Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Iconic and Symbolic Language

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_227


Not only does one communicate in language, but one thinks in language also, as readily attested to by many of those living alone, who, when observed to be talking to themselves, will respond that, so far from going mad, they are merely “thinking out loud.” Indeed one has only to listen to young children, alone in their beds at night, running through the events of their day, or perhaps in communication with siblings, articulating, often humorously, the relations between, for example, arms and legs, hands and feet, fingers and toes, and wrists and ankles, not to mention necks, and in such a manner familiarizing themselves with, and often consciously and humorously disrupting, established conceptual categories, to recognize that in addition to being a means of communication or system of signifiers, language is also a system of the concepts signified thereby. The linguistic signifiers and the concepts signified by them being as Ferdinand de Saussure (1959) and, following him, Jacque Derrida (1973, 1981, 1982) have both noted, like two sides of a sheet of paper, distinguishable but inseparable aspects of any language. While given that thinking involves having and manipulating ideas or concepts, and the relations between them, then it is entirely unsurprising that, as philosophers as different from them and each other as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953, 1961) and Willard V. O. Quine (1960), not to mention cultural anthropologists such as Benjamin Lee Whorf (1954) and natural scientists such as Humphry Davy (2015), have all concluded, in addition to being a means of communicating ideas or concepts, language is also a medium or “vehicle” of thought.

“Language” as the Only Medium of Thought

What is perhaps more surprising however is that, in addition to claiming that one can think in language, many go even further, claiming that one can only think in language, a proposition to which others have objected, arguing that, on the contrary, one can, and indeed often does, think “visually” in pictures or pictograms, and that in any event many have thoughts which they have difficulty in putting into words.

In response, it is argued that pictures or pictograms are a form of language also and that in addition to symbolic languages, such as the one which is here being used to think or constitute the concepts or ideas which are, hopefully, being communicated via writing, and which may also be constituted in and communicated via speech, there are also iconic languages, consisting of pictures, pictograms, etc., in or by which concepts or ideas may also be constituted and communicated. For instance, when searching for a lavatory, while one may happen upon the symbolic sign “Men” or “Women” signifying which room it is appropriate to enter, equally one may happen upon iconographic pictures or pictograms of a man or a woman, which perform the same function. Given then that words are not the only form that language may take, so far from the difficulty that some may have in putting their thoughts into words demonstrating that their thoughts are independent of language, it may merely demonstrate that they are having difficulty translating a thought initially delineated in iconic pictograms – or indeed any other nonsymbolic form of language (such as an indexical language) – into the written or spoken words of a symbolic language. Although it may, of course, alternatively, simply be indicative of the fact that even though the thought they are having is constituted entirely in words, it is incomplete or confused.

Concrete Icons Versus Concrete and Abstract Symbols

Now unlike iconic signs, which must, at least to some degree and in some significant respect, resemble what they represent, symbolic languages are in no way so constrained; the symbolic words “Men” and “Women” do not remotely resemble men or women in the flesh so to speak; their capacity to signify who should go into which lavatory depends not upon resemblance but upon convention, as is clear from the fact that, adopting a foreign language, such as French, for instance, the terms “Hommes” and “Femmes” may, by the conventions of that language, perform the same task as the terms “Men” and “Women” do in English. Consequently, and most importantly, while iconic language, constricted as it is by the need to in some degree resemble, or “look like,” what it represents, is therefore largely confined to facilitating thought and communication about concrete individuals, relations, circumstances, events, etc., symbolic language, being in no way so constrained, readily lends itself to thought and communication regarding abstract ideas also, which, precisely as abstract, do not “look like” anything. Thus, while the concrete event of the Norman invasion of Britain, for example, or certain ancient Egyptian personages and events may be iconically depicted and communicated, at least to some degree, by the Bayeux Tapestry and the iconic elements deployed by hieroglyphics, respectively, it is clear that in no way could the abstract ideas and relations, which are being here delineated and articulated in a symbolic language, be adequately delineated or articulated by or in an iconic language.

