PHL471: Representation and Normativity
Representation and Normativity
- There are a range of topics that fall under this rubric.
Generally philosophers have been concerned with three broad issues
- Intentionality (the "aboutness" of some or all mental states)
- Representation (that some mental states refer to or otherwise
stand in for other things)
- Propositional Attitudes (that some mental states are or
appear to be concerned with other mental states, particularly
ones that have truth value)
- On many accounts, we can think of this list as moving from
more general to more specific kinds of states: typically a
representation is intentional, and propositional attitudes are
special kinds of representations.
- It is impossible to find any one unified approach to these
topics. We will instead focus on Normativity, and then some
alternative approaches and concerns
Normativity of Representation
- One problem for explaining representations is that they
are normative: they can be correct or incorrect.
- We will take as an example of representation natural kind
terms or other kinds of representations that pick out kinds of
objects, and thus focus on the semantic relation of reference.
(We could run similar arguments for other kinds of
- It might seem that we could explain representation with
a physicalist Naive Causal Theory. For example, one version
of the theory might rest on the following schema:
NCT schema: brain state x refers to kind of thing y
when the presence of things of kind y causes brain
- Fodor describes eloquently the inadequacy of the Naive Causal
Theory with his disjunctive problem.
- Suppose Jones sees a cow on a dark night,
and says, "There is a horse."
- Now, a cow-on-a-dark-night caused Jones's brain
to have an event that previously only occured when
he saw horses. Call this event brain state x.
- By NCT schema, this brain state now refers to horses
and cows-on-a-dark-night. But if this is the brain state,
for example, that causes Jones to say, "horse," we can
easily see that something has gone wrong.
- Representations can be right or wrong, and this is a normative
claim that the Naive causal theory seems unfit to explain. Attempts
to save a causal theory have included approaches which hold that
certain mental/physical states refer to:
- What they were caused by under ideal conditions
or during a training period (Dretske);
- What in turn allows the representation to assist
the brain systems (brain "devices") that use that
representation to achieve the goals these systems
evolved to have (e.g., Millikan).
- Alternatives are to reject any straightforward kind of causal theory.
Some answers to the Normativity Problem
- Dennett's Intentional System's theory
- Millikan's Teleosemantics