Representations gone mental

Synthese 191 (2):213-244 (2014)
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Abstract

Many philosophers and psychologists have attempted to elucidate the nature of mental representation by appealing to notions like isomorphism or abstract structural resemblance. The ‘structural representations’ that these theorists champion are said to count as representations by virtue of functioning as internal models of distal systems. In his 2007 book, Representation Reconsidered, William Ramsey endorses the structural conception of mental representation, but uses it to develop a novel argument against representationalism, the widespread view that cognition essentially involves the manipulation of mental representations. Ramsey argues that although theories within the ‘classical’ tradition of cognitive science once posited structural representations, these theories are being superseded by newer theories, within the tradition of connectionism and cognitive neuroscience, which rarely if ever appeal to structural representations. Instead, these theories seem to be explaining cognition by invoking so-called ‘receptor representations’, which, Ramsey claims, aren’t genuine representations at all—despite being called representations, these mechanisms function more as triggers or causal relays than as genuine stand-ins for distal systems. I argue that when the notions of structural and receptor representation are properly explicated, there turns out to be no distinction between them. There only appears to be a distinction between receptor and structural representations because the latter are tacitly conflated with the ‘mental models’ ostensibly involved in offline cognitive processes such as episodic memory and mental imagery. While structural representations might count as genuine representations, they aren’t distinctively mental representations, for they can be found in all sorts of non-intentional systems such as plants. Thus to explain the kinds of offline cognitive capacities that have motivated talk of mental models, we must develop richer conceptions of mental representation than those provided by the notions of structural and receptor representation

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