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Symbolism

( Originally Published 1899 )

EACH object in the universe is the expression of an idea. No flower of the field, no pebble by the wayside, no bird that skims the air, no star that glimmers in the wide expanse of heaven, can be what it is save as the realization, the concrete individual expression of that which first existed as idea. Each stands as the sign of the idea out of which it was born. That idea is its true meaning, and it is that, and that alone, which we strive to find. in all knowledge-getting. A child wishes to communicate the idea to me that he has hurt his finger; he holds it up and moans. In getting the meaning of his gesture and cry, I am simply getting the idea of which they are the expression or the sign. He brings an apple and a knife and lays them on my lap. The meaning of this act is the idea that originated and directed it. He utters a word, and its meaning is the idea he chose it to express. He draws a rough picture; it is meaningless save as I find the idea prompting it. What is true of everything that the child or the man creates or does is also true of everything that God creates, whether it be a mountain or a continent, a dewdrop or an ocean, a tree or a lion.

Everything having form, whether in art or nature, is the sign of an idea, and gets significance from that fact, and that only.

Whatever stands in place of an idea as its representative is called its sign, its symbol. It may be an object, a color, an odor, a taste, a movement, a gesture, a sound, a word. It may suggest the idea by its inherent character or by conventional agreement. As an example of the former, the word rush by its sound suggests the idea and the action for which it stands; the same is true of the words cluck, buzz, thrush, sneeze, etc. As an example of the latter, see the words in this sentence. A slight likeness of meaning suggests an object as a sign or symbol of an idea. In this way the square became the symbol of integrity; the chain, of fellowship; the dove, of innocence; the egg, of life; the eye, of frankness. By virtue of its relationship the part is able to symbolize the whole, as a sail the ship; a chimney, a house; a hand, the body; so the cause symbolizes the effect, as a match, a fire; a drought, short crops; a runaway horse, danger; so an instrument symbolizes an action, as the sword, war; the pen, peace; cordage and anchor, commerce; the retort, science. Each has its true meaning only as the idea for which it stands is apprehended. Accidental association often gives an object great power as a symbol. The cross thus became the symbol of Christianity; the garter, of a great order of knights; the crescent, of the Ottoman Empire. By its intimate relationship with the everyday life of a people, a plant or a flower becomes the symbol for a nation, as the shamrock for Ireland; the thistle for Scotland; the rose for England; the lily for France; the lotus for Egypt.

Ideas rise from objects. Engrossed with the former, we forget that the office of the latter is to serve as symbols, as tangible expressions of that which existed in another mind. Objects have no other right to be. While at first all the elements of an object must be apprehended through the senses before its full meaning can be under-stood, it soon happens, as a result of association and familiarity, that one element is sufficient to enable the mind to apprehend the whole object and get its full meaning. As an illustration, the odor is sufficient to call up the full picture of the rose; the taste, of an apple; the voice, of a friend; the ears, of a rabbit; a feather, of an ostrich; a letter, of a word. All of the foregoing depends upon the principle of symbolism. The wiser one becomes, the deeper and wider becomes the meaning of every sensuous element, the less dependent is he upon his sensations, for each sensation in-creases in symbolizing power that is, in power to stand as the representative of other sensations and corresponding meanings. I hear the ringing of a bell, and instantly there comes to my mind the eye picture of a bell, its shape, its material, its size, and also of the word bell. I hear the word bell pronounced, and I at once image the sound of a bell, together with the other qualities just mentioned, and possibly also image the writ-ten or printed word bell, and probably also the muscular movement necessary to write it.

The sound of the bell or of the word bell may also stimulate the imaging of the building in which it is located, its use, its history, etc. You probably now understand what was meant by one sense symbolizing another, and how it happens that in simply tasting an object you are able to tell its shape, its texture, and its color, qualities that can come directly only through touch and sight; that in simply looking at an object you are able to tell whether it is smooth or rough, far or near—qualities and relations that originally came through touch and muscular sensation only. You must also see in this the incalculable value of symbols in all knowledge-getting. They vastly multiply the mind's power of attaining knowledge both in rapidity and comprehensiveness.

