Failing to follow procedure

The Representational and the Presentational
October 20, 1995

Within cognitive science, the mind is viewed as being computational and representational: it embodies representations of the world and computational processes that operate over these. This view has a long and respected history. Indeed, the work of the British mathematician Alan Turing is thought to indicate that any behaviour which can be modelled in terms of simple procedures, can be modelled in terms of computations over symbolic representations. Benny Shanon sets out to show that this representational view of the mind is flawed.

Shanon has set himself an enormous task: if representationalism is flawed, there must be aspects of the mind's activity which cannot be thought of in terms of procedures. This is what his analysis must reveal.

Shanon's book is as impressive for its breadth as for the importance of its subject matter. And it serves as an excellent survey of the many facets of cognition that have been neglected by representationalists. However, despite the author's achievements and my not inconsiderable sympathy for the intuitive motivation for his proposal, the book fails on a number of counts.

Shanon launches attacks on a number of rationales for the representationalist view of cognitive science. These include arguments to the effect that representations cannot fully account for knowledge, for the meanings of mental states and linguistic expressions, for the intentionality of mind, for its social aspects and for what Shanon considers its intrinsic temporality. It is in these crucial arguments, however, that Shanon's thesis is at its weakest. For example, he claims that, in general, metaphorical language cannot be demarcated from literal language and that this undermines any attempt to specify the (literal) meaning of mental states. However, the argument assumes an isomorphism between natural language and the language or code of mental representations that can be abandoned while a computational and representational view of mind is none the less retained. Shanon also points out that the mere positing of the mind's representational nature does not explain how the mind is representational, and thereby fails to account for the intentionality of mind, or how the mind can be "about" nonmental entities. However, much recent work, which addresses precisely the issue of how mental symbols become "locked" on to external entities, is not discussed. Further, Shanon's claims concerning the intrinsic temporality of mind rest, in part, on the naive and seemingly mistaken view that representationalism is incompatible with a semantics of time based upon events.

Another weakness is the lack of clarity in the sketch of the author's nonrepresentational alternative. For instance, the book argues that the mind has properties which are incompatible with representations serving as its substrate. However, in outlining his alternative, Shanon notes only that the substrate possesses those same properties of mind. This serves to eliminate the possibility that the substrate is representational, but it fails to provide an adequate specification of its nature.

Shanon's most controversial claims, however, emerge not in the range of arguments with which he assaults representationalism but in his views concerning the nature of psychological explanation and the proper objects of psychological enquiry. Concerning the latter, he argues that psychology should concern itself only with objects which are both meaningful and amenable to consciousness. Given the troublesome nature of these concepts, his suggestion appears to be of little use. Concerning the former, he argues that psychology has adopted the wrong model of explanation: it should embrace the kind of holistic, narrative and typological explanations which Shanon believes respect the nature of cognition, and abandon explanations which couch the activities of the mind in terms of mechanisms and procedures. This will strike many as being the extraordinary proposal that the scientific pursuit of psychology should be abandoned. However, if just one scientific view of psychology, representationalism, is to be undermined, Shanon must answer the question, why is it that minds are not computers? To my mind, this book provides no such answer.

Nick Braisby is a lecturer in psycho-logy, London Guildhall University.

The Representational and the Presentational: An Essay on Cognition and the Study of the Mind

Author - Benny Shanon
ISBN - 0 7450 1095 4
Publisher - Harvester Wheatsheaf
Price - £22.00
Pages - 409

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