Representationalism

Edited by David Bourget (University of Western Ontario, Australian National University)
About this topic
Summary Representationalism about consciousness is (roughly) the view that phenomenal consciousness is a species of mental representation.  Reductive representationalism identifies consciousness with a kind of representational state specified in a functional/physical vocabulary.  Non-reductive representationalism simply states that consciousness is representation of a special kind, perhaps of a conscious kind.  Representation is often glossed in terms of "aboutness" or "accuracy conditions". Representationalist views can also be more or less pure. The purest form of representationalism holds that phenomenal character is identical to or supervenes on representational content. Less pure forms of representationalism hold that phenomenal character supervenes on representational content and other factors, for example, sensory modalities, or, more generally, "manners of representation".  
Key works Precursors to representationalism include the intentionalist accounts of perception in Bergmann 1960Anscombe 1965Hintikka 1969, and Harman 1990, as well as the view of perception as belief defended in Armstrong 1968 and Pitcher 1971.  The key modern works include Dretske 1995Lycan 1996, and Tye 1995 for reductive representationalism. Byrne 2001, Chalmers 2004, and Crane 2003 are important defences of non-reductive representationalism. Block 1996 and follow-up papers have been influential as a criticism of the view. 
Introductions Bourget & Mendelovici 2014, Lycan 2000, and Seager & Bourget 2007 are broad introductions to representationalism covering many key issues. Chalmers 2004 also makes for a good introduction. 
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  1. Swampman's Revenge: Squabbles Among the Representationalists.Frederick R. Adams & Laura A. Dietrich - 2004 - Philosophical Psychology 17 (3):323-40.
    There are both externalist and internalist theories of the phenomenal content of conscious experiences. Externalists like Dretske and Tye treat the phenomenal content of conscious states as representations of external properties. Internalists think that phenomenal conscious states are reducible to electrochemical states of the brain in the style of the type-type identity theory. In this paper, we side with the representationalists and visit a dispute between them over the test case of Swampman. Does Swampman have conscious phenomenal states or not? (...)
  2. Fred Dretske, Naturalizing the Mind.K. Aizawa - 1996 - Minds and Machines 6:425-430.
  3. Transparency and Teaching.G. Allen - 2006 - Theory, Culture and Society 23 (2-3):568-570.
  4. Blur.Keith Allen - 2013 - Philosophical Studies 162 (2):257-273.
    This paper presents an ‘over-representational’ account of blurred visual experiences. The basic idea is that blurred experiences provide too much, inconsistent, information about objects’ spatial boundaries, by representing them as simultaneously located at multiple locations. This account attempts to avoid problems with alternative accounts of blurred experience, according to which blur is a property of a visual field, a way of perceiving, a form of mis-representation, and a form of under-representation.
  5. Insects and the Problem of Simple Minds: Are Bees Natural Zombies?Sean Allen-Hermanson - 2008 - Journal of Philosophy 105 (8): 389-415.
    This paper explores the idea that many “simple minded” invertebrates are “natural zombies” in that they utilize their senses in intelligent ways, but without phenomenal awareness. The discussion considers how “first-order” representationalist theories of consciousness meet the explanatory challenge posed by blindsight. It would be an advantage of first-order representationalism, over higher-order versions, if it does not rule out consciousness in most non-human animals. However, it is argued that a first-order representationalism which adequately accounts for blindsight also implies that most (...)
  6. Perception and Representation.William P. Alston - 2005 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 (2):253-289.
    I oppose the popular view that the phenomenal character of perceptual experience consists in the subject's representing the (putative) perceived object as being so-and-so. The account of perceptual experience I favor instead is a version of the "Theory of Appearing" that takes it to be a matter of the perceived object's appearing to one as so-and-so, where this does not mean that the subject takes or believes it to be so-and-so. This plays no part in my criticisms of Representationalism. I (...)
  7. Does Representationalism Undermine the Knowledge Argument?Torin Alter - 2006 - In Torin Alter & Sven Walter (eds.), Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism. Oxford University Press. pp. 65--76.
    The knowledge argument aims to refute physicalism, the view that the world is entirely physical. The argument first establishes the existence of facts about consciousness that are not a priori deducible from the complete physical truth, and then infers the falsity of physicalism from this lack of deducibility. Frank Jackson gave the argument its classic formulation. But now he rejects the argument . On his view, it relies on a false conception of sensory experience, which should be replaced with representationalism (...)
