The Source of all Symbolism

by Jonathan J. Dickau
©2004 - all rights reserved

        What is symbolism, and how does it arise?  What makes some forms symbols, where other forms are not symbols, or aren’t considered symbolic expressions?  Is symbolism something that actually has a source, or is it a topic which exists independent of any real or perceived origin?  In my view, there is the manifestation of an originating process for every example of symbolism, which can be studied.  In this manner, we can grapple with basic questions that relate to the origin of symbolism, without getting stuck in the details of any one culture’s symbol set, or symbology.  While virtually all of the forms we study as symbols have their origin in the thoughts and handiwork of human beings, there are underlying realities of symbolic presentation, and of form itself, that are greater than culture or beliefs can determine.  It is my belief that examining the basis for form and expression is fertile ground for understanding both the deeper meaning of symbols, and the origin of symbolism itself.

        What are the basics, therefore, that can elucidate this topic for us?  There is a basic distinction between figure and ground (or background), between observer and observed, between content and context.  Without some way of distinguishing between these aspects, there is no possibility for any symbol to be discerned, nor even the possibility to form symbols which might later be interpreted.  On the other hand, once these qualities do come into play, symbolism seems to take on a life of its own.  The question then arises of whether these qualities have always been there, or how they might come into being, if they haven’t existed forever.  To some extent this is connected with the scientific question of how the universe emerges, and whether it had a specific place and time of origin, but there are issues that arise even in the purely abstract case, which relate to how symbols are formed, and what is required for them to be interpreted.

        We can assert that there is a place or condition beyond and before form as we know it, which exists in a state that is free from any boundaries or comparison, and be on fairly solid ground, both philosophically and scientifically.  Taoist scholars and mystics, call this place or condition Wu-Ji.  The land of Wu is beyond all opposites, being neither great nor small, neither light nor dark, neither hot nor cold, and having neither an inside nor an outside.  It is formless, but active and somehow alive.  The Chinese belief in Wu-Ji as the primal or primordial Tao probably predates the advent of written language in China, being thousands of years old according to the Masters.  Much more recently, over the last 20 years or so, and due largely to the work of one individual, Alain Connes, Mathematics has verified the existence of just such a condition, labeling it Noncommutative Geometry.  This branch of Mathematics is the study of those spaces wherein the normal laws of size and distance do not apply.  Strangely enough, ancient and modern scholars both describe a situation where process predates form, and gives rise to conditions.

        The Taoists describe Wu-Ji as pure process, with no form – being beyond form and somehow coming before it.  Alain Connes asserts that noncommutative measure spaces evolve with time.  Specifically, it appears that they evolve on their own without any form or forces to drive them.  It would seem, therefore, that empty spaces actually evolve toward a state in which both the emergence of form and the observation of form can take place.  That is; spaces where there is no possibility for symbolism tend to evolve into spaces where that possibility emerges in a distinct way.  Process engenders observable conditions.  Before long, any process evolves conditions that are rife with symbolism, or ripe for interpretation.  Unfolding processes may automatically give rise to the possibility for observation, as well.  Only when there are observers is any sort of interpretation of meaning or symbolism possible, however.  Symbols are forms or objects which represent something else.  A symbol could be the expression of truth itself, but it is more often the representation of some particular object or concept.  It is accurate to say that the actual manifestation of some force or archetype is itself a real symbol or a true expression of that tendency or quality, but we have come to identify symbols as representations of things, including abstract realities and ideals which may not be possible to accurately depict.

        The perfect example might be a point.  Mathematicians say it occupies a location in space and has zero size, but when we draw a point we represent it by a dot on a piece of paper.  If we made the dot too big, it would be obvious that it takes up space, but if the dot were too small it couldn’t be seen and would not be useful as a symbol.  When we properly account for this projection effect (which is a product of representation), it is easy for us to see that the word is not the thing described, and the map is not the territory depicted, just as Alfred Korzybski explained in the works which have become the basis for General Semantics.  This subject focuses on how we can take advantage of the possibilities for encapsulating ideas in time offered by the symbolic realm, without falling into the trap created by inaccurate verbal descriptions of reality.  Most of us are compelled to adopt a specific symbolic interpretation of the world around us before we are old enough to understand what we are doing.  This interpretation may be limiting, or misleading, but we are compelled to comply with its recommendations.  In effect, we are taught to lie about what is real, or silently agree with the beliefs and opinions of our elders, accepting their story despite any inconsistencies, in order to get along.

