Cybernetics & Human Knowing - Thesaurus pilot project
Edited by M&T Thellefsen



A sign that informs by convention. Symbols need not have a referent as in ceremonies and rituals.

When they do have a referent, its connection with the sign is not one of necessity (Krippendorff).





Principia Cybernetica
Encyclopedia Autopoietica
International Encyclopedia of Systems & Cybernetics


Principia Cybernetica (web)

A sign that informs by convention. Symbols need not have a referent as in ceremonies and rituals.

When they do have a referent, its connection with the sign is not one of necessity (Krippendorff).


Encyclopedia Autopoietica

1. The construct for a meaningful token or sign-mechanism, as the term is conventionally used. In this usage, "symbol" is typically addressed as an explanatory construct of a cognitivistic perspective which Maturana and Varela criticize.

2. The characterization of "symbol" from an autopoietic perspective is primarily to be found in Varela (1979), in relation to his discussion of the descriptions which are permissible and useful in addressing autonomous systems. This issue arises because " order to understand fully how the cognitive domain of such a system can operate and be modified, we must look at the dynamic regularities that arise within the system and that can be treated as symbolic events." (Varela, 1979, p. 81) Varela (1979, p. 79 ff.) outlines two primary features of "symbols" in natural systems:

"1. Internal Determination. An object or event is a symbol only if it is a token for an abbreviated nomic chain that occurs within the bounds of the system’s organizational closure. In other words, whenever the system’s closure determines certain regularities in the face of internal or external interactions and pertubations, such regularities can be abbreviated as a symbol, usually the initial or terminal

element in the nomic chain." (Varela, 1979, pp.79-80)

"2. Composition. A process that admits a symbolic description might or might not be of ontogenic and phylogenetic interest and

potential ...[i.e.]... only some [of the regularities deriving from internal determination] might lead (through structural coupling or evolution) to a significant adaptive change in the cognitive domain of the system. ...[T]he regularities that have been fertile and preserved in evolution are those such that the symbols that stand for them can be seen as composable like a language -- in other words, such that the individual symbols, as discrete tokens, can interact with each other in a syntax capable of generating new patterns in combination." (Varela, 1979, p 81)


International Encyclopedia of Systems & Cybernetics

1. "A sign that would lose the character which renders it is a sign if there were no interpretent" (C. S. PEIRCE, in J. HOOPES, 1991, p. 240).

2. "A sign that is a potiential producer of a response to something which in a potential producer of a response to something other than itself" (R.L. ACKOFF & F.E. EMERY, 1972, p. 168).

3. "Something that represents something else, by association or convention"


PEIRCE’s definition is what makes symbols important in systemics: It shows the importance of abstract frames of reference in individuval observers and in communities.

A symbol seems to be basically an individual and collective human memory device, useful to maintain sociality. S. GOONATILAKE observes that " Cave pictures were the earlier cases of the externalization of internally kept images. In fact, the later development of writing is traced to pictographic roots" (1991, p. 86).

ACKOFF and EMERY’s definition seems to be rooted in C.S PEIRCE’s own and on his descriptions of the various types of symbols (J. HOOPES, 1991, p.30- 1 and 240). They observe that, according to S. LANGER (1948), a symbol is a sign

that signifies a concept, while CH. MORRIS used it as a sign of a sign.

Most symbols are created by deliberate association, but are thereafter transmitted by imprinting, a process whose roots can be found in animal behavior, as shown by K. LORENZ.

K. STEINBUCH has given an interesting model of symbol formation with his " learning matrixes".

H. MALTA MACEDO states that symbols " are the fixed mental structures that holds against the shapeless everlasting flow of sense- data" (1992, p. 674).

R. GLANVILLE observes that: " We make reference (create a temporary identity) between that which is to communicate it

(roughly and loosely, between meaning and symbol )" (1992, p. 661).

Symbols generally transmit subliminal messages, once they become incorporated within a given culture.

Many symbols become supports for concepts, and can easily "be combined with other symbols" in such cases " A combination of symbols hence represents a potential association of concepts" ( F. HEYLIGHEN).

Unfortunately the interpretation of symbols significance is not always stable nor clear and, furthermore they may easily be manipulated.

See hereafter about semantic confusion introduced by the restricted signification of "symbols" as something manipulated by computers.