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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 April 2010
To the memory of Alan White
The idea of mental representation occupies a rather prominent place in much contemporary discussion, both in philosophy and cognitive science, and not as a particularly controversial idea either. My reflections here, however, are intended to douse much of that discussion with some cold water. I should emphasize at the outset that I have no problems at all with the very idea of mental representation. What I find quite unsatisfactory is the philosophical or doctrinal underpinning of much current theorising about it. Anyway, I shall suggest that talk of mental representation needs at least to be supplemented with, if not actually replaced by, a distinct notion of mental presentation, which cannot be reduced to it. But I start with the notion of an impression.
1 Words in capitals have material from their dictionary definition displayed between asterisk quotes.
2 See McDowell, John, Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994 and 1996), 9–10, 139–46.Google Scholar
3 See Gregory McCulloch, ‘Let the vat-brains speak for themselves’, Ratio (forthcoming).
4 It may seem that once ‘external’ matters such as the causes of representations are invoked to explain their representality, the view ceases to be Cartesian. After all, isn't the classical Cartesian idea that my representations have whatever representational properties they have regardless of whether they hit their targets (rather than a demon)? Well, in a straightforward sense, my cat-representations don't represent cats in the demon scenario: although, of course, they (are supposed to) purport to. Presumably, once traditional notions of mental representation-object have been dropped (intrinsicaly meaningful pictures and the like), the idea of purported representation is meant to be carried by talk of narrow content or aspects.
5 Two hugely influential examples of such broadly Cartesian twodimensionalism are the (structurally almost identical, though in detail quite different) positions developed by Fodor, Jerry (e.g. in Psychosemantics (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1987))Google Scholar and McGinn, Colin (in Mental Content (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989))Google Scholar. For further detailed criticisms of this approach see McCulloch, Gregory, ‘Bipartism and the phenomenology of content’ in (Philosophical Quarterly 49, 18–32)Google Scholar and ‘Phenomenological Externalism’ in N, Smith (ed.) Reading McDowell: On Mind and World (Routledge, forthcoming)Google Scholar
7 The notion is easily to be found in Frege:
It is natural … to think of there being connected with a sign (name, combination of words, written mark), besides that which the sign designates, which may be called the Bedeutung of the sign, also what I should like to call the Sinn of the sign, wherein the mode of presentation is contained, (p. 152)
The Bedeutung … is the object itself …; the idea which we have in that case is wholly subjective; in between lies the Sinn, which is indeed no longer subjective like the idea, but is yet not the object itself. The following analogy will perhaps clarify these relationships. Somebody observes the Moon through a telescope. I compare the Moon itself to the Bedeutung; it is the object of the observation, mediated by the real image projected by the object glass in the interior of the telescope, and by the retinal image of the observer. The former I compare to the Sinn, the latter is like the idea or intuition, (p. 155).
Both quotes are from Frege, Gottlob, ‘On Sinn and Bedeutung’, in M., Beaney (ed.) The Frege Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).Google Scholar
8 The ‘usually’ is there to leave room for familiar examples such as driving to work ‘on autopilot’; while the ‘at least’ covers the fact that the interpretation of such examples is controversial.
9 See McCulloch, Gregory, ‘The very idea’, ‘Bipartism’: cf. Strawson, Galen, Mental Reality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994) pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
10 This paper originates from a conversation I was having with my friend and colleague Harold Noonan. We were talking (as often) about Frege and I said that dealers in the idea of mental representation who saw what they were doing as filling out Frege's notion of mode of presentation, without more ado, had simply not entitled themselves to Frege's metaphor. Harold replied that it's not clear what it is to be entitled to a metaphor. This is my attempt at clarification, in this particular case.
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