        Later in life, we can choose our own symbols, and evolve our own terms for dealing with life.  Hopefully they will be better, on some level, than what we have learned from our forebears, but this has not always been the case, historically.  Part of the problem is that people fail to acknowledge that any symbol is only a representation of that which is being described, or symbolized.  Every generation rebels against its elders and tries to establish a new and better order of its own.  There is often a genuine attempt, also, to advance the cause of pure knowledge.  New models replace old ones, and new symbols are needed for new terms.  It is unavoidable for the projection effect to be a part of the story, however.  One cannot have a symbol of any kind, without that symbol being a projection of some sort, into the space that it is being observed from.   It is sort of like Plato’s image of the cave, where one can see only the shadows of what is going on outside.  In that parable, the world outside the cave appears unbelievable to those who remain inside fixated on the shadow pictures that are but a projection of reality.  Even in today’s world, those who see beyond the appearance of things and into the heart of what is real have a hard time communicating what they see to others.

        Symbolism involves a stretch of reality, either in terms of events and changes that increase the scope or diversity of things, or in terms of symbols being the projection of some ideal or idea, or more precisely a representation thereof.  Symbols are a means of understanding something greater than the symbol itself, or a means of representing or encapsulating that understanding, so it can be shared with others at a later time.  Symbols are real, of themselves, and they don’t have to be identical to what is represented, for the symbolism to be meaningful.  In our everyday world, we see only the projections of forces and principles anyway, and almost all of the symbols we are familiar with are inexact, being only suggestions or tokens of whatever the symbol is meant to convey.  Some symbolic forms are clearly intended to depict motion, for example, although they are fixed in time and space, but being encapsulated thus they represent a snapshot of a certain force or movement that desired expression.  In this way, symbols can become a doorway to something greater than their limited form or expression.

        Many people, unfortunately, are confused by symbols rather than being liberated by them.  Far too many of us are doomed to confusing natural reality as it is with the verbal and semantic realm, because we have not been taught to clearly distinguish between the description and that which is being described.  Instead, we are taught to fixate on cultural realities which are not true, in the purest sense, and to treat these cultural norms as real.  The individual is seldom encouraged to formulate his or her own standards, either.  This is true in many areas of life, certainly both in business and in academia.  The consensus of what is real, within ones peer-group, becomes a standard for reality.  This standard interpretation becomes a buffer for life’s uncertainty, but it can be a roadblock to understanding, as well.  It is possible, however, to bypass the censors of the acculturated mind entirely with some symbols, because they speak to something deeper than words can readily explain.  Certain symbols can connect us with realities far older than the body we inhabit or the world we live in.

        Some of the most ancient sacred symbols hearken back to basic realities of Geometry and the roots of all form, but they also bespeak basic realities of consciousness, identity, and divinity, as well.  The circle has come to be a symbol for nothing, or zero, but as a symbolic entity it has much to teach, speaking volumes for those who know what to look for.  Apparently it meant quite a lot for some of the ancients who employed it.  They appear to have used it as a symbol for the Divine itself, either God or the Goddess depending upon the context (and also upon who is interpreting the symbol).  The circle with a central dot is usually interpreted as the eye of God or the breast of the Goddess, and I support these meanings for the dotted circle as a symbol, but what can we really say of the engravers’ intents, in ancient times?  Was it the Divine, or merely ripples in a pool, that they were trying to capture in form.

        We can only speculate about exactly what was meant by those who carved certain symbols, in the prehistoric past.  We believe some of them to be sacred symbols, but we are not completely sure about what sort of belief system is reflected by those symbols.  Perhaps the mere fact that some forms (like the circle) are virtually pregnant with meaning was enough to make it a worthwhile accomplishment for someone to be able to draw them.  Perhaps it was simple imitation of observed natural forms, like the sun and moon, which led to an expression of symbolic representations.  A reflection of the moon or sun on a still body of water is not the object itself, but it is a representation of the moon or sun, depicted upon the surface of the water, and it is therefore a sort of naturally occurring symbol for these objects.  The ability to form an image on another surface like a rock wall, and thus to create a more lasting symbol for the object depicted, is therefore a very powerful development indeed.

