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Intellectica, 2013/2, 60, pp 219-240

Representation and Radical Empiricism


ABSTRACT. Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, defended most prominently by

Anthony Chemero, proposes that biological cognition does not require representation.

I propose a more moderate position – that biological cognition often relies on

continuous analog representation, of the sort described by James' theory of radical empiricism, rather than the discrete digital representations described by the language of thought theory. I concede, however, that analog representations are borderline cases of representation. The most prototypical cases of representation are those hypotheses developed during the process that Dewey called inquiry. Inquiry is necessary only when our harmonious relationship with our environment is disrupted in some way, which in turn requires us to represent that environment as an “other” as we figure out how to restore harmony again. Perception is legitimately describable as “direct” because we do not need to make representations when the organism is in harmony with the environment.

Keywords: Representational theory of mind, Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, Anthony Chemero, Andy Clark, William James, John Dewey, Jerry Fodor, Language

of thought, Radical Empiricism, Dewey's theory of Inquiry.

RÉSUMÉ. Représentation et empirisme radical. La “Radical Embodied Cognitive Science”, dont Anthony Chemero est l’un des défenseurs les plus importants, soutient que la cognition biologique ne nécessite pas de representations. Je propose une position plus modérée – la cognition biologique repose souvent sur des représen- tations analogiques continues, comme celles décrites par l’empirisme radical de James, plutôt que sur les représentations digitales discrètes décrites par la théorie du langage de la pensée. Je concède toutefois que les représentations analogiques constituent un cas-limite de représentation. Les cas les plus prototypiques de représentation sont les hypothèses qui sont développées pendant le processus que Dewey appelait enquête. L’enquête est seulement nécessaire quand notre relation harmonieuse avec l’environnement est dérangée, ce qui requiert alors que nous représentions cet environnement comme « autre » afin de nous imaginer comment nous pourrions restaurer cette harmonie. On peut légitimement décrire la perception comme « directe » étant donné que nous n’avons pas besoin de produire des représentations quand l’organisme est en harmonie avec l’environnement.

Mots-clés : Théorie représentationnelle de l’esprit, Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, Anthony Chemero, Andy Clark, William James, John Dewey, Jerry Fodor, langage de la pensée, empirisme radical, théorie deweyienne de l’enquête.


Common sense assumes that people who agree with us are our allies and those who disagree with us are our adversaries. One of the great strengths of the adversarial system of philosophy is that it reverses this relationship. In the

Philosophy Dept, Sonoma State University, Berkeley CA 94710. teedrockwell<at>gmail.com.

© 2013 Association pour la Recherche Cognitive.



philosophical world, those who publicly disagree with you become your allies, if they express that disagreement in articles that footnote you extensively. Unfortunately, this system also creates competition amongst those who agree with each other, as who gets credit for what becomes subject to the vagaries of publishing and footnoting. There are, happily, two ways of reversing this competitive relationship. 1) Make sure that the person who agrees with you has been dead for at least half a century. Then you get credit for your scholarly discovery of the similarities, especially among those who feel the dead philosopher has been unjustly neglected. 2) Try to find some subtle difference between your ideas and those philosophers you agree with, so that you can maintain a productively adversarial relationship. In this paper, I will be using the first strategy by arguing that current research in cognitive science has shown that John Dewey and William James were essentially right about the nature of knowledge and experience. I will be using the second strategy by fine-tuning some ideas in the work of Anthony Chemero. It was not easy for me to find points of disagreement with Chemero, as he and I agree on so much. We both endorse the controversial claims that minds and worlds are blended in a constantly shifting dynamic relationship, and that perception does not function by creating representations inside the brain. However, I have always had trouble with Chemero's claim that these facts permit us to deny the existence of representations altogether, which claim is sometimes expressed by saying it is possible to do cognition without what Chemero calls “mental gymnastics”. My main problem with both Chemero and his adversaries is that neither seems to have a clear enough idea of what a representation is. Without a clear definition of “mental gymnastics”, any physical activity that accounts for cognition could arguably fit the bill, which turns anti-representationalism into a de facto defense of magic. Locutions like “one can simply see, for example, how fast something is moving without computing it” (Chemero, 2009, p. 122) seemed to be aggressively mysterious, with the italics functioning as a kind of rhetorical table-pounding. Conversely, when Chemero’s opponents assert that any isomorphism between the brain and the world must be a representation just because it is in the brain, this seems to be equally arbitrary and unfounded. The Universe is full of isomorphisms that no one would want to call representations. There is a strong isomorphism between the purchase of diapers and the purchase of beer amongst male clients of convenience stores. No one infers from this that diapers represent beer, or that beer represents diapers. Less whimsical isomorphisms are usually seen as causal connections, rather than representations. John Stuart Mill referred to this kind of causal relationship as “concomitant variation”, and it is present whenever any variable varies with the magnitude of a second variable. There are, of course, scads of concomitant variations between neurological activity and environmental activity. This does not, however, justify the maxim that contemporary neuroscience often extrapolates from the unquestioning acceptance of the Mind-Brain identity theory: Look for isomorphisms between the brain and the environment, and assume that all such isomorphisms are representations. Although there are theories which argue that all reference is determined by causal connection, no one thinks that all causal connections are references. We all agree that

Representation and Radical Empiricism


meaning, reference and representation are distinct from mere causal isomorphism, but we have only the beginning of a theory that explains that difference. Unfortunately, until recently most neuroscience research has ignored the need for such a theory, and automatically assumed that any causal isomorphisms between the brain and the world must be representations. Chapter 2 in Chemero 2009 gives us a chart of various possible theories about mental representation, the final version of which appears on p. 30. The most important distinction for our purposes is between eliminativism (the claim that representations are folk concepts that science will eventually eliminate) and representationalism (the various claims that minds operate by using some kind of representations of and about the world.) Chemero also gives us a nice survey of recent attempts to formulate biologically based theories of representation in chapter 3. The discussion in chapter 3 relies heavily on his distinction between two different kinds of representationalism which his chart calls “computationalism” and “other RTM” (Representational Theories of Mind.) Chemero’s attitude on representations can be summed up thusly. 1) There’s lot of new work in Cognitive Science that does not rely on what he calls the “mental gymnastics” of computationalism. This gives us good reason to believe that the Cognitive Science of the future could dispense with computationalism altogether. 2) Non-computational theories of mental representations (i.e. what his chart calls “other RTM”) can describe cognitive activity in representational terms, but those descriptions are trivial and add nothing significant (of perhaps nothing at all). Unlike many other people I mostly agree with Chemero’s first point. At this point, we don’t need to explain every cognitive system in non-representational terms to weaken computationalism. The strongest argument in favor of computationalism has been “What else could it be?” Such a question could actually be answered by describing a possible cognitive system that doesn’t use computations. The only reason that actual systems are helpful in such arguments is that everything actual is also possible. The fact that we have discovered or built some cognitive systems that operate without representations shows us that it is possible that all cognitive system could operate that way. However, I think his second point suffers from a lack of positive content for those “other RTM” non-computational theories of mind. I will therefore start by relabeling (and hopefully clarifying) his distinction between the computational and non-computational. I want to show how a representation can actually represent without computations, rather than just saying what such representations don’t do. Once we have done this, I think it will be possible to sketch out a non-computational view of representation which could be genuinely useful in certain contexts.


