In a review of John Haugeland’s Having Thought, Dan Dennett called Haugeland’s essay “Representational Genera” a “stunning piece” and a “display of philosophical move-making of the highest order” (Journal of Philosophy, December 1998). I, too, admire this piece by Haugeland, but it seems to have gotten little attention (the piece was originally published around 1990). In the spirit of paying homage to Haugeland, I’d like to (briefly) sketch the main thesis of the essay. I’d also like to know whether others are familiar with the piece and, if so, what they think of it. My reaction to the piece was that if Haugeland is correct, then this would force us to restructure significantly the ways discussions of representation have been traditionally framed (and could potentially help resolve many thorny problems in the philosophy of mind and psychology).
As the title of his essay suggests, Haugeland wants to explore the distinguishing features of representational genera. Though he ultimately wants to consider whether distributed representation is a genus, he begins with the familiar distinction between language-like or logical schemes of representation and image-like or iconic schemes of representation. According to what Haugeland calls the “canonical” account of the distinction, the distinction is not to be found in the contents represented but rather in relationship between representations and their contents. So, for example, the canonical account has it that a sentence describing a dog can have the same content as a picture of a dog.
Haugeland spends a great deal of time trying to show why the canonical account of the distinction cannot be right. Haugeland goes about this in a number of ways, but the perhaps most powerful route—rhetorically and probatively—is his debunking of several “outlandish theses” concerning the alleged ease with which we can “translate” iconic representations into equivalent (content-wise) logical representations (and vice-versa). For example, one might be tempted to think that by taking a picture of a written copy of a description, one can produce an iconic translation of the description. Not so, says Haugeland, and to think otherwise is to confuse representing with recording. The photo of the description records the description, and if the photo is clear, one may be able to recover the content of the description from the image. But the content of the photo is not the content of the description.
So what distinguishes genera? Haugeland argues that it is content: iconic representations have different contents from linguistic representations. The former represent what Haugeland calls “relative” elements, whereas the latter represent “absolute” elements. The following passage may help convey both the basis of the distinction and why it is important:
Insofar, however, as contents are worldly, it may seem that logical and iconic contents can overlap or coincide. We can, for instance, say—it is a fact—that the Earth is round. Is this not the very same “structure or feature of the world” that would be represented also by a silhouette of the Earth against a bright background? I don’t think so. In the first place, the sentence identifies (the fact comprises) and particular object and a specific property of that object, whereas the silhouette identifies no object or property: its skeletal content is just the overall pattern of light and dark from some perspective. But further, though the sentence is entirely compatible with the Earth being transparent or just as bright as the background, the silhouette is not; and so on.
The thesis that representational genera are distinguished according to the structure of their contents yields an unexpected dividend: it explains and therefore supports the observation made earlier that “translating” from one genus to another requires wits. If the skeletal contents of two generically different representations—say, a picture and a description of the scene of the crime—differ qualitatively, even in their basic structure, then, in particular, neither includes the other. That is, much (or all) of what the one representation represents is simply not represented at all by the other. Thus, a description of a situation does not “say” how the light values vary with angle of view, any more than a photo of those values “graphs” what objects are present with what properties. Hence, a witless conversion is not possible, simply because the content is not there to convert. On the other hand, a system with wits of its own—background familiarity with the world and the circumstances—might be able to “tell” or to “see” what that missing content would have to be, and fill it in. Often, for instance, a person, relying on knowledge and experience, could tell that a certain light pattern would normally issue only from an object with a certain property, and could thereby supply the logical content needed to “translate” an image into words (pps. 193-194, Having Thought).
Obviously, a lot more could be said here about the views and arguments Haugeland advances, and I have completely ignored some important parts of the essay (I find that it resists easy summary). However, my hope is that the above is enough to at least begin a discussion of his position. I would be especially interested to hear what others think about the claim that iconic and linguistic representations represent different contents and, if you think there is merit in this claim, what the consequences might be for various positions on, e.g., perceptual content, the epistemological relationship between perception and belief, the knowledge argument, and so forth.