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The Meaning of Symbols

Words are symbols. Indeed, the only function of words is to be symbolic. That is why they are created in the first place. However, objects can be made into symbols too (for example, a flower or ring, which may mean friendship or love or marriage). Many of our acts are also symbols.

Symbols are words, acts, and objects used intentionally—on purpose—to communicate and represent something.

Not all communication involves symbols. Almost all animals communicate without symbols. The sounds or movements of one acts as a stimulus to the other, which responds automatically. For Mead, however, the special quality of symbolic communication is the fact that the one who communicates both understands his or her own communication and intentionally communicates. This makes it possible to apply the symbols we learn to thousands of situations, conversations, letters we write, poetry we create, and problems we have to solve.

The Importance of Symbols

Human social organization depends upon symbols.

Social organization demands that human beings communicate with each other as they cooperate, as problems are encountered and worked out.

The human individual depends on symbols.

Symbols are what we use to communicate with ourselves; that is, most of our thinking consists of symbol use. It is through word symbols that we analyze situations, define them, apply our past experience, and predict the consequences of our action. Symbol use means we are problem solvers in our world; we plan our action rather than just respond to stimuli.

Symbols and Freedom

Symbols are the basis for human thinking, and thinking in turn is basic to what we do in situations. We do not just respond to the world presented to us by others; we manipulate that world in our heads with the use of symbols, and we act accordingly.

Rather than requiring mechanical robots or instinctive ants, human social organization demands thinking actors. Part of the “problem” with thinking actors is that they are difficult to control completely, so actors within all social organization end up questioning, criticizing, challenging, and shaping the direction of their own lives in social organization. Symbols, then, as well as capabilities they make possible in the human being make us all into potentially free actors, at least to some extent.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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