Chemero's detailed descriptions of cognitive activity seem to be arguably “gymnastic” in some metaphorical sense. What does Chemero mean by saying that these gymnastics are not mental? At one point he defines “mental gymnastics” as “The construction, manipulation and use of representations of the world”, (Chemero, 2009, p. 18) which is no help if we are trying to define what a representation is. In this paper, I'm going to propose an answer to this



question that I encourage Chemero to embrace. I think what Chemero ought to mean by “mental gymnastics” is linguistic or computational gymnastics. The word “representation” refers to two importantly different entities, each of which has a significantly different relationship to the item it represents. The first kind of representation I will call linguistic or computational representation, and the entities that represent in this way are words, sentences, and numbers. When Fodor or Stich talks about the Representational Theory of Mind, they are always referring to linguistic representation, and their view of language makes it primarily a branch of math. Words and numbers each have discrete meanings, and the combinatorial rules of logic and/or arithmetic determine the meanings of longer concatenations of those fundamental symbols. When Chemero does give us a non-circular definition of “mental gymnastics” it seems to imply linguistic or computational representations. Later on, he refers to mental gymnastics as including, although not apparently limited to, “inferences performed on sensory representations” (p. 98) or “the addition or processing of information in the mind to physically caused sensation” (p. 106). Logical inferences and information processing are both algorithms that manipulate discrete bits. The second kind of representation I will call analog or pictorial representation, and the entities that represent in this way are usually pictures or images. There are many important differences between these two kinds of representations, but in this paper I will be focusing on the following: Linguistic representations consist of genuinely fundamental elements joined together by computational rules. Pictorial representations are divisible into a variety of different kinds of parts, but no one of these divisions is more fundamental than the others. The sentence “The dog chased the cat” has exactly five words in it, and there is no ambiguity as to where one word starts and the next begins. A picture of a dog chasing a cat can be comprehended in a variety of ways, depending on one’s interests or whims. One person might focus on the cat’s ears while looking at the image, another person might see the entire scene “as animals at play in the park”, and there is no reason to say that only one such perspective is correct. My defense of this distinction is complicated by the fact that the so-called “picture theory” in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus specifically rejects it. The following passages clearly imply that, for Wittgenstein, a picture does have fundamental elements, each of which corresponds to elements in the real life situation it pictures. [E.g., in a picture of a dog chasing a cat, the dog in the picture corresponds to the dog in the world and so on.].

“2.14 The picture consists in the fact that its elements are combined with one another in a definite way… 2.15 That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way represents that the things are so combined with one another. This connection of the elements of the picture is called its structure, and the possibility of this structure is called the form of representation of the picture.” (Wittgenstein, 1921)

This view of pictures sees our comprehension of a picture and our comprehension of a sentence or formula to be fundamentally the same kind of

Representation and Radical Empiricism


process. In this paper, I will be arguing to the contrary that perceptual representation and conceptual representation are two distinct processes, and that I agree with Dewey that “[…] to be a smell is one thing, to be known as a smell, another; to be a ‘feeling’ one thing, to be known as a ‘feeling’ another” (Dewey, 1910, p. 81). I also agree with Chemero that there are non- representational cognitive processes that are to some degree distinct from both of these kinds of representations. Non-representational cognition blurs into perceptual representation, but I will argue contra Chemero that it is still worthwhile to separate the two. Perhaps because of our deep desire to bring unity to a manifold, it is very tempting to conflate these two forms of representation. In Plato’s Camera, Paul Churchland argues that a connectionist system is best conceived as being a multi-dimensional map, and that this conception of understanding frees him from “the urgings of prominent Pragmatists”, who claim that knowledge is “just a representation-free matter of knowing how to behave” (Churchland, 2012, p. ix). I sympathize with Churchland’s desire to save some form of representation in his epistemology, and I agree with him (and disagree with Chemero) that this kind of knowing-how requires a kind of representation. However, I think Churchland is trying to put too much of the representational process inside the head. I will argue that the analog pictorial representations are in some sense in the mind (although perhaps not completely in the head), but that the digital representations are not. The maps in our glove compartments and on our walls represent both digitally and pictorially, in the senses I defined above. In a map of New England, the image of Massachusetts represents the state pictorially. The image is perceptibly the same as the state itself when seen from an airplane. The representation of Boston, however, is digital, in the sense that it merely symbolizes the city the way the word “cat” symbolizes a cat. Boston does not resemble a spherical dot, no matter where it is viewed, but nevertheless that dot on the map effectively symbolizes Boston’s location in Massachusetts. I think part of what appeals to Churchland about the map analogy is that he believes it can combine both these analog and digital aspects of cognition. At one point he sounds very much like the above quotes from the Tractatus as he talks about these connectionist maps having “a finite number of discrete map elements”(Churchland, 2012, p. 113). Later he sounds much more like James when he says “from the point of view of the brain, then, it appears to be processes that are primary, not things and their properties. (ibid., p. 179). I think that Churchland is wrong about the first claim and right about the second. Of course we can use the dots on our car maps to locate cities, but I will argue that we do not do so by means of internal connectionist maps with “dots” on them. Connectionist systems are fully analog pictures, not Churchlandian maps or “pictures” analyzable into fundamental elements à la Wittgenstein. The dots on maps, like all forms of digital communication, emerge only through what Churchland calls third-level learning, which, like all linguistic and digital processing, occurs externally “through a growing network of cultural institutions.” (Churchland, 2012, p. 251). Churchland and I agree that there is no language of thought inside the brain, even though there are



analog processes inside the brain that are necessary (but not sufficient) for linguistic processing.

“[…] cultural learning is precisely the emergence and development of the various forms of cognitive scaffolding, external to the individual brain […] Language is itself the first and perhaps the most transformative of these scaffolds” (ibid., p. 275)

Perception also does not take place entirely inside the head, because perception is direct, in a technical sense I will define later.


