The Problem with Symbolism: Symbols for them, Symbols for us?
Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen & David A. Warburton
(Aarhus Universitet, Denmark)
There are several conceptions of the word "symbol". From
the basic sense of the word-that of "a sign representing something
else"-interpretations vary. Symbols are thus today distinguished
from other signs by not being translatable into one, unambiguous meaning.
Paul Ricoeur talks about symbols as being elements with "surplus
of meaning" (Ricoeur 1976). While this is true today, it may not
always have been true. We simplify by suggesting that symbols resist
reduction in the way that icons are most effective because reducible.
Somehow established by convention, symbols are then imbued with diffuse
and unclear associations and meaning.
Using something (e.g., a Cross) as a symbol means that the item
in question has its own existence (as a physical object intended for
execution), and that its role is not served by its own existence (a
utilitarian implement), but rather by the fact that some form of code
is shared among those familiar with the item or behaviour in question
and its true role (i.e., as representative of a community). This implies
a shared ideological understanding.
Symbols are thus social: something can be a symbol only if at least
two people agree so.
Although symbols may be both verbal and material one must ask whether
a symbol can be a symbol without it having been agreed upon in language.
Does a symbol require a mutual verbal agreement between at least two
people for something (e.g., a tool) to be also a symbol? It is peculiarly
characteristic of scholarly literature that symbols are frequently taken
to be basically verbal and dependent upon language, e.g., Lévi-Strauss
refers to the "effectiveness of symbols" in terms of words
and metaphors without any reference to material objects (Lévi-Strauss
It is commonly said that symbols are human. It is also commonly
assumed that symbols "make use" of language and that language
is what separates humans from animals. Is it, however, possible that
language is not as old as mankind, but that it did not emerge until
the Neolithic and that symbols therefore are no older than that?
In this paper we want to discuss some different issues. Emic-etic
aspects of symbolism. Is it possible, or even relevant, to try to get
to their conception of symbol? The historical character of "symbolism";
in prehistory we may be dealing with the origins of symbolism. Where
did symbolism begin? The language-based character of symbolism. What
role does language have? The relevance of distinguishing "practical"
from "symbolic" in prehistoric material. Is this possible
What is the significance of the explosion of symbols from the Neolithic
and the Bronze Age? Can we extrapolate backwards or should we draw a
line, putting the Palaeolithic and Neolithic into separate categories
when discussing "symbolism"?
The purpose of the present round table is presented as concerning,
i.a., "the issue of whether their [early objects] functions were
practical or symbolic at the time when they were created" (our
emphasis), as well as attempting at answering the question about "Which
observable properties of an artifact can count as reliable indications
that it once was endowed with symbolic relevance?" (our emphasis).
As such, the aim of the round table is somehow to find a methodologically
sound way of getting at "their" - the prehistoric peoples'
- concept of symbolism and to be able to reconstruct "their"
way of distinguishing between "practical" and "symbolic".
Such an aim is in accordance with mainstream anthropology whose purpose,
according to the Encyclopaedia of Cultural Anthropology, is ultimately
to reach and reconstruct an emic perspective (ECA 1996, Emic/etic perspective).
"Emic" is opposed to "etic" and may be defined as
a perspective that "focuses on the intrinsic cultural distinctions
that are meaningful to the members of a given society" (ECA, Emic/etic
perspective, 382). Opposed to this, an etic perspective "relies
upon the extrinsic concepts and categories that have meaning for scientific
The distinction emic/etic thus focuses on two perspectives from
which to view material: (a) an internal and (b) an external perspective.
The distinction emic/etic also puts the finger on the difference between
Anthropology and Prehistory, namely that the emic perspective is accessible
only via verbal information, and thus inaccessible in terms of the limits
of prehistoric material.
Posing questions about prehistoric symbolism and prehistoric distinctions between practical and symbolic is relevant and legitimate. Such queries can, however, only be answered on an etic, and not on an emic level.
"Symbol" is our term: prehistoric peoples did not use
it. Talking about "symbolism" in prehistoric material could
mean imposing "our" categories onto "them" rather
than "us" recognizing and reproducing "their" categories.
These are, however, also the conditions for scholarly work: In attempting
to understand the people under study we create categories by which we
distinguish phenomena of their culture.
On this basis (prehistoric "symbols" being "our" interpretation of "their" world as "we" see it), we can ask the question: Does it make any interpretative sense to distinguish between practical and symbolic? One can perhaps enquire about the value of distinguishing the "practical" from the "symbolic", any more than the "religious" from the "mundane". These distinctions did probably not exist for the people and the cultures under study.
By contrast, we should appreciate the fact of the challenge that
it is Prehistory which offers information about the "origins of
symbolism". We cannot deduce from known forms (e.g., crosses) how
any given form came into being
We will opt for a more holistic approach, taking material culture
as such and as a whole as symbolic and as open to interpretation, without
attempting to reconstruct emic categories. This approach is in line
with Foucault and Collingwood. Although we need not adopt the genealogical
approach as such, its aims may be useful to prehistory. The purpose
of a genealogical investigation is not to ask for the "self-understanding"
of the text (in our case, material), but instead to ask what the text
(or material) itself does not "consciously" know is the subject.
