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On Iconic-Discursive Representations: Do they Bring us Closer to a Humean Representational Mind?

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This paper argues, contrary to Fodor’s well-known position, that the iconic and discursive modes of representation are not mutually exclusive categories. It is argued that there exists at least a third kind of representation which blends the semantic properties of icons and the syntactic properties of discourses. We reason that this iconic-discursive genus behaves differently from other representational formats, such as distributed representations or maps, previously put forward as challenging Fodor’s basic distinction. A reflection follows about how this kind of representation impacts on the Fodorian issues for which the original dual distinction was argumentatively instrumental, namely, the kinds of codes and possible inter-code relations accessible to the representational mind. The suggestion is put forward that iconic-discursive representations may facilitate trade-offs between the world and the representational mind, as well as between the differently complex levels of representation that mediate between percepts and concepts. We conclude that such aspects of the computational mind, which until now appeared to be stubbornly resistant with respect to a conciliation of Hume’s empiricism and Fodor’s computationalism, may be more easily accessed and understood taking advantage of the biosemiotics perspective and acknowledging the richness of the biosemiotics codes accessible to cognition.

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  1. Haugeland (1998) aptly settles the contrast by saying that icons are made of features that are disposed relative to each other preserving the way worldly correlates do, while discourses do away with such principle of organization, so features become self-sufficient in representations.

  2. Fodor’s use of the term ‘discursive’ (as well as Haugeland’s 1998 ‘logic’ surrogate) may be misleading in certain uses, for it correctly applies to levels of analysis where, at first glance, it appears to be alien. For example, writing systems are well behind any level of analysis that one would be tempted to refer as ‘discursive,’ yet many of them qualify as ‘discursive’ in Fodor’s sense. For the sake of illustration, think of the following series of Serbo-Croatian graphemes: < c > (voiceless alveolar sibilant affricate), < ć > (voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant affricate), < č > (voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant affricate). It seems clear that they comprise a basic ‘c’ component, while the stroked ‘ˇ’ and ‘´’ components stand for extra, more nuanced related features. Despite the low level of linguistic analysis to which these kinds of writing systems apply, they exhibit, in Fodor’s sense, ‘discursive’ organization. The claim can also be safely made that they ‘conceptualize’ the phonetic domain that they discursively represent. See below (fn.7) for a short parallel comment on non-alphabetic writing systems.

  3. For example, Haugeland (1998) suggests the kind (or genus) of ‘distributed’ representations and he refers to holographic images as an illustration. In holograms, each point in the holographic representation stands for each part of the represented scene, and the other way around. Therefore, they clearly function differently from icons in terms of the ‘type of compositionality’ axis; yet holographic representations are clearly iconic-like in terms of the ‘type of semanticity’ axis, as they clearly exhibit a certain kind of ‘likeness.’ Complementarily, connectionist networks can be used as an example of representations that do not exhibit any kind of ‘likeness,’ despite purportedly lacking proper parts.

  4. To a certain extent, the system resembles the much more familiar and studied case of traffic signals, which also exhibit a particular kind of compositional structure. However, two main differences separate them, making our suggested illustration particularly worth consideration. Firstly, traffic signal comprises both iconic and non-iconic elements as their basic units (e.g. the outline of a cow resembles a cow, but a red triangle does not resemble a dangerous thing); in contrasts, our SKKK DV 102 signals are fully made of basic icons. Secondly, the compositional outcome of traffic signals are not icons (taken as a whole, they do not mimic the referred circumstance), whilst the SKKK DV 102 signals continue to be bona fide icons.

  5. In Haugeland’s (1998) terms, the word is not a ‘representation’ any more — and logically, not a symbol, but the ‘record’ of a representation/symbol. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out the desirability of clarifying this.

  6. An anonymous reviewer interestingly suggests that such a combination of a symbol and an index makes this example an instance of Pierce’s ‘dicising’ category (Stjernfelt 2015). As a consequence, it is a kind of proposition, which does not refer to a certain location as an ‘exit,’ but to the potential action of getting out through it. In any event, whilst it is clear that propositions presuppose some kind of syntax, it is not at all clear that the syntax of a dicising like that of our example provides the means for constructing such a meaning compositionally.

  7. More debatable is the kind of logic that they instantiate. For example, Rescorla (2009) claims that it is not of a Fregean/Tarskian predicative kind, contrary to Casati and Varzi (1999). See Kulvicki (2015), for a somehow conciliatory position. The issue is not of crucial importance for our specific concerns. For a contrasting position, see Sellars (1979: 117-118), who contends that maps are logical pictures only parasitically, namely, through the mediation of statements like ‘Chicago is between Los Angeles and New York.’

  8. We believe this to be the intuition that Rescorla (2009: 198) tries to capture when he defines maps as unified representations, wherein geometrical relations bear representational import.

  9. Non-alphabetic writing systems like the one associated to Chinese, mostly try to capture minimal semantic distinctions pictorially, thus qualifying, both intuitively and technically, as ‘iconic.’ Yet this doesn’t prevent these low-level icons from entering into compositional arrangements with other icons belonging to the same level of analysis, the output of which, corresponding to the representation of words, however comprise ‘proper parts’ and thus qualify as ‘discursive’, again contradicting Fodor’s stipulation. See Sampson and Chen (2013) for further valuable information.

  10. The Ethnologue is the most qualified and commonly quoted catalogue of the languages of the world. See

  11. Relevantly to the point to be made in this section, parts of the brain are also recruited in the case of sign languages, but not in the case of spoken counterparts, which have to do with spatial cognition. See Hickok et al. (1998) and Campbell et al. (2007).

  12. Let us simply note that a whole sentence may also be (from without) iconic in sign languages. For example, in American Sign Language, a sentence roughly corresponding to ‘I give to you’ is signed by approaching the right hand (closed, palm up—as if grasping an object at chest hight), starting from the signee and approaching the interlocutor—the opposite direction for signing ‘you give me’. See Hickok et al. (1998).

  13. In Kulvicki’s (2003) terminology, iconic representations appear to be particularly apt for fulfilling such a task given their higher degree of semantic richness and syntactic sensitivity, which makes them more replete relative to discursive representations. However, it also appears to make them less computationally tractable, an aim for which discourses, in contrast, appear to more flexible.

  14. Two candidates immediately come to mind, namely, ‘constructions,’ in the sense of Construction Grammar (Goldberg 1995), and ‘schemes,’ as conceived of by Cognitive Linguistics (Johnson 1987). In both cases, prepackaged skeletal structures are suggested as iconically capturing the bare bones of a wide range of different actions, events, and so on. Given their iconic roots, they easily generalized to partially similar, but partially departing domains; yet they show the kinds of embedding effects proper of discourse organization.

  15. From a comparative/evolutionary perspective, we believe that this conclusion may benefit projects based on exploring the continuity between the combinatorial means of the human linguistic mind and other combinatorial dimensions of the human and nonhuman mind (Cerrone 2018; Filippi 2014).


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This paper has benefitted from a grant of the Spanish Government (Ministerio de Ciencia, Información y Universidades, Ref. FFI2017-87699P). The authors want to express their gratitude to the reviewers for their helpful and insighfiul comments. All remaining errors are our own.

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Correspondence to Guillermo Lorenzo.

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Lorenzo, G., Rubiera, E. On Iconic-Discursive Representations: Do they Bring us Closer to a Humean Representational Mind?. Biosemiotics 12, 423–439 (2019).

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