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Symbols are objects, characters, or other concrete representations of ideas, concepts, or other abstractions. For example, in the United States and Canada, a red octagon is a symbol for the traffic sign meaning "STOP". In more psychological and philosophical terms, every perception is symbolic, and humans often react to symbolism on a subconscious level.

Common examples of symbols are the symbols used on maps to denote places of interest, such as crossed sabers to indicate a battlefield, and the numerals used to represent numbers. Common psychological symbols are the use of a gun to represent a penis or a tunnel to represent a vagina. David G. Myers, Psychology, Worth Publishers; 7th edition ISBN 0716752514 ISBN 978-0716752516, p. 282

For lessons on the topic of Symbols, follow this link.

The symbolate

For example, a scepter[1], or sceptre, is a symbol of royal power. A scepter is an object which can be picked up and wielded, although it fulfills its symbolic purpose only if wielded by a monarch.

Objects have chemical and physical properties and behave in certain ways. In practice, a scepter is essentially a rod, with ornamentation; but essentially anything accepted as a scepter is a scepter.

An alien from outer space might describe a royal audience as follows: A human homo sapiens wrapped in fibers reflecting light at the high end of the visible frequency range moved an ornamented rod against gravity, at which time other individuals ceased emitting complex sound waves. A human would just say that the monarch dressed in a purple robe waved the scepter to silence the crowd.

What is the difference between these two meanings? Leslie White approached the question in an effort to define cultural objects, such as a law, a constitution, a marriage ceremony. All the nouns in the story are in this category: the monarch, the robe, the scepter, the language, the subjects.

The essence of a cultural object is that it is a token in the process of symbolization. White therefore defined the symbolate as an object created by the act of symbolization, just as an isolate is created by the act of isolation. The scepter stands for royal power, but before this act of symbolization it did not exist. It was created by its use as a symbol. We are conscious of the symbol, but not of the symbolate.

Symbolates are real objects. The act of symbolization endows the rod with a power it did not possess previously. Ordinary rods have no effect on audiences, but scepters do. However, the power does not reside only in the scepter. Its location is diffuse, some in the people, some in the king, some in the audience. Humanity lives in a world of diffuse powers and possibilities and therefore creates symbolates to describe and manipulate it.


The word "symbol" came to the English language by way of Middle English, from Old French, from Latin, from the Greek σύμβολον (sýmbolon) from the root words συν- (syn-) meaning "together" and βολή (bolē) "a throw", having the approximate meaning of "to throw together", literally a "co-incidence" (zu-fall), also "sign, ticket, or contract". The earliest attestation of the term is in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes where Hermes on seeing the tortoise exclaims συμβολον ηδη μοι "symbolon [symbol/sign/portent/encounter/chance find?] of joy to me!" before turning it into a lyre.