Levels of Explanation Vindicated

Marr’s celebrated contribution to cognitive science (Marr 1982, chap. 1) was the introduction of (at least) three levels of description/explanation. However, most contemporary research has relegated the distinction between levels to a rather dispensable remark. Ignoring such an important contribution comes at a price, or so we shall argue. In the present paper, first we review Marr’s main points and motivations regarding levels of explanation. Second, we examine two cases in which the distinction between levels has been neglected when considering the structure of mental representations: Cummins et al.’s distinction between structural representation and encodings (Cummins in Journal of Philosophy, 93(12):591–614, 1996; Cummins et al. in Journal of Philosophical Research, 30:405–408, 2001) and Fodor’s account of iconic representation (Fodor 2008). These two cases illustrate the kind of problems in which researchers can find themselves if they overlook distinctions between levels and how easily these problems can be solved when levels are carefully examined. The analysis of these cases allows us to conclude that researchers in the cognitive sciences are well advised to avoid risks of confusion by respecting Marr’s old lesson
Keywords Philosophy   Neurosciences   Philosophy of Mind   Epistemology   Philosophy of Science   Developmental Psychology   Cognitive Psychology
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DOI 10.1007/s13164-010-0041-0
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Tyler Burge (1986). Individualism and Psychology. Philosophical Review 95 (January):3-45.

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