Wittgenstein’s Tractarian version of the picture theory claims that we understand pictures and logical formulae in fundamentally the same way, and therefore perception is just a livelier form of conception. The problem with this theory is that it is vulnerable to infinite regress. If we identify a picture as a dog chasing a cat by seeing how elements in the picture correspond to dogs and cats, how do we identify a picture of a cat? By seeing that elements in that picture correspond to a cat’s ears, tail etc.? Then how do we identify a cat’s tail? This process has got to bottom out somewhere with some completely different process, and thanks to recent developments in neuroscience, we have a pretty good idea of what that process might be. There are a lot of philosophically interesting facts about the systems that perform these processes, which are described in much greater detail in Churchland 1995 and 2012, among many other places. I will assume for the rest of this article that my readers are familiar with the technical details of what is often called connectionism, or neural networks, and will limit myself to describing the functional properties that I believe distinguish such systems from digital computational systems. The most important for our purposes is that the connectionist systems are fundamentally analog, even though they can simulate a variety of functions performed by logical digital systems. For example:

1) Digital systems create branching decision trees by means of logical code such as the if/then/else operators of LISP. Connectionist systems can achieve a similar result by means of multistable attractor spaces. (see Rockwell, 2005a). 2) Digital systems manifest what is called productivity by manipulating logical atoms according to rules of inference and grammar. A small number of words and a few rules of grammar enable a system to generate almost limitless sentences. Connectionist systems manifest a similar kind of productivity by using a training set that marks out the borders of a computational space, then responding correctly to items that are within the borders of that space, even though they were not in the original training set. (See Rockwell, 2005, p. 185) 3) Most interesting for our purposes is that connectionist systems can perform what might be called acts of perceptual judgment i.e. correctly categorize underwater mines, or letters of the alphabet, or human faces, when they are in the presence of such items.

Representation and Radical Empiricism


Many of Connectionism’s severest critics might question my claims 1) and 2) above, but I don’t think anyone would deny that neural nets are very good at 3). The usual charge is that they are good at 3), but allegedly can’t do much else. There are, however, underappreciated philosophical implications in how they do it, which have important consequences for our understanding of the fundamental structures of human thought. Connectionist AI systems were designed to perform acts of perceptual judgment because those were the kind of paradigmatic puzzles set by the digital predecessors of connectionism. The reason those puzzles were considered to be scientifically important is that perceptual judgments were considered to be the fundamental “elements” of perceptual experience, to quote the term used by both Wittgenstein and Churchland above. Once we understood how we make individual perceptual judgments, the assumption was that the next step would be to figure out how the mind combined those elements into a picture whose structure and form would represent the world. However, a close look at the mechanisms of these connectionist systems reveals that there is nothing fundamental about the perceptual judgments they so skillfully make. On the contrary, they achieve their results by dumbing themselves down to meet the goals of digital systems. First of all, the outputs of these perceptual judgments are linguistic only by arbitrary fiat. The designers decide that a particular set of outputs will symbolize an underwater mine, or the letter “A”, etc., then train the system to give that output when it encounters the symbolized item. Secondly, the system never actually gives exactly the same response every time it sees the letter A. If the output that symbolizes the presence of an underwater mine is posited as 1 and 0, the experimenters count reasonable approximations to that output as still symbolically identifying the presence of a mine. What this means is that information revealing the differences between individual mines is thrown out by this system. In a real biological connectionist system, that information would not be thrown out, but instead would be used to govern sophisticated muscle behavior involved in performing skillful activities. That skillful behavior would involve what is sometimes called tracking behavior, in which there is a continuous analog relationship established between perception and activity. It would also involve pseudo-digital transformations in which an organism shifts its behavior from one attractor basin to another within a fundamentally continuous analog dynamic system. These shifts are functionally similar to the branching functions performed by logic based computer languages like LISP, but they do not actually require logical inferences of the form “since I am now perceiving A, I should do X” followed by “since I am now perceiving B, I should do Y”. (See Rockwell, 2005, chapter 10). Fodor & Pylyshyn (F&P) claimed that what Gibson called affordances could not be more fundamental than the perception of non-pragmatic observable fact. It seems inevitable to them that we first perceive that something is red and round, and from that we infer that it is an apple, from which we in turn infer that it is edible. If we take a look at connectionist AI systems, however, we can see that they actually reverse this relationship. Those AI systems that identify faces, or letters, or mines and rocks, are actually



truncated affordance systems designed to enable a simplified task of verbal behavior. Knowing-how to make perceptual judgments about objects sitting in front of you is just one more skill performed by vector transformations of perceptual space into behavioral space. This skill is useful in the traditional psychology laboratory, and probably in a few other social contexts. It is not, however, the fundamental element out of which cognition is built. Complex behaviors like throwing a basketball or playing a guitar are enabled by analog tracking relationships between perceptions and muscle behavior, not by a series of discrete logical inferences from what is being perceived to what needs to be done next. To sum up, the important things about these connectionist perceptual judgment systems are 1) they perform these tasks by establishing relationships between perceptual space and behavioral space, not by making logical inferences and 2) there is no reason whatsoever to assume that affordance systems designed to perform other tasks include these perceptual judgment systems as components. These systems are an artifact created by laboratories, because of the assumption that verbal behavior is the most fundamental form of cognition, and therefore we should assume that all cognition is built out of verbal behavior modules. This assumption is wrong. Sophisticated pattern recognition systems can be made by simply mapping perceptual inputs onto behavioral outputs in an analog, rather than a digital fashion. Thus F&P are wrong that we need to infer affordances from non-affordance perceptions. Conversely, Dewey was right when he said “The brain and nervous system are primarily organs of action-undergoing […] cognitive experience must originate within that of a non-cognitive sort.” (Dewey, 1929, p. 23) [Although I would rephrase this slightly by saying that what Dewey meant by “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” is what I am calling “digital representation” and “analog representation”.]


Even within these connectionist perceptual judgment systems, a closer study reveals that they operate with analog rather than digital strategies. Cottrell’s face recognition system, for example, uses a coding strategy that “represents an entire facelike structure, rather than an isolated facial feature of some sort or other.” (Churchland, 1995, p. 47) If Cottrell and/or his colleagues built a similar system to recognize cats, it would not, in fact, identify the cat by picking out elements like ears and tail. Instead it would store complete cat- images that varied from each other in continuous analog fashion. It would recognize individual cats (such as Tabby) by measuring how close the perception of Tabby is to the other prototypical cat-images in the cat- recognition possibility space. The functional power of such a system derives not from the sense-datum or information-bit, but rather from what Cottrell calls holons. Sense data are discrete bits of information that are tied together to create experiences, according to the Humean epistemology for which Dewey coined the epithet “Sensationalistic Empiricism”. Holons, in contrast, are regions in a pattern that is fundamentally unified, the way a hologram is fundamentally unified. This unified pattern is also fundamentally dynamic, a kind of multidimensional ripple in an interaction between an organism and its