This is not to claim that abstract ideas and relations, etc., cannot be represented at all, albeit often inadequately, by iconic signifiers, for, having conceived of the abstract notion of justice as comprising of the impartial “weighing” of evidence concerning the likelihood of alternative claims regarding the “facts” and the dispensing of punishment, if it is due, in proportion to the degree of injustice involved, justice may then be iconically depicted by a blindfolded (impartial) individual, holding a pair of scales (with which to “weigh” evidence) and a sword (with which to dispense punishment). Nevertheless, this does not alter the fact that, ultimately, such a concrete, iconic delineation and articulation of the notion of justice, and even more so that of the relatively more complex and general abstract ideas and relations also being dealt with here, will fall short of that afforded by a symbolic language.

Iconic Language and Misleading Reification

Moreover, in addition to being inadequate to the delineation of complex abstract concepts, ideas, and/or thoughts, iconic language and the thinking it facilitates, relying as they do on mimetic resemblance, have an inveterate tendency to conceive of what they seek to represent as substantial, which may often be entirely misleading.

For instance, while the very existence of a supposedly immaterial, yet nevertheless ubiquitous, and apparently male deity, involving, as it clearly does, a couple of logical contradictions – an immaterial being, by definition cannot occupy material space, and therefore can hardly be ubiquitous, nor, having no DNA, much less any genitalia, can scarcely be male – is, a priori, impossible, the iconic misconception of such a supposedly immaterial deity as a bearded, usually white, man, located in the sky, certainly contributes to, if it does not indeed initially engender, such confusion.

And it was precisely René Descartes’ common nonsensical iconic misconception of consciousness – properly understood as a state of awareness which, as such, is, as Edmund Husserl has pointed out (Husserl 1962, 1970a, b) (“intentionally”) conscious or aware of the world and its objects – as a reified, which is to say substantial, albeit thinking, thing (a res cogitans) or mind, a realm of closed interiority, which rendered its relationship to and knowledge of the world problematic. This iconic, reificatory misconception of the consciousness or state of awareness definitive of the human subject, as a thing or object, resulting, as Jean-Paul Sartre has observed (Sartre 1991), in an erroneously deterministic view of human behavior.

While turning to the misleading impact of iconic reification upon the natural sciences, as Charles Sanders Peirce has pointed out (Peirce 1935), none of the supposedly empirical scientists have ever experienced gravity per se, which is to say, independently of those very motions, which, with breathtaking circularity, it is supposed to explain. And as with gravity, so too with gravitons, which, like atoms and molecules, wavicles, positrons, and neutrinos, not to mention electricity and magnetism, strong and weak interactive forces, and thus all the supposed major components of a unified field theory, are nowhere observable in themselves, which is to say independently of the events (e.g., tracks across bubble chambers of photographic emulsion, twitching of galvanometers, heating of water, etc.) which they are taken to explain. The belief in their independent existence therefore also being the reificatory consequence of iconic thinking.

And it is precisely a symbolic language, whose signifiers, which, operating by virtue of convention rather than resemblance, therefore do not need (and indeed are unable) to resemble the abstract concepts, ideas, and/or thoughts which they may therefore be called upon to directly signify, which enables one to entertain, understand, reflect upon, and communicate these relatively complex insights concerning the, often grossly misleading, limitations of iconic language, and to dissolve, by symbolic conception and the understanding of the sort which we are here engaged in, many of the problems and paradoxes to which it gives rise.

Pedagogically Relevant Implications

Now clearly those who have greater exposure to, and are consequently usually more “at home” in, symbolic language, as spoken in conversation, and/or on the radio, or written on paper or computer screens, will, on average and in general, be much more adept not only at expressing and communicating abstract thoughts but also, most significantly, at delineating, and thus entertaining or having, and understanding them in the first place, than those who are more exposed to predominantly iconic or pictorial modes of communication, such as TV, video, and film. For even though TV, video, and film are generally comprised of symbolic as well as iconic elements, the sensible iconic image or surface has a tendency to distract attention from, and even eclipse, the more abstract (or, to employ a symbolic description of an iconic misconception, “deeper”) intelligible symbolic meaning or thoughts which the scripted dialog is capable of articulating. And while those living in a predominantly iconic culture are often highly competent at dressing, accessorizing, standing, striking a pose, and the like, the predominance of such surface imagery tends to result in whatever symbolic communication or conversation they do engage in being focused on the discussion of concrete things, events, and other people rather than abstract ideas.

