity.

Before we explore in more detail, let’s lay out our basic framework of how human beings relate to the rest of the world and how we know anything about it.

Our place in the objective world

The starting point of Marxist epistemology is that we live in an objective, material universe that exists independently of human consciousness. We are a part of this universe, and exert an influence over a tiny fraction of it. But if the human race were to die out, this universe and its infinite array of physical processes would carry on without us.

Therefore our perceptions of the world are an impression upon our consciousness mostly made by something external to that consciousness. This external viewpoint is one that we can never occupy — for this reason our knowledge is always concretely situated, always perceived from a particular, human point of view.

Our perceptions of external reality are the basis for all our knowledge, but they are, inevitably, incomplete. As Marx put it in Capital, “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”[2] He was pointing out that surface impressions often conceal more fundamental laws which are not immediately apparent. Lenin expanded upon this:

Just as the simple incorporation of value, the single act of exchanging goods, includes in microcosm, in embryo, all the principal contradictions of capitalism — so the simplest generalisation, the initial and simplest formulation of concepts (judgements, conclusions) implies man’s ever-expanding apprehension of the objective macrocosm.

Lenin argued that abstractions that encapsulate natural laws and processes could represent external reality more profoundly than limited empirical data. “From active observation to abstract thought and from there to practical activity — such is the dialectical path of apprehending truth and objective reality.”

In the Marxist view, our perception of the world is a process, and a dialectical process. It is never completed, one-sided, dead or deterministic. Reality is always richer and more complex than our theories about it. Also, our acts of perception are more than just intellectual, rational processes, because humans are creative and imaginative beings. Here is Lenin again:

The approach of human reason to the individual thing, obtaining an impression (a concept) of it is no simple, direct, lifeless mirroring but a complicated, dichotomous, zigzag act which by its very nature encompasses the possibility that imagination can soar away from life… For even in the simplest generalisation of the most elementary universal idea (like the idea of a table) there lurks a shred of imagination (vice versa, it is foolish to deny the role of the imagination in the most exact science).

Just as humans are able to perceive a sofa, they are also able — through what Steven Mithen would call ‘cognitive fluidity’ — to conceive of a sofa that flies, or talks, or turns into a chair, and so on. The relationship between the external world and our consciousness is plastic. Humans can turn anything — an image, an act, an object — into a sign and invest it with meaning.

The anatomy of signs

The obvious question to proceed with is, what is a sign? A sign is something which represents something else. It could be a word, or take any other form: a sound, an object, a colour. Its meaning need have no connection to its physical form. As Shakespeare famously put it, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.[3]

The study of how people communicate using signs is termed semiology or semiotics (from the Greek semeion, ‘sign’). Although this term first appears in the seventeenth century, the study of signs dates back to the ancient world. In the modern era, Valentin Voloshinov made an important Marxist contribution in the 1920s, but the most influential modern semiotician was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose key work Course in General Linguistics was published in 1916.

Saussure argued that the meaning of signs was based upon the relationship between a signifier (the form the sign takes, such as a word) and a signified (the concept or thing the signifier refers to).

Semiology recognises, however, that this is not sufficient. If a dog sits down when you say ‘Sit!’, it is associating the sound made by you with the action of sitting down, yet this form of reference is clearly of a different sort to Van Gogh’s when he recreates sunflowers in a painting. We need to be able to distinguish between forms of reference. The most enduring system for this — though it has been criticised — was devised by Charles Sanders Peirce, who divided signs into three major types according to the nature of their referential relationships: icon, index and symbol. These are based upon similarity, correlation and convention.

Icon: the sign has a physical similarity to the object. Your passport photo is an icon of yourself; the little picture of a house on your browser toolbar is an icon for your homepage.
Index: the sign ‘points to’ the object by some sensory correlation. A thermometer indicates a temperature; a limp indicates an injury; a bad odour indicates the presence of a skunk.
Symbol: the sign corresponds to the object by some agreed association that does not necessarily have any physical resemblance or sensory correlation; its link to the referent is partly or entirely arbitrary. Any word is a symbol, e.g. ‘rose’ referring to a kind of flower; the three-coloured Cuban flag can act as a symbol of the nation of Cuba; a red octagon with STOP in the middle is a symbol for an instruction to stop your car.

No object is inherently a sign, of any sort — they are interpreted as signs by animals, including of course ourselves. Something does not become an icon, for example, simply because it bears a resemblance to something else — it becomes a sign when one thing is interpreted as evoking the other by a living subject, i.e. it is an act of mind. A painting that is never seen and interpreted by the human eye is just an object made of paint and canvas; on the other hand, the human mind can perceive significance in entirely coincidental or imaginary relationships. A symbol is usually designed to be interpreted in a particular way.

