A symbol is something that represents something else. A symbol can be a mark, a sign, a number, an icon, an actual material thing, a plant, an animal or a human being. Various animals can be used as totemic symbols by preliterate tribes. Small objects like stars of David or crosses are used as religious symbols by major world religions. Queen Elizabeth is considered a royal symbol by the United Kingdom.
But why is it that human beings use symbols to represent different phenomena. It is my contention that public symbols have been used primarily for two distinct purposes: one for pre-industrial societies and one for modern technological societies. And the way that these symbols have been used in these two different situations is reflective of how these two kinds of societies have been structured. For now, I am putting aside more personal uses of symbols in dreams and the arts.
A symbol in pre-industrial society was meant to organically connect people to the material external world and to the unbounded infinite spiritual world. It was meant to ground people to help to prevent them from floating in an experiential vacuum of meaninglessness. If an animal is my totem, then I am especially connected to that animal in nature. I can absorb that animal’s positive traits, and by connecting with it, I become connected to the whole ecosystem of flora and fauna that is my natural living environment.
Stars of David and crosses are religious symbols that not only connect people to their respective conceptions of God, but also to their respective communities of believers. By wearing these symbols, a person becomes one with the spirit world, rather than floating randomly within it. One’s spiritual existence is able to expand out.
To the extent Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of Britain, she ties each and every Brit to a large community of people. She helps to expand the number of traits, of historical events, of common experiences to what each British individual can feel connected. Being British becomes so much more than an individual’s pared-down basic defined discrete sense of self. Queen Elizabeth as a symbol becomes the foundation for a larger grounded identity. Traditional symbols, in general, give a person a form of psychological grounding. That is what they are created for. A grounding in nature – the physical terrain of where they live and its ecosystem of flora and fauna – and a grounding in the community and nation that they are a part of.
Finally, let’s not forget flags. Flags are a very important symbol that connect people to their country, to their state or province, to their municipality, to their organization or club or fraternity or sorority, and to their sporting team. When one flies ones flag, or salutes a flag, one is symbolically expressing one’s connection to a larger community and creating psychological grounding.
Symbols primarily serve a very different purpose for many people in modern technological society. Rather than provide a fuzzy grounding where evocative flowing blendable continual stimuli emanate from them, symbols today contract meaning into defined discrete essences. They are not meant to be suggestive of something larger than themselves, but rather something narrower. In symbolic logic, symbols are used to pare down statements about truth, so that they can be more precise about truth than any normal verbal statement that could be made using ordinary language. Symbols in this case are used to create and facilitate a language for science and math. It’s not that there weren’t symbols before in math. But math in traditional society wasn’t used to capture reality in the way it has been used in modern technological society, where mathematical symbols have become very important in science and engineering.
In photographic terms, symbols are used in traditional societies to facilitate a wide angle view of the world, whereas, in modern societies, symbols are increasingly used to facilitate a telephoto view of the world. On a psychological level, traditional symbols tend to deal with human connections with other people and with the external world. They build on flowing blendable continual stimulation to help satisfy that most fundamental of human needs: grounding in one’s living environment. Modern symbols help to pare down entities to their bare essence, independent and apart from all the other entities that surround it. By working to create mostly defined discrete figures, modern symbols model for humans today, who are looking for strong self-definition as a strong defense against sensory distortion: the abrasive overstimulation from overcrowding in urban areas, noise pollution, air pollution, light pollution, clusters of high rises, speeding cars, traffic jams and construction sites, as well as the numbing understimulation from minimalist modern architecture, smooth featureless asphalt and concrete-covered walking and driving surfaces, cookie-cutter housing projects, frictionless machine processes from blenders to electric toothbrushes, and smooth-riding car interiors for passengers. Finally, there is the numbness-creating screen technology and the Internet of Things. All this sensory distortion pushes people to withdraw into themselves in order to defend themselves against living environments with patterns of stimulation for which as mammals, they weren’t built. The belief is that people can control their internal living environments in ways that they can’t control their external living environments. And modern symbols in symbolic logic and with the hard sciences and engineering mirror this desire to gain control over one’s internal living environment: a well-defined sense of self as a defense against sensory distortion.
In general, we can say that symbols are important in creating solutions to concrescences of the most important existential needs that people may have in particular cultural and historical periods. To the extent that so many people today do not directly benefit from symbols of logic and math and science and engineering, because they, when they are students, aren’t taught very much about them and, therefore, don’t understand them, such people are bereft of the benefits of the main new meaningful symbols that are available and accessible today. This is particularly true among people who have given up on the connecting symbols of religion and royalty and larger strong group identities in general. Such people are experiencing all the dangerous downsides of the resulting numbness and experiential vacuums.© 2020 Laurence Mesirow