Ana Letodian                                                                                                                                                                             # 6


Theoretical Understanding of the Symbol


    Keywords: Symbol; Image-based; Communication-Information Function; Many-Functional Phenomena;


    The symbol is very complex and specific phenomenon. For its history of many thousand years it permanently attracts attention and it could be regarded as interdisciplinary category. Various spheres of human and not only human knowledge attempting its study and research include: philosophy, esthetics, philology, study of culture, semiotics, hermeneutics, structuralism, art criticism, political sciences, ethnology, analytical psychology, social sciences ...

    We can see the symbols in all spheres, common life, religion, art, literature, sciences ...

    The symbol is as old as the human consciousness (Averintsev, 2001: 159). It originated in result of cognition of the surrounding world by humans. Its understanding commences from the time, when the speech environment was formed, the humans lost their unconscious and reflectory vision of the world and finally proceeded to understanding and cognition of the “formed”. From this period the complex, controversy dialogue with the world commenced and became the structural-deriving principle of symbolization ( Zome symbols originate from the time, before alphabets were created, when certain (and as a rule, elementary, with their shape) signs were the condensed, mnemonic programs of the texts and stories in the verbal memories of the collectives (Lotman 1992, 1/lotman 92-e.htm)

    Term “symbol” comes from the ancient Greek. (; Encyclopedia of Cyril and Methodus:  Sumbollon in ancient Greek is a noun, meaning the conventional sign, the sign to be recognized, the property, image, icon (Averintsev 2001: 156; Ivanov 1987: 368). The noun sumbollon is derived from verb sumballw (coincidence, collection, combining, merger, concurrency), showing more clearly the meaning of these words (Ivanov 1987: 368).

In the ancient Greece the “symbol” was used with various meanings. The state, social and religious groups, parties had their identification marks (symbols). The symbol was the secret conventional sign, e. g. for the worshipers of Cybele (Greek Kubelh Latin: Cybele) In Greek mythology, divine of live, creative power, fertility of Phrygian origin. Often she was equalized with Rea (;,Ceres ( (Rome, Greek. Demeter, ancient Italian and Roman Chthonic Goddess, goddess of hunting, protecting fertility, agriculture and marriage) ( others.

    Later, in Greece, the “symbol” meant the ticket or number for receiving the bread from the state treasury or from the generous rich people, for low price, or for free; tickets or numbers to attend the public games or gladiator fights, Roman “tessars” (wax covered plates for writing of military orders).

    Sometimes, the symbol meant certain amount contributed to the treasury for charity; laying of table and treating of all; transfer of the credentials, to the ambassador of foreign country; the “symbol” was the agreement made between two neighboring countries, on actions to be performed by the citizens of one of these countries, in case of dispute with the other country (such agreements were strictly complied with, e.g. in Athens) (Brockhaus Encuclopedic Dictionary 1990:

    In addition to the above, the ”symbol” had one special meaning. The “symbol” was wax covered plate, on which, the friends used to write or draw something, when they separated. They used to break the plate into two parts. When they or their heirs met, they recognized and accepted the friends, if the drawings on the plates matched, or by means of the “symbol” the people recognized one another (Averintsev 2001: 156; Brockhaus ... Encyclopedic Dictionary 1990:

    Though, the ancient Greek sumbollon/sumballw had numerous meanings, with its substance, it still did not mean the symbol, as it is understood today.

    Interest towards symbols existed and exists from the ancient times. In different epochs many great thinkers dealt with the issue of symbols: Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Origenes, Proclus Diadochus, Dionisius of Areopagus, St. Augustine the Blessed, Thomas Aquinas, M. Ficino, G. Pio della Mirandola, E. Swedenborg, I. Kant,  G. W. F. Hegel, J. W. Goethe, F. Schelling, S. Kierkegaard, Ch. Baudlaire, P. Valery, E. Cassirer, C. G. Jung, O. Spengler, P. Riquier, G. Gadamer, M. Eliade, Tz. Todorov, J. Huizinga, R. Guenon, Vl. Solovyov, Vyach. Ivanov, A. Bell, P. Florenski, A. Losev, M. Mamardashvili, A. Pyatigorski, S. Averintsev, M. Bakhtin, V. Bichkov, R. Bart, B. Uspenski, F. Saussure, Ch. Ogden, A. Whitehead, S. Langer, U. Eco, Ch. Pierce, Ch. Morris, I. Stepanov and others.

    In the different epochs, attitude towards the symbol, its perception and cognition were different giving origin to numerous theories dealing with the symbol.

    Identification and study of the substance of symbol, its function, symbolic structures, forms, was quite long process and great number of the listed authors clearly shows this.

    And still, what is the symbol, about which so many things were written?

    All symbols are the images and all images, to certain extent, are symbols, though, the symbol, as a category, spreads beyond its scopes and becomes the essence merged with the image, though not equal to it. Material image and deep sense are two poles of the symbol structure (Averintsev, 2001:155). The symbol, primarily, exists as such and designating something by it, is the secondary phenomenon. It provides proceeding from the specific image to general ideal. Symbolic, to some extent, means image-based, typical and therefore, it could be regarded as manifestation of the general law (Goethe) (Todorov 1999: 239, 240). The symbol is unification of the specific and general, material and spiritual (Goethe, Creutzer) (Todorov 1999:255, 340).

    Symbolic is not only what only denotes the idea, but what it is as such (e. g. Saint Mary Magdalene not only denotes the regret, but she, herself, is a “live regret”).

