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Mental representation

Mental representation

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A representation, in philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness and their relationship to the physical body, particularly the brain. The mind-body problem, i.e...

, cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology
Cognitive psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology exploring internal mental processes.It is the study of how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems.Cognitive psychology differs from previous psychological approaches in two key ways....

, neuroscience
Neuroscience
Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally, neuroscience has been seen as a branch of biology. However, it is currently an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics,...

, and cognitive science
Cognitive science
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary scientific study of mind and its processes. It examines what cognition is, what it does and how it works. It includes research on how information is processed , represented, and transformed in behaviour, nervous system or machine...

, is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol
Symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

 that represents external reality, 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."

In contemporary philosophy
Contemporary philosophy
Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the end of the 19th century with the professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy....

, specifically in fields of metaphysics
Metaphysics
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:...

 such as philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness and their relationship to the physical body, particularly the brain. The mind-body problem, i.e...

 and ontology
Ontology
Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations...

, a mental representation is one of the prevailing ways of explaining
Explanation
An explanation is a set of statements constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequencesof those facts....

 and describing
Description
Description is one of four rhetorical modes , along with exposition, argumentation, and narration. Each of the rhetorical modes is present in a variety of forms and each has its own purpose and conventions....

 the nature of idea
Idea
In the most narrow sense, an idea is just whatever is before the mind when one thinks. Very often, ideas are construed as representational images; i.e. images of some object. In other contexts, ideas are taken to be concepts, although abstract concepts do not necessarily appear as images...

s and concept
Concept
The word concept is used in ordinary language as well as in almost all academic disciplines. Particularly in philosophy, psychology and cognitive sciences the term is much used and much discussed. WordNet defines concept: "conception, construct ". However, the meaning of the term concept is much...

s.

Representationalism and representational theories of mind


Representational theories of mind conceive of thinking as occurring within an internal system of representation. The propositional attitude
Propositional attitude
A propositional attitude is a relational mental state connecting a person to a proposition. They are often assumed to be the simplest components of thought and can express meanings or content that can be true or false...

s of the mind are token
Type-token distinction
In disciplines such as philosophy and knowledge representation, the type-token distinction is a distinction that separates an abstract concept from the objects which are particular instances of the concept...

 mental representations with semantic
Semantics
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

 properties
Property (philosophy)
In modern philosophy, logic, and mathematics a property is an attribute of an object; a red object is said to have the property of redness. The property may be considered a form of object in its own right, able to possess other properties. A property however differs from individual objects in that...

. Representationalism (also known as indirect realism
Direct and indirect realism
The question of direct or "naïve" realism, as opposed to indirect or "representational" realism, arises in the philosophy of perception and of mind out of the debate over the nature of conscious experience; the epistemological question of whether the world we see around us is the real world itself...

) is the view that representations are the main way we access external reality. Another major prevailing philosophical theory
Philosophical theory
In the general sense, a philosophical theory is a theory that explains or accounts for a general philosophy or specific branch of philosophy. While any sort of thesis or opinion may be termed a theory, in analytic philosophy it is thought best to reserve the word "theory" for systematic,...

 posits that concepts are entirely abstract object
Abstract object
An abstract object is an object which does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing . In philosophy, an important distinction is whether an object is considered abstract or concrete. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta An abstract object is an...

s.

The representational theory of mind attempts to explain
Explanation
An explanation is a set of statements constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequencesof those facts....

 the nature of idea
Idea
In the most narrow sense, an idea is just whatever is before the mind when one thinks. Very often, ideas are construed as representational images; i.e. images of some object. In other contexts, ideas are taken to be concepts, although abstract concepts do not necessarily appear as images...

s, concept
Concept
The word concept is used in ordinary language as well as in almost all academic disciplines. Particularly in philosophy, psychology and cognitive sciences the term is much used and much discussed. WordNet defines concept: "conception, construct ". However, the meaning of the term concept is much...

s and other mental content in contemporary
Contemporary philosophy
Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the end of the 19th century with the professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy....

 philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the mind, mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness and their relationship to the physical body, particularly the brain. The mind-body problem, i.e...

, cognitive science
Cognitive science
Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary scientific study of mind and its processes. It examines what cognition is, what it does and how it works. It includes research on how information is processed , represented, and transformed in behaviour, nervous system or machine...

 and experimental psychology
Experimental psychology
Experimental psychology is a methodological approach, rather than a subject, and encompasses varied fields within psychology. Experimental psychologists have traditionally conducted research, published articles, and taught classes on neuroscience, developmental psychology, sensation, perception,...

. In contrast to theories of naive or direct realism, the representational theory of mind postulates the actual existence of mental representation
Mental representation
A representation, in philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science, is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality, or else a mental process that makes use of such a symbol; "a formal system for making explicit certain entities or types...

s which act as intermediaries between the observing
Observation
Observation is either an activity of a living being, such as a human, consisting of receiving knowledge of the outside world through the senses, or the recording of data using scientific instruments. The term may also refer to any data collected during this activity...

 subject and the objects
Object (philosophy)
An object in philosophy is a technical term often used in contrast to the term subject. Consciousness is a state of cognition that includes the subject, which can never be doubted as only it can be the one who doubts, and some object or objects that may or may not have real existence without...

, 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
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

 and was a dominant theme in classical empiricism
Empiricism
Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily via sensory experience. One of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism, idealism and historicism, empiricism emphasizes the role of experience and evidence,...

 in general. According to this version of the theory, the mental representations were images (often called "ideas") of the objects of states of affairs represented. For modern adherents, such as Jerry Fodor
Jerry Fodor
Jerry Alan Fodor is an American philosopher and cognitive scientist. He holds the position of State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and is the author of many works in the fields of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, in which he has laid the groundwork for the...

, Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker
Steven Arthur Pinker is a Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author...

 and many others, the representational system consists rather of an internal language of thought
Language of thought
In philosophy of mind, the language of thought hypothesis put forward by American philosopher Jerry Fodor describes thoughts as represented in a "language" that allows complex thoughts to be built up by combining simpler thoughts in various ways...

. 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
Syntax
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....

 and semantics
Semantics
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

 very much like those of natural languages.

See also

  • Object of the mind
    Object of the mind
    An object of the mind is an object which exists in the imagination, but which, in the real world, can only be represented or modeled. Some such objects are mathematical abstractions, literary concepts, or fictional scenarios....

  • Knowledge representation
    Knowledge representation
    Knowledge representation is an area of artificial intelligence research aimed at representing knowledge in symbols to facilitate inferencing from those knowledge elements, creating new elements of knowledge...

  • Perception
    Perception
    Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs...

  • Representative realism

Further reading

  • 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

External links