1. "A sign that would lose the character which renders it a sign if there were no interpretant" (C.S. PEIRCE, in J. HOOPES, 1991, p.240).
2. "A sign that is a potential producer of a response to something which in turn is a potential producer of a response to something other than itself" (R.L. ACKOFF & F.E. EMERY, 1972, p.168).
3."Something that represents something else, by association or convention" (AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY, p. 1302).
PEIRCE's definition is what makes symbols important in systemics: It shows the importance of abstract frames of reference in individual observers and in communities.
A symbol seems to be basically an individual and collective human memory device, useful to maintain sociality. S GOONATILAKE observes that "Cave pictures were the earlier cases of the externalization of internally kept images. In fact, the later development of writing is traced to pictographic roots" (1991, p. 86).
ACKOFF and EMERY's definition seems to be rooted in C.S. PEIRCE's own and on his descriptions of the various types of symbols (J. HOOPES, 1991, p.30-1 and 240). They observe that, according to S. LANGER (1948), a symbol is a sign that signifies a concept, while CH. MORRIS used it as a sign of a sign.
Most symbols are created by deliberate association, but are thereafter transmitted by imprinting, a process whose roots can be found in animal behavior, as shown by K. LORENZ.
K. STEINBUCH has given an interesting model of symbol formation with his "learning matrixes".
H. MALTA MACEDO states that symbols "are the fixed mental structures that holds against the shapeless everlasting flow of sense-data" (1992, p.674).
R. GLANVILLE observes that: "We make reference (create a temporary identity) between that which is to be communicated and that which is to communicate it (roughly and loosely, between meaning and symbol)" (1992, p.661).
Symbols generally transmit subliminal messages, once they become incorporated within a given culture.
Many symbols become supports for concepts, and can easily "be combined with other symbols" In such cases "A combination of symbols hence represents a potential association of concepts" (F. HEYLIGHEN).
Unfortunately the interpretation of symbols significance is not always stable nor clear and, furthermore they may easily be manipulated.
See hereafter about semantic confusion introduced by the restricted signification of "symbols" as something manipulated by computers.
- 1) General information
- 2) Methodology or model
- 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
- 4) Human sciences
- 5) Discipline oriented
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Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]
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