Representation and Radical Empiricism


world. It is not a neuron or set of neurons, it is an aspect of what a very large group of these neurons do, and what other biological and environmental factors do in conjunction with those neurons. It is often convenient (perhaps a little too convenient) to focus on that part of this dynamic pattern that takes place in the skull. But we should not let this convenience seduce us into making unjustified speculations about the fundamental nature of mind. As most people know today, a hologram is a picture which, when cut in half, results in two “identical” copies of the original, rather than one half picture with the cat’s head and another half with the cat’s tail. The quotes around the word”identical” are important, for there is no informational free lunch here. The divided images each have two complete but degraded versions of the original image, because the entire image is distributed through the holographic medium. This is why a favorite buzzword of the time was the holographic brain. Connectionist systems use what was first called Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP), because the information is distributed throughout the entire system, rather like a hologram. This kind of distributed information storage is radically different from the kind of storage that happens in a digital computer, where each address stores a fundamentally distinct bit of information. In a holographic system, each new “bit” of information becomes computationally useful only when it thoroughly interpenetrates the entire rest of the system. Consequently, it is best understood not by the digital Humean principles of Sensationalistic Empiricism, but rather by the analog Jamesian principles of Radical Empiricism. Although the term “Radical Empiricism” was coined by James, and rarely used by Dewey, both Dewey and James agreed with the Radical Empiricist view that experience was fundamentally unified, and that the processes that resulted in what we call “knowing” worked by dividing this fundamental unity. James objected to the fact that “Throughout the history of philosophy, the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities” and said that philosophy should instead “discuss the ways in which one experience may function as the knower of another” (James, 1912/2003, p. 28). Dewey described the relationship between knower and known thusly.

“In well-formed, smooth running functions of any sort – skating, conversing, hearing music, enjoying a landscape – there is no consciousness of separation of the method of the person and of the subject matter. When we reflect upon experience instead of just having it, we inevitably distinguish between our own attitude and the objects towards which we sustain that attitude […] reflection upon experience gives rise to a distinction of what we experience (the experienced) and the experiencing – the how. This distinction is so natural and so important for certain purposes, that we are only too apt to regard it as a separation in existence and not as a distinction in thought. Then we make a division between a self and the environment or world.” (Dewey, 1916, pp. 166-7)

In other words, the growth of knowledge begins with a unified experience that does not even divide subject from object, and then acquires cognitive sophistication by dividing that unified space into a variety of different parts. This is exactly the opposite strategy as that followed by digital computational



systems, which interrelates fundamental particles (words and/or bits of data) by means of grammatical and computational rules. The fact that connectionist systems operate with holons, rather than bits, seems to me strong evidence that radical empiricism is a much more accurate description of biological cognitive systems than is sensationalistic empiricism. The holons enable the artificial connectionist net to acquire cognitive sophistication by dividing up a unified perceptual space into what Robert Frost might have called “roughly zones”. Rather than seeing an untutored mind as what Locke called a tabula rasa, or an empty box waiting to be filled with data, the primitive connectionist mind is more like what Lao Tzu would call an uncarved block. The more the space is divided, the more the system knows. If a connectionist “system” gives the same output for every received input, it would be totally functionless and non-cognitive. Such a “system” would be reminiscent of the first sentences in the above Dewey quote, for it would make no distinction between self and subject matter. The simplest functioning connectionist systems, such as the mine detector so beloved by the Churchlands, divide their perceptual space into two parts, by generating two possible outputs. One of these outputs is posited as signifying a rock, the other is posited as signifying a mine. It is only when such a system has divided its perceptual experience into at least two possibilities, that a third division is implied: the division between perceiver and perceived, subject and object. A more sophisticated system might divide its perceptual space into twenty-six parts by being trained to output a different signal for each of the letters of the alphabet. We can see that systems like these are well-described by James’ theory of radical empiricism, for it is analysis, not synthesis which is their real achievement. With a linguistic digital system, this process is reversed, as cognition proceeds by assembling and manipulating fundamental components that are previously distinct from each other. Fodor refers to the two books in his Language of Thought (LOT) series as speculative psychology, and this paper is offering a speculative psychology that is the exact opposite of Fodor’s. For Fodor, perception is the assemblage and inferences from perceptual judgments, just as conception is the assemblage and inferences from verbal and mathematical symbols. My version of Radical Empiricism says that the mind can perform digital activities only when it is presented with manipulable individuals created by fundamentally analog processes. Amongst these perceptible individuals are the symbols that make it possible to do math and language. It is a mistake, however, to claim that there is one fundamentally linguistic process that creates our entire perceptual field by assembling fundamental particles in various structures and patterns. That mistake is known as sense-datum theory. One of Sellars’ great insights was that sense datum theory was a theory and not a phenomenology revealing something directly given. What Sellars was not willing to assert, but which modern neuroscience strongly implies, is that sense datum theory is a false theory. When talking about overarching theories of this sort, falsification is a somewhat muddled concept. There is no denying that sense datum theory has steered psychology and philosophy through domains of mental space as effectively as Ptolemaic astronomy has steered wooden ships across vast

Representation and Radical Empiricism


oceans. Ptolemaic astronomy was overthrown only because its successor could (eventually) account for all of the former’s successes as well as transcend its failures. Similarly, Radical Empiricism will have to show why Sensationalistic Empiricism was so plausible, and why Radical Empiricism fits both phenomenology and current neuroscience more effectively than does Sensationalistic Empiricism.


My exegesis of the Cottrell data above was drawn in bold abstract lines, to bring its philosophical implications into as sharp a relief as possible. Similarly, I am going to rely on a pop-neurological distinction known as the right brain/left brain to explain roughly how conception and perception relate. The claim that the right-brain creates whole patterns, and the left-brain divides those patterns up into parts and regions, has been made so frequently that it would be pointless to back it up with a single citation. It is widely accepted as true, and this has important implications for the controversy of Sensationalistic vs. Radical Empiricism. The most plausible functional description of the relationship between the two hemispheres seems to be something like this:

