The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Virgil C. Aldrich *

Design, Composition, and Symbol **

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 27 (4)

Summer, 1969, 379-388.



I. Setting the Stage

II. Designs and Designers

III. Compositions and Composers

IV. Symbols

I. Setting the Stage                                                 

THERE IS AN ANCIENT argument for God’s existence called the Argument from Design.  In its most fresh and innocent form, it went something like this: you can tell by observing the order in the universe that the universe has been designed.  This implies the existence of the Designer, whom, as Aquinas said, men call God.  According to the wonderful story that this suggested, in the Beginning was the Designer with his Design or Purpose.  Either there was nothing else at first, and out of this nothing He designed the cosmic something we live in and are parts of; or, instead of nothing, there was at first a dark and chaotic material for God to have designs on - what Milton called “chaos and old night.”  It was this that He got to work on.  The work was accomplished on the sixth day.  On the seventh day He rested and saw that His work was good.  The light of constructive intelligence had prevailed over the darkness that is the absence of order.

This high argument sets the stage for many questions about its key concepts, concepts that have important uses outside the argument as well.  For example, God saw that His work was good.  Does this mean useful?  Or does it mean beautiful?  Or both?  Or right for still some other purpose, one that was primarily neither aesthetic nor practical?  Trying to answer these questions focuses attention on the fundamental concept of order and on what types of order are realized in the universe.  Well, what sort of order do we find in it?  Clearly, many sorts.  If you are a medieval thinker, impressed with design in one original sense, you will see the universe as a great edifice, a building, and this generates the picture of God as the Supreme Architect.  Generalizing this picture a bit, we get the notion of a supreme technological intelligence at work, by analogy with human engineers and the artifacts they design, from wheeled vehicles to thermonuclear devices.  This presupposes a high order of mathematical intelligence, which has prompted Sir James Jeans to say that God is a mathematician, and that his refined artifact, the universe as a whole, is essentially a mathematical system - another kind of order - including the natural orders formulated as laws of nature.  Galileo, and Pythagoras considerably before him, also said that the world is like a mathematical monograph.  You can not understand it (read it) unless you know the language of mathematics.

But there are also beautiful things in the world, works of art being especially clear-cut cases.  These as such are not artifacts either of engineering or mathematical intelligence.  So if you extrapolate this analogy across the board of the universe, the whole world turns out not to be de-

* Virgil C. Aldrich is vice president of the American Society for Aesthetics and professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina. He has published in various journals.  His latest article in this journal is “Back to Aesthetic Experience” (Spring 1966).

** Read at the Institute of Southern Culture, Longwood College, Virginia, April 1969.


signed as engineers design their artifacts, but to be the composition of a supreme artist.  Mozart did not just “design” the Jupiter Symphony, nor did Raphael design his Madonna.  They composed them.  So, in this light the universe is a composition, a work of art by the Prime Artist, not simply the Prime Mover.  This has been the theme, with variations, of many romanticists.

There are still other alternatives.  What about the living organisms in the world, plants and animals including the species Homo sapiens?  We do not “build” cabbages or “design” real horses, or “compose” real human beings - not even our own children.  All of these come into being by propagation of the species, and then simply grow.  Of course, we may breed them in the process, plants and animals alike, to improve the stock for our purposes.  (Plato was for doing this with people, but people have not liked the idea.)  Now, if this generation-of-living-organisms model is absolutized, then, by analogy, the universe becomes either a cosmic farm made and managed by a Supreme Husbandman whose intelligence shines through most clearly in works of plant and animal husbandry; or, the universe (reality) is a vast living organism of which God is the inner principle of animation, growth, and organization.  In the latter sense, it is not an artifact of any kind, and symbols most adequately express it.  This is an ancient view and one that has, in its long history, been supported by many persuasive arguments. (I did not say “logically coercive” ones.)

