Monday, July 19, 2010

Two Kinds of Symbols

But we have, for our purposes, to make a distinction at the outset between two different kinds of symbols. There are visible objects or sounds which stand for something of which we already have direct knowledge. Such symbols are not intended to give us any information about the nature of the thing or things symbolized, but to remind us of them, or tell us something about their action at the particular moment, or prompt us to act in a certain way at the particular moment because of them. The Union Jack does not give a patriotic Briton any information about his country or the part it has played in the world, but it reminds him of a whole world of things which he knows otherwise. The sound of a trumpet announcing the arrival of a king to inspect his army, or the tolling of a bell to announce his death do not tell those who hear the sound anything about the appearance or character of the king: nor would it give them any idea of what coming to inspect an army meant, or what dying meant, if they had not already the idea of those things in their minds: the sound tells them merely that the man they otherwise know is going to perform the action, or has suffered the experience, which they otherwise knew, at that particular moment of time. Or, thirdly, the trumpet which orders the troops to get up in the morning or begin their march, does not tell them anything about getting up in the morning or marching which they do not know already; it tells them only that these actions, of which they have already definite ideas, acquired otherwise, have to be performed now.

The other kind of symbols purport to give information about the things they symbolize, to convey knowledge of their nature, which those who see or hear the symbols have not had before or have not otherwise. There is the old story of someone born blind having explained to him what the colour scarlet was by his being told that it was like the sound of a trumpet. Whether that was a happy analogy or not, it is plain that the only possible way in which a person born blind could be given any information regarding colour is by the use of some things within his own experience, as symbols working by analogy.

Edwyn Robert Bevan, Symbolism and Belief, Lecture One

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