Alleged Counterexample to Representationalism

Bernhard Nickel, “Against Intentionalism,” forthcoming in Philosophical Studies.

Today, at the NEH seminar in Mind and Metaphysics, we discussed Nickel’s forthcoming paper. Nickel proposes a counterexample to representationalism, i.e., the view that the phenomenal aspects of experience are represented features of what is represented by the experience.

The counterexample is a tic-tac-toe board in which all squares are blank. If you look at it, at different times it looks as though different sets of squares in the board are more “prominent” than others. In other words, you see different patterns of squares on the board (though the actual board doesn’t change). Sometimes the prominent squares form a cross, sometimes an X, sometimes a T, etc. Alleged upshot: the phenomenal aspects of experience are different but what is represented is the same, hence, representationalism is false.

I’m sorry to say that no one in the seminar (15 participants, 1 TA, Heil, and Lycan) seemed very moved by this alleged counterexample. (This includes those, like me, who are skeptical of representationalism.) Lycan said he found the counterexample interesting and thought it’s not obvious what the best reply is, but he also listed eight possible replies! Others offered alternative replies. A plausible one, by Ralph Kennedy, is to say that different concepts are applied to the board in the different cases (analogously to the treatment of the dot array, an example previously discussed in the literature and mentioned by Nickel).

Undoubtedly, more alleged counterexamples to representationalism will be proposed, and more replies will be given. How fruitful is this enterprise?

One comment

  1. Pete Mandik

    If I understand this right, the forthcoming Phil Studies paper is a counter-example to intentionalism that is very similar to a previously published counter-example to intentionalism.

    The previously published counter-example involves nine black dots that are alternately experienced as grouped into columns and grouped into rows. This has been regarded as vulnerable to certain intentionalist replies.

    The new counter-example involves nine white squares that are alternately experienced as a “t” with an “x” as a background and as an “x” with a “t” as a background. And this is not vulnerable to the same sorts of intentialist replies?

    I echo your question, Gualtiero: Is this a fruitful endeavor?

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