Symbol theory

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This article discusses the evolution and development of the symbol theory of semiotics and was presented to the Ateneo de Manila University.


The world has been existing for millions of years and it has been inhabited by a variety of geological, botanical and zoological creatures including the human species. Humans are characterized as rational beings (Olaguer, 2008) and have the capability of thinking and creating things by using their free will and intellect. These mental, physical, and emotional processes result in human activities. Human acts vary depending on our environment, personal experiences and psychological disturbances. In 1985, a cave in Spain was discovered with dozens of wall paintings depicting symbols dating from 100,000-40,000 years ago (Harris et al., 1989). These figures were graphical representations of bisons, deers, horses and other animals painted in black, red, brown and yellow inks.

The rise of early civilization, c. 2100 BC, fueled man’s intellectual curiosity and built its own government. In line with the development of governing law is the foundation of an early writing system in the form of the Hammurabi codes–called Cuneiform– written on stone tablets. A thousand years earlier the Egyptians formulated picture on walls of pyramids and temples. These narrative figures called Egyptian hieroglyphs depict Egyptian lifestyle and religious beliefs. In the eastern part of the world, the Chinese developed writing symbols inspired by the differences of footprints of animals and observable objects around them. They developed the symbols by reducing the number of strokes and made up the first pictographs. Through time, Chinese strokes evolved from pictograph to modern characters called Hanzi.

As the Hellenistic age began, independent city-states were established in Greece. The Greeks, with the modernity of life and civilization, developed various talents and disciplines that flourished arts and literature in forms of philosophy, poetry, drama, play, rhetoric, architecture and sculpture. Greeks express their intelligence, talents and their society in an artistic way whether it is written, spoken, structure or gestures.

These were the first few figures that our ancestors created and enriched which were documented and later on developed to a more complex symbols which until now we use in interacting and communicating within our society. As the symbols developed and transformed into different types, forms, figures and styles; a scholarship emerged to study and better understand the significance of these signs and symbols that we call Semiotics.


The semiotic study began during the 19th century by a Swiss linguistic named Ferdinand de Saussure. According to Reyes (2008), semiotics came from the Greek word Semiotikon, which means sign as well as the study of signs and their interpretation. She also cited that Saussure described semiotics as connection between an object (the signified) and its linguistic representation (such as a word, the signifier) and how the two are connected. Charles Peirce gave a more comprehensive definition of semiotics:

... is the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis. By semiosis I mean an action, an influence , which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as sign, its object and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in anyway resolvable into action between pairs. (Eco, 1976).

In a more complex way, The Institute for Art Research of the University of Helsinki (2009), described that semiotics is a field of study which investigate the emergence of meanings and symbolic systems that has traditionally been applied to humanities and various sciences especially for the extensive and complex phenomena and processes within art, culture, community, economics and futurology.

Semiotics is the systematized body of knowledge that carefully observe and study not only the signs, symbols and their meanings but also other factors that affect them such as the encoder, interpreter, culture etc. Signs and symbols are not only limited to visual representation but can also vary from language, shapes, colors, textures, clothing, to actions, gestures, mannerisms, and facial expressions.

Proponents and development[edit]

Semiotics has changed through time since scholars under the field of semiotics reviewed early approaches, sought several weaknesses and applied remedy to it. Semiotics has changed from the structural approach of Saussure, whose focus is the general syntactic to generate the meaning possible, to Peirce Social approach, whose theory dealt on the internal factors of interpreting signs considering the factors that affects its essence.

The study of symbols heightened in Ferdinand de Saussure’s study of signs and symbols in linguistics. Saussure’s study was in structural approach to which he explained that it is a system of formal relationship of signs and symbols regardless of its meaning and essence. He also mentioned that symbols, including language, does not have any physical connection with its referent. Saussure reinforce that symbols/ language are general idea that are separated from reality, however, symbols through language are structured system that represents reality.

In the social approach, Charles Sanders Peirce defined semiotic as the “quasi-necessary, or formal doctrine of signs” that “abstracts what must be the character of all signs used by... an intelligence capable of learning by experience”. (Reyes, 2008). Peirce classified the symbol as third in a universal trichotomy of signs. First, the icon is a sign that depends on its own quality, such that it resembles its object (which need not actually exist); the resemblance relation is regardless of the icon's any factual connection or interpreted reference to its object, though relative to a mode of apprehension (such as sense or intellect); a symbol can be an icon for another symbol. Second, the index is a sign of its object by having to its object a factual connection that is regardless of the index's any resemblance or interpreted reference to its object; examples are a designation, a mechanical reaction, and a photograph (an index with an attached icon). A kind of index is needed in order to instantiate a symbol. Lastly, the symbol depends on neither similarity nor factual connection to its object but instead on a rule or habit of interpreted reference to the object. Every symbol is a legisign (also called type), a sign general in its being. All terms, propositions, and arguments are symbols even apart from their expression in particular languages; they have replicas including such symbols as words and sentences in a human language. Sentences and words are among symbols (or indices in the case of demonstratives and personal names) that prescribe qualities of sound or appearance for their actual individual replicas or instances. Actual individual instances of symbols are not themselves symbols but specialized indexical sinsigns pointing to one's experience of the represented object. (A sinsign, also called token, is a sign individual in its being). Peirce held that Man (that is, the human being as such) is a symbol.