Here I bring to a close the short story of the argument from design, for the existence of a Supreme Being who is the maker of all things.  The point was to show the great variety of suggestions that emerge out of this argument from analogy, according to what the universe and its maker are taken to be analogous to, and how the mode of the making is consequently construed.  The best single critical examination of all this is in David Hume’s dialogues on religion.  I recommend this for the reading pleasure of “artists” - taking artist in its root sense of one skilled at making things, of one sort or another.  And, as we have seen, there are all sorts of things, some of them apparently not designed, even among the artifacts.  This is what generated the difficulties for the argument from just design.

But my main purpose in presenting the argument from design with its trimmings is to draw attention to the medley of key concepts that this contains, concepts that are crucial for any general discussion of art as the skilled making of artifacts, taking artifact to mean anything that is not simply found in nature without the operation of constructive intelligence as we know it.  These key concepts are: make, build, design, compose, grow, symbolize, together with the overarching concept of order that all of them presuppose.  Some of these can function either as verbs or as nouns as they stand (e.g., “Unfortunately, she has the ‘build’ of a man”), but more of this later.  I go on now, a bit anxiously, to take a closer look at these concepts, one at a time, to see what is in them and how they are related to one another.  I devoutly hope to get more light on this in subsequent discussion.  I shall dwell first on the topic of designs and designers, second on compositions and composers, and last on symbols.  So now I move down out of the theological context into “this world,” to watch people designing and composing things.  That is my perspective from now on.

To prepare you for what is to come, may I remind you that the philosopher’s job is to unscramble concepts that careless users tend to scramble, especially the closely related concepts like these we are about to examine?


II. Designs and Designers

Clearly there are things that are “made” that were not designed.  Think, for example, of what “makes” earthquakes or desert wastes or tanned skins.  None of these are artifacts.  Of course, if you know what naturally “makes” such things in the sense of natural causation, and if you control it or yourself in relation to it, you may “by design” get the effect - say, a sun


tan.  This means only “by intention.” You intentionally acquire a tan by lying in the sun.  You just expose yourself and let nature do the work, so the result is not an artifact of any sort, though it may be aimed at and even turn out to be beautiful - say, a beautiful tan.  You would have picked it up unintentionally, or not “by design,” if you had been in the sun for some other reason.

But the point here is that making, and its cognate made, is our most general concept.  You may say of any particular, concrete thing or situation that something has “made” it the way it is, meaning that it is the effect of some sort of cause or other.  This is the quite general axiom of causality.  Asserting it in its general form, or saying of something simply that it has been made, is not very illuminating precisely because it is presupposed by any attempt to explain anything. So people do not have much use for make in this quite general sense.  One says more when he specifies the kind of cause, and thereby the sort of work or result in question . (Aristotle distinguished between four meanings of cause.)  The upshot is that though anything whatsoever is made or caused to happen or to be the way it is, only some of these things can be said to be designed, either in the sense of being there “by design” like the sun tan or in the stronger sense of showing design (embodying it), unlike the sun tan.  It is this special sense of making and being made, involving the special sort of order that goes along with design, that I shall look into.

Things may show design in three sorts of cases.  Cirrus clouds or snowflakes with their symmetrical patterns illustrate one case.  Design in this sense is simply pattern, form, configuration of parts that catches the eye because of perceptible symmetries not usual in the state of nature, so suggesting handiwork of some sort.  In this case, however, there is design without the suggestion of an actual designer responsible for it - at least for us who know the laws of air currents at higher and lower altitudes and at different temperatures, and of crystalline structure for the fleck of frozen water.  If, instead, we found a quantity of little slabs of slate on a remote beach by the sea, all of them with perfectly regular shapes - circles, ovals, triangles, and rectangles - there again would be design that catches the eye but this time because of the suggestion of having been designed for a purpose, perhaps mosaic for a floor.  No known laws of the action of weather, wind, or wave would account for the shapes of the slabs, so a designer with a purpose is brought into the picture.  This is the second way in which things may show design, where design is connected with a partly aesthetic and partly practical purpose.  In the third case, the thing shows design, not in the sense of a pattern that is intrinsically attractive, suggesting that the thing was made to be looked at, but as a flint arrowhead shows design, or a mud brick, or a wooden cart wheel, or a 1910 model Buick.  If such artifacts catch the eye, as any one of them would if found in the jungle, it is mainly because of their contrast with things that grow on bushes, or that are made like the round pebbles by the action of running brooks.  They are artifacts in the basic sense of having been made to serve as instruments for practical use in the work-a-day world.  You kill things with them, or build things, or go places with them, and the problem at first is simply to make them efficient for such ends.  You look at them and see what they are for, or at least that they are for something in this practical sense, even when you can not tell what, as in the case of a fine mechanical device in a science exhibit hall.  Things that show design this way we will call the works of technological intelligence, with a view to the Greek root techne meaning useful art.  He who designs such artifacts is a technologist.