Genealogy is opposed to hermeneutics. The hermeneutic perspective attempts
to understand the text in its own terms-to approach the text's own understanding
of itself. The genealogical perspective poses wholly new and different
questions. For a genealogical perspective, no questions are given or
necessary or obligatory. The scholar should not work on the premises
of the text but on her/his own premises. The scholar should herself
formulate questions that cut across / oppose the text itself.
It may be suggested that such a perspective opens up much wider
HISTORY & PREHISTORY
There are several systems linking "signs", "icons",
"indexes" and "symbols". "Gestures" and
"words" are frequently assumed to be symbolic. Regardless
of the particular order of any given authority, there is usually a hierarchy
in which a "symbol" has a greater "surplus of meaning"
than a "sign".
How do these concepts come into being? At the most elementary level,
one can check the OED.
In Greek the word meant only a "sign", "token",
even a "ticket" or "license" according to the standard
Oxford Dictionary of Greek (Liddell & Scott). The Oxford English
Dictionary says however, that it is, i.a., "An object representing
something sacred" or even "a formal authoritative statement
of the religious belief of the Christian Church". A decisive change
has taken place between the ancient and the modern definition, at least
partially related to the appearance of the Christian Church and its
specific use of symbolism.
This means that we have infused "meaning" into a term
which we then oblige ourselves to define. More importantly, however,
it also means that something which was eminently practical (a "ticket"
or a "sign") has been assigned to a domain where it is assumed
to have no "practical" value, at least by procedural definition
if the "symbolic" is to be separated from the "practical".
The suggestion that among the criteria for a "symbol"
must be the fact that it represents something related to belief is related
to Christianity. In prehistoric archaeology things identified as representing
"belief" are identified precisely because we cannot find any
other purpose for them. However, the process of filling a symbol with
meaning is precisely a historical process in the creation of meaning.
THE IMPACT OF LANGUAGE
The difference between a Greek concept of "symbol" meaning
a "sign" (cf. Liddell and Scott) and the definition given
by the OED suggests a historical development of the term, from meaning
something concrete and practical to meaning an untouchable thought.
This development has certainly occurred in the last few thousand years.
How much of the entire evolution of the human understanding of this
type of symbolism has taken place since the beginning of the Bronze
Age? And how much did the Neolithic bequeath? Was there any symbolism
in the Palaeolithic?
Most agree-we do not-that sophisticated language can be traced back
to the Upper Palaeolithic. This assumption effectively eliminates a
gap in the development of expression during which people will not have
had an "abstract" means of describing "tools" or
"symbols", let alone distinguishing them. Before the development
of any kind of language, conceptual thought will have been even more
concrete and sexual since only compelling and memorable images could
provide a means of categorizing the creations of the human hand.
It seems to us that in most definitions of symbols and in most treatments
of symbols, be they archaeological or not, it is assumed that "symbolism"
and its use is innate in mankind and that it has existed continuously
the past 40,000 years. In other words, it is assumed as a matter of
course that "symbols" existed and were used consciously in
the Palaeolithic as well as in the Bronze Age, and in precisely the
same manner. "Symbol", then, is assumed to be a constant,
closely connected and almost identified with being human.
Contrary to this point of view, we want to suggest that "symbols"
came into being only with the beginning of language, and that languages
with abstract values may be quite recent. The result may have been a
transformation of forms of expression which may have begun as little
as 10.000 years ago. We therefore suggest that "symbols" existed
only rudimentarily in the Palaeolithic (if at all) and that they can
only be talked about as a partly "conscious" phenomenon from
around the beginnings of the Neolithic.
The language of the material culture of the Neolithic is that of
capacity and content: containers to be filled. Such materials lend themselves
to metaphorical transformations. These metaphorical transformations
employ and enhance language. This type of language-for expressing thought-is
a common phenomenon today. But how old is it?
The capacity to express is visible in the material culture of the
Neolithic and the languages of the Bronze Age. To what degree are we
justified in making similar propositions about the Palaeolithic? What
is the difference between "overwhelming potentiality" which
cannot be expressed because there are no words for it, and a "surplus
of meaning" which cannot be expressed because the number of associations
is infinite, and thus inexpressible because of individual limitations
and not because of the limits of language? Will this have no impact
on the "meaning" of material objects?
The initial stage is the creation of a thing: a painting, an axe,
a vessel, an ornament. A next stage is developing a "name"
for that. It is only in the "final" stages that (a) objects
become "otherworldly" symbols simply by virtue of names which
were once descriptions, and (b) the process of creating objects which
are consciously "symbolic", representing the real world in
terms of the metaphor. In this fashion, a perfectly ordinary object,
e.g., a jar, can be given a sexual significance through a name or suitable
decoration. The reverse happens when, e,g, creating a statue of a woman
and calling it "Aphrodite" so that the symbolic comes to represent
"sexuality" and the world of being, but also much more.
