Rebirth of Reason


Mind and Representation
by Merlin Jetton

Is the mind representational? Yes and no; it depends on what is meant. Some people claim that perception is representational without defining or clarifying what a “representation” is. So that will be my first task. An act of representation requires three components:

1. The referent that is represented.

2. The representation itself.

3. The interpreter of the representation, who can distinguish between, and relates, the first two components.

A good example is a portrait. The referent is the real person portrayed by the portrait. The representation is the portrait. The interpreter is the viewer of the portrait. This will be called a “model” of representation (no pun intended).

Representationalism is the philosophical doctrine that in any act of perception, the immediate or direct object is a sense-datum or idea that represents an external object – the referent that is mediated and thus indirectly perceived. This has some prima facie appeal, especially when considering vision. An image on a retina is distinguishable from the referent, and there is further neural processing that produces what we experience visually, which is not identical to what is on the retina.

It helps to consider two perspectives to analyze this – first person and third person. The prima facie appeal comes from a third person perspective. When considering another person viewing an object, I can clearly distinguish the referent and the other person’s retinal image. There are three components like in the model, me being the third component. However, the perspective is paradoxical. I cannot see the referent except from a first person perspective.

Let us consider the first person perspective. When I look at the object, the images on my retinas are not a part of my conscious, visual awareness. They are part of the process which results in my awareness. I can distinguish them conceptually, but not perceptually. The situation fails to fit the model. To make the situation fit the model, one must posit something in the brain, often described as a homunculus, as the interpreter component. While neural processing does integrate information from different sensory input, there is no entity such as a homunculus with yet another perceptual system.

So to claim the referent is directly known from a third person perspective but indirectly known from a first person perspective is incoherent. Wilcox and Katz make basically the same argument here: http://www.comnet.ca/%7Epballan/W&K(1984).htm

In their article the perceiver is the first person and the psychologist is the third person.

The two perspectives are often described using different terms:

1. The phenomenal concept of mind is essentially the idea of mind as a conscious experience. Mental states are explained in terms of how we feel or experience them.

2. The psychological concept of mind views mental states in terms of how they cause and explain behavior. Mind is characterized by what it does, not what it feels like.

Philosophers often take the former view, whereas cognitive scientists usually take the latter view (Cognitive Science, by Friedenberg 2006, p. 50).

Representationalism is problematic in another way. It confounds what we perceive and the means by which we perceive.

Therefore, the claim that perception is“representational” is based on a poor analogy. A better way to describe the relationship between the retina (and percept) and the referent is a causal correspondence.

In closing, I explain my ‘yes’ answer to the opening question. Concepts, memories, imagination, and projections of future states or events are representational. The referents are not currently perceived. Obviously language is representational, too. Each of these is part of our conscious awareness and is analogous to the second component of the three component model described above.
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