Peirce’s types of sign aren’t exclusive. The same sign might be interpreted as an icon, index or a symbol depending upon the context. Deacon uses the example of Mesopotamian tablets — the first archaeologists did not know the ciphers inscribed in the clay, but knew by comparison with known languages that they were probably a writing system. At that stage, the symbols were merely iconic of other such written marks. When such ciphers were found on the seals that accompanied trade goods, they acquired an indexical meaning, and a symbolic meaning could also be conjectured, e.g. that a given cipher was a word for ‘wheat’.

Signs may also be understood on a series of levels. Another of Deacon’s examples is laughter. When human beings laugh, they indicate that they find something funny. Chimps, who sometimes make laughter-like sounds during play, might recognise the social, playful aspect of human laughter, but would be incapable of appreciating the concept of humour. A cat or dog, lacking the background of social signalling that humans have in common with other apes, probably does not have even that level of recognition of what laughter is, and will interpret it only in the context of other times that humans have made this baffling noise. Species such as snails or fish will interpret laughter only as just another noise or vibration.

With the exception of a handful of highly trained animals such as chimps, only humans use symbols (we will discuss this in the next post).

Symbols and ideology

The ‘common sense’ understanding of symbols says that they are an association of a thing with something else, but as we can see, this is a description of an indexical sign rather than a symbolic one. The relationship between a symbol and its signified is often arbitrary. Instead, symbols are connected to each other in a set of interlocking relationships. They draw their meaning not from a direct physical association but from being part of a system — this is most obvious in language — and this means that symbols are a shared or social reference.

The use of symbolic representation is a social act: the attempt of human beings to use an social convention to draw the attention of others to some feature of the world. More precisely, it is the attempt to manipulate the attention of others. This essentially ideological role was noted by the Marxist Valentin Voloshinov:

A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality — it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it, or may perceive it from a special point of view, and so forth. Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc.). The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too.[4]

Symbols are not direct representations of external phenomena, based purely upon perception. When we encounter established symbols, we are encountering ways in which people in the past wished to manipulate our understanding of the world. The process of interpreting them is a re-presentation, a re-cognition of something. But these meanings are never static. Cultures, and their symbols, undergo constant change, and over time we find ourselves presented with an immense variety of symbols offering a multiplicity of perspectives and sometimes contradictory meanings. This is why symbolic representation can be so flexible and ambiguous — it derives from a ‘virtual’ world that can exist independently of factual, physical correspondences, and if the often arbitrary conventions that gave it meaning are lost then its meaning becomes obscure. Thus we are reminded of the plasticity of our relationship with the external world. The system of symbols is “a vast and constantly changing semantic space” (Deacon).

Symbols also expand our way of thinking. As Michael Tomasello puts it, they provide “truly new ways of conceptualising things such as treating objects as actions, treating actions as objects, and myriad types of metaphorical construals of things.” Or, as Voloshinov wrote:

Without signs there is no ideology. A physical body equals itself, so to speak; it does not signify anything but wholly coincides with its particular, given nature. In this case, there is no question of ideology.

However, any physical body may be perceived as an image; for instance, the image of natural inertia and necessity embodied in that particular thing. Any such artistic-symbolic image to which a particular physical object gives rise is already an ideological product. The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object, reflects and refracts another reality.[5]

Symbols, then, offer an ideological perspective on the world and on human social relationships. These relationships include distribution of power and wealth, etc, so needless to say, one of the functions of symbols is as ideological tools to promote group interests, above all ultimately class interests.


Almost no human being fails to have some understanding of symbols. Even those whose cognitive abilities are seriously impaired usually pick up at least the rudiments of language. It has become a universal trait in our species but is absent in all others, save the arguable case of certain intensively-trained chimps. Clearly it offered an extraordinary selective advantage to those humans who acquired it, and meant a great disadvantage for those who didn’t.

Symbolic communication gives humans access to a unique system of representation that conditions our experience and opens up to us the world of abstraction. We do not live merely in immediate relationships but according to rules and conventions, hopes, beliefs, fears about things that have not even happened. We project ourselves into all sorts of natural processes, seeing design and purpose where there is none. As this blog has argued, art is a creative process by which we objectify our humanity and see it reflected back to us. Because symbols are independent of direct reference, they allow us to imagine other worlds which may be counterposed to our own, and as such are a pre-requisite not only for language but for myth, literature and science. And we are unable not to see the universe in symbolic terms.

Further reading:
Readers new to semiotics may find Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners site useful:

[1] Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘What is a sign?’ (1894).
[2] Marx, Chapter 48 ‘The Trinity Formula’, Capital, Vol 3 (1894).
[3] Shakespeare, Act 2, scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet (first publ. 1597).
[4] Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929).
[5] ibid.

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