The role of language in expressing the thought and allowing the
transformation should not obscure the fundamental influence of the environment
in determining the means of expression: the forms of reference remain
the same. We can recognize a statue of Aphrodite as a symbol. We can
also recognize a jar as a symbol. The issue is exactly at what point
we can assert that the jar was a symbol. The concept of the woman as
a "vessel" is reasonable. Does a jar decorated with a face
and breasts "represent" a woman or does the character of the
woman as a "vessel" fade into an inanimate jar?
Are metaphors symbols? Or what is the relationship between metaphor
Gardiner (1963) stresses that language use is about discussing "things".
Lakoff & Johnson suggest that human thought is to be understood
through metaphor. We would prefer to argue, with Gardiner, that human
language can only express relations of "things", and therefore
that "metaphor" is the only possible means of expressing something
which is not a thing. Applied to language, this may or may not be debateable,
but applied to symbols there can be no doubt that these are "things".
They are, however, "special things".
Many have followed Lakoff & Johnson, assuming that metaphors
are a way of thinking, rather than arguing-as we do-that metaphors are
a means of expressing a thought rather than a thought. And that this
means of expressing thought is dependent upon language. The human mind
processes images and uses these images to "describe". These
"descriptions" are formed metaphorically in the absence of
any other means to express the thought. The basis of the thought can
frequently be an artefact, and the means of expression will be in terms
of the environment. Language transforms this capacity, introducing an
interface which can distort and organize impressions.
We find it to be crucial that in prehistoric archaeology we face
the origins of symbolism. Archaeologists should therefore bear in mind
that the symbols in the archaeological material do not necessarily look
like symbols in modernity, and certainly not symbols as they are defined
and discussed in textbooks. Can we assume that "symbols" (as
well as religion) were "born" full-fledged as we know them
today? Or rather should we-when looking at the archaeological record-look
for incipient symbols, would-be-symbols, experiments of symbols, rudiments
We suggest that, contrary to the means of defining and identifying
symbols today (as signs referring to something else by way of association/
convention / as signs with a surplus of meaning), what we today see
and interpret as prehistoric symbols, were in fact at that time not
invested with any meaning in this sense. The history of the world is
the "production of meaning" (Merleau-Ponty), and directly
related to "history" in the sense of those divisions of human
life which can be defined. As the origins of symbols and as experiments
of symbols, these cannot have been more than mere signs with a potential,
and that this potential was realized in the course of history, during
which they were filled with "meaning".
VALUE & MEANING
It is assumed that "symbols" have some "meaning"
and "meaning" is usually associated with some "value"
(even in the sense that mathematical expressions have a given "value",
where the term "value" means simply a numerically expressed
content). In the Graeco-Roman world it was considered incorrect to dedicate
iron-rather than bronze-objects to the gods or the dead. In Hindu thought,
a stone temple is tens of thousands of times more valuable than one
of brick or wood. The intrinsic value of the object in terms of "price"
was thus a component of the "value" of a "symbol":
not the object itself, but the "price" transformed its "value".
In the Near East, there is a leap from the Neolithic to the Bronze
Age. Up to the end of the earliest phase of the Neolithic, one finds
objects of bone, decorations in colors, figurines in clay, etc. It is
only during the Bronze Age that objects of intrinsic value-gold, lapis
lazuli, etc.-began to dominate to "symbolic" world, whereas
the intrinsically symbolic of the Neolithic was primarily symbolic through
its character and not its material-clay, stone, etc. The offerings of
earlier ages-boars' mandibles, dentalium necklaces-only became symbolic
through context (burials). This again stresses that our approach to
"symbolicity" must be grounded in a social and technological
We are looking for things which somehow became distinctly symbolic.
We must also look for a reasonable time "when" symbols became
"symbolic". We must also discuss our reasons for explaining
"how" and "why" they became "symbolic"-even
if we cannot answer, we must lay the thoughts on the table.
We cannot choose between Saussure or Peirce, because the distinction
is illegitimate, the issue is not how the "surplus of meaning"
came to be identified with an object, but that it did. Our problem is
that it is almost impossible for us to identify any genre of symbol
according to the meaning assigned to it before the appearance of language.
Once we know that the goddess of justice is blindfolded because justice
must be impartial, we can follow the system. Once we know that the son
of god was allegedly executed by being nailed to a cross, we can follow
the system. Otherwise a blindfolded woman with a sword and a balance
might be a prostitute, and a cross might be a geometrical symbol generated
by mathematics such as those of the Hindu mandala. Obviously the key
point is the agreement, not the origin of the metaphor. In prehistory
we cannot identify meaning.
Gardiner, A. H. 1963. The Theory of Speech and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, G. 1990. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. 1976. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus
of Meaning, Fort Worth.
Information: Paul Bouissac
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