PPIG: Philosophy, Psychology, and Informatics Reading Group

Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD
Event type: 
Reading Groups

Dr Maria Serban (London School of Economics) on "How to be a pragmatist about representational kinds".

Abstract: The modeling practices of cognitive neuroscience and neurobiology appeal to a wide variety of representational kinds: sentential representations, pictorial representations, cognitive maps, analogue magnitude representations, to count just a few. These different types of representational posits are distinguished in terms of their format, content, and the functional computations they are taken to support. Although not an undisputed claim, their widespread use seems to make mental representations indispensable to the modeling and explanatory practices of cognitive neuroscientists. In the philosophical camp, theories of mental representation span a wide variety, from demanding accounts that impose exigent constraints on the possession of mental representations to deflationary approaches, which, at the other extreme, hold that mental representations can be reduced to other notions such as information, learning, biological function, or isomorphism.

Pragmatists about mental content ascriptions propose a middle ground approach that is supposed to vindicate the epistemic roles of different representational kinds in scientific practice without committing to a problematic metaphysics of mental representations per se. Frances Egan (2010, 2013) has defended such a pragmatist position about mental representations in the context of computational approaches in cognitive neuroscience. I claim that her position faces a series of systematic problems that push towards the need for a more substantive justification of the adoption of a pragmatist framework with respect to the problem of mental representation.

I defend the pragmatist position along the interventionist lines proposed by John Dewey (1939) and show that this framework can meet both the naturalistic and minimal metaphysics methodological desiderata put forward on Egan's account. I argue that the pragmatist can be both a methodological and metaphysical pluralist with respect to mental representations. I illustrate these claims by drawing on empirical research on spatial navigation and spatial memory.