The symbol is based on the live observation of reality (Lozev, 1919: 218); though, it is not direct imitation of the reality (M. Ivanov 1987: 379), its direct reflection. it is the hint, it replaces the mystical idea and guides to it (Viach. Ivanov, ) (Hoffman 1937: . The symbol is shows direction to correctly understand, what each image means (Shelling 1996: 156, 157). It points to the internal, substantial side of the events and things (M. Ivanov 1987: 370).

The symbol is, at the same time, the means for deriving of the ideas and expression of the inexpressible (Humboldt) (Todorov 1999: 249; Nakudashvili 1999: 82). As it was already mentioned, all symbols are generalization (Goethe) (Todorov 1999: 340). it is such generalization, which creates the infinite notional perspective (Losev 1995) (Florenski) (Lepahkhin 2005). It has inexhaustible contents. The notional potence is always wider that its given realization (Lotman 1992:). Any interpretation of the symbol remains the symbol itself, though, the rationalized symbol at some extent (Bart: More polysemic it is, greater is its content (R. Bart) (

    The symbol is not a “lifeless cliché” (Viach. Ivanov) (Hoffman 1937: (The contents and meaning of the symbols are not defined once and forever. It, as a “live” structure, remains original, though, it is in the permanent formation process. (In general, the symbol is more action rather than result (Sollger) (Todorov 1999: 255). Well known symbol acquire new values and interests ( ID/4166).

    The symbol, denoting the completed text (the symbols maintained the ability of storing especially large and significant texts in condensed form), may not include into some syntagmatic sequence and even if it is included, it still maintains its semantic and structural independence. The memory of symbol is much older. It easily enters into the new textual environment. The memory of symbol is much older than its non-symbolic textual memory.

    The essential sign of the symbol is that it never belongs to one single synchronous section of any culture, it always goes through such section, from the past to the future. The symbols go through the culture diachrony. They take the texts, plot schemes and other semiotic formations from one stratum of culture to the other (I. Lotman regarded that the symbols maintain the ability of storing the condensed form of especially wide and significant texts). The symbol, as a repeated one, is the message from the other cultural epochs (=other cultures), as recollection of the old (=eternal) basics (Lotman 1992). In symbolic thinking, which is subject to evolution, in different epochs, the religious, mythic, artistic (Gamsakhurdia 1991: 19), political-ideological heritage, key essence of the values, norms and ideas is reflected. In extensive communication with the cultural context not only the symbol is transformed under its influence but it, itself transforms it as well (Lotman 1992). The symbols appear, transform and disappear, though, they are able to discover in their own depths. Thus, they are eternal means and they are eternal by their form as well (P. Florenski) (Lepakhin 2005).

    The symbol is not a simple and available to all (M. Ivanov 1987: 379), the symbol could not be decrypted through simple definition, only by mental capacities. It does not exist in a form of some rational formula. The symbol, with its substance, is, primarily a dialogue phenomenon. Its substance could be showed through relations between the people (Averintsev 2001: 155, 158). Adequate existence of the symbol, without its perceiver, is impossible ( ID/4166). it requires not only feeling but deep penetration into it and explanation (Cooper Though, in explanation of the symbol, care should be taken, as the dialogue, carried out though understanding of its contents, could be disturbed in case of its inadequate interpretation of the explainer (Averintsev 2001: 158).

In conclusion, it could be said that the symbol is indeed special, many-functional phenomenon. At the same time, it is both, the instrument for cognition of the world, reality and fundamental method of depiction (Cooper The symbol links human consciousness with the cultural life. It accumulates the life experience of certain social community and at the same time, it fulfills the communication-information function, as it is able to exchange the ideas and values, at both, the level of internal and level of inter-cultural contacts. The symbol is able to reveal many aspects unavailable for the other means. Consequently we regard that the symbol is even some type of thinking style.

    We fully agree with the opinion of S. Averintsev that the symbols studies should be recognized not only as a scientific, but also as a form of knowledge beyond the science, with its internal laws and accuracy criteria (Averintsev 2001: 157).

Among the existing views about the symbols, which views differ in many cases, we attempted to distinguish what was basic and significant, best demonstrating the substance of the symbol, its function. With such form of comprehension we expressed our attitude towards the symbol.




  1. Averintsev 2001: Averintsev S.S., Sofia-Logos, Dictionary, 2nd improved edition, Kiev;

  2. Averintsev S.S. (source M.M. Bakhtin, On Methodology of Humanities// M. M. Bakhtin, Esthetics of Verbal Art. M. Iskusstvo, 1979

  3. Bart Bart R.:

  4. Brockhaus Encyclopedia – Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary


  6. Gamsakhurdia 1991: Gamsakhurdia Z. Expressiveness of the Knight in Panther’s Skin. Tb. “Metsniereba” 1991

  7. Great Encyclopedia of Cyril and Methodus asp?AID=672087

  8. Cooper 1987: Cooper J. Encyclopedia of the Symbols 1888.html

  9. Ivanov 1987: Ivanov M. Symbol for Theology, Translation by N. Khutsishvili, Theological collection 3, Tb. 1987

  10. Lepakhin: Lepakhin V.V., Icon and Symbol. 2005

  11. Losev: Losev A. F. Problem of the Symbol in the Realistic Art:

  12. Lotman 1992: Lotman Yu. M. The symbol in the System of Culture 1/lotman 92-e.htm

  13. Nakudashvili 1999: Nakudashvili N. Literary Trends Tb. 1999

  14. Todorov 1999: Todorov Tz. Theory of Symbol, translation from French language by Naumov. Dik. M. 1999

  15. Schelling 1996: Schelling F. P. Philosophy of Art M. 1996

  16. Hoffman: Hoffman V. Language of the Symbolists // LN. M. 1937, v. 27-28





Volume 4, Issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature