A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Please Help Me Understand Representationalism

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on October 5, 2007

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.

Phenomenalists

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?

Intentionalists

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!

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13 Responses to “Please Help Me Understand Representationalism”

  1. the scôp said

    It must be noted that any representation of the real is merely a model. As a model and not the thing itself being described, it must follow that the two will not always be in full agreement. Using the example you gave of a radar, a stealth fighter would not register as a plane but something smaller than a plane; it would therefore be disregarded either by the machine or operator of the machine. Certainly both knowledge of science and experience might leave room for this possibility in the observer, but it makes the feedback from the model overall less valuable depending on the application.

    Keep in mind that models are often tools designed for a single purpose; when applied outside of that purpose the model’s veracity begins to degrade. We do not use models to describe the real, only an aspect of the real. When taken by themselves, the experiments of James Maxwell showed light to be a wave; this did not end the debate for light also expresses a particle like behavior. Additionally, Heisenberg proved that at best we can only model the orbit of electrons around the nucleus of a molecule and can never isolate their respective position and speed.

    Representative models, must be taken both to describe in pedantic terms what is observable/scientific (summarizing, hopefully, succinctly a complex system) and as valid only up to a given point. The quality of the representation in fulfilling its designed purpose answers your questions; certainly knowing where the model falls apart gives higher appreciation for what is being symbolized (the mapping) as something far more complex than can be simplified, but the model with limited additional knowledge can be fully sufficient to describe the relevant real within its limited purpose.

  2. nooprocess said

    In the case of a cat, we can correlate the visual model with the tactile and audio models.
    With quarks and positrons,we are more constrained by the noumenon/phenomenon dilemma.

  3. It seems to me that you nail the problem with “phenomenalism.”

    Husserl’s understanding of epistemology would fall under what you call “intentionalism.” But I think the radar/plan example wouldn’t work to explain his theory.

    I believe Husserl would say that what we do in the case of a radar screen is closer to what we do when we understand a word than when we experience “sense data” (whatever that is). When you read you both see and understand the words. But when you see, you don’t sense your sensations (whatever that is) and the object you’re seeing.

    But that doesn’t mean the sensations aren’t part of your experience, and can’t be thought about in a “reflexive” act.

  4. The scôp, thanks for the comment.

    Your point that model and the real will not always be in full agreement is interesting. But is it necessarily true? Can’t we imagine a model which will represent certain aspect of reality fully?

    I completely agree with you saying that model represents just certain aspect, and I get the examples you point to. Would you say that that what is measurable/scientific is also an aspect of reality?

    You say: “The quality of the representation in fulfilling its designed purpose answers your questions; certainly knowing where the model falls apart gives higher appreciation for what is being symbolized (the mapping) as something far more complex than can be simplified, but the model with limited additional knowledge can be fully sufficient to describe the relevant real within its limited purpose.”

    I do agree with you on this. But it doesn’t answer my questions (maybe it should, but I don’t see it). Because, both phenomenalists and intentionalists use word “representation”, but I can’t see how this can be related to a representation which serves for us to interprete something *as something else*. In phenomenalists view, it seems that we are don’t have idea of that “something else”, and hence it can’t be the case that we interprete qualia *as something else*. In, intentionalist view, the best I can understand, is that some unconscious process interprets some unconscious mental state as something else, but that already requires that ‘interpretting unconscious process’ to have intristic intentionality towards things in the world, because just in that way it can serve the purpose of interpreting some representation as that thing in the world. Again, maybe this isn’t what intentionalists are saying, and I’m hoping someone will say… no, you got this, and this and this wrong… they think that…, etc…

  5. Nooprocess,

    I think you are pointing that if we have multiple representations (models), we can somehow use those against each other.
    Or… that somehow through multiple representations we can somehow synthesize reality?
    There is something interesting here, though I don’t know what. :)

  6. Hi Micah,

    Interesting parallel you draw there with Husserl. He didn’t buy any kind of representationalism, right?

    You say “When you read you both see and understand the words. But when you see, you don’t sense your sensations (whatever that is) and the object you’re seeing.”
    I agree that we are not sensing (or seeing) sensations. What we see is the object.

    However, I have problem in figuring out how do intentionalists apply the notion of representation so that it is compatible with this conclusion.

    BTW, you also say “But that doesn’t mean the sensations aren’t part of your experience, and can’t be thought about in a “reflexive” act.”
    If we can’t see the sensations, how do we know that they are there? What is this “reflexive act”?

  7. Akosua Bonsu said

    I’ve only read the last comment. So i may be repeating things already said (im also an AWFUL speller, sorry) It seems to me the intentionlist has no good account for the transparency of experince. Thats just the idea that when i have an experince of a horse, im not aware of some representation of a horse, but rather my awareness is direclty of the horse itself (my awareness is not mediated by some representation).

    So when you say, you have a problem figuring out the how the intentionlist is compatable with transparancy, i agree that there is a problem there. And i claim that the intentionalist has no good story to tell…. There are of course options. McDowell deals with it by by claiming that the world is to be sliced up into facts, (rather then things) and then claim that the representational content of a veridical perception is the fact and thus a bit of the world. I find this a hard pill to swallow.

  8. Thanks for the comment Akosua,

    You didn’t repeat anything that was said.
    Thanks for the reference to McDowell… sounds as an interesting way to “solve” the problem of representationalism. It does sound strange to me too.