If we put it this way, an interesting and important question comes up.  It concerns the relation between designing, making, and building, under the head of technology.  In the present sophisticated stage of development of our society, there is a division of labor here.  He who designs does not usually build or make, and the makers and the builders are the skilled laborers who do not themselves design


what they make or build.  The architect designs the building, the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and bricklayers build it.  Thus the total operation is a performing art with blueprints for score or choreography, the difference being that in this technological case neither the co-ordinated performances (ballet) of the skilled workers nor the finished product is put on exhibit simply to be looked at, contemplated.  It is a useful performing art.  Its value is instrumental.  (Yet, people do stop to watch the operation, or just to look.  The analysis of this experience and its motivation is complicated, so I by-pass it here.)

Now notice the difference between building and making.  One does not build a single brick.  One makes it.  Then with the bricks one builds the building.  This suggests that to build is to put previously formed parts together into a useful combination.  But this will not do, because a watch is a combination of many previously formed parts and yet there are no watch-builders.  There are watch-makers.  Perhaps the size of the artifact has something to do with this.  If it is a sufficiently large arrangement of parts in the end, we say it is built.  If not, we resort to the more general term, made.  And there must be a certain rigidity of the materials if it is building that one does with them.  Nobody “builds” a soup, even if many prepared ingredients are in its make-up.  (Noticing such fine distinctions between closely related concepts is what present-day philosophers delight in, out of admiration for the wonderfully precise things one who is master of language can do with it, and out of concern to avoid the perplexities generated by careless use of it.)

In this connection, notice that, though beavers build dams and birds build nests, their operation is not technological.  This is because no beaver and no bird has designed a dam or a nest.  They just build them, not even with an unpremeditated art.  Rather, with no art at all, where art is connected with techne and this with the notion of design at the initial or formative stage of the construction, whether or not he who designs also builds (makes) the product.

I had occasion above to refer to the material employed in the useful arts, its rigidity, etc.  This is the heart of the affair  For the technological artist; the material is his special concern.  With what is to be produced in view and the uses to which it is to be put, his main question concerns the “character” of the materials.  With this question answered, he is prepared to design the product, in a deployment of materials that best serves the practical purpose.

In a broad sense of handling, the materials are to be handled not only in process of production of the goods but in their finished form.  Such goods are themselves for handling - meaning use.  Management or manipulation is basic in this connection.  The roots of both the words manipulate and manage go down to mean hand and handle.  It is with our hands that, fundamentally, we perform as artists in the technological operation.  As such, our soul is in our hands.  The eye may guide the hand but, in this case, the seeing is for the sake of the handling.  Technological intelligence does not come to rest in the eye or the ear.  Its consummation is in the hand.  In advanced stages of such activity, we invent devices with which we “handle” the materials and the products of the construction.  With our fingertips we touch something and thereby may set going an elaborate “manipulation,” letting harnessed natural forces do most of the manual labor.  But this is still our handling - a mechanized one.  It is manual intelligence at work, meaning technological intelligence, whose “hand” includes mechanical devices as its parts.

