A Dilemma for Representationalism

(Strong, Reductive) Representationalism about phenomenal consciousness is, roughly, the view that the phenomenal properties of experience can be explained by a combination of representational and functional properties.

The literature is full of putative counterexamples to representationalism (e.g., examples of putatively different experiences that represent the same thing, or examples of experiences that allegedly represent nothing). These putative counterexamples are regularly met with replies that appeal to appropriate representational properties that explain the features of the example.

The relative easiness with which putative counterexamples to representationalism can be met by imagining appropriate representational properties raises the following worry: what are the criteria for attributing representational properties to an experience?

If the game of finding the representational properties of experience is too unconstrained, the theory becomes trivial. For everything can be interpreted to represent a lot of things. So it can’t be enough that experiences can be interpreted as representational; there must be criteria for establishing that the proposed representational properties are the correct ones, and these criteria should be motivated independently of the various putative counterexamples to representationalism.

But as soon as we look for criteria, we can start questioning their plausibility. The first criterion that comes to my mind is what the subject of experience takes the experience to represent. But this is not going to be enough to provide the right representational properties for a representational theory of experience. At least in my case, I have lots of experiences that as far as I can tell do not represent anything. So the representationalist must claim that pace me, my experiences do represent the right stuff. How can the representationalist convincingly show that my experiences represent what she needs them to represent without trivializing her theory?


  1. Anonymous

    Curious. Is there an example you would like to provide of an experience that does not represent anything.

    Your worry is that it is difficult to discern, “the criteria for attributing representational properties to an experience”. If it is difficult to attribute representational properties to an experience, I would think that attributing any properties to an experience would be difficult. Could we appeal to a functional explanation of experience in order to develop a criterion for attributing properties?

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    My favorite example of an experience that doesn’t represent anything (so far as I can tell) is the “visual” sensations I experience if I close my eyes tight, or if I press on my eyeballs with my eyes shut.

  3. Anonymous

    After having just pressed on my eyeballs with my eyes shut, luckily, it seemed like there was a visual representation going on. The ball of whatever it is that I experienced when I pressed on my eyeball surely was a representation of something wasn’t it. I am assuming the problem you have is that it might not be vision proper. But where is the demarcation between what is a visual experience and what is not.

    When I see the keyboard in front of me we say that it is a visual experience. But, all of the work is not being done by the eye alone. We are definitely experiencing something and perhaps it is hard to classify what the experience represents but it seems like your example may be cloaked in our inability to classify what type of experience we have when we perform your experiment. Consider ringing in the ears. Is that an auditory experience? According to your idea this experience would not represent anything. Is it really the case that the experience doesn’t represent or we don’t know how to classify the experience.

  4. Eric Thomson

    Dretske would say that such cases, and other hallucinations, are what we describe when we describe hallucinations are “not the properties of the visual experience itself (these, after all, are
    neurological properties best described by neuroscientists)), but the properties the experience represents the world as having (and, if the experience is veridical, properties the world really has” (email correspondence from a couple of years back).

    Gregg Rosenberg, in his recent book claims that synesthesia shows representationalism is false (discussion is pp 99ff). E.g., someone who experiences colors associated with sounds shows that you can have the same representational content (sound X) with different qualia. I’m sure we could think of a way around his objection, but I thought it was interesting. It would at least suggest that the content of a qualia is not solely fixed by the information it carries about the world. If we allow the representational content to include inferential role in addition to informational role, that might do the trick.

  5. Eric Thomson

    I said:
    “are what we describe when we describe hallucinations are “

    Wow, I think I accidentally pasted the wrong clause in there.

    The first sentence should read:

    On the content of experiences like hallucinations and tinnitus, Dretske said that they are [insert dretske quote and rest of post].

    Sorry about that.

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