Why is symbolism so important to humans


Oswald Schwemmer

To person

Dr. phil, born 1941; Professor for philosophical anthropology and cultural philosophy at the Humboldt University Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin.
Email: [email protected]

Symbols are not just signs, flags or hymns, special places or rituals. Wherever something has a quality of expression, it is a symbol.


We meet symbols everywhere and we cannot escape their power. Symbols not only permeate the world in which we live, they also shape our lives. [1] What are symbols? First of all, we think of signs with which we can identify something: badges and emblems, flags and hymns, special places and rituals. But these are not only symbols.

Wherever something has a quality of expression, where it says something, and where this something has a tangible, sensually present form, it is a symbol. The words of our language and also the sounds in the words, the images that surround us, as well as the forms of expression of our facial expressions, gestures and posture - all of these are symbols.

And where it is not just about words or sounds, but about a whole language, there are whole symbolic worlds or - as the philosopher Ernst Cassirer says - symbolic forms in which the individual symbols refer to each other and give each other meaning. If we were to hear only a single sound structure and this in a situation in which we do not yet know what language it is and just as little what the situation is about, then we would understand nothing. We have to understand the individual utterance as part of a symbolic world or a symbolic form in order to be able to recognize it as a word or sentence. And in order to understand what it could be about, we often also have to recognize the context of the situation.

This is what happens to us every day in all areas of our life. We would not understand anything about ourselves or the world that surrounds us, if we could not refer to symbols and symbolic forms with and in which we perceive and represent what something is and what it is all about. Of course we also have pre-symbolic orientations. Our physical relationship to the world is guided by our needs and opened up through our senses. In this respect we are always already oriented; but through the symbols sense relationships are brought into the world. Only in this way do the events and things that we encounter do not remain in the narrow circle of sensory stimuli and need goals, but gain a place in the unlimited world of meanings, in which everything is meaningful not only for itself but also for something else. With the formation of symbols, the transition from a physical to a spiritual world orientation takes place: the process of becoming human. This needs to be explained.