  8. Does Synesthesia Undermine Representationalism?Torin Alter - 2006 - Psyche 12 (5).
    Does synesthesia undermine representationalism? Gregg Rosenberg (2004) argues that it does. On his view, synesthesia illustrates how phenomenal properties can vary independently of representational properties. So, for example, he argues that sound/color synesthetic experiences show that visual experiences do not always represent spatial properties. I will argue that the representationalist can plausibly answer Rosenberg.
  9. Representationalism and Cognition: Topics in the Foundations of Cognitive Science.James August Anderson - 1991 - Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania
    In broad terms, the problem is this: What is a metaphysically and scientifically adequate characterization of mental states in general and cognitive states in particular? One such characterization of cognitive states argues that, in light of their essentially intentional nature, they are most satisfactorily modeled in terms of computations on representational states. This is the theory I call Representationalism, and there are strong arguments in its support. For one, since many hold that persons actually have beliefs and desires, and that (...)
  10. On the Transparency of Begin: Some Uses of Semantic Theory.Tommy R. Anderson - 1968 - Foundations of Language 4 (4):394-421.
  11. The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Approach.G. E. M. Anscombe - 1981 - Blackwell.
  12. The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Feature.G. E. M. Anscombe - 1965 - In Ronald J. Butler (ed.), Analytic Philosophy. Blackwell. pp. 158-80.
  13. On the Intentionality of Moods: Phenomenology and Linguistic Analysis.Jorge V. Arregui - 1996 - American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 70 (3):397-411.
  14. Is Feeling Pain the Perception of Something?Murat Aydede - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (10):531-567.
    According to the increasingly popular perceptual/representational accounts of pain (and other bodily sensations such as itches, tickles, orgasms, etc.), feeling pain in a body region is perceiving a non-mental property or some objective condition of that region, typically equated with some sort of (actual or potential) tissue damage. In what follows I argue that given a natural understanding of what sensory perception requires and how it is integrated with (dedicated) conceptual systems, these accounts are mistaken. I will also examine the (...)
  15. Naturalism, Introspection, and Direct Realism About Pain.Murat Aydede - 2001 - Consciousness and Emotion 2 (1):29-73.
    This paper examines pain states (and other intransitive bodily sensations) from the perspective of the problems they pose for pure informational/representational approaches to naturalizing qualia. I start with a comprehensive critical and quasi-historical discussion of so-called Perceptual Theories of Pain (e.g., Armstrong, Pitcher), as these were the natural predecessors of the more modern direct realist views. I describe the theoretical backdrop (indirect realism, sense-data theories) against which the perceptual theories were developed. The conclusion drawn is that pure representationalism about pain (...)
  16. Reasons and Theories of Sensory Affect.Murat Aydede & Matthew Fulkerson - forthcoming - In David Bain, Michael Brady & Jennifer Corns (eds.), The Nature of Pain.
    Some sensory experiences are pleasant, some unpleasant. This is a truism. But understanding what makes these experiences pleasant and unpleasant is not an easy job. Various difficulties and puzzles arise as soon as we start theorizing. There are various philosophical theories on offer that seem to give different accounts for the positive or negative affective valences of sensory experiences. In this paper, we will look at the current state of art in the philosophy of mind, present the main contenders, critically (...)
  17. Affect: Representationalists' Headache.Murat Aydede & Matthew Fulkerson - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 170 (2):175-198.
    Representationalism is the view that the phenomenal character of experiences is identical to their representational content of a certain sort. This view requires a strong transparency condition on phenomenally conscious experiences. We argue that affective qualities such as experienced pleasantness or unpleasantness are counter-examples to the transparency thesis and thus to the sort of representationalism that implies it.
  18. Engineering the Mind (Review of Dretske 1995, Naturalizing the Mind).Kent Bach - 1997 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (2):459-468.
    No contemporary philosopher has tried harder to demystify the mind than Fred Dretske. But how to demystify it without eviscerating it? Can consciousness be explained? Many philosophers think that no matter how detailed and systematic our knowledge becomes of how the brain works and how it subserves mental functions, there will always remain an "explanatory gap." Call it a brute fact or call it a mystery, trying to explain consciousness, they think, is as futile as trying to explain why there (...)
  19. Representation and a Science of Consciousness.Andrew R. Bailey - 2007 - Journal of Consciousness Studies 14 (1):62-76.
    The first part of this paper defends a 'two-factor' approach to mental representation by moving through various choice-points that map out the main peaks in the landscape of philosophical debate about representation. The choice-points considered are: (1) whether representations are conceptual or non-conceptual; (2) given that mental representation is conceptual, whether conscious perceptual representations are analog or digital; (3) given that the content of a representation is the concept it expresses, whether that content is individuated extensionally or intensionally; (4) whether (...)