1) The right-brain creates a variety of “blobby” patterns of varying sizes and shapes with indistinct borders. Then 2) the left-brain breaks them up into cleaner and more distinct patterns, then ties those patterns together with computational and grammatical rules. Strictly speaking, this description is radically incomplete, but I think it is more accurate than anything that could be made compatible with Sensationalistic Empiricism. Could the Sense-Datum theorist say that the right brain was dumping discrete identical bits of information into the left-brain, which would then provide all the content through manipulation by grammatical rules (what Chemero might call mental gymnastics)? That’s probably the least Procrustean way of combing modern neurology and sense datum theory, and it’s still quite a stretch (pun intended). The fact that the first researchers on brain hemispheres were inclined to say there was nothing cognitively important in the right hemisphere was probably a function of their unconscious commitment to Sensationalistic Empiricism. The left-brain appears to be the part of the brain that functions computationally and digitally, so computational theories of mind were inclined to see only the left brain as cognitive. I am proposing that we begin by considering the right brain to be a generator of perceptual patterns, and the left-brain to be a device that analyzes and manipulates those patterns. There is no reason to assume that the right- brain creates only very small sense data-like patterns. It appears more likely that it generates wholes of varying sizes, some of which are assembled into greater wholes, and others broken into smaller wholes, by the left-brain. However, I consider this to be only the first step in a 3-step dialectal inference, once we consider how to explain the right brain’s function in connectionist terms. Here are the next two steps. 2) As we mentioned earlier, connectionist systems begin with a unity between organism and environment, and then become more cognitively sophisticated by dividing that unity into interacting vector transformations between computational spaces. This implies that we should consider the entire



brain as generating a unified perceptual experience, which is divisible into color, shapes, sounds, smells, etc., rather than assembling perceptual experience from distinct inputs generated by the so-called five senses. The sense organs do exist, of course, but there is no reason to assume that their input is stored in separate addresses in the brain. There are regions in the brain that respond more strongly to visual input, others that respond more strongly to audial output, and so on. But the strengths of these responses are only a difference in degree. The general consensus is that cognitive activity for each perceptual experience is distributed throughout the brain, rather the way information is stored in a hologram. Consequently, it makes more sense to think of sensory experience as being somewhat like a movie shot on analog videotape, rather than a digital construct from discrete bits, like the frames of a film or DVD. 3) If we add tactical, olfactory, and gustatory modalities to supplement the sound and images of a standard movie, do we have a metaphor that works? In a sense yes, but it is also an image that has been justly criticized recently with Dan Dennett’s epithet “Cartesian Theater.” If we imagine the brain making a copy of the world inside itself, for the benefit of a homunculus sitting inside a Cartesian theater, we have what I will call the Representational Theory of Perception. I think this theory is interesting because it is presupposed by many people, including some who would explicitly reject it. I also think this theory is false, and that this is what Chemero means (or should mean) when he defends what he calls a direct theory of perception. The following will be an explicit defense of direct perception, which may seem counterintuitive precisely because it is more explicit than the versions articulated by ecological psychologists like Gibson and Chemero. Regardless of how counterintuitive it may seem however, I think it is the only version that fully embraces the necessary implications of a theory of direct perception, and I would encourage Chemero and others of a similar frame of mind to embrace it.


Chemero (2009, ch. 6) says “information is a relational feature of the environment. In particular […] the information of the light just is this relation between the light and the environment. (p. 108). The footnote at the end of this paragraph says “Fodor & Pylyshyn (1981) agree with this point about the relational nature of information as Gibson understands it. They disagree with more or less everything else in Gibson (1979).” (p. 215). This is true in a sense, but nevertheless the idea that perception is relational is at the heart of the disagreement between Fodor & Pylyshyn on one hand and Gibsonians like Chemero on the other. For F&P, “direct” and “relational” are opposites. They see the phrase “direct perception” as presupposing what Sellars called the Myth of the Given. The assumption behind this myth is that the state of knowing is one in which we encounter the world directly, and the state of ignorance is one in which the world is obscured from us in some way. Consequently, direct awareness implies certainty, and the possibility of error shows that perception does not grant us direct awareness. Many of the arguments against direct perception in F&P 1981 are based on inferences from facts like “You can vary the layout as much as you like; so long as the properties of the light are

Representation and Radical Empiricism


unaffected, the perceptual judgments of the organism are unaffected, too”. (F&P, 1981, p. 160) In other words, if it is possible to be mistaken about the layout if you vary the information in the light array, and then our awareness of the environment is not direct. Because we make mistakes about what is in our environment all the time, the idea of direct perception seems preposterous. If this is what Chemero and Gibson meant by direct perception, they would be clearly mistaken. If the mind and/or brain did anything at all in order to acquire an awareness, these processes would by definition make the awareness indirect. Consequently, direct awareness would have to be magic in order to exist at all, and calling awareness “direct” would be a kind of science stopper. Chemero’s basic strategy is to refer to awareness as being constituted by affordances, which he claims are both direct and relational. Strictly speaking, this is a contradiction in terms, and this tension continually surfaces in his writings on the subject. At one point, he says “the energy in the environment also contains information about animals that perceive it” and this is why we can say that this information guides behavior directly. (p. 109) Chemero is correct when he says that we must accept this first claim to infer that affordances are direct, which is why it is a problem for him that this claim is clearly false. To use Chemero’s example, a perception of a copy of Infinite Jest does not actually contain information about mice, even though the perceived book does have the affordance “climbability” for mice in virtue of certain properties of the book. It also contains no information about whether people in West Bengal can read the book, whether the book can be climbed by snakes or scorpions, or how hard you have to hit a cat on the head with the book in order to render it unconscious. These examples are only a few of the millions of possible and actual affordances present in this environment, and none of them can be directly perceived by looking at the book. Of course, Chemero is aware of this. On the next page, he says that in order for an affordance to be an affordance, it has to have a relationship to a property of the animal that Ecological psychologists Turvey, Shaw and Mace call an effectivity. As Chemero refines the final version of his own theory, which he calls affordances 2.0, he changes his terminology slightly by saying that “affordances are relationship between abilities to perceive and act and features of the environment”. This change is arguably significant in certain contexts, but for our purposes the difference between an effectivity and “an ability to perceive and act” is unimportant. I am going to use the term “effectivity” because 1) It’s shorter and less clumsy, and 2) It underscores a fact that Chemero often soft-pedals: there always has to be something that happens in the organism that makes it possible for the organism to take advantage of an affordance. Chemero does not have the option of saying that affordances can exist without effectivities, which means that affordances are necessarily relational, and therefore indirect. The important question for Chemero is: What exactly is the difference between effectivities and representations? They are both occurrences within the organism that make cognition possible. How are they different from each other? Chemero says that affordances are context dependent and the representations of computational mental gymnastics are not. However, the persistence of the frame problem in AI shows that even linguistic cognition



