top of page

REPRESENTATION / Vol. 51, No. 4 (Winter 1984)

Arien Mack, Editor

Pictures are flat pigmented objects, very different from the objects and spaces they represent. Nevertheless, pictures must in some sense be like the things they depict, else they could not represent them. This is what has made pictorial representation of interest to generations of philosophers, psychologists, and art theorists. The ways in which a picture can be like its object are not fully understood. We consider first the most direct way in which a picture and object might be alike: They might present the eye with the same pattern of light or optic array.

All of what follows is an excuse for presenting a theory of representation which is in the service of a theory of mind. It is, in effect, a theory of the evolution of mind as a cultural artifact or, as one might say, a theory of mind as the historically developing or proliferating internal representation of various modes of cognitive practice, especially as those involved the making and use of external representations, or representational artifacts.

There is a lot of confusion about the relation between depiction and mental imagery. Some people think mental images are like pictures. Some think that pictures work by stirring up images. We cannot expect the confusion to become clear until pictures are properly understood: logically, that is the first step, since to have a “pictorial theory” of mental representation you must have a proper theory of pictures. The theory espoused here is unique and radical. It is a mentalist theory of perception and depiction has never been argued broadly before.

Although many philosophical dualisms have been debunked, the dualism of nature and convention continues to haunt discussions of representation. Pictorial representation is thought to be natural -a matter of resemblance between image and object. This resemblance, moreover, is taken to be an objective matter, visible to the human eye and evident to all who look. Linguistic representation, on the other hand, is considered conventional -working by rules and stipulations that secure the connection between worlds and the world.

The recent popularity of the idea that individual minds are social rather than natural products has gone along with the correlative notion that social groups should be assigned cognitive attributes. This move is part of the European tradition in psychology in which “mind” is conceived as a structured set of rules for acting, including the performance of speech-acts.

What matters is knowing how people generally interpret the word “shrink,” what they have in mind when speaking of a “shrink,” and what kind of relationship between therapist and patient they are implying thereby. What counts, in short, is the “image” behind the word “shrink,” how this image is communicated in this or that group, and why it colors relations with the psychiatrist.

The author takes as a theme the nature of language as a social instrument, an instrument through which human beings create or constitute or stipulate a (social) world they may share, and then, in John Austin’s words, “get things done with words” in that world. The thrust of the argument is that there can be no effective social psychology that is isolated from the study of how language is used in these two ways: to construct a social world and to operate within it.

At one time no property was thought to reveal more or capture better the distinctive feature of language than displacement. Language was glorified on grounds of displacement, celebrated for enabling the individual to talk about past or future as well as Miami or Florence (even though sitting in Hartford). Indeed it was principally a displacement that distinguished humans from animals. The latter were stimulus bound, stuck in the reality under their noses, the here and now.

Intensionality has been thought to be the mark of the mental, but there may be mental states, like pain, where intensionality is minimal if it is there at all, and there are matters intentionally characterized which could only be mental if everything is mental.

The concept of representation has become almost inextricably bound to the concept of symbol systems. This conflation of the concepts is nowhere more prevalent than in descriptions of “internal representations.” These representations typically are thought to occur in an internal symbol system that allows the brain to store and use information.

In a letter soliciting papers for this volume the editor posed four questions to the contributors (1) What is the problem of representation? (2) Why is it important? (3) What reasons are there for believing one particular construction of the problem or proposals for a solution of the problem is preferable? (4) What constructions and proposed solutions to the problems are ill-conceived? This essay sketches answers for the first question that provides a framework for getting a better grip on 2, 3, and 4.

Three principles difficulties are discussed: (1) propositional attitudes do not supervene on the non intentional states of their possessors; (2) there is no evidence to suggest that the possessors of propositional attitudes are representation-using systems of the sort presupposed; and (3) there is at present no viable psychosemantics and, indeed, no psycho syntax either.


bottom of page