Roses and traffic lights


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary last year, and I’m still digesting what I think of the book as a whole (see this thread for a few thoughts), but I’ve already got a lot of use out of some of the ideas I picked up along the way. One of the most surprising things I learned is that there are two very different ways we use the word ‘symbol’, and I’d never noticed! This observation is probably not unique to McGilchrist, and may be obvious to others anyway, but it was news to me.

The first sense is roughly what we mean by symbolism in poetry. The power of a poetic symbol lies in the strength of its associations to other ideas, objects and symbols, both direct and culturally specific. The rose is a canonical (western?) example:

In one sense of the word, a symbol such as the rose is the focus or centre of an endless network of connotations which ramify through our physical and mental, personal and cultural, experience in life, literature and art: the strength of the symbol is in direct proportion to the power it has to convey an array of implicit meanings, which need to remain implicit to be powerful. In this it is like a joke that has several layers of meaning – explaining them destroys its power.

The other sense is a more technical, practical one, that applies to the sort of symbols you see on clothes labels, maps and airport signs. These symbols need to be unambiguous. In this case secondary associations are useless at best and may be actively dangerous. A red traffic light needs to mean one thing only:

The other sort of symbol could be exemplified by the red traffic light: its power lies in its use, and its use depends on a 1:1 mapping of the command ‘stop’ onto the colour red, which precludes ambiguity and has to be explicit.

In the book these two quotes are bookended by a couple of sentences linking this back to his hemisphere model. I left those out because this point stands whether he’s right or not. I’m more interested in the implications, which I haven’t thought through very much yet.  I can’t think of any situations where we mistake one kind of symbol for the other – we generally know whether we’re reading poetry or a clothes label – so maybe this is something we just know how to navigate in practice, and the mixing together of concepts doesn’t matter very much.

Still, I find this confusion deeply weird, and I’m left with a few questions:

  • Who else has written about this point? Any good references?
  • Do other languages split these two concepts up into separate words?
  • Are there good examples of intermediate cases? Emoji seem like one potential good place to look. They need a fairly fixed meaning to work, but often pull a network of secondary meanings along with them (which sometimes – as with the eggplant/aubergine – end up overshadowing the original intended meaning). They’re often conveying squishy human emotions, and haven’t been as rigorously pruned for the purposes of technical rationality as airport signs. This would be an interesting topic to explore in itself.
  • Does being unaware of this distinction ever cause trouble in practice? Maybe emoji are the place to look again.

If you have any thoughts, let me know!

10 thoughts on “Roses and traffic lights

  1. Steve Alexander June 5, 2020 / 7:59 am

    Japanese has 象徴 and also 印 (しょうちょう / shouchou and しるし shiroshi)

    UTNaoshi wrote on HiNative:

    しるし=印/標 is a sign or mark that you write or engrave lest you should forget or mix with something else.

    しょうちょう=象徴 is a symbol that represents something abstract or evokes something related to it in your mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Alexander June 5, 2020 / 8:01 am

    Later in the same discussion, UTNaoshi also writes:

    As oditive says, yes. Simple signs like 〇 and ✔ are しるし. Then, more complicated ones, like 🌈, are しょうちょう.
    For example, Article 1 of Japanese constitution defines the Emperor 天皇 as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People, then the symbol is translated in Japanese as 象徴 shouchou.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lucy Keer June 5, 2020 / 3:57 pm

      Thanks! Yes this does sound like a similar distinction – one for practical use, one for evocative powers.


  3. Rin'dzin June 5, 2020 / 10:57 pm

    I hadn’t come across this distinction before, either. I wonder if the difference between the two ‘types’ of symbol relies upon the degree to which there’s an agreed, publicly accepted verification of the meaning. That is, the distinction does not define a qualitative difference so much as a quantitative one; it’s a division of a continuum along some axes. The axis that first occurred to me was the ambiguity one. The meanings the rose might symbolize are multi-layered and nebulous, whereas the traffic light is unambiguous in context. But neither are inherently symbolic or not: their use and context defines the symbolism associated with them, more or less ambiguously. The symbolic function is what it is, it doesn’t seem to be different in either case, just more or less defined and agreed upon. In cases like the traffic light and clothes labels, the meaning of the symbol is most clearly defined because we’ve publicly agreed that’s what it is, not because it’s inherently so. The rose in a poem isn’t more abstract even, but it does leave meaning open to multiple interpretations (which is part of what makes it work, in context.)


