The Representationalism Web Site

What Is Representationalism?

Why Representationalism?

Common Objections to Representationalism

Some Debates With the Opposition

Implications of Representationalism

History of Representationalism

Contemporary Representationalists


What is Representationalism?

Representationalism is the philosophical position that the world we see in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but merely a miniature virtual-reality replica of that world in an internal representation. Representationalism is also known (in psychology) as Indirect Perception, and (in philosophy) as Indirect Realism, or Epistemological Dualism.

For an in-depth discussion of representationalism and alternative epistemological formulations see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

There are two alternative usages of the term representationalism which should not be confused with the term as used here. One usage is representationalism in art, which refers to artistic realism, as opposed to abstract or ornamental art. The second usage is a form of representationalism in philosophy, as espoused by Tye and Dretske. This is however a corruption of the original usage of the term as defined in authoritative sources.

Why Representationalism?

As incredible as it might seem intuitively, representationalism is the only alternative that is consistent with the facts of perception.

The Epistemological Fact: It is impossible to have experience beyond the sensory surface.

Dreams, Hallucinations, and Visual Illusions clearly indicate that the world of experience is not the same thing as the world itself.

The observed Properties of Phenomenal Perspective clearly indicate that the world of experience is not the same as the external world that it represents.

Common Objections to Representationalism

The Homunculus Objection: If perception involves "pictures in your head", then who is it that is viewing those pictures?

The Neurophysiological Objection: Neuroscience has found no evidence of "pictures in the head".

The Supervenience, or Vehicle/Content Objection: Conscious experience is not a physical substance or structure that exists in any particular place, and therefore it is neither "in your head", nor it it "out in the world". It is a pure experiential entity that has no direct physical manifestation. The vehicles of neural representation bear no resemblance to the phenomenal contents of those vehicles.

The Ultimate Question of Consciousness: Even if there are "pictures in the head", how do those pictures become conscious of themselves?

Some Debates With the Opposing View


The Implications of Representationalism

If the world of visual consciousness that we observe to surround us is indeed a virtual-reality replica of external reality in an internal representation, what does that mean for modern neuroscience?

Perception operates like a guided hallucination that is as much a matter of active construction or generation, as it is a matter of passive detection or recognition.

Representationalism validates a phenomenological approach to studying perception, i.e. we can examine the world around us as a perceptual scientist observing a rich and complex internal representation.

The progress of contemporary neuroscience towards understanding the essential principles of operation of the brain are far more embryonic than is generally assumed.

The History of the Epistemological Debate

The long and tortuous History of the Epistemological Debate clearly indicates the powerful human tendency to favor a naive realist explanation. To this day Naive Realism is the dominant view in contemporary psychology and philosophy. Until the most basic fact of Representationalism finally triumphs over our naive realist inclinations, philosophy and psychology are doomed to an endless and futile recapitulation of the ancient epistemological debate.

Is representationalism becoming the dominant theory of consciousness amongst experts?

There seems to be some anecdotal evidence that representationalism has started to become much more popular during the last decade. For example, Brent Allsop remembers when he first met Steve back in the early 90s Steve was the first and only representationalists he had the chance to meet and talk with at the time. Yet now, it seems, there are many more representationaists, and representationalists ideas seem much more prevalent in the literature.

Wanting to rigorously know just how many representationalists there really are, and if there was more to this anecdotal evidence that there might be a scientific revolution going on was part of the motivation for creating and starting with topics on theories of consciousness.

When Brent Allsop first started topics on consciousness, he thought that representationalism was indeed still very much a minority view. He expected some other theories of consciousness to quickly establish dominance over representationalism, though he wasn't sure which theories this might be. Of course the already more than 18,000 plus publications already in Chalmers' Mind Papers bibliography, not to mention the gazillions of websites being created on this topic, is of no use to anyone since no mortal can be expected to produce any kind of comprehensive survey of that mess. Brent simply wanted to get a general unbiased idea of what the best competing theories were, what the most popular terminality to describe them was, and who was in what camp.

An open survey topic has been started at with the goal of collaberatively developing a comprehensive survey of the all the most well accepted theories of consciousness. Already the Consciousness is Representational and Real camp is clearly in the lead. The process is still very early, and the number of experts that have 'canonized' their beliefs about consciousness is still far from comprehensive, but the current amount of support that the representationalism camp is achieving compared to any other theory is compelling. While it is true that Brent Allsop, being himself a representationalist, is surely biasing the data at this early stage, perhaps working harder to recruit representationalists than supporters of other theories. But he is not intentionally doing this. He is recruiting people to participate in all possible forums, and of all possible beliefs, making explicit efforts not to only recruit representationalists.

Whether the current tentative data is biased or not, as an ever larger percentage of experts 'canonize' their beliefs this will obviously become less of a possibility. There does seem to already be clear evidence that a revolution is taking place in this field as we speak. Members of the representational camp believe no other theory will ever be able to match the amount of scientific consensus going forward, and that ultimately demonstrable scientific evidence will convert all others to this camp making it a very good possibility of becoming the dominant paradigm of consciousness.

