[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!