All of this being so, it is perhaps unsurprising that despite spending much (often several times) more per capita on high school education than any other nation on earth, the USA, whose culture is increasingly saturated with iconic media, continues to see a drop in the symbolic literacy of its high school students, who currently rank 20th among the leading industrial nations (which is to say those with a comprehensive formal education system) in their average performance on standardized literacy tests. Consequently, although the capacity to write reasonably clearly is generally regarded as the minimum necessary prerequisite of university entry in the rest of the world, many US universities have had to invest extensively in writing courses and even writing centers, primarily geared not, it should be understood, to the fostering of creative, technical, or other forms of specialized writing but to teaching what often amounts to not much more than 7th grade writing skills!

However, although having taken, and passed, such remedial writing courses, students nevertheless often remain demonstrably incapable of writing even minimally coherent papers on or about abstract ideas. Thus while, in their remedial classes, they may well have shown themselves reasonably capable of writing on topics such as “A Day at the Beach” or “What I Did During the Holidays,” a very large proportion of these same students, having later attended and completed extensive lectures and reading on topics such as “The Difference Between Belief and Knowledge and the Role of Experience and/or Reason in Justifying Beliefs,” nevertheless still have the greatest of difficulty in writing coherently on such topics. Indeed, despite having done all of the above, many students equate the claim that “We are all entitled to our own beliefs” to the claim that “All beliefs are equally justified.” The obvious reason for the disparity between their performances in writing and philosophy classes is that whereas the writing class topics, relating to concrete situations, events, and relations, initially lend themselves to iconic delineation or thought, the only difficulty being that of subsequently “translating” such iconic thoughts into symbolic languages (which even should reference to first-person accounts of feelings also be included, remain largely descriptive), philosophy topics, relating more to abstract ideas, usually cannot be satisfactorily envisioned iconically but can, from the get-go, only be adequately conceptualized or thought about symbolically, and involve much more than purely descriptive articulation.

Difficulty in Writing/Communication Abstract Ideas Is Indicative of the Incapacity to Think Them

This being so, it is unsurprising that – and the pedagogical significance of this cannot be overstated – not only do those who experience difficulty in writing coherently upon more abstract topics also have considerable difficulty in speaking in anything like a vaguely coherent manner about them, but that, even more tellingly, upon being questioned about these difficulties, it soon becomes clear, which as they themselves frequently admit, despite the aforementioned lectures and reading, they never really understood what was being communicated in the first place. Their difficulty in expressing themselves, whether in speech or in writing, upon such abstract topics, is therefore finally revealed as symptomatic of a more fundamental incapacity to think about or understand abstract ideas, relationships, and interactions. A capacity which may be most effectively first fostered and nurtured in free-flowing conversations, discussions, and/or arguments, not unusually about politics, sex, religion, drugs, and the like, that might take place around increasingly rare family meals or in similar venues.

Small wonder then that, with an ever greater number of single-parent families, as well as two-parent families which, in the face of declining inflation-adjusted median incomes, have found that both parents are forced to work and/or to work longer hours to provide economically adequately for their families, and the consequent reduction in such communicative communal family experiences, children, who therefore increasingly turn to television, film and video games, etc., as a substitute, are missing out on the acquisition, fostering, and nurturing of symbolic skills. Symbolic skills, which are as essential to thought about abstract ideas, relations, and interactions, as to communication of them; the incapacity to write, or even talk, about abstract ideas and their relations and interactions therefore is largely indicative of an incapacity to think about them also.

Active Participants Versus Passive Recipients and “Inner” Monolog/Dialog Deficit

Furthermore, as if all of this were not, in and of itself, sufficient cause for concern, there are, unfortunately, at least two other troubling consequences of the prominence of the iconic over the symbolic.

