So What Is "Representationalism" Anyway?
February 26, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Epistemology, Everett Wesley Hall, Intentionality, Perceptions, Reality, Representationalism, Stuart Mirsky

In a nearby post in which I have been referencing Everett Hall's work in his book Our Knowledge of Fact and Value, to which I was referred by Walter on this list, an issue arose concerning Hall's use of certain terminology. I had quoted Hall describing intentions as having an "ascriptive" nature rather than an "exemplified" one and proceeded to liken that comment to Daniel Dennett's claim that intentionality is not something found in any entity, as some particular feature, but rather something we ascribe to such entities based on their behaviors which, on observation, prompt us to take an "intentional stance" toward them (to treat them as intentional). It was suggested on that thread that there's a difference between Dennett's use of the "intentional stance" terminology, which I take as ascriptive and Hall's use of "ascriptive" when he asserts that that is how we should think about intentions.

The explanation offered was that Hall's use of "ascription" is roughly the same as what contemporary philosophers mean by "representation" as in the philosophical notion of "representationalism". (Although Walter actually called it "representationism," I did not find that word when I Googled it. On the other hand I did find "representationalism" and so will assume, for the moment, that that is what he meant.) According to information available on-line representationalism is a thesis about how we relate to the things of the world. Here is some of what I found:

What is Representationalism?

Representationalism is the philosophical position that the world we see in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality replica of that world in an internal representation. Representationalism is also known (in psychology) as Indirect Perception, and (in philosophy) as Indirect Realism, or Epistemological Dualism. For an in-depth discussion of representationalism and alternative epistemological formulations see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There are two alternative usages of the term representationalism which should not be confused with the term as used here. One usage is representationalism in art, which refers to artistic realism, as opposed to abstract or ornamental art. The second usage is a form of representationalism in philosophy, as espoused by Tye and Dretske. This is however a corruption of the original usage of the term as defined in authoritative sources.

Walter has suggested, in his responses to my comments on the other thread concerning the similarity between Hall's and Dennett's characterization of intentions (both treat these as ascriptive descriptions rather than as exemplified phenomena in the world), that I have Hall wrong in this and that Hall's assertion, that intentions are ascriptive, is not akin to Dennett's assertion that intentions are imputed to others by us when we adopt a certain position towards them (the "intentional stance"). On Walter's view, Hall's use is akin to the representationalist position of modern philosophers.

Now if the above description of representationalism in philosophy is right, then he seems to be saying that Hall's position is a kind of "epistemological dualism," an assertion that "the world we see in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality replica of that world in an internal representation". But this can't be right since Hall clearly takes a realist position vis a vis the world external to ourselves as perceivers.

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for another take on "representationalism":

Representational Theories of Consciousness

First published Mon May 22, 2000; substantive revision Mon Oct 9, 2006

The idea of representation has been central in discussions of intentionality for many years. But only more recently has it begun playing a wider role in the philosophy of mind, particularly in theories of consciousness. Indeed, there are now multiple representational theories of consciousness, corresponding to different uses of the term "conscious," each attempting to explain the corresponding phenomenon in terms of representation. More cautiously, each theory attempts to explain its target phenomenon in terms of intentionality, and assumes that intentionality is representation.

An intentional state represents an object, real or unreal (say, Smarty Jones or Pegasus), and typically represents a whole state of affairs, one which may or may not actually obtain (say, that Smarty Jones wins the Kentucky Derby in 2004). Like public, social cases of representation such as writing or mapmaking, intentional states such as beliefs have truth-value; they entail or imply other beliefs; they are (it seems) composed of concepts and depend for their truth on a match between their internal structures and the way the world is; and so it is natural to regard their aboutness as a matter of mental referring or designation. Sellars (1956, 1967) and Fodor (1975) argue that intentional states are states of a subject that have semantical properties, and the existent-or-nonexistent states of affairs that are their objects are just representational contents.

So much is familiar and not very controversial. But problems of consciousness are generally felt to be less tractable than matters of intentionality. The aim of a representationalist theory of consciousness is to extend the treatment of intentionality to that of consciousness, showing that if intentionality is well understood in representational terms, then so can be the phenomena of consciousness in the relevant sense.

At least from this we may see what Walter seems to have in mind for the Stanford citation explicitly says of representationalism that "each theory attempts to explain its target phenomenon in terms of intentionality, and assumes that intentionality is representation." (Italics mine.)

But how then does this view jibe with Hall's notion that some kinds of things are exemplified in the world (presumably meaning by this that they occur in specific cases as examples of what one means by the terms we use to refer to them) and that other things, among which he includes intentions, are not exemplified but occur only in an ascriptive way?

Can Hall possibly mean the same thing by "ascriptive," in this case, that modern "representationalists" mean by "representations," as Walter asserts, especially given Hall's own explicit commitment to the reality of the external world -- and our realization of it directly, rather than indirectly, via our perceptions? Perhaps I am misreading something or missing Walter's point but, on the face of it, it doesn't seem to me that we can take from Hall's use of "ascriptive" in characterizing intentions the claim that "intentionality is representation." Hall may indeed hold something like that, though it doesn't seem to accord with his position as I currently understand it from what I've read so far, but surely he cannot be using "ascriptive" as a synonym for "representative" here, both because it does not fit with ordinary usage (which Hall applauds and claims to give primacy to) and because Hall's own metaphysical view seems to be that we experience the world directly and not through a perceptual medium that serves only to represent the world.

But I suppose I could be wrong about all this. I'll continue reading and see if there is evidence, going forward, that I am.

Here's that quote again from Hall's book which got this particular row started, included, this time in its fuller context (starting on page 74):

My suggestion is that intentions (in the sense of references) are the mental atoms and that they are not events but "aspects," "dimensions," "functions" of physical events. Intentions are like properties in being incomplete, by nature dependent for being on something else, and universal in the sense that the same one may belong to several events. More particularly, they are like relations in holding of or between something and something else (a neurological event and a perceived object). But they are unlike properties in that we do not observe them in observing what "has" them. More particularly, they are unlike relations in that they can belong to one of their terms (the neurological event) in the absence of the other (the perceptual object) in cases of error. Finally they are unlike properties in a certain inherent complexity. They may be said to include ordinary properties, but neither as exemplified by themselves nor by what "has" them but instead by their objects; thus intentions can themselves be called signs, natural or radical signs, identical with their objects (in veridical perception) in the quality or character of those objects' properties but non-identical in the factor of exemplification (in place of exemplification intentions have ascription).
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