  20. What is It Like to See a Bat? A Critique of Dretske’s Representationalist Theory of Qualia.Andrew R. Bailey - 2005 - Disputatio 1 (18):1 - 27.
    This paper critiques the representationalist account of qualia, focussing on the Representational Naturalism presented by Fred Dretske in Naturalizing the Mind. After laying out Dretskes theory of qualia and making clear its externalist consequences, I argue that Dretskes definition is either too liberal or runs into problems defending its requirements, in particular naturalness and mentalness. I go on to show that Dretskes account of qualia falls foul of the argument from misperception in such a way that Dretske must either admit (...)
  21. Intentionalism and Pain.David Bain - 2003 - Philosophical Quarterly 53 (213):502-523.
    The pain case can appear to undermine the radically intentionalist view that the phenomenal character of any experience is entirely constituted by its representational content. That appearance is illusory, I argue. After categorising versions of pain intentionalism along two dimensions, I argue that an “objectivist” and “non-mentalist” version is the most promising, provided it can withstand two objections: concerning what we say when in pain, and the distinctiveness of the pain case. I rebut these objections, in a way that’s available (...)
  22. Transparency and the Particular.Zenon Bankowski - 1999 - Cultural Values 3 (4):427-444.
  23. Smelling Lessons.Clare Batty - 2011 - Philosophical Studies 153 (Mar.):161-174.
    Much of the philosophical work on perception has focused on vision. Recently, however, philosophers have begun to correct this ‘tunnel vision’ by considering other modalities. Nevertheless, relatively little has been written about the chemical senses—olfaction and gustation. The focus of this paper is olfaction. In this paper, I consider the question: does human olfactory experience represents objects as thus and so? If we take visual experience as the paradigm of how experience can achieve object representation, we might think that the (...)
  24. A Representational Account of Olfactory Experience.Clare Batty - 2010 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 40 (4):511-538.
    Much of the philosophical work on perception has focused on vision, with very little discussion of the chemical senses—olfaction and gustation. In this paper, I consider the challenge that olfactory experience presents to upholding a representational view of the sense modalities. Given the phenomenology of olfactory experience, it is difficult to see what a representational view of it would be like. Olfaction, then, presents an important challenge for representational theories to overcome. In this paper, I take on this challenge and (...)
  25. Scents and Sensibilia.Clare Batty - 2010 - American Philosophical Quarterly 47 (2):103-118.
    This paper considers what olfactory experience can tell us about the controversy over qualia and, in particular, the debate that focuses on the alleged transparency of experience. The appeal to transparency is supposed to show that there are no qualia—intrinsic, non-intentional and directly accessible properties of experience that determine phenomenal character. It is most commonly used to motivate intentionalism—namely, the view that the phenomenal character of an experience is exhausted by its representational content. Although some philosophers claim that transparency holds (...)
  26. Attention and Mental Primer.Jacob Beck & Keith Schneider - forthcoming - Mind and Language.
    Drawing on the empirical premise that attention makes objects look more intense (bigger, faster, higher in contrast), Ned Block has argued for mental paint, a phenomenal residue that cannot be reduced to what is perceived or represented. If sound, Block’s argument would undermine direct realism and representationism, two widely held views about the nature of conscious perception. We argue that Block’s argument fails because the empirical premise it is based upon is false. Attending to an object alters its salience, but (...)
  27. Visual Information Processing and Phenomenal Consciousness.Ansgar Beckermann - 1995 - In Thomas Metzinger (ed.), Conscious Experience. Ferdinand Schoningh.
    As far as an adequate understanding of phenomenal consciousness is concerned, representationalist theories of mind which are modelled on the information processing paradigm, are, as much as corresponding neurobiological or functionalist theories, confronted with a series of arguments based on inverted or absent qualia considerations. These considerations display the following pattern: assuming we had complete knowledge about the neural and functional states which subserve the occurrence of phenomenal consciousness, would it not still be conceivable that these neural states (or states (...)
  28. How the World Is Measured Up in Size Experience.David J. Bennett - 2011 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 83 (2):345-365.
    I develop a Russellian representationalist account of size experience that draws importantly from contemporary vision science research on size perception. The core view is that size is experienced in ‘body-scaled’ units. So, an object might, say, be experienced as two eye-level units high. The view is sharpened in response to Thompson’s (forthcoming) Doubled Earth example. This example is presented by Thompson as part of an argument for a Fregean view of size experience. But I argue that the Russellian view I (...)
