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September 23, 2005


Gregg Rosenberg

Has anyone done a fine grained taxonomy of representationalist positions? In addition to the externalist/internalist cut, I can see four possible further divides within each. In order of strength:

1) Extensional representationalism - As a matter of extensional fact, all the phenomenal properties in the human mind are representational. However, phenomenal properties as a type may include properties that are not representational and which occur in other contexts than human cognition.

2) Supervenience representationalism - All phenomenal properties supervene on certain kinds of representations or representation forming activity, though some phenomenal properties may not themselves be representational.

3) Essentialist representationalism - All phenomenal properties are essentially representational in character.

4) Representational identity -- There is nothing to phenomemanl content except a certain type of representational content.

I disagree with all 4 views, though I'm relatively open-minded about (1) while being pretty settled about the falsity of (2)-(4).

There is also a dimension in which the claim can be coarse grained or fine grained. For example, one could hold that the phenomenal state corresponding to an entire unified conscious experience has, of necessity, certain representational content. One could hold a similar position about the content of a unified state of a perceptual modality. Or one could hold it about the simpler sensory properties within phenomenology.

I find some of the four theses above harder to deny at the coarse grained level than at the fine grained level.

And to play the grouch here: I find this whole debate between internalist and externalist representationalists to be like a depressing argument between tweedle dee and tweedle dum. No matter what kind of representational content is associated with experience, internal or external, focusing on it isn't going to help us explain consciousness any more perspicuously. In fact, it is just going to muddle things as we become hopelessly bogged down in conflicting "intuitions" about what experiences might represent what kinds of things. Once we accept the hard problem, we should be looking for ways to bridge to less arguable evidence, not agree to collectively turn our Titanic into the iceberg of intentionality.

This mad, faddish rush towards representationalism is really depressing because it seems to take philosophy 20 yrs or more to ring its mistakes out of its system; which means, essentially, with this turn down the garden path, all the brightest minds will be withering together as they argue ceaselessly about undecidable counterfactuals, and no significant progress will be made on the hard problem in my lifetime. And that stinks, because I've only one life to live.


Hi Gregg, my paper "The Representational Character of Experience" has a taxonomy of various sorts of representationalism, though not quite the sorts you mention here. Obviously I don't agree about the depressingness. First, it's not the case that the only interesting problem about consciousness is the hard problem. Understanding the structure and character of consciousness is interesting and important in its own right, whether or not it yields a bridge across the explanatory gap. Second, it may well be that this sort of project will ultimately shed some light on the hard problem. I think that to really cross the explanatory gap, we will need a much better understanding of the structure and character of consciousness. If that character is essentially representational, then that gives us some constraints on the construction of an explanatory bridge. Obviously I don't think the matter is nearly as simple as some reductive representationalists do. But speaking just for myself, one central motivation of my recent attention to the representational character and the unity of consciousness is to try to get a better grip on just what sort of creature stands on the other side of the explanatory gap.

Gregg Rosenberg

Hi Dave, I think your work on the unity of consciousness has been first rate, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from trying to understand the structure and representational character of consciousness.

It's just that I'm pessimistic the questions about what consciousness is and what representation is are the same, or even largely the same. But that seems to be the direction that the ongoing Representationalist debate is going. Perhaps I'm misreading it?

To continue being a grouch: I'm dispirited by what I see published on representationalism because people signing onto the movement seem to be falling very enthusiastically into the standard trap of claiming too much for their answers and stopping too soon in their questioning. Almost by habit, papers being written seem to be more in the character of staking out professional territory than carefully (and appropriately tentatively) exploring what we can claim confidently about the structure of consciousness. And that's sending people off after red herrings. Maybe I'm just in a foul mood and am being unfair but that certainly seems to me to be the pattern.

I certainly think conscious states are largely representational, and at a course grain of consideration, a grain covering states of whole unified modalities, I would probably sign up to the essentially representational camp. From there, I'm at least pretty open minded about how much finer-grained the claim can plausibly be made between there and the level of primitive sensory properties. Finally, I also think there is an interesting question around What is the meaning of experience and where does meaning come from? But all that is a far cry from Representationalism as it seems to be evolving, which is towards a collapse or essential intertwining of the two questions of intentionality and phenomenal character.

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