To make manipulation or the hand in this extended sense central to, or the essence of, technology is not in the least to demean, demote, or degrade it.  The mistaken idea that it does is a relic of ancient aristocracy.  Plato said that the manual crafts are degrading, meaning not only that such work is for slaves but that there is something inferior about technological intelligence that designs the products and directs the work.  But look at the human


hand.  There is no native instrument comparable to it for making things and using them.  Then add to this the mechanical parts of the acquired hand, the devices that implement and extend the native manipulation, and you will realize what a wonderful and proper seat of the soul it is in its useful activity.

But, in our twentieth century, we still have slaves who do most of the work.  These now are those mechanical devices.  Our native hands (organisms) are comparatively inactive while the mechanized extension does the job, for example, carving a turkey with an electrified knife or embroidering with a sewing machine.  Thus is the agent now being subtly induced into assuming an aristocratic, stand-offish relation to the work being done by automated things around him.  Or, if that is too strong, the agent is at least being deprived of actions of his native arms and legs that used to express and articulate him - actions in which he would come alive.  Automation is taking the place of some of these, and there is a caution to be issued about this.  A kind of aristocratic superiority to doing homely, expressive things with the native hand is growing, or becoming simply a boredom, and the result is a shriveling of the native organism as a whole, in favor of automata that crowd it out.  The psychology of this is complex and must be anxiously watched.

So far I have made it appear as if the works of technology are simply for use, or as if they are not to be looked at or listened to at all.  Of course that is false.  We see and hear them, so eventually at least we do what we can to prevent them from being an offense to the ear and eye.  This comes naturally after they have been made efficient, since the primary purpose was to invent something that would go or work, and difficult enough to draft the total capacity and attention of the technologist.  So the first arrowhead, the first house, the first bridge, the first car were not beautiful nor intended to be.  When these become operative, the perceptual sensibilities make their demands, sometimes at the expense of the technological demand that the artifact be useful.  In fact, when the artifact has been made a going concern, there is a temptation to prettify it at the expense of its efficiency.  The motivation behind such an unfortunate appeal to the eye and ear may be economic.  Increasing or just maintaining efficiency may be more expensive for the producer.  If he can increase the sale of his goods by seducing the consumer with attractive appearances, it is hard to resist the temptation to do so.  Or, the motive to beautify may be the more honorable one that moves an artist, but it is just as necessary to keep this under control as the former motive.  A house, for example, is built primarily to be lived in, to be at home in, not to be looked at - though one must also look, and appreciate the work in the visual impression of it.  However, to let the latter become the dominant consideration is to succumb to the temptation to treat a house as a kind of abstract composition composed - as Kandinsky might say - to express “the essence of space.”  Some buildings show the influence of this misconception, and people just have to get along in them, not live in them.  The spaces, the volumes, the proportions of a building should be designed primarily to accommodate people, to provide them with Lebensraum - room to live or work in.  One can come to love such a housing-accommodation, as one loves a woman - and what one loves is rarely an object of art appreciation.

I may sound as if I am saying in a veiled way that love is blind, and suggesting that useful artifacts be made lovable in the sense of homely, or of not appealing to perceptual sensibility.  I am certainly not saying just that.  It is hard even to live with and love what is ugly.  The point is, rather, that as the woman who is right for living with and being loved has a certain strength of character and can bear and care for children, so will the work of technological art, if it qualifies as a good one, have certain “virtues” in the good old Latin sense of strengths or powers to fulfill its useful function.  But it tends to fail in this if it is an offense to the senses.

So, to satisfy as much as possible the pri-


mary practical demand for efficiency, the practitioner of a useful art will also have some concern to make his work look and sound good.  If he does this wisely, he will not proceed as a composer but as a designer.  He will make his bridge or building attractive by a design that exhibits and does honor to the character of the material, while at the same time being a pattern of parts that invites a loving and happy use of it, thus generating both gratitude and admiration for the accommodation.  In short, one does not compose a bridge or a building.  One designs and builds them, as one neither designs nor builds a painting or a concerto.  These are compositions, unlike the works of technological intelligence in the useful arts.

What, then, is the difference?  What is a composition or a work of fine art?  How does the composer proceed?


