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The evolution of representational capacities and symbolic expression has contributed essentially to human thought, language, and culture. There are different symbolic processes, and the symbolism particularly described and interpreted in psychoanalysis differs, in many respects, from what is designated by the same term in other disciplines. While psychoanalysis is interested in language and other forms of symbolism, psychoanalytic or unconscious symbols were early recognized as universal and ubiquitous expressions of the dynamic unconscious mind. In ordinary linguistic usage, a flag may represent a country, and a cross may represent a Christian religious reference. In the case of the flag and the cross and other emblems or pictorial metaphors, the relationship between the signifier and its referent is both within conscious awareness and in accord with social and cultural convention. In contrast to psychoanalytic symbols, these symbols are consciously understood by the individuals within a society in which they are used. They are not disguised, and they serve conscious communication.

In contrast, psychoanalytic symbols are usually disguised by and from the individual who uses them and may not serve any conscious or intended internal or external communication. The meanings of psychoanalysis symbols are relatively independent of social, cultural, and historical settings and are neither taught nor learned. Psychoanalytic symbolism is not a product of education and evolves spontaneously in human development. Given the fact that these symbols are universal in individuals as well as cross-cultural, the capacity for such symbols is innate, though their development depends upon human development and experience.

Psychoanalytic symbols emerge as a result of the interaction of the instinctual drives, defenses, and other ego functions with the developmental experience of the infant and child. Although psychoanalytic symbols may take on additional meanings in later phases of development and may become linked to metaphor, they are essentially products of archaic, infantile processes. These symbols emerge in conjunction with the development of the body ego and object relations, so that there are symbols of both body parts and of the parents and siblings. Spontaneous in origin and typically sensorial, the symbols create a concrete bridge between the body and the primary object world. In a "symbolic equation" (Segal, 1978), the person cannot distinguish between the symbol and the thing symbolized. The symbolic equation denies separateness between self and object, whereas symbolic representation bridges prior loss.

Psychoanalytic symbols are typically linked to external, perceptual reality, manifest in the closesness of the symbol perceptually toward what is signified. Thus, sticks, swords, and wands resemble the phallus; tunnels, caves, houses, boxes have a perceptual similarity to the female genitalia. The body image and body surface are the locus of initial, symbolic representation of self and object, which are then extended or projected to other surfaces. Symbols thus arise in the potential to other surfaces. Symbols thus arise in the potential space between the "I" and the "non-I," more closely related to the primary process rather than to verbal language and rational thought.

As Freud (1900a) noted, psychoanalytic symbolism is ubiquitous in myths, legends, art, literature, slang, jokes, obscenities, etc. Psychoanalytic symbols unconsciously represent, in addition to aspects of the self and childhood objects, coitus, pregnancy, birth, rebirth, castration, and death. Symbolism is utilized in symptom-formation, for example, a paralyzed limb representing impotence or castration. The name Oedipus or "swollen foot," unconsciously represents erection and mutilation-castration.

Ernest Jones (1916) summarized that only what is repressed is symbolized and needs symbolic expression as a psychoanalytic or unconscious symbol. The symbol condenses unconscious wish and defense, a compromise formation permitting disguised "symbolic gratification." The most frequent symbols are probably those of the male and female genitals, and these symbols more commonly appear in regressive states such as daydreams and dreams. Psychoanalytic symbols, however, may be found in association with all developmental phases. There are symbols referring to the breast as well as to the mouth, tongue, and teeth; similarly, feces may represent money, gifts, and denigrated aspects of the self or object. Psychoanalytic symbols are often overdetermined as in the bisexual and biparental symbolism of animals, exemplified in the many meanings of rats for the "Rat Man" (Freud, 1909d). The rat was interpreted to mean penis, feces, money (rates), baby, as well as despised greed, rate, etc.

Psychoanalytic symbols may have multiple stratified meanings and, in contemporary analysis, there is appreciation of overdetermination and possible change of function. For example, the "pit and the pendulum" may symbolically represent the vagina and the penis but also castration and the threat of castration. In oral terms, the pit may represent the mouth, and the pendulum the tongue.

That symbols may acquire cultural and religious significance and take on other metaphorical meanings does not alter the original and primary meaning of the symbol (Blum, 1978). A cave may represent a grave without losing its earlier meaning of a womb or female genital, with the earth having acquired the meaning of mother.

Clinically, symbols are not pursued as an end in itself and are not the primary locus of psychoanalytic interpretation. There are no rigid formulas for symbolic decoding or interpretation, and patients may not directly associate to symbolic expressions. Symbols are interpreted in the context of the psychoanalytic process.

Comparable to an ancient language, symbolism may be adaptively appropriated in linguistic communication inside and outside psychoanalysis (Blum, 1995).


See also: Cinema criticism; "Dreams and myths"; Disque vert, Le; Functional phenomenon; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Obsessional neurosis; Psychoanalysis of Children, The; Psychoanalyse des nevroses et des psychoses; Symbol. Bibliography

   * Blum, Harold P. (1978). Symbolic process and symbol formation. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 455-471.
   * ——. (1995). Symbolism. In B. Moore and B. Fine (Eds.), Psychoanalysis. The Major Concepts. (pp. 149-154). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.
   * Jones, Ernest. (1916). The theory of symbolism. In Papers on Psychoanalysis. Boston: Beacon Press.
   * Segal, Hanna. (1978). On symbolism. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 303-314.