    • Lucy Keer June 6, 2020 / 8:00 am

      Hm, yes, the public agreement is definitely important. I do think there are also *inherent* features that make the rose more suited to the multilayered kind of symbolism, and the traffic light to the one-meaning kind. I haven’t thought about this much yet so this will be a bit of a rambling braindump.

      Drawing the two things (after writing the post) actually turned out to be useful, because it made it very obvious that the traffic light is just a bunch of boxes and circles, very simple geometric shapes. It’s been engineered to have the capacity for unambiguous meaning, you can pattern match it to one thing very quickly. If I think of map symbols and washing instructions, they are often constructed out of a few shapes as well. I feel like it would be hard to even make a traffic light, *as an object*, have really complex depth of meaning – though maybe possible if you embedded it in enough rich cultural contexts, as part of some weird traffic-light-based ritual or something.

      Emoji are also interestingly intermediate in this respect – they aren’t natural objects, but they have quite a lot of extra (often platform-specific) detail compared to simple geometric shapes. Often that pulls in weird directions. One for me is the thinking emoji – I’d like to just use it for ‘thinking’, but the hands-on-chin pose is so theatrical and over-the-top it just looks wrong for me in most contexts. So I mostly use it for something like ‘performative thinking’, like shower thoughts on twitter. It’s pulling me in a strange direction because a lot of the secondary meanings have been kept in.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lucy Keer June 6, 2020 / 6:20 pm

      Think I’ve now convinced myself with the examples that came up on twitter (Christian cross -> simple shape, complex symbolism; Oxford exam carnations -> complex shape, simple symbolism) that you’re basically right. Publicly accepted verification seems to be the main thing, inherent features of the symbol are second order at best, but still potentially interesting to explore.


  4. Jed Harris June 8, 2020 / 8:56 pm

    A very similar distinction in (some) semiotics discussions: “sign” is a mostly context independent indicator of some potential condition or action; “symbol” is a context dependent element in a web of meanings and practices. (Wording of definitions mine.)

    A stoplight would clearly be a sign, a christian cross would clearly be a symbol. The red dot on a gull’s beak that induces pecking behavior in nestlings would be a sign. *Maybe* some chimpanzee threat displays could be symbolic– debatable. An indication would be if e.g. a threat display is sometimes used in play or “quotation”, or if some behaviors are mimed for communication.

    As these examples suggest humans have a deep repertoire of symbolic modes of behavior even setting aside explicit graphic or auditory symbols.

    I’d say that public “common knowledge” (not necessarily explicit agreement) is a way to stabilize both signs and symbols. But symbolic modes can be exercised without prior agreement — as long as other parties can grasp the symbolic intent and not just react to the explicit indications.

    For example suppose you see someone else blazing trees to mark a trail — “blazing” is just cutting a bit of bark off at a convenient height so that white flesh shows through. As soon as you realize they aren’t creating the blazes to get the bark chips or for some other material function, you look for ways they behave as signs or symbols and realize you can now follow the trail backward with your eyes. So the blazes become signs that you understand with no explicit agreement.

    You might pick up this sort of sign just by encountering a blazed trail without seeing it done. In less arboreal environments we do the same thing by piling rocks, and people can tell jokes with rock piles, etc. so I guess the ascend to the level of symbols. Note that a joke has to ascend beyond or conflict with the pre-understood meaning of its underlying symbols.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lucy Keer June 10, 2020 / 3:20 pm

      Thanks! I had a vague idea there was a sign/symbol distinction somewhere, but I googled it quickly and got confused, so didn’t include it in the post. That does sound extremely similar, will do some more reading.

      That’s a good point that common knowledge stabilises meanings but isn’t always necessary.


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