III. Compositions and Composers

Notice that people naturally ask of a statue or painting, “What is it of? Take, for example, Picasso’s large abstract statue for exhibit in Chicago.  Someone has said that maybe it is a figure of a monkey - a statue of a monkey.  He might as well have said, looking at the statue, maybe it is a monkey.  Questions of this order also take the form: What does it mean?  What is its meaning?

Such questions are never asked about works of technological intelligence or constructions of the useful arts.  “What is this a bridge of?”  “What is this a building of?” are nonsense questions.  Soldiers might ask of a hastily constructed bridge they have discovered spanning a river in Viet Nam,  “What does it mean?” but see what a different sort of question this is from, “What does Picasso’s statue mean?”  The meaning in the former case has to do with the whereabouts and the intentions of the builders, how they plan to use it.  In the statue’s case, the meaning is in the work itself, in some baffling sense of in.  Let us say that it has a content that makes significant the question: “What is it a painting (statue, etc.) of? And let us say that such works are composed by composers, and that, as such, they are compositions.  Of course, questions about the content will more naturally arise when the composition in question is formal or abstract.  And detecting the content becomes a more and more sophisticated achievement in proportion to the degree of abstraction.  But still to be a work of art in this fine arts sense, i.e., a composition, is at least in this essay going to mean that the question of content is relevant or makes sense.  This is what distinguishes it from works of technological intelligence such as bridges, boulevards, and buildings that have been designed primarily for use.  A painting, a statue, a concerto have also been designed and show the design, but the crucial difference is that the design here is for the sake of the content that the art-work “bodies forth” or exhibits.  It is this that constitutes the work a composition, not something just for use.  It is produced to be looked at or listened to, with the content in view.  Thus the intelligence, aesthetically at work, comes to rest in ear and eye.  Manipulation of material is necessarily involved in the operation, as is even some technological know-how in its preparation.  So the hand of the fine artist comes into play; but the eye or the ear not only guides the handling in this case as in the technological.  The using or handling this time is for the sake of what is eventually heard and seen.  As John Dewey put it, the “doing” is for the sake of the experience of the “undergoing” of the creation, in pure perception.  (God sat back and saw that His work was good.)  The musician lives in the ear, the painter or sculptor in the eye.  The technologist lives in the hand.

Leonardo da Vinci’s account of how the painter lives, moves, and has his being in the visual field elucidates our notion of the content of a work of fine art.  He tells of the painter looking at, say, a portion of a damp granite wall and, thanks to certain dull stains in it - configurations of grays, greens, ochres - sees this as a landscape comprising craggy mountains, a plain, and an ominous sky.  Thus does the space of the wall as a brute, mute thing for use yield to the demand of the painter’s eye for the space of content of aesthetic perception.  He


reaches for palette, tubes, and brush and, composing with the medium of his art in view - the tonalities of color and contour - he articulates the content he detected in the state of nature.  The result is a painting to be seen as a landscape.

Nobody constructs, say, a bridge to be seen as something else, or for the realization of a content in this sense.  It has no content.

You may wish at this juncture to remind me that there are works of fine art that are also without content, if having a content implies being a representational work.  And we must indeed remember this.  There are the purely formal compositions, such as a Mondrian or a cubistic Braque or a Bach fugue, where design as the pattern of elements of the medium is the main thing.  And you might want to add that, even where the work is representational by virtue of content, the true artist will be primarily concerned with the form - the design in that sense - as was Whistler even in the painting of his mother.  So, you may say, the question about, or groping for, content is not as relevant to a work’s being a composition as I have made out.  It is the novice in art who demands that content be present and conspicuous.  He overlooks what might be called the aesthetic geometry or metrics of the composition.

