What the is a symbol?

Minds and Machines 18 (1) (2008)
The notion of a ‘symbol’ plays an important role in the disciplines of Philosophy, Psychology, Computer Science, and Cognitive Science. However, there is comparatively little agreement on how this notion is to be understood, either between disciplines, or even within particular disciplines. This paper does not attempt to defend some putatively ‘correct’ version of the concept of a ‘symbol.’ Rather, some terminological conventions are suggested, some constraints are proposed and a taxonomy of the kinds of issue that give rise to disagreement is articulated. The goal here is to provide something like a ‘geography’ of the various notions of ‘symbol’ that have appeared in the various literatures, so as to highlight the key issues and to permit the focusing of attention upon the important dimensions. In particular, the relationship between ‘tokens’ and ‘symbols’ is addressed. The issue of designation is discussed in some detail. The distinction between simple and complex symbols is clarified and an apparently necessary condition for a system to be potentially symbol, or token bearing, is introduced.
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