Coming Around on Representationalism

I have been reading a lot of Dreyfus and Heidegger lately, and naturally, I have been slightly leaning towards the anti-representationalist camp. By anti-representationalism, I mean the school of thought that deemphasizes the importance of representations in cognition in favor of an embodied, enactive approach to the traditional philosophy problems. Don’t get me wrong, I am still in favor of such approaches, but thanks to a discussion over at Pete Mandik’s blog, I have turned a more sympathetic ear to the representationalist camp.

Two papers that were linked in the blog discussion made me re-think my position. The first is a reply to Dreyfus by Rick Grush and Pete Mandik. In the paper they argued that representations have explanatory usefulness and furthermore, that just because an action is context-dependent doesn’t mean that that activity isn’t representational. They also defend representationalism on phenomenological grounds with examples such as the ability to represent alternative chess-positions when playing. Dreyfus would counter by saying that truly “skilled” grand masters do not make such representations but rather engage the chessboard and “deal” with it non-representationally. I think Dreyfus would be right, but that would be an exceptional case. I imagine that most people are not able to cope with the chessboard in such a manner and have to consciously represent the board and alternate possibilities.

The second paper that pushed me further from the anti-representationalist camp, posted by Eric Thomson, was by William Bechtel. In this paper, Bechtel discusses dynamical systems theory and the role for representations and explanation in models of cognition. Bechtel defuses the revolutionary character of dynamic systems theory and instead discusses how such approaches can complement more traditional representational and mechanistic explanatory models.

So, while I still hold that for some cases, such as action, a minimal representational approach is superior, thanks to Mandik and Bechtel, I have become much more sympathetic towards explanatory models of cognition that utilize representations.



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

4 responses to “Coming Around on Representationalism

  1. For me the biggest hitch for antirepresentationalism is memory. E.g., explaining birdsong learning where they hear a song as a fledgling, dont’ actually start singing until adults, and when adolescents they recreate the original song even when not exposed to songs in the meantime. What explains how the adolescent bird is able to reproduce the original song?

    Pat Churchland, at a talk by van Gelder, asked him to explain the VOR (vestibulo-ocular reflex) without adverting to representations. It was awkward, as he (and most of the room) had no idea what she was talking about. 🙂

  2. That birdsong example is really interesting, I too cannot think of any way to explain that without representation. We are going to be discussing representationalism in my philosophy of cognitive science class soon, and I will definitely be bringing up that example.

    As for the VOR, I read the wikipedia article, but nothing immediately jumped out as “representation needed here”, so could you elaborate or link to a paper where she talks about it in more detail?

  3. I think Churchland and Sejnowski discuss the VOR in ‘The Computational Brain.’ Using the VOR as an example may be a long walk for a small sip of water, though.

    Some references for birdsong:
    Good initial review:

    More recent review:
    Johan J. Bolhuis1 & Manfred Gahr (2006) Neural mechanisms of birdsong memory.Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 347-357.

    I also think honeybees are good memory-representation intuition pumps. Bees find nectar, go back to hive, and do a dance that ‘tells’ its buds where the nectar is. There was a very interesting philosophy PhD written on bees as a model system for representational systems. It’s here.

  4. Thanks for the references, I am thinking about doing a research paper this semester on representation, those will come in handy.

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