I must bow to the force of this reminder, if content is to be construed as narrowly as that, thanks to which the composition that has it is a representational (programmatic) work.  But we might extend the notion of content to cover the aesthetic space-values realized by formal compositions.  Picasso suggested what I mean by such space-values when he said of a line drawn by Matisse that “it becomes something more” than just the line that anybody can see.  A similar remark holds also for the great colorist who juxtaposes colors in a way that subtly structures the space or volume of the composition, the description of which would certainly not apply to the distribution of pigments on a flat canvas.  If the space-properties of the latter are all you see in looking at a Mondrian, you fail to get what he had in view as he composed and what he put on exhibit in the composition - a square that became “something more.”  If this something more can also count as content, then my original assertion, the relevance of the question of content to any composition, is left standing, thus distinguishing “composition” from “artifact for use.”

I said earlier that the “character of the material” the technologist works with is a primary concern of his.  The composer is also careful about the materials of his art - stone, paint, bronze, brass, strings - but his concern for their “character” is like that of the pianist for his instrument the piano, or of the violinist for the violin.  The character of the materials that counts here is what might generally be called the timbre, the tonal values (in the color and sound) of the instruments.  Strictly speaking, these values are the medium of the art.  It is these, not just the material, that the artist has his eye or ear trained on as he composes, managing the material for the sake of the content he realizes in the medium.  This distinguishes his performance from the technological.

Susanne Langer thinks of compositions as of symbols.  “Symbols of art” or “art symbols,” she calls them.  Metaphor is a less misleading term, as we shall presently see when we look last of all at symbols.  Picasso said of statues and painting that they are plastic metaphors.  A metaphor is a figurative expression of the form “A is B” where, literally speaking, one would say “A is like B.”  What I have been saying about seeing something as something else was intended to draw attention to the metaphorical element in such perception.  When you see the wicker basket in Picasso’s statue The Goat as its ribs, you do not say, “That is like a rib-cage.”  You say, “That’s its ribs.”  This is the metaphorical way you not only report in language the seeing-as experience; it is the metaphorical “content” of the perception itself.  To see A as B is to prehend the content in which both A and B are transfigured, transformed, or absorbed into a unity.  You are not simply looking at the basket, nor are you simply looking at a rib-cage when you see the basket as the ribs.  You see a rib-cage-wicker-basket, and this is a plastic


metaphor.  Picasso used a trouvé, a ready-made basket for the ribs to give the metaphor a two-way thrust.  You may see either the basket as the rib-cage, or the ribs as the basket.  Leaving the separate identity of the trouvé conspicuous (basket) as an element of the composition may result in a visual joke, a visual quibble (or pun), analogous to those in language.

The term symbol has too broad or, if restricted appropriately, too narrow a use to apply nicely to a composition.  Metaphor puts the spotlight on the essence.  It fits even the abstract case - say, a Miró containing a color spot that can be seen as now in the background, now in the foreground, making the space of the picture dynamic with movement.  Both the perception of this and its report are metaphorical, i.e., not literally true of the patch of paint on the flat surface of the canvas.


IV. Symbols

There is a very general use of the word symbol that allows it to be applied to anything whatsoever that suggests anything whatsoever in any way whatsoever.  Thus, a cloud is a symbol of rain; a rash is a symbol of an allergy; a Rolls Royce is a symbol of status - as is not having a TV set a status-symbol in an academic clique; a traffic light is a symbol of when to go and stop; the general noun man is a symbol of the male human animal; the notation in “symbolic logic” or a computer consists of symbols; a church spire is a symbol of “aspiration”; a face is a symbol of character; the Golden Gate Bridge is a symbol of technological know-how and of Bay region opulence; a crown is a symbol of sovereignty; a flag is a symbol of a country; the ocean is a symbol of non-being, absolute origin and absolute end; white symbolizes among other things the chill of chastity; the swastika is, from the dawn of human history, a magical or religious symbol usually of benediction or good luck - recently of an evil state of affairs.  Here endeth the lesson.  The lesson is that in such an undiscriminating use, nothing at all gets said by calling something a symbol - except that it means something somehow.  And anything can, upon occasion, mean something somehow.