  9. the scôp said

    (I must admit ignorance to the topic in its particulars but the article was simply interesting to me and your comments implied a desire to continue some dialogue. Your questions may still go unanswered, but if nothing else look to this as a well enjoyed discourse)

    Your point that model and the real will not always be in full agreement is interesting. But is it necessarily true? Can’t we imagine a model which will represent certain aspect of reality fully?

    This is what I meant by the “relevant real”; take for instance an anthropological model of “What it means to be a Christian” or “Islam in Precis”. At best each can give a summation of the two religions using a subset of the whole (likely using the most dominant sect from each). For Christianity this may be Catholicism (as opposed to protestantism…both of which have many sects) or Sunnism for Muslims. There will be quite a bit of fact and truth in each assessment, but as can be surmised it is very high-level (these models) and should not be applied to every Christian or Muslim one meets.

    I completely agree with you saying that model represents just certain aspect, and I get the examples you point to. Would you say that that what is measurable/scientific is also an aspect of reality?

    certainly; read Michael Polanyi’s Pure Knowledge.

    You say: “The quality of the representation in fulfilling its designed purpose answers your questions; certainly knowing where the model falls apart gives higher appreciation for what is being symbolized (the mapping) as something far more complex than can be simplified, but the model with limited additional knowledge can be fully sufficient to describe the relevant real within its limited purpose.”

    I do agree with you on this. But it doesn’t answer my questions (maybe it should, but I don’t see it). Because, both phenomenalists and intentionalists use word “representation”, but I can’t see how this can be related to a representation which serves for us to interprete something *as something else*. In phenomenalists view, it seems that we are don’t have idea of that “something else”, and hence it can’t be the case that we interprete qualia *as something else*. In, intentionalist view, the best I can understand, is that some unconscious process interprets some unconscious mental state as something else, but that already requires that ‘interpretting unconscious process’ to have intristic intentionality towards things in the world, because just in that way it can serve the purpose of interpreting some representation as that thing in the world. Again, maybe this isn’t what intentionalists are saying, and I’m hoping someone will say… no, you got this, and this and this wrong… they think that…, etc…

    a priori and a posteriori come to mind. It seems that the implication of phenomenalism is one in which the a posteriori pursuit is important and necessary where as in intentionalism the a priori is assumed. In either case the quality of the model in fulfilling its function is tantamount and demonstrates its value in both. In the a priori system, a model is required that seamlessly demonstrates the relevant-real; if additional knowledge is required, then the representation fails and nothing is conveyed; the representation is therefore not representative at all for the relevant-real is left unknown. Here it seems that the intrinsic mapping is most important rather than the accuracy of the model (from a literary perspective this seems to be akin to the metaphoric); the representation in this system must result in a leap beyond itself to the real. In regards to the a posteriori model, the quality is derived in the veracity of the mapping itself whether or not the linkage is immediately available to the observer. Nonetheless, both systems demonstrate the necessity for quality models to satisfy there ends; both of which intend to point to something else. The question becomes within their intentions do they satisfy that end. One asks can the real be implied from the representation (a posteriori), while the other asks will the real be implied by the representation (a priori).

  10. Husserl, in Logical Investigations held that consciousness was a whole, amongst whose parts were “acts” and “contents.” He would refer to “contents” (what others would call “sensa” or “sensations”) as “representing contents.” They provide “support” for intentions directed towards objects, but were not intended themselves.

    Later I believe he dropped the talk of contents in this sense. But that supposedly occurs in his works on internal time consciousness (and I’m not familiar with those). There he speaks of “impressions” but doesn’t mean that in the Brittish Empiricist sense (= “sensations”).

    A reflex act is an intention directed upon the consciousness to which it itself belongs. I, personally, have never been able to discover a sensation myself. I think that may be why Husserl eventually decided they were unnecessary for the description of consciousness.

    But I speak here off the top of my head.

    (Also, please note the Husserl was before the Analytic/Continental split, so what goes for Analytic Intentionalists (Searle?) may not go for Husserl and vice versa).

  11. Interesting thoughts, the scôp,

    You are right that this doesn’t answer my questions, but you bring up interesting issues.

    One I find particularly interesting is related to your last paragraph.
    Namely, if I understand it right,it is how transparency of experience (as present in intentionalists – the idea that when we have experience, we are aware of what the experience is experience of) might open some way for a priori thought.
    There is a little complication there, because for a priori thought we need abstract notions, and usually in case of perception we think of awareness in terms of *this* or *that* – some particulars. But anyway, I’m inclined to agree about the importance of the transparency of experience for a priori thought.

    Also thanks for the reference to Michael Polanyi’s book.

  12. Micah,

    Thanks for the answers.

    You say that you never been able to discover a sensation myself. I’m inclined to say that too, though I guess the issue is the stance one takes towards perception. It is not hard to imagine what others mean by those “sensations” or “sense datum”. One just needs to think of visual perception as virtual reality goggles or something made up from pixels. And then thinks of those pixels as sensations. So, the thing is not about what we do or fail to experience (at least not in those issues I think), or what we discover, but how do we interpret something of which I guess we are all aware.

  13. I think one important point about this is that the radar screen is showing representations of icebergs, as the title of the photo states “icebergs on radar”. I know – I took it. (or maybe it was a dream)

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