Mental representation

Mental representation

A (mental) representation, in philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science, is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality, or else a mental process that makes use of such a symbol; "a formal system for making explicit certain entities or types of information, together with a specification of how the system does this."[1]

In contemporary philosophy, specifically in fields of metaphysics such as philosophy of mind and ontology, a mental representation is one of the prevailing ways of explaining and describing the nature of ideas and concepts.


Representationalism and representational theories of mind

Representational theories of mind conceive of thinking as occurring within an internal system of representation. The propositional attitudes of the mind are token mental representations with semantic properties. Representationalism (also known as indirect realism) is the view that representations are the main way we access external reality. Another major prevailing philosophical theory posits that concepts are entirely abstract objects.[2]

The representational theory of mind attempts to explain the nature of ideas, concepts and other mental content in contemporary philosophy of mind, cognitive science and experimental psychology. In contrast to theories of naive or direct realism, the representational theory of mind postulates the actual existence of mental representations which act as intermediaries between the observing subject and the objects, processes or other entities observed in the external world. These intermediaries stand for or represent to the mind the objects of that world.

For example, when someone arrives at the belief that his or her floor needs sweeping, the representational theory of mind states that he or she forms a mental representation that represents the floor and its state of cleanliness.

The original or "classical" representational theory probably can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes and was a dominant theme in classical empiricism in general. According to this version of the theory, the mental representations were images (often called "ideas") of the objects of states of affairs represented. For modern adherents, such as Jerry Fodor, Steven Pinker and many others, the representational system consists rather of an internal language of thought. The contents of thoughts are represented in symbolic structures (the formulas of Mentalese) which, analogously to natural languages but on a much more abstract level, possess a syntax and semantics very much like those of natural languages.

See also


  1. ^ David Marr: Vision. 1982
  2. ^ The Ontology of Concepts—Abstract Objects or Mental Representations?, Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence

Further reading

  • Henrich, J. & Boyd, R. (2002). Culture and cognition: Why cultural evolution does not require replication of representations. Culture and Cognition, 2, 87–112. Full text

External links

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