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Symbolism is the systematic or creative use of arbitrary symbols as abstracted representations of concepts or objects and the distinct relationships in between, as they define both context and the narrower definition of terms. In a narrow context, "symbolism" is the applied use of any iconic representations which carry particular conventional meanings.

The term "symbolism" is often limited to use in contrast to "representationalism"; defining the general directions of a linear spectrum wherein all symbolic concepts can be viewed in relation, and where changes in context may imply systemic changes to individual and collective definitions of symbols. "Symbolism" may refer to a way of choosing representative symbols inline with abstract rather than literal properties, allowing for the broader interpretation of a carried meaning than more literal concept-representations allow.

All forms of language are innately symbolic, and any system of symbols can form a "language;" at the minimum using only two arbitrary symbols in a binary system. Human language is based in the use of phonemes as representative symbols, and the analogous written forms are typically deferential to the phoneme. The written word is therefore symbolically representative of both the symbolic phoneme and directly to the cognitive concept which it represents. The field of cognitive linguistics explores the cognitive process and relationships between different systems of phonetic symbols to indicate deeper processes of symbolic cognition. Many cultures have developed complex symbolic systems, often referred to as a symbolic system which assign certain attributes to specific things, such as types of animals, plants or weather.

A religion can be described as a language of concepts related to human spirituality. Symbolism hence is an important aspect of most religions.

The interpretation of abstract symbols has had an important role in religion and psychoanalysis. As envisioned by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, symbols are not the creations of mind, but rather are distinct capacities within the mind to hold a distinct piece of information. In the mind, the symbol can find free association with any number of other symbols, can be organized in any number of ways, and can hold the connected meanings between symbols as symbols in themselves. Jung and Freud diverged on the issue of common cognitive symbol systems and whether they could exist only within the individual mind or among other minds; whether any cognitive symbolism was defined by innate symbolism or by influence of environment.

In literature, "symbolism" may refer to the use of abstract concepts, as a way to obfuscate any literal interpretation, or to allow for the broader applicability of the prose to meanings beyond what may be literally described. Many writers—in fact, most or all authors of fiction—make the symbolic use of concepts and objects as rhetorical devices central to the meaning of their works. Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, for example, used symbolism extensively, to represent themes which applied to greater contexts in their contemporary politics and society.

See Also:

da:Symbolisme de:Symbolismus el:Συμβολισμός es:simbolismo fa:نمادگرایی fr:Symbolisme it:Simbolismo ja:象徴主義 nl:Symbolisme pt:Simbolismo ro:Simbolism sk:Symbolizmus zh:象征主义

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