It is common to distinguish two great families of representation. Symbolic representations include logical and mathematical symbols, words, and complex linguistic expressions. Iconic representations include dials, diagrams, maps, pictures, 3-dimensional models, and depictive gestures. This essay describes and motivates a new way of distinguishing iconic from symbolic representation. It locates the 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 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 entirely by uniform natural relations with sign types. This distinction is marked explicitly in the formal semantics of familiar sign systems, both for atomic first-order representations, like words, pixel colors, and dials, and for complex second-order representations, like sentences, diagrams, and pictures.

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