        Unlike the fleeting representations of form we find in a still pond’s reflection, the forms created by drawing or carving symbols can be shared, over a period of time, with a number of other individuals.  Korzybski notes that this time-binding aspect of symbols is significant, in the process of forming a representational framework, for sentient beings.  However, the occurrence of form with duration, symbolic of forces and archetypes greater than that specific unit of form, happened much earlier in the process of creation.  Scientists see an array of specific sub-atomic particles which carry the faces of the fundamental forces, in tiny measure, such that most of the observable forces are the process of a great many interactions on the sub-atomic level.  In effect, individual interactions on a sub-atomic level are trivial, from our perspective, but the aggregate effect upon an assemblage of tiny objects is significant.  Still, the individual forms are a specific array of archetypal objects.  Atoms of pure substance blend in true harmony, regardless of what chemistry they formulate.  However, some molecules formed of those atoms can bring health and harmony to living beings, and other compounds (equally harmonious in their own structure) are poisons which can bring death or impairment.

        When we seek to find the meaning of symbols in a general sense, we need to remember that there are a great many more naturally-occurring symbols than most people can catalog or analyze effectively.  If we accept the fact that symbolism occurs at all levels of scale, and at all points in the process of natural evolution, we can begin to see the true scope of the subject.  Trying to sort things out by regarding a distinction between intentional and unintentional symbolism does us no good either, because it only brings us back to the questions in the second paragraph, and to larger questions of religious beliefs.  When we consider basic issues of the distinctions between a figure and its background, between the observer and its surroundings, and between the content we are trying to represent and the context in which it is found, we are back to the still more basic question of “How do such distinctions arise?”  We could duck the question, so to speak, by claiming that they were both parts of some pre-existing reality, but this does not satisfy my questioning nature.

        Instead, I’d like to tackle this question using a number of toolkits simultaneously.  It seems that this is one of those perennial questions, which have inspired philosophers through the ages without inspiring their confidence in any one answer.  Similarly, Science and Mathematics have fostered a wealth of symbolic information about this topic, but there is no single answer, and there are plenty of clever reasons why the question is not one that’s proper for Math or Science to answer.  In the context of a discussion about symbology and symbolism, however, we are free to speculate about the full range of possible meanings, without getting mired in the details of any one specific interpretation.  We can see the explorations of Math and Science as meaningful symbolic expressions of natural archetypes, without having to be as concerned about which is the ‘right’ interpretation, the ‘correct’ possibility to explore, and so on.  Even in the realm of Cosmology as a subset of Mathematical Physics, however, I am an advocate of the belief that those possibilities which are not expressly manifest in our space, or on our timeline, still help to mold or define real-world events.

        The question of an observer, to make a determination about any distinctions that might exist, appears integral to any discussion of how observable distinctions can arise.  What is often overlooked, however, is that any observation whatsoever is centric, defining a point of view and a direction toward or away from the observer.  Additional directions can be added to this framework, once more observations have been made, but a sense of proximal and distal space is a basic element of awareness.  There is the ‘me,’ the ‘here,’ and the ‘nearby’ aspect of local space, but there is also the ‘other,’ the ‘there,’ and the ‘far away’ aspect of distant areas.  The act of making an observation seemingly defines this dichotomy quite naturally, regardless of the specific dimensionality of the space being observed (prior to its observation).  In truth, it may do far more than this, since the Quantum Mechanical definition of observability appears to define, or influence, the emergence of the specific dimensionality we observe in the universe around us.  That is to say that even those things which technically can’t be observed by any kind of material instrument are influenced in their form by theoretical constraints relating to observability.   It is as though the need for a symbolic representation of natural forces, even in nature itself, is as a device intended to convey an understanding of those forces.

        In effect a symbol of any sort, or any of a large class of archetypal natural objects, carries information that informs us about the natural force or archetype that is being represented.  The idea of a symbol or object carrying information about something (which it represents) is essential to this discussion.  In a way, that makes symbols messengers carrying information, but they are also the message itself, or a representation thereof.  In some cases, we find that a human messenger is given a message to safeguard and deliver, without having any knowledge of the content they are charged to convey.  Sometimes they don’t even have the means to figure out what a message they carry means, as they don’t have the skill to understand or decode it.  It is up to the person who is the intended recipient to understand what the symbols contained in a message mean, or to have a key that will allow him or her to unlock and decode those symbols.  The ability of a symbol or messenger to carry its charge of information therefore depends upon the ability of the interpreter to discern a message within what is received.