requires a presupposed context of some sort. Chemero also makes a fascinating and important point about the significance of nonlinear coupling for any representational theory of mind. “When the agent and environment are non- linearly coupled, they form a unified, nondecomposable system whose behavior cannot be modeled, even approximately, as a set of separate parts.” (p. 31) Chemero is here pointing out that a representational theory of mind requires that mental representations be both related to and distinct from the items that they represent. A picture of a dog would not be a picture of a dog unless it had some sort of relationship with an actual dog. And yet it must also be distinct from what it represents. A picture of a dog is not a dog. Similarly, even though the word “word” is itself a word, it gets its meaning from the fact that it refers to words other than itself. This means that if the semantic parts of a brain/body/environment system cannot be both sharply divided and then recorrelated with each other, this system cannot be said to contain representations. When the connections between world and organism follow Mill’s principle of concomitant variation, the relationship between the two can naturally be seen as representational. When the relationship is nonlinear, however, there are not enough isomorphisms between environment and organism to support the representational relationship. I have argued that the presence of isomorphisms are not sufficient to establish the existence of representations, but they are surely necessary. Consequently, if there are functioning cognitive systems (i.e. organisms) which can survive and thrive even though they have a non-linear relationship with their environment, they would be living proof that representation is not necessary for cognition. Chemero might be able to argue that there are no effectivities in such a system, as there is nothing in the organism that isomorphically varies with the environment. I am very sympathetic to this idea. It is quite similar to the idea of the “behavioral field” in Rockwell 2005. To say that the mind is a behavioral field is to say that, even though the mind and the world are distinct, the line between the two is always fluctuating. This creates problems for the assumption that a single part of the mind, such as brains states, is permanently assigned the job of representing the world. As Chemero and I are amongst the very few people who take such ideas seriously, I feel quite protective of them. Nevertheless, I think these are differences in degree, not in kind. Some degree of non- linearity is probably present in all biological cognition, but the closeness to linear patterns is probably enough to make linear descriptions of cognition a kind of convenient simplification. If the mind is a behavioral field, it could use what Andy Clark calls “scaffoldings” to represent the world, and the location of such scaffolding could fluctuate in and out of the head. I think that the line between representational and non-representational scaffolding would be blurry and problematic, especially in a nonlinear system. This is what tempts Chemero to jump to the extreme conclusion that “the representational story could be told, but […] that that’s not particularly relevant.” (p. 72). However, I also think that our cognitive need for such scaffolding, neurological or otherwise, shows us that the world does not present itself directly, as we ordinarily understand the term.

Representation and Radical Empiricism


Nevertheless, it does not follow, as Fodor& Pylyshyn claim, that if a process is not direct it must be inferential. F&P cite a quote that points to a third alternative, although they dismiss it with ridicule.

“Turvey and Shaw […] suggest that we should cope with the issue of perceptual error by “tak(ing) perception out of the propositional domain in which it can be said to be either right or wrong […] and relocat(ing) it in a non-propositional domain in which the question of whether perception is right or wrong would be nonsensical.” Apparently this means either that we should stop thinking of perception as eventuating in beliefs, or stop thinking of beliefs as having truth values. Turvey and Shaw describe this proposal as ‘radical’, but ‘suicidal’ might be the more appropriate term.” (Fodor & Pylyshyn,, 1981, p. 154)

As usual for Fodor, F&S create a false dichotomy. Obviously perception eventuates in beliefs, but that does not require us to assume that this process must begin with perceptual judgments, and then proceed from them by means of computational inferences. Perception does provide a kind of primordial starting point for inferences, and a touchstone that inferences dare not ignore. There is, however, a kind of primordial state which can be seen as in one sense epistemically ideal, and doesn’t require belief in the myth of the given. Dewey claims that the goal of knowledge is not to stare reality in the face, but to reach a kind of equilibrium with one’s environment. This equilibrium is dynamic, not static, for it is best manifested in the successful performance of skilled activities. The skilled performer is sometimes said to have “perfect rhythm” or be “in the zone”, because the affordances in her perceptual system are “ready- to-hand” and therefore doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Furthermore, as Turvey and Shaw suggest, this state is non-linguistic and non- propositional. For reasons we discussed earlier, connectionist neuroscience and AI have shown that it is possible to create such a perceptual/motor system without using language or inferences. I agree with Chemero that at these moments of harmony with the environment, perception is direct, in the sense that the mind is not creating a representation of the world inside the brain. There is no item in our perceptual system that both separates us from and points towards the represented world. It’s important, however, to distinguish this claim from the mistaken belief that the world and the self are distinct from each other, and that during perception the world magically presents itself to the mind as both separate from us and immediately given to us. The word “magic” is not just a rhetorical flourish. If you say that two things are distinct from each other, and that any attempt to unite them is out of bounds because such an attempt would require mental gymnastics, then magic is the only unifying strategy available to you. Chemero can escape this dilemma by accepting some paraphrase of the above Dewey and James quotes. If James is right that the subject and the object are not absolutely discontinuous entities, and Dewey is right that this distinction is only a distinction in thought, we don’t need either mental gymnastics or magic to unite the self and the world, because they were never separated in the first place.



Perception is direct when the world is ready-to-hand and we are in harmony with it, and the important meaning of “direct” in this context is this: There is


representation between me and what is perceived. I don’t perceive the world


front of me because my retina makes a copy of the world and presents it to

my brain. My perception of the world is an emergent property of the brain/body/ environment, and supervenes on that entire nexus, not just on my neurons. That’s why there is no need to make a copy of my environment inside my brain because during perception my mind supervenes on both the environment and my brain, not just the brain. Chemero takes a step in the right direction when he says “The information of the light just is this relation between the light and the environment.” (Chemero, p. 108) However, once you separate the relation from its two relata, all directness is lost. The only way to resolve this problem is to say that the relation and the relata are moments in a fundamentally seamless whole.


Of course, we are not always in perfect harmony or rhythm with our environment and our affordances are not always ready-to-hand. At such times, we have to perform the activity Dewey called inquiry, which enables us to both diagnose our failures and propose solutions. When my goals encounter obstacles, and it becomes necessary to conduct an inquiry into my situation in the world, then and only then do the various isomorphisms between organism and world acquire the functional powers that make those isomorphisms representations. In How We Think, Dewey divides the process into five steps although he acknowledges that they don’t always follow in distinct sequence,

and often blend into each other. (Dewey, 1933, pp. 36-40) Dewey’s first step is

a sensing of a mere “felt difficulty”, and may not obviously require

representations. Nor does the final step require representations if the thinking

organism manages to successfully establish equilibrium with its environment again. The middle three steps, however, seem to be both essential to higher- level cognition and necessarily dependent on something that resembles the traditional concept of representation. Chemero’s dynamic analyses of skillful animal activity, such as birds in flight, make it easy to forget this, because the cognitive systems of these creatures establish a skillful relationship with the environment and yet are arguably non-representational. However, the activities Chemero focuses on are instinctively hard-wired, and never require the animal to perform the next 3 steps in Deweyan inquiry which are 2) locate and define a problem 3) suggest a possible explanation for the problem and then 4) propose and enact a solution derived from that explanation. Even step 5) would require some kind of

representation if the solution is not fully successful, for then the organism has

to observe the result that is achieved, and compare it to the result it wanted. As

far as I know, there are no experiments that have been able to explain some version of inquiry in purely dynamic and non-representational terms. The nearest approximation would be the work on oscillators as representations discussed in chapter 3 of Chemero 2009. This chapter reveals that although the systems studied by Chemero and his colleagues do not perform inquiries, attempts to refine the concept of representation tend to limit it to circumstances

