1. adj. Appertaining to a symbol in any of its senses.
2. adj. (semiotics) A mode of relationship in a sign between a sign vehicle and its referent in which the vehicle does not resemble the referent but which is arbitrary or purely conventional—so that the relationship must be learnt (e.g. the word ‘stop’, a red traffic light, a national flag, a number); see also arbitrariness; convention. The symbolic mode, the iconic mode, and the indexical mode are concepts in the Peircean model of the sign, where they represent relationships between the representamen and the object. Where the relation is solely symbolic, the sign may be referred to as a symbol; however, most signs involve more than one mode. Symbolicity is the noun for the quality of being symbolic: compare iconic; indexical.
3. n. (symbolic order) ‘The Symbolic’ is Lacan's term for the phase when the child gains mastery within the public realm of verbal language—when a degree of individuality and autonomy is surrendered to the constraints of linguistic conventions and the Self becomes a more fluid and ambiguous relational signifier rather than a relatively fixed entity. Lacan declares that ‘it is the world of words that creates the world of things’; language creates reality as we know it. However, it also represents a lack: the loss of our pre-symbolic mode of being, since the real cannot be captured in words (see also absent presence). Structuralists focus on the symbolic order rather than the imaginary, seeing language as determining subjectivity. Compare imaginary.
4. n. For Kristeva, a modality of the signifying process distinguished from, and existing in a dialectical relation with, the semiotic. Symbolic processes in this sense are seen as rational, transcendental, and paternal.