  29. Fonctionnalisme et similarité phénoménale.Paul Bernier - 2000 - Philosophiques 27 (1):99-114.
    Dans la foulée de divers arguments antiphysicalistes visant à montrer que les qualia ne sont pas fonctionnalisables, Ned Block a proposé un autre argument de ce type, qui repose sur son expérience de pensée de la Terre inversée. L’argument de Block montrerait qu’un sujet peut avoir deux expériences de couleur du même type « phénoménal » qui seraient de deux types fonctionnels distincts puisque, selon lui, elles auraient des contenus intentionnels distincts. Il existerait donc une différence fondamentale entre le contenu (...)
  30. The Scrambler: An Argument Against Representationalism.Stephen Biggs - 2009 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 39 (2):pp. 215-236.
  31. Attention and Mental Paint1.Ned Block - 2010 - Philosophical Issues 20 (1):23-63.
    Much of recent philosophy of perception is oriented towards accounting for the phenomenal character of perception—what it is like to perceive—in a non-mentalistic way—that is, without appealing to mental objects or mental qualities. In opposition to such views, I claim that the phenomenal character of perception of a red round object cannot be explained by or reduced to direct awareness of the object, its redness and roundness—or representation of such objects and qualities. Qualities of perception that are not captured by (...)
  32. Bodily Sensations as an Obstacle for Representationism.Ned Block - 2005 - In Murat Aydede (ed.), Pain: New Essays on its Nature and the Methodology of its Study. Cambridge Ma: Bradford Book/Mit Press. pp. 137-142.
    Representationism 1, as I use the term, says that the phenomenal character of an experience just is its representational content, where that representational content can itself be understood and characterized without appeal to phenomenal character. Representationists seem to have a harder time handling pain than visual experience. I will argue that Michael Tye's heroic attempt at a representationist theory of pain, although ingenious and enlightening, does not adequately come to terms with the root of this difference.
  33. Mental Paint.Ned Block - 2003 - In Martin Hahn & B. Ramberg (eds.), Reflections and Replies: Essays on the Philosophy of Tyler Burge. MIT Press. pp. 165--200.
    The greatest chasm in the philosophy of mind--maybe even all of philosophy-- divides two perspectives on consciousness. The two perspectives differ on whether there is anything in the phenomenal character of conscious experience that goes beyond the intentional, the cognitive and the functional. A convenient terminological handle on the dispute is whether there are.
  34. Sexism, Ageism, Racism, and the Nature of Consciousness.Ned Block - 1999 - Philosophical Topics 26 (1):39-70.
    If a philosophical theory led to the conclusion that the red stripes cannot look red to both men and women, both blacks and whites, both young and old, we would be reluctant (to say the least) to accept that philosophical theory. But there is a widespread philosophical view about the nature of conscious experience that, together with some empirical facts, suggests that color experience cannot be veridical for both men and women, both blacks and whites, both young and old.
  35. Is Experiencing Just Representing? [REVIEW]Ned Block - 1998 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58 (3):663-670.
    The first problem concerns the famous Swampman who comes into existence as a result of a cosmic accident in which particles from the swamp come together, forming a molecular duplicate of a typical human. Reasonable people can disagree on whether Swampman has intentional contents. Suppose that Swampman marries Swampwoman and they have children. Reasonable people will be inclined to agree that there is something it is like for Swampchild when "words" go through his mind or come out of his mouth. (...)
  36. Mental Paint and Mental Latex.Ned Block - 1996 - Philosophical Issues 7:19-49.
  37. Inverted Earth.Ned Block - 1990 - Philosophical Perspectives 4:53-79.
  38. Is There Introspective Evidence for Phenomenal Intentionality?Davide Bordini - 2017 - Philosophical Studies 174 (5):1105-1126.
    The so-called transparency of experience (TE) is the intuition that, in introspecting one’s own experience, one is only aware of certain properties (like colors, shapes, etc.) as features of (apparently) mind-independent objects. TE is quite popular among philosophers of mind and has traditionally been used to motivate Representationalism, i.e., the view that phenomenal character is in some strong way dependent on intentionality. However, more recently, others have appealed to TE to go the opposite way and support the phenomenal intentionality view (...)
  39. The Transparencies and the Opacities of Experience. Intentionalism, Phenomenal Character, and Moods.Davide Bordini - 2014 - Dissertation, University of Milan
  40. Perception and Intentionality.Clive V. Borst - 1970 - Mind 79 (January):115-121.
  41. Why Are Some Phenomenal Experiences 'Vivid' and Others 'Faint'? Representationalism, Imagery, and Cognitive Phenomenology.David Bourget - forthcoming - Australasian Journal of Philosophy:1-15.