Representation and Radical Empiricism


where inquiry would be called for, i.e., times when an organism is out of sync with its environment. In this chapter, Chemero surveys a variety of proposals designed to distinguish genuine representations from mere isomorphisms. Most of these proposals involve the ability to maintain this isomorphism even when decoupled from the environment. William Bechtel uses this criterion for the biological oscillators that enable organisms to maintain circadian rhythms. (Bechtel, 2011) Because these oscillators continue to “mark time” even when the organism has no contact with the sun, Bechtel argues that the oscillators represent the passage of time in much the same way as a clock or watch. Brian Cantwell-Smith proposes an even greater degree of decoupling which he calls registration. If an organism has registered something it responds to, it can respond again appropriately even days or months later. Chemero also favorably mentions several theories that do not require decoupling as an essential property of representation, including Rick Grush’s emulator theory, and Markman/Dietrich’s theory of internal mediating states. Chemero sees decoupling theories as Johnny-come-latelys in cognitive science, and consequently refers to theories which do not require decoupling as traditional theories of representation (Chemero, 2009, p. 54 his italics). He concludes this chapter by casting himself as a “traditionalist” in this sense, claiming that any biological oscillator that maintains an isomorphism with its environment should be seen as a representation. This seems like a nice tolerant policy, but it actually has an insidious agenda that I like to call lethal permissiveness. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the strategy for destroying superheroes by giving everyone superpowers, followed by the villain Syndrome in the movie “The Incredibles.” If everything becomes a representation, then nothing is. After surveying these proposals, and formulating his ecumenical theory of representation, Chemero considers the possibility that dynamic cognitive systems are best described by my proposed strategy of using analog representations. He starts by discussing Tim Van Gelder’s classic thought experiment of the computational governor (Van Gelder, 1995). Van Gelder had described how the rotating flywheel, or “Watt governor”, maintained the exact pressure needed for a steam engine to perform its proper function. He then proposed an imaginary “cognitive” governor, that maintained the pressure by means of a symbolic system that calculated the actual pressure, compared it to the proper pressure, and then made the needed adjustments. Chemero then paraphrases Bechtel’s response to Van Gelder (Bechtel, 2011, among other places) that the various parts of the governor and the steam engine have an isomorphic relationship that is legitimately representational. However, this isomorphic relationship is analog, not digital, because there are no linguistic or mathematical symbols in a standard governor. Because Chemero describes his radical embodied cognitive science as being anti-representational, you would think he would disagree with Bechtel on this point. Instead he adopts the strategy of lethal permissiveness, and adds a third twist to Van Gelder’s thought experiment: a “representational, but non- computational description of the Watt governor.” (Chemero, 2009, p. 71) In other words, he redescribes the standard Watt governor by saying that the angle



of the arm of the Governor represents the steam pressure, etc. This redescription of the system uses analog representations, because the representations in it are “produced and used, without being subject to rule- governed manipulations, and without necessarily taking part in anything like an inference.” (ibid., p. 72). But although he agrees with Bechtel that this is doable, he refuses to accept Bechtel’s conclusion from this fact. Instead he argues that this permits any enduring isomorphism between organism and environment to be classified as a representation. Once the concept of representation becomes this broad, it becomes trivially omnipresent, which justifies Chemero’s claim that “the representational story could be told, but […] that that’s not particularly relevant.” (p. 72).


Chemero is right to point out that pictorial representations are only problematically representational, particularly when we are talking about “maps” and “images” that are in principle impossible to see. However, the solution to this problem is not to promiscuously claim that all isomorphisms between organisms and environments are representations. What is needed are more, not fewer distinctions. When Chemero refers to his overly tolerant theory of representation as the traditional view, he is talking about a “tradition” of academic laboratory practice that is only a decade or so old. The truly traditional view of representation is, I believe, strongly linked to the practice of inquiry, which has been an essential activity that has defined us as human beings for millennia. This is why so many cognitive scientists have instinctively assumed that some kind of decoupling from the environment is an essential property of representations. We only need to create representations of the world when our connection with it has been ruptured in some way; and the deeper and more enduring the rupture, the more we need strategies to heal that rupture. The formulating and testing of hypotheses is the prototypical representational activity, and representations that succeed in reuniting us with the world are the prototypes for what so-called “realists” call “the truth.” Of course, we pragmatists do not believe that all members of any category fit the prototypical exemplifications of that category. The isomorphisms between organism and world in the instinctive systems created by evolution were not constructed by any kind of inquiring activity, but we can use the techniques of cognitive science to construct a plausible story of how we could have built such a system. This story will analyze a biological system into isomorphically linked parts that we can call “environment” and “representations of that environment.” This is probably best thought of as a metaphor, but many of our best scientific models began as metaphors. As long as we carefully articulate each newly discovered difference between electrons and billiard balls, the metaphor at the heart of atomic theory will not lead us astray. Similarly it can be useful to refer to the evolved cognitive systems as containing representations, even though those systems were not created during inquiry. For those cognitive systems that are persons – creatures who can set goals for themselves and perform activities designed to attain those goals—the

Representation and Radical Empiricism


practice of inquiry provides the prototypical example of practices that generate representations. However, when inquiry is successful, the representations it creates eventually drop out of our consciousness. At that point, they become analog representations, even if they were created by the digital processes known as language. Our skillful behavior then becomes essentially indistinguishable from the instinctive behavior of animals, regardless of their difference in ancestry. In other words, analog representations in both humans and animals are not prototypical representations, but they can still usefully be thought of as belonging to that category.


