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2012-08-19
The concept of "mental representation" according to Intentionalists
I have recently been struggling with the multiple aspects of the meaning of "mental representation", in the contemporary literature. In particular, I can't seem to sharply distinguish the way intentionalists use the term, as contrasted to the way a representation is conceived by the computational theory of the mind, or by cognitive neuroscience.
     I will try to be a bit more clear. It seems to me that intentionalists (such as Tye and Dretske) employ a very thin notion of mental representation, when, for instance, saying that a certain experience "represents the world as being such and such". Thus, as it is usually claimed, "the experience represents a red apple" should not mean anything beyond "the experience is about a red apple". Now my concern is the following:  does this way of employing the concept of "mental representation" commit intentionalists to claiming that, when I see a red apple, certain information bearing structures in my brain are responsible for representing it? If not, what do intentionalists mean when marking a difference between "vehicles" and "contents"? In "Experience as Representation", for instance, Dretske introduces a difference between vehicles and contents of a representation, and claims that a vehicle is, for instance, an experience, or a belief. When making such a claim, what is "experience", for instance, taken to be? Does the term refer to a mere non-physical abstract state, or, again, to those  information bearing structures (neural, for instance) which, in this case, make up experience? What does it mean to say that vehicles are in the head? Are they so in virtue of being the physical information-carriers, or what else? 


I am extremely thankful for your help.

Davide Lo Buono.

2012-09-16
The concept of "mental representation" according to Intentionalists
In response to this question:
does this way of employing the concept of "mental representation" commit intentionalists to claiming that, when I see a red apple, certain information bearing structures in my brain are responsible for representing it?
There are non-reductive variants on intentionalism (which includes Tim Crane's, I think), so the answer is "no". See also Chalmers 2004Pautz 2010, Mendelovici 2010. These non-reductive intentionalists merely claim that consciousness is a kind of aboutness. They don't say (as part of their intentionalism) what is the physical/functional basis of consciousness. All reductive views I know of, however, involve the idea that having an experience is a matter of being in a broadly-speaking information-carrying brain state. 






2012-09-24
The concept of "mental representation" according to Intentionalists
Davide,

I might be able to answer your question about the nature or ontology of experience, but first I would like to go back to first principles.

Vehicle and content, like an experience of an apple, is a way of speaking that tells us that that there are objects and representations of objects, such as the object apple and the representation apple.

This ought to strike us as odd for a number of reasons. We might ask, What is the object apple? We have no experience of this "apple", all we have is the representation apple. The term "representation" thus is not hinged to any object. Further, even if there is an object apple, how do we know that we all mean the same thing by object apple? that is, how does it enter into the public language if its very nature is that it is inaccesible? It is a Wittgensteinian beetle.

"Vehicle and content" looks like another transcendentally real enterprise, the sort of enterprise that Wittgenstein and Kant worked against. While it appears as a dualism, it is its transcendental realism - the idea that objects with their physical limits identify themselves to us - that tips it into the category of nonsense, at least as Kant indicated when he asked how it is that philosophers can imagine that an object, as it is in itself, can reveal itself to us, such that an object more or less seems to take on the form of its appearance (representation).

I mentioned dualism. "Vehicle and content" offers a dualism of course, but the term "content" (and "representation") betrays this binary as a transcendental realism, where both elements of the binary are taken to be ontological conditions, veiling the need for conditions that establish or identify either.

This is why you ask where experience is. This is an ontologisation, if you like. Experience is neither in the brain nor out there. It is not in an ontologically determined place. Rather, experience or vehicle is a framework for the identification of an object, or as Henry Allison (Kantian scholar) termed it, an epistemological condition. Whether Dretske meant that .. I doubt if he did, though I might be wrong.

2012-10-04
The concept of "mental representation" according to Intentionalists

As to your first paragraph may I suggest that there are two quite different kinds of mental rrepresentation:

(1) that to do with perceptions of things, where, in the case of seeing for instance, the characteristics of the patterns of neural  firing caused by the thing thing seen are attributed by the brain to the thing as its form and qualities. Thus the seeing is about the the thing, and the neural event involved in the seeing, and its associated subjective experience, can in that sense be said to represent the thing. This is to do with intentionality. (This way of looking at it it does involve neural structures in the brain which attribute the characteristics of the neural event to the thing seen, but are quite different to those involved in (2) below). 

 (2) Mental representations of things involved in thinking. Here a neural event  represents the thing in the sense of standing in its place. How can a neural event do that?  By causing the events in the brain which the thing would cause by being perceived. The neural representation which does this cannot of course be a  neural event which was actually involved in a perception of the thing, as in (1) above, for it occurred in the past. Rather it is a copy or derivation of such a  neural event – a mental image of the perception of the thing.  This neural representation of a thing causes other neural events in the course of thinking.