Contemporary Representationalists

Mark Crooks

Mark Crooks wrote an eloquent defense of representationalism in Crooks M. (2002) Intertheoretic Identification and Mind-Brain Reductionism. Journal of Mind and Behavior 23(3).

Herbert Feigl

While no longer contemporary, nor even strictly a representationalist as such, Feigl's seminal work — Feigl (1958) The 'Mental' and the 'Physical'. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press — finally overthrew all the former objections to the philosophy of Identity Theory, i.e. that mind is not separate and distinct from brain, but mind is identically equal to the functioning of the physical brain. In other words, the sensory qualia, such as the experience of color, are physical states of the physical brain, and consciousness is expressed as modulations of the sensory qualia across space and time. This was a breakthrough for the representationalist position, even though not all representationalists subscribe to identity theory.

Stephen Harrison

Stephen Harrison is author of the illuminating and insightful book Harrison S. (1986) The Mind/Brain Problem. Vol 1: Description & Analysis; Vol 2: A Proposed Solution. Like John Smythies (see below) Harrison posits the location of conscious experience to be in one of the hidden dimensions postulated by modern cosmology, in particular, string theory. That is the subject of Volume 2. Volume 1 focuses on representationalism, and a refutation of naive realism. Harrison is a gifted artist, and his book includes some rather interesting illustrations, some of which are included in the above link. Stephen Harrison also has some interesting thoughts on neutral monism.

Jaegwon Kim

Jaegwon Kim presented an insightful review of theories of mind and brain in Kim J. (1998) Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body problem and Mental Causation. 'Representation and Mind Series', Cambridge: The MIT Press, where he revived Feigl's identity theory (see above) and demonstrated the logical flaws in theories like Davidson's anomalous monism, and the supervenience of mind on brain. Again, not all representationalists hold to identity theory.

Steven Lehar

Steven Lehar is an independent researcher at the Schepens Eye Research Institute. His most prominent contributions to representationalism are his book The World In Your Head, and his paper Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of the Subjective Conscious Experience, in which Lehar presents a spatial model of spatial experience. Lehar has also created a Cartoon Epistemology as a carricature of the endless futile debate between representationalists and naive realists. Steven Lehar maintains the Representationalism web site.

Joseph McCard

Joseph McCard is an independent researcher at the University of Connecticut.

Antti Revonsuo

Antti Revonsuo is one of the most outspoken modern advocates for representationalism, although he feels uncomfortable with that term due to the confusion with Tye and Dretsky's corruption of the word. Revonsuo has made a career arguing against 'representationalism' as understood by Tye and Dretsky, so he prefers 'epistemological dualism' to characterize his position. In Revonsuo A. (1995) Consciousness, Dreams, and Virtual Realities. Philosophical Psychology 8(1) 35-58. Revonsuo argues that perception is like a guided hallucination, a waking dream coupled to external reality. On-line papers include Revonsuo A. & Katja V. (2000) Dreaming and Consciousness: Testing the Threat Simulation Theory of the Function of Dreaming. Psyche 6(8), Revonsuo A. (2003) The Contents of Phenomenal Consciousness: One Relation to Rule Them All and in the Unity Bind Them. Psyche 9(08), Revonsuo A. & Tarkko K. (2002) Binding in Dreams: The Bizarreness of Dream Images and the Unity of Consciousness Journal of Consciousness Studies 9(7).

Gregg Rosenberg

Gregg Rosenberg is a modern proponent of representationalism, as seen in his recent book Rosenberg G. (2003) A Place For Consciousness: The Theory of Natural Individuals. Oxford University Press (in press).

Paul Schilder

While not a contemporary, Paul Schilder's insightful phenomenological analysis of conscious experience in Schilder P. (1942) Mind: Perception and Thought in their Constructive Aspects. New York: Columbia University Press. is an indispensible resource for those interested in the constructive aspect of mental representation, including the explicitly volumetric nature of perceived space.

John Smythies

John Smythies wrote a very clear and extensive analysis of representationalism in Smythies J. (1994) The Walls of Plato's Cave: The Science and Philosophy of Brain, Consciousness, and Perception. Avebury Press. Smythies adds an unusual twist to the standard representationalist position by suggesting that the location of conscious experience, while within the physical brain, is tucked away in one of those hidden dimensions postulated by modern cosmology, in particular string theory.

Dr. Edmond Wright


Consciousness and Representationalism (Benj Hellie)

Representationalism and Antirepresentationalism —Kant, Davidson, & Rorty (Janos Boros)

Representationalism and Perceptual Error (Diana Mertz Hsieh)

The Secret Beyond Matter (Harun Yahya)

Science of Consciousness web site (Norman Stubbs)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Epistemological Problems in Perception.

Theory of Knowledge Perception and Sense-Data.

The Transparency Argument for Representationalism (Brad Thompson)

The Defense of Qualia (Dr. Edmond Wright)

If I Only Had a Brain ( Steve Grand of Cyberlife Research.)

This site was created and is maintained by Steve Lehar.

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