Noam Chomsky challenges Saussure’s structural approach by introducing his Transformational Grammar Approach. Generative linguistics does not concentrate more on the structures/ grammatical rule approach rather more interested in the relationship of language and behavior in achieving communication goals.

On Judee Burgoon’s study, she suggested classifications of non verbal codes. First, Non-verbal codes are characterized as analogic. These non verbal signs are categorized not only as discrete signs rather gradual which are continuous and forms a spectrum of range. Second, it feature some as iconic. These codes show resemblance of the object being symbolized. Third, certain codes promote universal meaning. This feature that some codes have attached universal interpretations that are common to all regardless of intercultural differences. Fourth, Codes enable simultaneous transmission. With the different parts and actions of the body, different messages can be concurrently sent at once. Fifth, non-verbal codes arouse automatic messages. Lastly, nonverbal codes are transmitted intrisictively. More often, these codes are impulsively discharged to covey a message.

Ray Birdwhistell started the study of Kinesics—the science of body language-which was focus was preceded by Ekman and Freiser. Paul Ekman gave an excellent model of kinesics behavior which concentrate more on facial expression and hand gestures. He study is to understand more the feelings, mood and personality of human and to increase understanding of interpersonal interaction, relationship and status of communication and what is revealed about interpersonal skills and style. He categorized the ways in analyzing non-verbal communication.

In Roland Barthes’ article, The Panopticon, he discusses the effect of iconography in social conditioning. Barthes also suggest that the naturalizing effect of media combined with the tactics that media practitioners use in the field of advertising has rendered to have same effect as social conditioning on its audiences. Barthes interrogated specific cultural materials which exposes societal assertion of values. In his book Mythologies (1957), Barthes explained the hierarchical relationship of the referent to the signified and how the French bourgeois relates it to a new signified to promote status quo—connotation . These insight of Roland Barthe’s gave way to the trailblazing Marxist theory.

Semiotics was once associated with philosophy which Susanne Langer consider symbolism to be the central concern of philosophy because it underlies human knowing and understanding. Human feelings are mediated by conceptualization, symbols and language that humans go far beyond simple signs by making use of these. Langer argues that signs signals the presence if an object. In contrary, symbols allow humans to think about something apart from its immediate presence. The process of symbolism and symbols became an integral part of human life as bridge social and physical worlds together through the symbols and their meanings which humans give more importance rather than the empirical object it refer.

Langer sees meaning as the complex relationship among the symbol, the object and the person, involving both connotation and denotation (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008).

Langer also mentioned that human being have the capability to create abstraction. Abstraction is the process of forming a notion of an object making it a more common term by disregarding the details of it. She points out that "anything may be said to have form that follows a pattern of any sort, exhibits order, internal connection” (Dryden, n.d.). by which she studied the types and relationship among abstracted concepts. Human usage of symbols are more complicated because there is no direct relationship with the symbol and the object it refer, moreover, when humans string these symbols to make proposition. With the ideas that Susanne Langer contributes in the symbol theory not only make humans think and conceptualize but rather it make humans feel the experience that these symbols bring which make humans communicate more effectively.

Main arguments[edit]

The field of semiotics is governed by its elements and key concepts which helps in studying, constructing and understanding symbols.

The elements that governs the understanding signs and symbols are the signified, signifier, and object. For Saussure, the signified is the intellectual concept represented by signifier (which can be verbal or nonverbal). A signified is the sense made by the sign. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea... (Chandler, 2009). A signifier is the visible form that represents the signified. These are the visible signs that where verbalized and brought to reality as the results of cognition process formed in our brain. The object is the empirical form that is being represented by the signs. This is the material object that exist and recognized by our senses.

Also, key concepts add to the deeper understanding in the study of message construction-semantics, syntactic, and pragmatics. Semantics refers to the essence of a specific sign or symbol. Semantics is the process of associating a symbol to a specific meaning. Syntactic is the relationship of signs and the organization of the system of signs in giving meaning to its referent. This is the process of constructing and connecting signs and symbols to create a system that forms a specific message. Language is one of the forms that requires this process which we call grammar. In grammar we follow specific rules and guides in constructing our sentences. When a word is misplace in a sentence, the meaning would definitely change. Lastly, Pragmatics refers to the effect of the elicited behavior drawn out by signs.

