The word symbol is related to the Greek verb symballein, which means to draw together. Symbolic reference is essentially systematic, and there can be no symbolization without systematic relationships. Symbolic systems make a new kind of generalization possible: logical or categorical generalization.
Ferdinand de Saussure propounded the view that the linguistic signifier, taken in isolation, has no intrinsic link with the signified. In this sense, the symbol's meaning is arbitrary. It refers to a meaning only inasmuch as it forms part of a system of signification characterized by differential opposition.
Following Charles Sanders Pierce, semioticians generally differentiate three types of representational relationships under the names icon, index, and symbol. Iconic accounts of the relationship stress ressemblance. Indexical relations work in some causal or "existential" way, through a physical or temporal mediation, and symbolic relations are based on arbitrary stipulation, (as in l anguage) These three forms of reference reflect a classic philosophical trichotomy of possible modes of associative relationship: similarity; contiguity or correlation; and law, causality, or convention. No particular objects are intrinsically icons, indicies, or symbols. They can be differently interpreted, depending on whether they are considered with respect ot their form, their correlation with other things, or their involvement in systems of conventional relationships.
"Symbols cannot be understood as an unstructured collection of tokens that map to a collection of referents because symbols don't just represent things in the world, they also represent each other. Because symbols do not directly refer to things in the world, but indirectly refer to them by virtue of referring to other symbols, they are implicitly combinatorial entities whose referential powers are derived by virtue of occupying determinate positions in an organized system of other symbols." (Terence Deacon, The Symbolic Species, p. 99)
Claude Levi-Strauss extended and transposed the structuralist conceptions of language to cultures. For Levi-Strauss, "Any culture may be looked upon as an ensemble of symbolic systems, in the front rank of which are to be found language, marriage laws, economic relations, art, science, and religion." (Introduction to Marcel Mauss).
In its broadest application, symbolism embraces all forms of indirect representation. In psychoanalysis, as soon as we see that a piece of behavior has at least two meanings, one of which is standing for the other, both concealing and expressing it, then we may describe the relationship between them as a symbolic one. See also imaginary / symbolic
For the Romantics, the symbol is a structure of feeling -- a longing for reunification with the world accompanied by a sense of that longing's inevitable defeat. The symbol is the mediation between the mind and the physical world which art manifestly partakes. Hegel distinguished between the symbolic and semiotic function and left no doubt as to which side art was on. "In the case of art, we cannot consider, in the symbol, the arbitrariness between meaning and signification (which characterizes the sign), since art itself consists precisely in the connection, the affinity, and the concrete interpretation of meaning and form." (quoted by Paul de Man, in Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics, Critical Inquiry, Summer 1982. pp763-764) In the same spirit, Coleridge distinguised " allegory" (a mere picture-language) from "symbols". Northrop Frye describes this contrast as between a "concrete" approach to symbols which begins with images of actual things and works outward to ideas and propositions, and an "abstract" approach which begins with an idea and then tries to find a concrete image to represent it. (Anatomy of Criticism, p89)
For some German aestheticians of the late nineteenth century, "form symbolism" could be a direct merger of the imagination with objective form. Quoting from his father, Friedrich Theodore Vischer, Robert Vischer called the relations between the workings of the body and "The optical sense of Form" "a mystery that has be explained by physiology in conjunction with psychology." (p. 92) For the younger Vischer, our "wonderful ability to project and incorporate our own physical form into an objective form" which is our "symbolizing activity", "can be based on nothing other than the pantheistic urge for union with the world." This is not a purely subjective sensation, however, for "the more we become aware of universal coherence, the greater becomes its pull against our purely subjective position." (p.109)
For Ernst Cassirer, symbolic forms both separate and reunify man and world. The freedom of the human spirit is not a a freedom from the determinations of the animal world, but a recognition of those determinations. "Thus becoming conscious is the beginning and end, the alpha and omega of the freedom that is granted to man: to know and to acknowledge necessity is the genuine process of liberation that "spirit" in opposition to " nature," has to accomplish. For Cassirer, the individual "symbolic forms" -- myth, language, art, and knowledge -- constitute the indipsensible precondition for this process. They are the specific media that man has created in order to separate himself from the world through them, and in this very separation bind himself all the closer to it. This trait of mediation characterizes all human knowledge, as well as being distinctive and typical of all human action."