Of course, using symbol in this general sense, people do say significant things anyway, thanks to the presupposition that a particular sort of symbol is meant - some species of the genus symbol.  But I am going to employ symbol in its more restricted or special sense.  Without such a restriction, locutions such as “the symbolists,” or “he is an expert (Panofsky) in the history and interpretation of symbols” lose their meaning, or tend to.  (Nobody is an expert in the history and interpretation of what anything means anyhow.)

If we do respect and employ the more special notion of symbol, other terms in our language come illuminatingly into play to take care of the non-symbolic cases.  For example, the cloud is a natural sign of rain, the rash is a symptom, the Rolls Royce a conventional sign of status, the traffic light is a signal, man is a word, formal logic, mathematics, music, and computers have their notation, the spire and the face are expressive configurations, the crown and the flag are emblems of sovereignty and country, and the Golden Gate Bridge is a proof or evidence of know-how and the opulence backing it.

Now, when we get to the ocean and the white color, we are on the threshold of symbols proper - symbols in the strait and narrow sense.  But they are borderline cases, and it is hard to know what to say about them in this connection.  One thing seems clear: they are in themselves natural things, such that their symbolic significance becomes appreciable only in a certain treatment or view of them, as in Melville’s Moby Dick and Spender’s poems.  Let us call things of this sort “natural” symbols.  The swastika then is a cultural symbol, as is the cross.  Cultural here means only that the existence, character, and meaning of the symbol are due to culture.  Such symbols are a species of cultural growth into ideographic forms, unlike the ocean and the color.  Then there is a third sort of symbols intermediate between the natural and cultural-ideographic sort.  These are the divine and demonic figures that live, move, and have their dramatic being


in the field of mythological imagination.  We can make pictures and statues of these.  These symbolize the grand themes of life, love, generation, hate, destruction, and death, like any of the important symbols in our more exclusive sense of the term, which is to be the sense it has in my remarks from here on.  But let us move on from this rather arbitrary classification to the main points.

A symbol is like a composition or work of art with respect to being “of” something - a symbol of this or that.  In short, it has a subject matter or a theme, like a composition.  But, unlike the composition, it does not contain this as content to be seen or heard “in” it.  Certainly, one does not see Christ crucified in a crucifix as one does see the crucified Christ in, say, a Grunewald painting.  Nor does, say, the swastika present the strident horror of war for perception as does Picasso’s Guernica.  But neither does a symbol simply refer to anything outside it as does a word of a language.  So one does not learn its meaning, as one learns the meaning of a word, by using it in reference or application to something.  Nor does it mean what it means as the Golden Gate Bridge means technological know-how and Bay region opulence.  The bridge is evidence or proof of this.  The sacramental bread and wine are not evidence or proof of anything in quite that manner.  How then does a symbol mean what it means?

A symbol comes to mean what it does by a sort of growth and contagion.  That is to say, people do not design or compose symbols as they design or compose their own creations.  A symbol mushrooms out of nature fertilized by human nature, without premeditations of artful individuals.  This reminds me of my opening remark about the conception of reality as a living organism and how symbols best signify its nature thus conceived - symbols that themselves are growths.  Carlyle went further - I think too far - in this direction.  He said: “The universe is but one vast symbol of God,” adding that a symbol paradoxically conceals what it reveals.  This suggests the sacramental view of all nature as the living body of God, concealing while revealing God Himself.  Even if we make idols of this ultimate reality, we understand deep down that these iconic symbols are not to be mistaken as representations, like pictures or statues.  Strictly speaking, what they mean is not “in” them.  So, an enlightened Zen Buddhist priest will occasionally burn a wooden image of Budda to keep warm in winter, as one would certainly not treat a composition or work of art that contains its meaning.  That the meaning is not in the symbol is true also of natural symbols, like the sun or the ocean.  The sun symbolizes, quite naturally, the light of intelligence.  The figure of the bright Apollo mushroomed out of this consciousness of the sun in its symbolic function.  But we are not to see intelligence in the sun.  The ocean is a symbol of eternity, out of which everything emerges and to which it returns.  But, again, this theme, as the meaning of the symbol, is not in the ocean as the ocean is the content of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” or of Melville’s Moby Dick.