Because representations are connected to inquiry, and human beings are the creatures who are most definitely capable of performing inquiries, and human beings are the only creatures that use language, it seems plausible that Fodor is right that 1) language is necessary for inquiry, and that 2) we are therefore able to perform inquiry only because we have a computer-like language of thought inside our heads. This is an empirical question, and Fodor might be right about this, but I don’t think so. As for assertion 1), it seems likely that non-verbal animals such as chimps and elephants, and perhaps even dogs and cats, are capable of developing original solutions to new problems using purely analog processes. When a chimp in a laboratory sees out-of-reach bananas and a nearby stick, hypothesizes that the bananas can be reached with the stick, then tests that hypothesis, that chimp is performing an activity legitimately classifiable as inquiry. Fodor argues that this kind of animal behavior can only be explained by positing an animal version of a language of thought. Because he has vastly underestimated the cognitive abilities of analog systems, he claims there are no other alternatives worthy of consideration. However, there does seem to be both phenomenological and neurological evidence that we can sometimes conduct inquiries using purely analog visual and kinesthetic strategies. Language is clearly a tremendous aid to inquiry, which is one reason why we are so much better at it than other animals. But often we can conduct inquiries without relying on language. The simulation theory of mind reading, popularized by Robert Gordon and others, proposes that this kind of analog simulation is the way we become aware of the thoughts and emotions of other people (Gordon, 2004; Rockwell, 2008). [The simulation theory is the alternative to what is called the theory-theory of mind-reading, which argues that we rely on linguistic logical inferences to figure out how other people are thinking and feeling.] The ability to read emotions, and make hypotheses about the best strategies for maintaining social relationships, requires tremendous cognitive skill, as well as strategies that include forms of hypothesis testing. If we can do this by purely analog means, perhaps there are other forms of human inquiry that are reliant on fundamentally non-linguistic strategies. Furthermore, even if language is essential to inquiry, this does not require us to accept that human language is a self-contained digital computer system stored within our brains. It is possible that we actually perform most of our linguistic functions with analog strategies, and rely on digital functions only in rare moments of precision. The fact that we could not use language without our



peculiarly human neural architecture does not prove that we have a language of thought inside our heads. Consider the perceptual judgments about mines, letters, and faces we considered earlier. These judgments have the appearance of discrete digital acts, yet we saw earlier that they were implemented by specialized versions of analog processes. We also saw that creating these analog simulations of digital processes resulted in throwing out lots of information that analog processes could have utilized. Must we assume that language works by means of distinct neural events, each of which symbolize words like “dog” “chased” and “cat”, and other distinct neural processes which tie those words together grammatically to create sentences? Isn’t it more plausible that the brain would come up with a more effectively way of utilizing its own naturally analog abilities? These questions need not imply that language itself is not digital. I am not denying that language consists of words which are joined into meaningful sentences by means of grammatical rules. What I am asking you to consider is the possibility that we could understand how to use these grammatically structured sentences without specifically processing and comprehending the meaning of the individual words and the grammatical rules that bind them together. This would be possible if we comprehended speech acts the same way that radical empiricism says we comprehend perceptions: by grasping a speech act as a whole, then learning how to transform it into other speech acts that are appropriately near it in possibility space. Recall the architecture of the Cottrell face recognition program, which did not divide the face up into distinct perceptual elements, but rather categorized its input by comparing each face to a network of archtypical face holons. I am proposing that we could learn to speak by storing a network of speech act holons, and then generating new speech acts by traveling through the possibility space whose borders are outlined by that network. For example, suppose one of those speech acts is the sentence “How many times have I told you not to slam that door?” This speech act could generate a holon that includes not only the entire sentence, but also a voice tone, a posture, perhaps a finger wag, all stored as a single holonic multisensory image. Another speech act might be “Can I play with your toys?”, similarly stored as a holon that includes sentence, voice tone posture, etc. A child who has a possibility space marked off by those two speech acts, among many others, could generate a completely new speech act like “How many times have I told you not to play with my toys?” This new speech act would probably incorporate some version of the blame-drenched voice tone and posture of the first act, and would also be shaped by prototypical speech acts that caused the transformation of “your” to “my”. However, there would be no need to have this transformation stored as a specific grammatical rule, nor would there be any need to have any concrete awareness of which part of each speech act was a word and which part was a phrase. Entire speech acts could be stored as wholes, and transformed into other wholes, without requiring an awareness of every single word as a single word. After a detailed survey of the recurrent neural networks that enable us to perceive any sort of motion through time or space, Churchland concludes that all of our perceptions of activities operate this way.

Representation and Radical Empiricism


“[…] the learning of typical temporal sequences does not proceed by first grasping the one-, two-, and three-dimensional spatial configurations of typical physical objects and properties, then subsequently noting their temporal conjunctions and progressive modifications over time […] such objects and properties are a subsequent abstraction from, not the epistemological ground of, our understanding of the world’s causal structure […] From the point of view of the brain, then, it appears to be processes that are primary, not things and their properties.” (Churchland, 2012, pp. 178-179)

If this is true of all other kinds of human acts (and Chapter 3 sections 4 and 5 of Churchland 2012 provide extensive evidence that it is), it would be highly unlikely that it would not also be true of speech acts. Again, this is not meant to imply that language does not ultimately consist of words. As I have been writing this paper, I have focused on individual words, asking myself which ones are necessary, and how many other words needed to be added, to express exactly what I wish to write. But most of the time when we speak we don’t do this. This is a skill I learned at school, and acquiring that skill is an essential part of the socialization process that makes academic discourse possible. It is also one of the highest refinements of the process that Dewey calls inquiry. I’m very glad I’ve got that skill, and wish it were more refined than it is. But none of these facts imply that this skill is the fundamental process that makes language possible. As Churchland repeatedly emphasizes, language is a late development in the evolutionary history of cognition, and I would add that the ability to divide language into individual words and grammatical rules is later still. I could be wrong about this, and Fodor could be right. Hopefully the network of cultural institutions that makes philosophy and cognitive science possible will be able to resolve this issue through experiments, debates and whatever other tools of inquiry are right for the job.


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MIT Press. Churchland, P. (2012). Plato’s Camera. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Dewey, J. (1910). The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and other Essays. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Press. Dewey, J. (1916), Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan. Dewey, J. (1929). Experience and Nature. New York: Dover. Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. Lawrence, KS: Digireads.com. Fodor, J. & Pylyshyn, Z. (1981). How Direct is Visual Perception? Some Reflections on Gibson’s ‘Ecological Approach’. Cognition, 9, 139-196. Gibson, J. (1979). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton- Miflin. Gordon, R. (2004). Folk Psychology as Mental Simulation. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/folkpsych-simulation/.



James, W. [1912]. Essays in Radical Empiricism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications


Rockwell, W.T. (2005). Neither Brain nor Ghost. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Rockwell, W.T. (2005a). Attractor Spaces as Modules: a Semi-Eliminative Reduction of Symbolic AI to Dynamic Systems Theory. Minds and Machines, 15 (Jan 2005),


Rockwell, W.T. (2008). Dynamic Empathy: A New Formulation for the Simulation Theory of Mind Reading. Cognitive Systems Research, 9 (August 2008), 52-63 Van Gelder, T. (1995). What Might Cognition Be If Not Computation?, Journal of Philosophy, 92, 345-381. Reprinted as: ‘The Dynamical Alternative’ in D. Johnson & C. Erneling, (eds), Reassessing the Cognitive Revolution: Alternative Futures. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1996. Van Gelder, T. (2000). Commentary on “The Modularity of Dynamic Systems”. http://www.cognitivequestions.org/vangelder.html Wittgenstein, L. (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Lewes, UK: Vigo Books.