Mental representation

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A mental representation (or cognitive representation), in philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science, is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality,[1] or else a mental process that makes use of such a symbol: "a formal system for making explicit certain entities or types of information, together with a specification of how the system does this."[2]

Mental representation is the mental imagery of things that are both currently and not-currently seen or sensed by the sense organs. In contemporary philosophy, specifically in fields of metaphysics such as philosophy of mind and ontology, a mental representation is one of the prevailing ways of explaining and describing the nature of ideas and concepts.

Mental representations (or mental imagery) enable representing things that have never been experienced as well as things that do not exist.[3] Think of yourself traveling to a place you have never been before, or having a third arm. These things have either never happened or are impossible and do not exist, yet our brain and mental imagery allows us to imagine them. Although visual imagery is more likely to be recalled, mental imagery may involve representations in any of the sensory modalities, such as, hearing, smell, or taste. Kosslyn proposes images are used to help solve certain types of problems. We are able to visualize the objects in question and mentally represent the images to solve it.[3]

Mental representations also allow you to experience things right in front of you—though the process of how the brain interprets the representational content is debated.

Representational Theories of Mind[edit]

Representationalism (also known as indirect realism) is the view that representations are the main way we access external reality. Another major prevailing philosophical theory posits that concepts are entirely abstract objects.[4]

The representational theory of mind attempts to explain the nature of ideas, concepts and other mental content in contemporary philosophy of mind, cognitive science and experimental psychology. In contrast to theories of naive or direct realism, the representational theory of mind postulates the actual existence of mental representations which act as intermediaries between the observing subject and the objects, processes or other entities observed in the external world. These intermediaries stand for or represent to the mind the objects of that world.

For example, when someone arrives at the belief that his or her floor needs sweeping, the representational theory of mind states that he or she forms a mental representation that represents the floor and its state of cleanliness.

The original or "classical" representational theory probably can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes and was a dominant theme in classical empiricism in general. According to this version of the theory, the mental representations were images (often called "ideas") of the objects or states of affairs represented. For modern adherents, such as Jerry Fodor, Steven Pinker and many others, the representational system consists rather of an internal language of thought (i.e., mentalese). The contents of thoughts are represented in symbolic structures (the formulas of Mentalese) which, analogously to natural languages but on a much more abstract level, possess a syntax and semantics very much like those of natural languages.

There is a wide debate on what kinds of representations exist. There are several philosophers who bring about different aspects of the debate. Such philosophers include Alex Morgan, Gualtiero Piccinini, and Uriah Kriegel—though this is not an exhaustive list.

Alex Morgan[edit]

There are "job description" representations.[1] That is representations that (1) represent something—have intentionality, (2) have a special relation—the represented object does not need to exist, and (3) content plays a causal role in what gets represented: e.g. saying "hello" to a friend,giving a glare to an enemy.

           Structural representations are also important.[1] These types of representations are basically mental maps that we have in our minds that correspond exactly to those objects in the world (the intentional content). According to Morgan, structural representations are not the same as mental representations—there is nothing mental about them:  plants can have structural representations.
           There are also internal representations.[1] These types of representations include those that involve future decisions, episodic memories, or any type of projection into the future.

Gualtiero Piccinini[edit]

In Piccinini's forthcoming work, he discusses topics on natural and nonnatural mental representations. He relies on the natural definition of mental representations given by Grice (1957)[5] where P entails that P. e.g. Those spots mean measles, entails that the patient has measles. Then there are nonnatural representations: P does not entail P. e.g. The 3 rings on the bell of a bus mean the bus is full—the rings on the bell are independent of the fullness of the bus—we could have assigned something else (just as arbitrary) to signify that the bus is full.

Uriah Kriegel[edit]

There are also objective and subjective mental representations.[6] Objective representations are closest to tracking theories—where the brain simply tracks what is in the environment. If there is a blue bird outside my window, the objective representation is that of the blue bird. Subjective representations can vary person-to-person. For example, if I am colorblind, that blue bird outside my window will not appear blue to me since I cannot represent the blueness of blue (i.e. I cannot see the color blue). The relationship between these two types of representation can vary.

(a) Objective varies, but the subjective does not: e.g. brain-in-a-vat

(b) Subjective varies, but the objective does not: e.g. color-inverted world

(c) All representations found in objective and none in the subjective: e.g. thermometer

(d) All representations found in subjective and none in the objective: e.g. an agent that experiences in a void.

Eliminativists think that subjective representations don't exist. Reductivists think subjective representations are reducible to objective. Non-reductivists think that subjective representations are real and distinct.

The debates about mental representation do not end here. In fact, they lead to other discussions such as content of mental states, embodied cognition, consciousness, and phenomenology.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Morgan, Alex (2014). "Representations Gone Mental". Synthese 191.2: 213–44. 
  2. ^ Marr, David (2010). Vision. A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262514620. 
  3. ^ a b Robert J. Sternberg (2009). Cognitive Psychology. ISBN 9780495506294. 
  4. ^ Margolis, Eric; Laurence, Stephen (December 2007). "The Ontology of Concepts—Abstract Objects or Mental Representations?" (PDF). Noûs 41 (4): 561–593. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0068.2007.00663.x. 
  5. ^ Grice, H.P. (1957). "Meaning". Philosophical Review 66. 
  6. ^ Kriegel, Uriah (2014). Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. Routledge. pp. 161–79. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Augusto, Luis M. (2013). 'Unconscious Representations 1: Belying the Traditional Model of Human Cognition.' Axiomathes 23.4, 645-663. Preprint
  • Augusto, Luis M. (2014). 'Unconscious Representations 2: Towards an Integrated Cognitive Architecture.' Axiomathes, 24:1, 19-43. Preprint
  • Goldman, Alvin I (2014). 'The Bodily Formats Approach to Embodied Cognition.' Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. ed. Uriah Kriegel. New York, NY: Routledge, 91-108.
  • Henrich, J. & Boyd, R. (2002). Culture and cognition: Why cultural evolution does not require replication of representations. Culture and Cognition, 2, 87–112. Full text
  • Kind, Amy (2014). 'The Case against Representationalism about Moods.' Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. ed. Uriah Kriegel. New York, NY: Routledge, 113-34.
  • Kriegel, Uriah (2014). 'Two Notions of Mental Representation.' Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. ed. Uriah Kriegel. New York, NY: Routledge, 161-79.
  • Rupert, Robert D (2014). 'The Sufficiency of Objective Representation.' Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. ed. Uriah Kriegel. New York, NY: Routledge, 180-95.
  • Shapiro, Lawrence (2014). 'When Is Cognition Embodied.' Current Controversies in Philosophy of Mind. ed. Uriah Kriegel. New York, NY: Routledge, 73-90.

External links[edit]