Symbol + ? = Meaning

Have you ever wondered about the connection between symbol and meaning ? When we think of the written letter, or word, what are we talking about in terms of the human capacity to associate mere symbols with meaning? Let me offer this illustration…

Take the letter “S” for example. If we conduct a mental exercise where we remove the context of “S” as a letter in the alphabet, what are we left with? The “S” becomes really no more than a squiggly line (symbol) on the page, devoid of meaning. The same goes for all other letters, numbers, etc., and in auditory terms, sounds, voice, music, etc. So how is it possible to associate a mere squiggle with specific meaning? How is it possible to associate a loud siren with the need to pull to the side of the road to let the fire truck pass?

There must be a bridge between the mere symbol and meaning; between the mere sound and meaning. What faculty comes in to play to bridge the two?


As a past art teacher, and one who has worked in, near or around the arts for his entire professional career, one phrase I abhor is “I have no imagination.” I never quite know what this means since, as I have just illustrated, there is no such thing as a communicating, functioning human being without the capacity to imagine. Just to say “I have no imagination” requires an immense, almost miraculous degree of imagination.

I’ve always thought the question should be more like “How do I foster or channel my imagination to create  new possibilities; new understanding; new uses of symbol to arrive at fantastic new meaning?”

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