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Meltzer, D. (1997). Concerning Signs and Symbols. Brit. J. Psychother., 14(2):175-181.

(1997). British Journal of Psychotherapy, 14(2):175-181

Personal View

Concerning Signs and Symbols

Donald Meltzer

The paper I wrote in 1971, ‘On Sincerity’, was inspired by reading Wittgenstein's work in linguistic philosophy. In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein (1953) spends quite a long time discussing meaning, the difference between ‘saying it’ and ‘meaning it’. This drew my attention to the problem in analysis, both the analyst's problem in meaning what he says to his patient, and the problem for the patient in meaning the things he says to the analyst. In the course of investigating this I became aware that language is not a very disciplined way of ‘meaning it’ because language is so conventional. This led me on to a clearer differentiation in linguistic structures between signs and symbols, which tend to be equated with one another in works of people like de Saussure and Lacan. The thing about signs is that they are just a way of pointing at things, using words to point. They consist almost exclusively of the conventional naming of things and functions. Now, in so far as people use signs in communicating with one another, they cannot ‘mean it’ because they cannot mean anything, they are simply pointing at the world. Symbols are entirely different and very mysterious, because they are utterly intuitive and are containers for emotional meaning. One would be inclined to say, in so far as people use symbols in communicating with one another, they automatically ‘mean it’.

But a difficulty arises because not all symbols are autonomous, that is, created in the mind of the speaker.

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