In what, then, does the meaning of a symbol reside?  This is a picturesque way of asking, “How does it mean?” or “What is involved in getting the sense of the symbol?”

The answer is that a symbol is an occasion for the person in its presence to be animated with the symbol’s meaning.  The meaning of the symbol is formulated in the stance, gesture, action, or posture of the person.  To respond to the symbol this way is to get and express (articulate) its sense, and thus to “show” what it means.  One who responds this way “realizes” its meaning, somewhat as a composition realizes its content in the pattern of the elements of its medium.  So does the person realize a symbol’s meaning in a ritualistic pattern of actions - an enactment whose theme as content is the meaning.  Thus does the person become the vehicle of the expression of the grand or ultimate themes that symbols symbolize.  This is why he, in the presence of the symbol, chants in concert with a congregation, or bows his head, or bends his knee, or struts, or stands erect and stock still, thus realizing in posture and action the theme the symbol symbolizes.


Thus does he engage in a sort of liturgically controlled dance that expresses the meaning.  This is the meaning of the symbol, and this is how it means what it does mean.  What it means is not any object or entity such as a picture may portray or a word refer to, but a theme for expression by enactment.

A corollary of this is that the enactment of the symbol’s theme is supposed to have a formative influence on, or to spill over onto, the whole area of routine living.  Thus symbols tend to shape a whole way of life - what Wittgenstein called a “form of life.”

The upshot of these remarks about sym­bols is, then, that they develop not primarily by individual initiative, and that their meaning has a sort of imperative force that bears on how to live - and die, and that this is expressed by enactment on the part of persons.  All this distinguishes symbols from compositions.  A work of art is certainly not composed primarily as an imperative for living but as an occasion for contemplative insight.

But, as we noticed in passing, great works of art are likely to incorporate symbols as a part of their content.  For example, Grunewald’s painting of Christ on the Cross exploits the powerful symbolic significance of the Cross by such incorporation into content of the composition.  “Crossing the Bar” similarly exploits the symbol of the sea that symbolizes eternity, and of the land symbol that signifies the temporal and the insular.  While alive, one is on such an island.  One dies “when that which drew from out the boundless deep turns again home.”  The soul emerges out of and is reabsorbed into the ocean of eternity.  It is such occasional use of symbols as part-content of compositions that tempts one on to the mistake of overlooking the difference between a composition and a symbol.

My last (brief) reflection is on language.  A language is a grammatically ordered set of words.  And a word is a sound or mark thus ordered.  The meaning of a word or phrase is its use.  One knows what it means if one knows how to use it.  Knowing how to use it is, as J. L. Austin has said, an affair of knowing what to say when - that is, in accordance with the circumstances.  And, as Wittgenstein said, speaking a language is an activity that interweaves with all sorts of other activities, to color and structure them into a “form of life.”  So, linguistic communication involves, as you speak, the look in your eyes, the turn of the corners of your mouth, your tone of voice, what word you emphasize, your gesture, all in relation to the circumstance of the speaking.  All this amounts to what Wittgenstein called the “field of force” of a word-in-use, and this, he said, is “decisive” for its meaning.  If you are to get the full sense of the utterance, you must be sensitive to the whole context.  This is what it is to have mastered a language - or to know what to say when.

A corollary of this view of being a speaker of a language is that the speaker can do an enormous variety of things with it, only one of which is the communication of ideas in true or false statements.  Speaking - or writing - a language may also have the force of an expression of emotion, or of an imperative for action, or of a plea, or of a prayer.

If language-in-use is this all-embracing sort of activity, stylizing most of our other activities as human beings, then man is best defined, not simply as a rational animal but as animal symbolicum - the language-using animal.  Ernst Cassirer gave us this definition in his philosophy of symbolic forms.  I gratefully underwrite it here.  This has, in a way, been the obvious presupposition of my whole essay.  Were there no language-users around, there would be no designs, compositions, or symbols.