        Thus, we have found that there are several essential elements, which must all be present together for symbolism to exist.  First, any symbol or arrangement of symbols must have a specific form and a means for that form to arise.  Second, there must be an observer to discern and interpret the symbolic content within the symbol(s) observed.  Other factors, too, are present in varying degrees.  Symbolism may exist, on a purely abstract level, in the form of content that is suggestive of something else, but the ability of symbols to contain information, and to deliver that same information to other individuals, seems to be essential to the development of meaningful symbolism.  The idea of meaning can be defined a variety of different ways, and still be a useful concept in this discussion.  What makes some messages meaningful and others not, is an enormous subject – far too large to consider here.  In this connection, however, we are mainly concerned with the question of whether symbols have a unique or specific interpretation, or whether the symbols are meant instead to convey double, or multiple meanings.

Of course, the question of who intends to convey what information is important, at least if there is a ‘who,’ and/or when there is some ‘meaningful’ information to convey.  One can’t completely separate the question of an accurate interpretation for any symbol from the matter of the intent of that symbol’s originator.  Accuracy of interpretation depends quite directly upon knowing what meaning, or meanings, the author of the message intended to encode, symbolize, or convey.  If we can re-create the original meaning of a symbol, or re-establish the same understanding of that symbol possessed by the originator, we have correctly interpreted it, insofar as there is a specific and unique meaning to be discerned.  When we are trying to determine the meaning of Sacred Symbols, however, or even of various naturally-occurring symbols, we can run into problems that derive from the absence of an absolute, or certain, interpretation.  Problems can arise from the lack of any specific intended meaning whatsoever, or from the absence of knowledge about the context in which certain symbols are used.

        Therefore, when we consider the question of the origin of symbolism itself or “How does symbolism come into being?” we are presented with a daunting task, but we have several areas of inquiry to explore.  We can examine the process by which form arises from the formless, and also seek to discover the nature and origin of consciousness.  We can attempt to figure out what the most efficient means are to convey information through symbolism, too.  We can also study the ways in which various cultures have evolved a symbology over time.  As of this writing, there remain many ancient texts (inscribed on tablets and elsewhere), in a variety of forgotten languages, where scholars have plenty of samples to study, but nobody knows what any of the documents are about.  These texts have become a dead end, for now, as we have little hope of decoding them unless we uncover another Rosetta Stone.  Thus, it’s easy to demonstrate that it is certainly possible to create symbolical representations of information you desire to preserve, which others in the future will be able to derive little or no meaning from.

        So when we consider the source of all symbolism, it is best to focus upon symbolic meaning, and meaningful symbolism, as the real subject of our inquiry.  On the other hand, it can be seen that there is meaning everywhere, and that many things in life can be symbolic representations of greater forces and archetypes.  The language of symbolism, like the experience of life can be likened to a stage upon which there can be scenes and backdrops, actors and actresses, ideas to convey, and an audience to present them to.  The practice of Mahamudra in Buddhism is rooted in the assumption that all of the things we encounter, throughout our experiences in life, are meaningful symbols of something greater which drives them, and which drives us toward enlightenment.  Practitioners are taught that everything which happens to them carries hidden meaning, but they are carefully instructed to avoid considering any state they reach, or any answers they find, as the final attainment of their goal.

        We too should be wary of assuming that we know the actual meaning of that which we are attempting to decipher.  When looking to understand some symbols, we should be attempting to extract as much meaning as possible, rather than trying to find a single meaning, no matter how wonderful and elegant it might be.  Much of the meaning that is available to us, as part of the human experience, is something that many people cut themselves off from simply because they can’t deal with the idea that things don’t always have to be one way or the other.  When we seek to explain what some symbol signifies, therefore, we can tell what we know of a culture and its beliefs, and explain what we understand of that culture’s symbological forms, but for us to assert that we know the meaning of a symbol requires the knowledge of its usage within the context of those who created it, and an open mind.  Not many have the ability to put themselves in the shoes of the ancients, in terms of knowing the context which called for certain symbols to be created, but as I said earlier on, there are some symbols which seem to transcend the need for words to explain them, and instead speak directly to a deeper part of our brain or psyche.

        Accordingly, I will return again to the circle and circle with dot, as the meanings contained therein speak directly to the subject of this paper.  Specifically, the concept of inside and outside, or interiority and exteriority, is uniquely represented by this figure, and this is a foundational concept of form building, in general.  Once this basic notion - of a distinction between inside and outside - is realized, this first distinction leads to a process where other topological distinctions emerge, and more interesting and complicated forms become possible.  The circle with a dot at its center seemingly also represents the property of an observer to define both a center, and a horizon of observation.  The circle, in this instance, describes an encompassing point of view.  There are some who assert that this figure depicts the awakening, or opening of the eye of the original or first observer, the One Being.  Thus, this simple shape can be seen as representing the origin of all form, the origin of consciousness itself, and the origin of divinity, as well.  Obviously, the figure we are speaking of is a pretty potent symbol. Though it might seem like I’ve said enough by now, in fact, there is still a lot to say.

        One can certainly imagine a circle depicting roundness, or wholeness, or smoothness, without stretching one’s imagination too much.  Its surface is complete, or continuous, without any breaks or discrete segments.  It is the very model of connectedness, on the one hand, but it denotes the sense of separateness existing between ‘what is included’ within the circle and ‘what is excluded’ outside it, as well.  If we place the point in the center of the circle, we make this distinction more explicit symbolically, but there is also the idea of an encompassing view.  When one climbs to a mountaintop, the idea of being able to see the full panorama surrounding you is immediately apparent.  If you turn the full-circle, you will see 360 degrees of detail around you, and likely feel connected to it also.  There is a sense of both being surrounded by the landscape, and having the feeling of being able to take it all in.  This experience is at once both humbling and liberating, and it is my belief that properly understanding some of the ancient sacred symbols should take one to a very similar place.

        The circle with a point or dot at the center has become like this for me, personally, it is a kind of magical symbol that reminds me of many things at once, and brings me to a place of connectedness.  I am not sure that some of the things I perceive in this figure have any relation to what people were thinking, when they employed the same form in antiquity, but those meanings are there nonetheless.  I would have a hard time believing that none of our perceived meanings and interpretations entered the minds of the ancients, and I believe that they were more like us than we imagine, but they didn’t think quite like you and me either.  I see the dot in the circle, and I know that if you took a line from the center to the edge (a radius), the surface of the circle is at 90 degrees to this line, at that point.  I ask “What if it was a sphere, instead of a circle, and I went to the surface of that?” and this is for me yet another mountaintop experience.  I can see that some of the basic concepts delineated by the simple form of a dotted circle are profoundly important to understanding creation, as a process, but I can’t really say what some of those ancient people had in mind, when they chose to render that shape.

        It’s quite possible that once someone becomes liberated enough to achieve a kind of mountaintop view of life, there is a need to share the experience symbolically, in an attempt to communicate what has been seen.  The mystical experience of unity or connectedness appears to be a powerful motivator for symbolic expression, and may explain the presence of some of the circular figures, and other symbols.  Even where pragmatic realities are depicted, we know that there is some belief system involved, some message encoded in symbolic art, and some audience or recipient for whom the message is intended.  With enough imagination, a plethora of ‘messages’ can be extracted from almost any collection of symbols, but not all of them are intended by the framer of that arrangement, nor are all of the messages which can be extracted congruent or meaningful expressions of anything real.  Still, it is amazing how much information is encoded in some works, whether this is intentional or unintentional.  Perhaps this speaks again to the matter of the interconnectedness of all things.

