Please Help Me Understand Representationalism

I think I’m missing something about representationalism. I will give first an example of representation as we encounter it in “normal life”, and then present the issues I have about applying this relation to perception…

Here is the example…

Let’s take a case of radar screen. What we have on the radar screen are dots of some kind. The use of the radar screen is that it gives us information about a)the objects of certain type being present b)the position and movement of those objects. So here, we are talking about representation because something about the things which we see (the dots) gives us information about some other things that we don’t see (e.g. airplanes).

The dots  ARE NOT the objects they represent, and they have different aspects than those objects. The dots are small, “made up from pixels”; airplanes are big, made from metal and plastic, have pilots, history (they are made in some factory, designed by someone) and so on. Not all things about the airplane are represented by the dots on the radar. We can probably say that certain aspects of the airplanes are mapped to certain aspects of the dots. There is some mapping here, and if one knows the mapping, he can interpret the radar screen, and get information about the state of affairs in the space that radar covers, including info about the airplanes in that space.

Another thing about representation is that we don’t have to know why some representation aspects correlate with the aspects of what is represented in order to “read it”. We just need to know how different aspects of representation map to aspects of the represented. Why they do, is not important to us. We can be fully ignorant of how the radar works, and still can understand it representing what it represents.

So, from this kind of usage of ‘representation’, we have two things… the thing that represents (e.g. the dot), and the represented thing (e.g. the airplane). We are seing the thing that represents, and being aware of the mapping, we are getting information about the object that is represented.

AFAIK, there are two different approaches in representationalism in general.


One is taken by phenomenalists, which say that there are properties of the phenomenal experience, which represent the state of affairs. Same as with the dots in the case of the radar screen, we become aware of those properties of the experience (usually qualia), and from those we get information about the world they represent.

In the case of the radar screen we make distinction in our thoughts between two things – the dots and the airplanes. We know airplanes beforehand, and we now see those dots. We further learn about the mapping between the state of affairs on the radar screen and the state of affairs in the space that the radar covers. Given all this, we can now understand the relation of representation.

However there is something problematic when we try to apply this notion of representation to phenomenalism. Namely, in the example with radar screen and dots we understand representation to be about the airplanes only by understanding the mapping, and to understand mapping before that we need to be aware of the two sides – the representation (the dots) and the represented (the airplanes). But in case of phenomenalism, the represented thing is not something that we are aware beforehand. What we are aware only through acquiantence is the properties of our experience. Through scientific research we figure out the second side which is represented (the state of affairs in the physical world), but does that mean that only those people that have scientific knowledge about the world and cognition actually think about the world? (As others obviously lack the idea of the thing which is represented).

Is this really the problem of the phenomenalism, or I got something wrong?


The other approach to representationalism is the one taken by intentionalists. For them when we have certain experience, what we are aware of is just what the experience represents. Now, while this view doesn’t have the problem of the previous one (people can think about the world even without being scientists), in this view people aren’t aware of the representation itself.

To understand it, let me think of the case of the radar screen and the dots representing airplanes. It would appear that in the analogy, I wouldn’t be aware of the dots, but instead somehow ‘transparently through the dots’ I would be aware of the airplanes themselves.

Now one issue I have is that this apparently says that we are not actually aware of the experience itself (as representation), but I think intentionalists will agree that experience is characterized by what-it-is-like to have this experience. But, if we are not aware of the experience, how do we know that it is characterized by what-it-is-like? Further if we are not aware of this “experience”, what is this? Is it some theoretical term?

The other issue I have is with how the notion of representation can be applied to this case. In the normal representation we have idea of representation and represented, we know them to be two separate things. Also we need to figure out the mapping so that we figure out how the representation represents the represented. But in case of intentionalists, we are not aware of the representation, nor of the mapping. Only of the represented. It seems this is not the normal notion of ‘representation’ which appears in examples like those with the radar screen and airplanes… it doesn’t follow the same scheme.

Might be that intentionalist wants to say that we don’t need to be aware of how the representation works on level of perception. But this is not the issue, I think. As said, we might not be aware of how radar works too, but us to intend the airplanes ‘through’ the dots, we need to be aware of both airplanes AND dots (and rules of mapping). Or, might be that mapping is done on unconscious level? That there is a representation on unconscious level (unconscious mental states), and also some unconscious interpretation of this unconscious level representation, so it is interpreted to be about e.g. the airplanes. But… wouldn’t this unconscious level ‘interpretation’ of the unconscious mental state have to know about airplanes, so that on conscious level what we become aware is the airplane itself?

But, then this unconscious-level interpretation, will need to “know” both about the representation (unconscious mental state), and the represented themselves (airplanes). This doesn’t seem reasonable to me. Or am I missing something?

I guess what I’m showing here is my ignorance of those views, but I’m willing to learn! Help!