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1 A specific type of representamen in Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotic model, which he contrasts with the icon and the index. Peirce defines the symbol as conventional because the relation between it and its object is governed by an external law (e.g. the word ‘give’ has only a conventional connection to the actions it describes).

2 Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung used the concept of symbol to denote an intuitive idea unable to be formulated in words. As such, symbols generally appear as an impediment in therapy, as a moment when it feels as though there is more to be said but somehow the words are missing. They are effectively unconscious answers to conscious questions. Symbols step in to articulate what cannot otherwise be verbalized. The content of symbols—e.g. the rose as a symbol of love—should not be viewed as fixed; rather it changes according to the requirements of a particular idea. In doing so, however, it draws on and reworks existing imagery. Symbols captivate the imagination and compel us to attend to alternative perspectives. They are indistinct, enigmatic, even metaphoric, presentations of our own psychic reality.

3 In aesthetics, including literary studies, a symbol is a conventional image or trope (e.g. the use of the rose motif to signify love, or the cross to signify sacrifice). Ernest Cassirer and Northrop Frye are the main names associated with this branch of aesthetics.

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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