Firstly is the fact that unlike symbolic communication via the written or spoken word, which “hot” media, as Marshall McLuhan designated them (McLuhan 1967), require of the reader or listener a high level of active participation in the process of decoding as well as imaginative or creative interpretation (e.g., readers of A.A. Milne’s books must actively engage in creative co-constituting, along with Milne, the world of Winnie the Pooh), iconic communications, such as afforded by film and television, are, in contrast, “cool” media, or low in such participation (Disney’s “imagineers” offering us already constituted images of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too), thereby encouraging spectatorial passivity in their audiences rather than the active, imaginativeand interpretive participation by which abstract ideas may be delineated and nurtured.

Secondly, in contrast to symbolic language, as utilized in novels, for example, which, enabling as it does the deployment of abstract ideas or concepts, can readily present, in the form of descriptions of often highly nuanced psychological states and, via monologs, subjects’ thoughts, iconic media have much less facility in this regard. While even though TV, film, and video are, as previously noted, not merely iconic, but also symbolic, media, only clumsily do they accommodate voice-over or other symbolic presentations of the abstract ideas and concepts representative of subjects’ psychological states and thoughts. Indeed it is for just this reason that one cannot imagine a truly successful film ever being made of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, for instance. This being so then, just as the predominance of the iconic over the symbolic not only attenuates communication of, but – given, as we have seen, that we think in language – the development of, abstract ideas, so too we may reasonably infer that it not only attenuates the communication of highly wrought and nuanced psychological states but their development also.

And as with the conscious self, so too, apparently, is the case with the unconscious. That is to say that if, as Jacques Lacan claimed (Lacan 1977), the unconscious is truly structured like, or indeed in, language, then the increasing dominance of iconic language will similarly attenuate the development of the unconscious as well.

In light of all this, then we should not be surprised at emerging evidence indicating that the brains of those children for whom television and video have come to replace traditional social intercourse and reading display significantly suppressed neuronal network development in critical areas.


In sum then, given the centrality of language not only to communication but to thought also, it would appear that the limited capacity of many students to write, or indeed speak, coherently in anything but the most descriptive mode, on all but the most concrete topics, which is to say their lack of fluency in symbolic language, is symptomatic of a limited capacity to think symbolically about anything but the most concrete things, events, relations, and interactions. An incapacity, which rooted, as has been argued, in the increasing eclipse of the symbolic by the iconic, is further exacerbated by the relative passivity encouraged by the latter and the consequently limited capacity for the imaginative innovation and interpretation central to the delineation and development of abstract concepts and/or ideas and, thoughts about their relations and interactions.

The Solution

In light of all the above, it is clear that the endlessly proliferating distance learning and online courses, usually characterized both by delayed feedback, as well as the preponderance of iconic representations, together with increasingly pervasive Power Point “pictogram” presentations, and the incessantly proliferating pedagogic technologies of film, video, computer graphics, and the like, while undoubtedly useful in some contexts, are nevertheless not merely usually inappropriate to the attempt to foster the symbolic thought core to much academic or intellectual development, but may actually suppress it; it is a conclusion empirically attested to by the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study (OECD 2015) of school children in 31 nations, which – without attempting, as here, to analyze or explain why, nevertheless – found broadly speaking their intellectual development to be negatively correlated or inversely related to the employment of such technologies.

It would then seem that by far and away the best way to acquire and nurture symbolic fluency, and the many, not merely expressive but cognitive, capacities associated therewith, including, not inconsequentially, the capacity to write coherently, is by engaging, via ongoing dialogical discussion, characterized by immediate feedback, in abstract analytic conceptualization, thought, and expression, of which the philosophically oriented symposium is most surely paradigmatic. This, aided where appropriate by predominantly symbolically articulated lectures and the reading of written manuscripts or books, as well as the writing of essays which should be speedily graded and returned with comprehensive comments thereon, and should then, ideally, be further discussed, will be most likely to foster students’ active participatory engagement in imaginative and interpretive decoding, thought about, and expression of abstract ideas, situations and relations, and interactions, indispensible to their intellectual development.

Thus not only “In the beginning was the word” but pedagogically speaking it would seem that far beyond the beginning the word, or symbolic thought and communication, should continue to predominate.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Florida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA