Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Continuing Commentary
Commentary on Lawrence W. Barsalou (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. BBS 22(4):577–660

Amodal or perceptual symbol systems: A false dichotomy?

W. Martin Davies a1
a1 Faculty of Economics and Commerce, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia


Although Barsalou is right in identifying the importance of perceptual symbols as a means of carrying certain kinds of content, he is wrong in playing down the inferential resources available to amodal symbols. I argue that the case for perceptual symbol systems amounts to a false dichotomy and that it is feasible to help oneself to both kinds of content as extreme ends on a content continuum. The continuum thesis I advance argues for the inferential content at one end and perceptual content at the other. In between the extremes, symbols might have aspects that are either perceptual or propositional-linguistic in character. I argue that this way of characterising the issue preserves the good sense of Barsalou's recognition of perceptual representations and yet avoids the tendency to minimise the gains won with symbolic representations vital to contemporary cognitive science.