The Constructive Power of Symbols

Meaning construction depends on people’s interpretation of symbols. The following are symbolic abilities identified by language philosophers (listed in Wood, 2013).

1. Definition of a Phenomenon.

Symbols allow us to define experience. How we perceive ourselves, other people, and the things that happen to us are influenced by how we define them. Labels and definitions change the way we think about, or perceive, things and events. For instance, if we consider a particular teacher “boring” because of the way he or she presents a lecture, then, we direct our attention to this single characteristic, ignoring the other positive qualities of that teacher.

2. Evaluation of a Phenomenon.

Symbols are value-laden. Language allows us to describe people and our experiences in a positive or negative manner. The connotative meaning of words determine how people will perceive a phenomenon. For instance, the term “drug addict” has a negative connotation but if one uses the term “drug victim,” which, though referring to the same thing, has a less negative connotation, this may influence or change people’s views and opinions.

3. Organization of Perceptions.

Symbols help people organize how they think about things. It is easier to define and give meaning to experiences if we already have a general set of characteristics to look for in a particular situation. We know when a phenomenon or experience illustrates the abstract concepts of love, injustice, success, betrayal, or failure without having to evaluate each phenomenon every time we experience them. You do not assume a classmate is romantically interested in you every time you receive kindness from him or her. Through generalizations, we can assess danger and sense conflict even before these things happen. However, classifications and generalizations, may also result in misinterpretation. Consider the following stereotypes: Teachers are patient. Successful people are happy. Doctors are rich. Asians are conservative.

4. Formulation of Hypothetical Thought.

Language allows us to think hypothetically about things that are not apparent or do not exist yet in the real word. Through words, we are able to plan, solve problems, imagine, and invent new things. Language helps us develop ideas, follow our trains of thought, and reflect on previous events to plan the future. For instance, by being able to describe one’s present reality, one can identify the problems and create solutions. A student who can recognize that he is performing poorly in class could think of ways to improve his grades.

5. Self-reflection.

Language also helps us reflect about ourselves. By monitoring our behavior, actions, and attitudes, we may be able to control the way we act and function appropriately in different contexts. When we are presenting a report in class, we also monitor ourselves through the reactions of other people and adjust according to these reactions. We also use language the way we want to present ourselves to people. For instance, when we talk to our teachers, we often use polite language and avoid criticizing them. On the other hand, when we talk to close friends or people we want to be close to, we refuse to speak politely as this kind of language creates a sense of distance.