    One central brand of representationalism claims that the specific phenomenal character of an experience is fully determined by its content. A challenge for this view is that cognitive and perceptual experiences sometimes seem to have the same representational content while differing in phenomenal character. In particular, it might seem that one can have faint imagery experiences or conscious thoughts with the same contents as vivid perceptual experiences. This paper argues that such cases never arise, and that they are probably metaphysically (...)
  42. Representationalism, Perceptual Distortion and the Limits of Phenomenal Concepts.David Bourget - 2015 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 45 (1):16-36.
    This paper replies to objections from perceptual distortion against the representationalist thesis that the phenomenal characters of experiences supervene on their intentional contents. It has been argued that some pairs of distorted and undistorted experiences share contents without sharing phenomenal characters, which is incompatible with the supervenience thesis. In reply, I suggest that such cases are not counterexamples to the representationalist thesis because the contents of distorted experiences are always impoverished in some way compared to those of normal experiences. This (...)
  43. Consciousness is Underived Intentionality.David Bourget - 2010 - Noûs 44 (1):32 - 58.
    Representationalists argue that phenomenal states are intentional states of a special kind. This paper offers an account of the kind of intentional state phenomenal states are: I argue that they are underived intentional states. This account of phenomenal states is equivalent to two theses: first, all possible phenomenal states are underived intentional states; second, all possible underived intentional states are phenomenal states. I clarify these claims and argue for each of them. I also address objections which touch on a range (...)
  44. The Representational Theory of Consciousness.David Bourget - 2010 - Dissertation, Australian National University
    A satisfactory solution to the problem of consciousness would take the form of a simple yet fully general model which specifies the precise conditions under which any given state of consciousness occurs. Science has uncovered numerous correlations between consciousness and neural activity, but it has not yet come anywhere close to this. We are still looking for the Newtonian laws of consciousness. -/- One of the main difficulties with consciousness is that we lack a language in which to formulate illuminating (...)
  45. Tracking Representationalism.David Bourget & Angela Mendelovici - 2014 - In Andrew Bailey (ed.), Philosophy of Mind: The Key Thinkers. Continuum. pp. 209-235.
    This paper overviews the current status of debates on tracking representationalism, the view that phenomenal consciousness is a matter of tracking features of one's environment in a certain way. We overview the main arguments for the view and the main objections and challenges it faces. We close with a discussion of alternative versions of representationalism that might overcome the shortcomings of tracking representationalism.
  46. Painful Reasons: Representationalism as a Theory of Pain.Robert Schroer Brendan O'sullivan - 2012 - Philosophical Quarterly 62 (249):737-758.
    It is widely thought that functionalism and the qualia theory are better positioned to accommodate the ‘affective’ aspect of pain phenomenology than representationalism. In this paper, we attempt to overturn this opinion by raising problems for both functionalism and the qualia theory on this score. With regard to functionalism, we argue that it gets the order of explanation wrong: pain experience gives rise to the effects it does because it hurts, and not the other way around. With regard to the (...)
  47. Perception and Content.Bill Brewer - 2006 - European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2):165-181.
    It is close to current orthodoxy that perceptual experience is to be characterized, at least in part, by its representational content, roughly, by the way it represents things as being in the world around the perceiver. Call this basic idea the content view.
  48. Consciousness, Colour, and Content. Michael Tye.Bill Brewer - 2001 - Mind 110 (439):869-874.
  49. Strong Representationalism and Centered Content.Berit Brogaard - 2010 - Philosophical Studies 151 (3):373 - 392.
    I argue that strong representationalism, the view that for a perceptual experience to have a certain phenomenal character just is for it to have a certain representational content (perhaps represented in the right sort of way), encounters two problems: the dual looks problem and the duplication problem. The dual looks problem is this: strong representationalism predicts that how things phenomenally look to the subject reflects the content of the experience. But some objects phenomenally look to both have and not have (...)
  50. Representationalism and the Determinacy of Visual Content.Ben Bronner - 2015 - Philosophical Psychology 28 (2):227-239.
    DETERMINACY is the claim that covert shifts in visual attention sometimes affect the determinacy of visual content (capital letters will distinguish the claim from the familiar word, 'determinacy'). Representationalism is the claim that visual phenomenology supervenes on visual representational content. Both claims are popular among contemporary philosophers of mind, and DETERMINACY has been employed in defense of representationalism. I claim that existing arguments in favor of DETERMINACY are inconclusive. As a result, DETERMINACY-based arguments in support of representationalism are not strong (...)
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