The term symbol is often used of objects having a profound meaning or relationship, in many cases far beyond the understanding of the uninitiated or of the average mind. The symbolisms of mythology, of some systems of religion, or of philosophy, reveal their beauty only to those who make them objects of special study. It is also used in other ways, but for our present purpose these uses ought not to be confounded with the use as explained in the preceding paragraphs.

If the function of all concrete, sensuous material is now clear, then everything you see about you is aglow with meaning, everything has a story to tell you. It is a principle easily recognized in psychology that an idea can be communicated from one mind to another only by giving it some physical existence, which in turn the receiving mind idealizes or interprets. The sensuous world has another function, however, than that of merely serving as the repository of an idea or a group of ideas. It through the, nervous organism stimulates mental activity and invites interpretation. There is nothing that remains silent. Everything knocks at the portals of the mind through some of the senses and clamors for recognition. It catches the rays of the sun and hurls them into the eye, saying, " Look at me." It swings back and forth, driving the sound waves into the ear, saying, " Hear me." It rubs against you, saying, " Feel me." It rushes into the nostrils, insisting that you smell it, and squeezes the papille on the back of the tongue, urging you to taste it. In these ways it forces itself into the consciousness of the child and, as already explained, there surrenders its meaning, the idea it embodies. Every time the same sensations are aroused the same idea that is, the same meaning arises. The sensation is that which is interpreted, and in a way is a symbol, but it is projected and so intimately associated with the object causing it that to all intents and purposes they are one. In examining a sensation which an object produces, we usually have no other thought than that we are examining the object itself. This is more true of the child, for he has not yet learned the philosophy of the process.

An idea is always general in its nature. A symbol, as an object, is individual, but in meaning is general or universal. By saying that it is universal we mean that the same meaning or the same thought would arise in apperceiving all the objects of the class of objects to which that particular object belongs. The power of a symbol, then, is determined by the depth and comprehensiveness of meaning it contains for the apperceiving mind. The less of the sensuous in proportion to the meaning it bears, the greater its ability to serve the mind. We must not forget that nothing has meaning which is not given it by the mind itself, and that an object is dependent upon the mind for its symbolizing value. Place an object before a child, say a hat. Discover what he knows about it. Draw now the merest outline of the hat on the board. He will probably see nothing there but some " curved lines." Fill up the outline a little, and he may see nothing more. Shade and work in details, developing relief. When the picture can hardly be distinguished from the real hat, he exclaims, " It is a hat." Repeat the process for a few days, and he will soon learn to recognize a hat in the slightest outline you can place upon the board. Parts of three circles, slightly modified, symbolize not that hat, but the whole hat tribe to him. Long before this he had heard the word hat, and that had served to stand in place of the hat itself and to symbolize hats in general. Write now the word hat on the board, and by the association of the spoken word, the hat, and the picture of the hat, it serves first to call up the particular hat, and then to symbolize the idea of hats in general. It is readily seen that the mere outline has greater symbolizing power than the fully shaded picture, and that the word hat has more than either. Repeat the experiment with other objects and with other children, and note their varying abilities in interpretation. Discover why some symbols have greater meaning to some children than to others, and why some have greater meaning to all.

The age when children are able to see in a colored picture the representation of the object varies greatly. A very young child will show some interest in himself as seen in the mirror, but probably the life in the face, as shown both by expression and movement, affords the explanation of it. If the face were perfectly still, the recognition would come later. Objects in motion are always the earliest to attract the attention of the child. The interest first shown in colored pictures is due more to the presence of the color than to any appreciation of the form.

Before a child seems able to distinguish colored pictures he has by association learned the meaning of a few words, and is already using those valuable symbols. They serve a marvelous purpose in enabling him to receive or communicate an idea concerning an object when the object itself is absent. If he wishes a drink, he may go to the pitcher and try to pour out some water. In lieu of that he may simply say " drink," and the same idea is conveyed. As soon as he learns the great convenience of words as symbols, he is disposed to discard gestures as rapidly as possible, and becomes hungry for words. At first, words mean objects and actions to him, then relations and qualities, their ideal significance becoming more abstract and less sensuous until they serve as symbols of pure ideas, and not simply as representatives of objects and their phenomena.

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