Review of Representation Reconsidered [Book Review]

Mark Sprevak
University of Edinburgh
William Ramsey’s Representation Reconsidered is a superb, insightful analysis of the notion of mental representation in cognitive science. The book presents an original argument for a bold conclusion: partial eliminativism about mental representation in scientific psychology. According to Ramsey, once we examine the conditions that need to be satisfied for something to qualify as a representation, we can see those conditions are not fulfilled by the ‘representations’ posited by much of modern psychology. Cognitive science—or at least large swathes of it—has no warrant for positing representations. The structure of Ramsey’s argument repeats a familiar eliminativist strategy (c.f. Churchland (1981); Stich (1983)).1 First step: argue that in order for something to be an X, it must satisfy a certain description D (say, beliefs must satisfy the description given in folk psychology). Second step: argue that to the best of our knowledge, nothing satisfies description D (e.g. folk psychology is false). Third step: conclude that since nothing satisfies description D, there are no Xs (no beliefs). Here is how the strategy is played out in the book. First, Ramsey argues for certain minimal conditions that a representation must satisfy (what he calls the ‘job description’). Second (this takes the bulk of the book), he considers the ways in which our best psychological theories use the notion of representation. Ramsey argues that none of these uses satisfy the job description associated with a genuine representation. (A wrinkle is that some representations—those posited by the classical computational theory of cognition—do qualify as true representations. But, Ramsey claims, classical theories are in a minority in cognitive science, and their hold on the field is shrinking.) Therefore, Ramsey concludes, in most of cognitive science, there are no mental representations.
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