These elements and key concepts contribute in understanding the construction and interpretation of signs.

Benefits and criticisms[edit]

Semiotics may not be perfect, though it has strengths, which are helpful particularly in advertising, but it also has weak arguments.

Semiotics gains strengths through the positive benefits that it provide. It has a very specific goal of study which is signs, the object, and its relationship as individuals seek for its interpretation and how it was created. Also, it provides positive heuristic value (Campbell & Cao, 2001).

Signs and symbols provides mental exercise in understanding and studying the meaning and messages that lies behind the signs and their effects to individuals as they interact in the society. In addition, this field makes humans realize that meaning is unconsciously cognized aroused by the active process of interpretation

The study of signs also offers practical value especially in the context of Cultural studies for it is very useful in leaning about intercultural communication differences.

In the modern age, which visual age is very much concerned, the semiotics increase people's concern not only in rich imagination but as well as linguistic signs specifically in the context of visual communications, illustrations, photography and audio-visual media.

Semiotics also have weak arguments. Campbell and Cao (2001) sought that multiple theory models and ambiguity in definition of the similar term results to complexity and repetition of research in this theory. Same signs may have different meanings across different cultures or individual interpretations.

Another weakness that has found was the testability of this theory. Individual perception of the crafted messages influence how the meanings are being constructed as well as the culture and contexts in which the signs we utilized. These factors decreases the value of the testability because of the ambiguous circumstances and interpretation of meaning.

This theory is considered to be complex by some due to it including lots of jargon, and terms can be confusing. It also seems to promote conflicting ideas from various proponents that create complexity and confusion. There is a little consensus among various semioticians related to the conducted researches.

Conclusion and recommendation[edit]

The field of semiotics is one of the theoretical approaches in studying communication. The study is not perfect all time and cannot be applied to all circumstances. With the theory’s several weaknesses, different theorists and semiotician emerged themselves in understanding and providing remedies which blossomed and became a wide field of interest.

This field has change through time from Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural approach of signs and symbols in the 19th century to modern-day approach of the symbol theory. Semiotics is a vast knowledge that has one specific goal of creating, interpreting and understanding signs and their respective meanings that might emerge and generate new study considering other factors that governs them.

Communication professionals, particularly focused semioticians, should not solely limit themselves in the study of in symbols and their interpretative meanings but as well as consider the relationship of this theory to other theoretical approaches. Semiotic theory are related to several tradition depending on the focus and circumstances. Linguistics relating to dominance of power reflects critical approach, examining use of symbols in various cultural communities appears sociocultural tradition, and interpretation of linguistics signs shows phenomenological approach.

The study of semiotic symbol theory will not stop from the most current semiotician who contributed his/her study of the field. Semiotics will surely unearth more curiosities that will bring a new horizon in developing future studies and better understanding of this theory.

See also[edit]


  • Cambell, A., Cao, Y. (2001). Semiotic Theory Of Communication. Retrieved July 23, 2010, from
  • Chandler D., (2009). Semiotics For Beginners. Retrieved July 27, 2010, from
  • Dryden, D., (n.d.). Susanne K. Langer. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from
  • Eco, U., (1976). A Theory Of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  • Eco, U., (1984). Semiotics And The Philosophy Of Language. London: McMillan
  • Innis, R. E., (2007). Making The Literary Symbol: Taking Note Of Langer. Semiotica, Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. 165 1/4, 91-106
  • Langer, S. K., (1953). Introduction To Symbolic Logic. New York: Dover.
  • Littlejohn, S. W., Foss, K. A., (2008). Theories Of Human Communication. California: Thomson/ Wadsworth.
  • Olaguer, R. J., Pedrosa, F., Navarro, Y., Domingo, E. (2006). Logic: The Art Of Reasoning. Manila, Philippines. University of Santo Tomas Press
  • Ong, R. C., Yugioksing, J., Choa, O., (2009). Guide To Learning Chinese Characters. Philippines: Confucius Institute at the Ateneo de Manila University
  • Perry, M., Daniel, D. F., Harris, J. G., Von Laue, T. H., Warren., D. J., (1989). History Of The World. Philippines: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Reyes, W. R., (2008). semiotics [Powerpoint Slides]. Unpublished Manuscript. ESTH2, University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines
  • Reyes, W. R., (2009). Social Structures [Powerpoint Slides]. Unpublished Manuscript. ESTH2, University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines.
  • ______ (2009). Semiotics. Retrieved from Information, University of Helsinki Institute of Art Research:
  • Semiotics: An Introductory Reader/ edited with introductions by Robert Innis (1985). London: Huchinson