Corrupted Definition of Representationalism by Tye and Dretske

Michael Tye

Michael Tye (1995) presents "a representational theory of the phenomenal mind", which he probably believes to be consistent with the original and generally accepted meaning of the term, but careful analysis of his theory reveals that Tye's view of consciousness is actually a variety of naive realism, which is in fact the epistemological opposite to representationalism.

Tye begins (Tye 1995, p. xv)

"The received view is that the way things phenomenally look or taste or smell is distinct from the representational contents of the experiences they produce. I argue [in Chapter 5] that this is not so."

So far this is in perfect accordance with the traditional and generally accepted usage of the term representationalism. But then Tye goes on to discuss the 10 most prominent problems of consciousness which remain to be resolved, and it is in this discussion that Tye reveals his residual naive realism.

For example problem number 8: The Problem of Transparency. "We cannot distinguish between consciousness itself and that which we are conscious of." For example when I view a table, my experience of the table appears right where I see the table, in fact there appears to be no distinction between the experience itself, and the object that the experience is of; between the experience and the thing experienced.

But this "problem" is only intelligible from a naive realist, i.e. anti-representationalist viewpoint, that assumes that our consciousness of the table is a direct view of the table itself. As soon as we accept the full representationalist explanation, that the table we see in conscious experience is not the real table itself, but merely a perceptual replica of the external table in an internal representation, then consciousness is no longer invisible, because the table we see in conscious experience is the "product" or "output" of consciousness, whereas the original external table is out beyond our direct experience.

Similarly, problem number 9: The Problem of Felt Location, is the fact that we feel pain in our body, not in our brain, although we cannot in principle experience anything except patterns of activation in our physical brain.

But again, this "problem" is only coherent from a naive realist perspective, whereby we assume that the body in which the pain is felt is our objective physical body. The true representationalist position is that the body we observe in conscious experience is not our true physical body, but merely a perceptual replica of that body, inside a perceptual replica of the world, all of which is contained within our true physical body which is beyond our direct experience. From this viewpoint the problem of felt location is no longer a problem at all, because we now feel the pain in a representational percept of our body which is entirely contained within our physical brain, and the "problem" simply disappears.

Significantly, Tye does not even mention this true representationalist solution even as a theoretical possibility to be discussed and refuted. This illustrates how deeply the assumptions of naive realism have penetrated into contemporary philosophical thought. So Tye is most likely completely unaware of the true meaning of representationalism, and that is why he is unaware of the fact that he is misusing the term.

The lynchpin of Tye's misunderstanding of this issue can be found in his discussion (Tye 1995, p. 3-4) of which states of mind he considers to be phenomenally conscious. His list includes the obvious candidates, perceptual experience (seeing green, tasting licorice,...) bodily sensations (pain, itch, hunger,...) passions or emotions, and moods. But curiously, Tye emphatically excludes from phenomenal experience mental states that are not feelings or experiences, except due to being accompanied by sensations or images or feelings which are the real bearers of the phenomenal character.

Tye argues "there is nothing it is like to remember that September 2nd is the date on which I first fell in love", and (p. 5) "belief or thought in itself has no intrinsic phenomenal aspect". In the first place this is a rather odd (even if generally held) viewpoint. When I perform a calculation of mental arithmatic, such as 27 ÷ 6, the bare numbers have no phenomenal aspect in Tye's sense, and yet there is very definitely "something it is like" to perform that calculation. I experience the given numbers, some intermediate stages of calculation, and the final product, as a very definite mental experience, even if that experience is somewhat abstract, or non-sensory.

It is through this loophole in Tye's definition of conscious experience that he smuggles the naive realist view of the world into the mind. For by this step Tye separates the sensory experience of a table, for instance, from the "knowledge" about that table, for example that it is a three-dimensional volumetric structure that can be used for putting things on, as opposed to the sensory experience of its brown color and woody texture. Tye's representationalism exclude those former aspects of the experience of a table from his definition of what experience is. In his "PANIC" theory (Tye 1995, p. 133) he insists that experience is necessarily "abstract" in the sense that no concrete objects enter into the contents of experience.

But there is a profound philosophical problem with this view of representationalism. Because my conscious experience definitely includes an experience of things like tables, and those experienced tables appear as solid three-dimensional volumetric structures in my perceptual field. If the structural and "knowledge" aspects of experience are excluded from the definition of experience, and thus are excluded from my brain's representations of those aspects of experience, then how do I ever come to experience those un-represented experiences? How can I become conscious of "belief or thought" that has no "intrinsic phenomenal aspect" if there is not an explicit representation of that "belief or thought" somewhere in my brain?

Fred Dretske

Dretske (1995, p. 3) also begins with the "Representational Thesis" that all mental states are natural representations. But then, like Tye, Dretske draws a sharp distinction between the representations themselves as opposed to the facts that they represent. What they fail to note is that the facts themselves are also part of our experience, and therefore they too must be explicitly represented in the brain.

Dretske reveals his naive realist inclinations most clearly in the following quote: ( Dretske 1995, p. 44):

"introspective knowledge is a species of displaced perception, it is an instance in which an experience (of blue, say) is conceptually represented as an experience of blue via a sensory representation not of the experience, but of some other object. One comes to know ... that one is experiencing blue by experiencing, not the experience of blue, but some displaced object ... i.e. the blue object one sees."

This is virtually a definition of naive realism. And it is totally inconsistent with representationalism in its original and generally accepted sense that the experience is not identically equal to the object of the experience, but rather, the object of experience is ontologically distinct from the external object that it represents.

Again, what is interesting is that like Tye, Dretske does not even discuss or refute the true representationalist position, except for the kurt statement (Dretske 1995, p. 127)

"I begin my defense of externalism [i.e. the idea that conscious experience is external to the brain, out in the world itself] ... by taking this much for granted. The representationalst thesis is an externalist theory of the mind [only in Dretske's corrupted interpretation of the concept!] It identifies mental facts with representational facts, and though representations are in the head, the facts that make them representations ... are outside the head."

Most telling is Dretske's final comment that...

"... I will have nothing to say to those who reject all forms of externalism ... I'm trying to win a battle, not the war."

But the war is already lost, althoug Dretske has not yet heard the news. For to claim that the experience of external objects occurs out in the world rather than inside the head is the very definition of naive realism, a bankrupt philosophy which has been discredited many times over. And naive realism is by definition the polar opposite to representationalism in the true sense of the word.

The refusal of both Tye and Dretske to to even discuss the possibility of a true representationalism or show why it is invalid, and their attempt to pervert the term to mean the polar opposite of its generally accepted definition, is almost certainly not due to wilful misrepresentation on their part. More likely, they (along with most contemporary philosophers) consider true representationalism to be so absurd and untenable that they do not even consider it a serious candidate to be refuted.


Dretske, F. (1995) Naturalizing the Mind. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Tye, Michael (1995) Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.