        There is within every part some semblance of the whole, as a necessary condition of form’s existence, but sometimes this incorporation of natural archetypes happens on a deeply hidden level.  It is as though each unit of form is a hologram of the whole universe, however.  Quantum Mechanics teaches that it is equally valid to talk about a wave-equation for an electron, an atom, a stone, a human, or the entire universe.  That equation is a description of the probabilities for all the different ways that object or system could evolve.  It is the process of evolving, however, which makes a particular possibility manifest.  Human beings appear to possess a far greater sense of embodying the creative process than inanimate objects, but all form is the result of a process, and that unique process constitutes experience on some level.  That is not to say that an atom or a stone ‘knows’ its identity, in terms of being aware, but it carries information nonetheless.  It is the messenger of its experience, the harbinger of the process which bore it, and a symbol of the forces which brought it into being.  In a similar manner, various kinds of symbols can carry also information, but they don’t often know what they mean, or what information they carry.  On the other hand, some symbols and collections of symbols seem to have a life of their own, and to know their own meanings well.

        It is wise, in most cases, to apply the intellectual knowledge of a subject to the task at hand, when trying to decipher hidden symbolic meanings, but this is not always enough.  Even when we have a precise knowledge of ancient cultures, it is often necessary to go beyond what can be found in modern texts, and form our own impressions of ancient symbols, if we are to truly appreciate them.  An intellectual understanding is often able to grasp only what is on the surface, but the hidden meaning remains.  There are universal truths enough for every generation to find their share, and want to pass them on.  There are plenty of more mundane messages people would want to leave for future generations, too.  There are those who do not reject the current paradigm of Science but still choose to look beyond it, believing that answers lie in exploring interesting discoveries, new theoretical developments, and new symbologies, rather than re-visiting well-worn answers.  Others choose to adopt a more spiritual approach to finding answers, and this was probably as true of our ancestors.  That is, there were true believers as well as total skeptics, even then.

        So, when I seek to delineate where symbolism comes from, I will inevitably alienate someone, because everyone brings their own beliefs to the process of learning about this subject.  Still, there are quite a few things we can say quite definitively, at this point.  First, we know that all symbols must have a form, and we can generalize this to say that it must be a specific form, or a specific progression of forms, in order to be useful as a symbol.  Second, that form must be distinguishable as distinct from its surroundings or background, in order to be perceived.  Third, it must encode some information which can be represented by that form, or forms, in order to be a symbol for anything.  Fourth, there must be some sort of observer to perceive the pattern which the symbol’s form embodies.  Fifth, that observer must have a level of consciousness and intelligence sufficient to the task of associative reasoning and symbolic thought.  Sixth, that observer must have some basis for decoding the information contained.  Seventh, that individual must behold or understand that message which has been delivered.

        Without all of those factors being present, the idea of symbolism breaks down, at least in terms of having any consistent or accurate meaning to it.  Meaningful symbolism puts all seven of the above dynamics to work.  On the other hand, some would contend that the absence of these factors is really where symbolism begins, to the extent that they regard the symbolic realm as purely abstract.  It is true that the ambiguous and suggestive forms sometimes make the most interesting and meaningful symbols.  One could consider some mathematical forms, like the Mandelbrot Set (or portions thereof) as a tremendous source of symbolism, as evidence that some symbolic forms are meaningful or as unrelated to the topic, because there is no ‘author’ per se, who encoded a ‘message’ in that form.  Or perhaps, like many sacred symbols, these mathematical objects share same the universal ‘author’ who works behind the scenes in everything.  Seeing how a Fractal Fern is almost perfectly manifested in physical form will make a believer of almost anybody, that there is something meaningful to explore there.

        We are left to ponder some of these matters, but it is my guess that the search for answers will go on, with or without us.  When we consider the source of symbolism, it is wise to entertain the possibility that some symbols are universal, or bespeak cosmic truths, regardless of how the framers came to know this when they were depicted.  I also observe that there are unseen patterns to reality, which can be discerned through purely symbolical means in the study of Mathematics or theoretical Physics, which relate to things we see in the observable world quite accurately.  It is almost as if nature strives to establish the patterns which are already there in theoretical or symbological space, in the physical realm.  If matter is made of energy, maybe what matters most is the shape of the mold that the energy is poured into.  Perhaps that power to mold reality is what some of our most ancient forebears were trying to tap into, when they first placed symbols on rock walls.  Or maybe they were just proud that they understood something, and wanted everyone who came after to know that they did understand.

©2004 Jonathan J. Dickau – all rights reserved

single copies may be printed for reference,
or for personal use, but duplication for
commercial purposes is not allowed

Return to
Independent Thinking

Return to
The Unity of All

Return to
Feature Articles

thanks for visiting - jd