Language Outperforms Symbols

We tend to see symbols as dripping with meaning. A symbol, we believe, is so much more compact, vivid, and dynamic than mere language. Yet, if you stop to think about it, even some of the world’s most well-known and potent symbols have no meaning without a language “prop” or explanation to get them established. What does a Christian cross mean to someone who has never heard of the religion, a situation that would have existed at the beginning of the Christian era? An explanation would have been necessary. The same situation must have prevailed when the Muslims began to adopt the crescent.

Fremont Rock Art in Thompson Canyon, Utah

Symbolic representation suffers from an excess of ambiguity. (Image: Greg Gnesios)

It often takes a lot of prose or spoken words to do justice to a symbol’s full meaning and here is where the idea of compactness has its origins. Why not choose visible symbols over language and get so much more for your effort. As it happens, the notion is seriously misguided. We fail to notice that a lot of a symbol’s explication goes into eliminating ambiguity

Jungian analyst and author, Helen M. Luke firmly believed in what she called the symbolic life. She carefully explained all of her dream imagery and its symbolism. The result was 10,000 rambling, rather empty diary pages. She bogged down in the attempt to make everything plain and comprehensible. American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is another who decided to explicate all of his mystically acquired symbols and symbolic experiences. He obsessively turned out 8,000 pages of going-nowhere, unreadable “exegesis.” The long-winded explanations fail to enlighten and the symbols are useless without them.

In a sense, the return to over-valuing symbols represents a regression to a more primitive state. Our early cave-dwelling ancestors left their handprints on the walls along with simple representations of the animals they hunted. The shafts piecing their bodies symbolized a successful hunt. These symbol-producing primitives made little progress. Things picked up enormously once they had evolved language, which, being far less ambiguous than mere symbols carries far more meaning. What did those handprints mean, for instance? The increase in clarity and meaning brought by language allowed the human race to go from strength to strength.

Literature popularized symbols by endowing them with meaning derived from the language within which they were embedded. Psychology then picked up this tradition from literary sources. People mistakenly believed that symbols had intrinsic deep meaning. Paradoxes, which are also usually meaningless without explication, came to enjoy a similar misguided reputation. The widespread erroneous belief in the meaningfulness of symbol and paradox goes some way towards explaining the current sense of meaninglessness in the West. Language – and only language – can impart enough meaning to satisfy our needs. To restore our lost sense of meaning, we must ditch our foolish belief that symbols and paradoxes harbour deep (but hidden) meaning and return to a stronger emphasis on direct, clear, and precise (that is, meaningful) linguistic communications.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

3 thoughts on “Language Outperforms Symbols”

  1. I’ll have to think long and hard about this one. This may, or may not, be relevant. I remember thinking in vivid pictures before I could read…I believe that people who aren’t cerebral continue to think that way; I assume everybody more or less thinks that way in a society without much cerebral activity going on.

  2. Lucinda, you bring up something that may need clarification. I am talking specifically about the use of symbols instead of language. For example, consider the amount of information in the Christian crucifix versus a clear statement of the religion’s central idea.

    You are describing “picture thinking,” the use of the imagination to visualize how things are, or will work out. As a child, you think about the fun of jumping up and down in the nice brown muddy puddle, and then visualize Mama’s response when you get home!

  3. All written language is signification (symbols). Whether ancient or contemporary. Whether pictorial or textual; these are considered techniques (technological methodologies). The alphabet is comprised of symbols. It used to be that drawing-writing-depicting was for recording. Oral language (the spoken word) was for communicating. We merge, swap, alternate between these. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

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