The Iconic-Symbolic Spectrum
Gabriel Greenberg
January 2023
 

It is common to distinguish two great families of representation. Symbolic representations include words and complex linguistic expressions, logical and mathematical symbols, and conventionalized gestures. Iconic representations include dials, diagrams, maps, pictures, 3D models, and depictive gestures. This distinction has become central to recent work in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science, but there is no widely accepted account of the underlying division. This essay describes and motivates a new way of distinguishing iconic from symbolic representation. I propose to locate the site of difference not in the signs themselves, nor in the contents they express, but in the semantic rules by which signs are associated with contents. The two kinds of rule have fundamentally divergent forms, occupying opposite poles on a spectrum of naturalness. Symbolic rules are composed entirely of primitive juxtapositions of sign-types with contents, while iconic rules determine contents uniformly by following natural dependencies between contents and sign-types. This distinction is marked explicitly in the formal semantics of complex representational systems, emerging both at the level of atomic first-order representations, like words, pixel colors, or dials, and at the level of complex second-order representations, like sentences, diagrams, and pictures.
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Reference: lingbuzz/005787
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keywords: iconicity, iconic, symbolic, semantics, representation, depiction, diagrams
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