William Ramsey, Representation Reconsidered, CUP, 2007.
This is the most up to date and systematic discussion of representation that I know of. It distinguishes four notions of representation and discusses their pros and cons, carefully and often insightfully. That’s enough to make it a useful book.
Needless to say, there is more to it.
The four notions of representation are: (A) representation as interpreted input-output decomposition (as when a complex system is decomposed into various subsystems that perform different stages of an information processing task), (B ) representation as model (e.g., a map), (C) representation as functional indication (i.e., representation a la Dretske, where something represents X iff it is recruited by the system because it carries information about X), and (D) tacit representation (without representation vehicles). I don’t have room to elaborate on each notion, so if you are interested in more details, read the book.
Ramsey argues that cognitive science is moving in an anti-representationalist direction. His argument is roughly as follows:
1. (A) i.e. representation as I-O decomposition is legitimate
2. (B ) i.e. representation as model is legitimate
3. (C) i.e. representation as functional indication is not genuine representation
4. (D) i.e. tacit representation (without representation vehicles) is not genuine representation
5. Classicism relies on (A) and (B ) (and hence it is a legitimately representational theory)
6. Connectionism relies on (C) and (D)
7. Connectionism is right
8. Connectionism is not a representational theory (from 3, 4, and 6)
9. Folk psychology is committed to mental representations
10. Eliminative materialism (i.e., the elimination of folk psychology via eliminating mental representations) is true (from 7, 8, and 9).
I agree with premise 4, but every other premise is questionable. Contra premises 1 and 2, I don’t think that (A) and (B ) are robust enough notions of representation for cognitive science to rely on without shoring them up with something like (C). Contra premise 3, (C) is not only legitimate representation, but something like it is probably our best bet to ground a full theory of representation. Contra 5, classicism can rely on (C) as well as (A) and (B ) (this doesn’t affect Ramsey’s argument). Contra 6, connectionism can rely on (A) and (B ) as well as (C) (as Rick Grush also points out in his review). So connectionism is a representational theory after all, and it doesn’t threaten folk psychology, or at least not too much.
(Incidentally, there are people–such as Bob Gordon–who object to premise 9; Ramsey doesn’t do justice to their concerns, but on this he is in the mainstream.)
My main pet peeve is premise 7. Whether connectionism is right, and even whether there is a contrast between classicism and connectionism, depends on what one means by ‘classicism’ and ‘connectionism’. I think Ramsey is too vague on this point (like most people who write on this topic) for his argument to work. For instance, if ‘connectionism’ means that cognition is explained by the activities of neurons and how they are connected together, then no one in their right mind should deny that connectionism is right. But this says nothing against classicism (let alone representation).
Classicism is best understood as a specific theory about how neurons and their connections are organized, and the kind of capacities that neural organization gives rise to. With classicism thus understood, there is no immediate contrast between classicism and connectionism. Classicism is just (more or less) another version of connectionism! Of course, there are non-classical versions of connectionism, but then the contrast between the two theories should be drawn more carefully, and no conclusive case has been made that non-classical connectionism (as opposed to classical connectionism) is correct. It’s all a matter of figuring out how neurons and their connections are in fact organized, and what capacities their organization does in fact gives rise to. In the end, I do think that a version of non-classical connectionism (or, at least, non-classical in some important ways) is correct. But more work needs to be done to show that this is the case. (For more on these issues, see my recent paper in the journal Neural Networks, “Some Neural Networks Computer, Others Don’t”.)
In conclusion, even if Ramsey’s argument is unsound, his book is valuable in many ways. For one thing, it will force representationalists to be more careful in defending their view. For another thing, it is a good update of Stich’s 1983 anti-representationalist book (From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science). Like they did with its predecessor, representationalists can use Representation Reconsidered as a whipping boy for years to come.