thinking is dangerous

Thesis I: Mental Representations

After psychologists and philosophers abandoned behaviorism in mass, taking the 'linguistic turn' or 'going cognitive' or however else we would like to sound-bitize one of the biggest overhauls of the higher sciences of the last century, they came to two conclusions:

(1) there is something 'in the brain' that is unavailable in a purely external (behavioristic) report
(2) whatever counts as (1) must be structured in such a way as to account for the complexity of language, behavior, and thought.

They pretty much unanimously decided to term whatever counts as (1) a 'Mental Representation' (MR). However, there was almost no agreement on the structure or format of a MR, or what processes governed their creation/manipulation/storage/recall. The result was that MRs were treated as an empty container of indefinite form and substance that everyone agreed must exist but no one was in a position to say anything more about.

This is not to say that no one tried- research even to this day comes out of cognitive science and psychology labs (and the occasional philosophy department) arguing for one form of mental representation or the other, with supposedly conclusive experimental data that settles the matter entirely. This of course soon gets a response from some other MR camp that shows how the data can in fact be interpreted to support their own MR theory, and can better explain some further experimental data. This back and forth continues for years or sometimes decades at a time, often ending in one side getting fed up and abandoning the field entirely, and the other declaring de facto victory until the next opponent steps up to the plate. The examples of this kind of exchange are numerous, and some of the more high-profile cases (Katz vs Fodor, Pylyshyn vs Kosslyn) contain devastating arguments against their opponent while simultaneously leaving themselves open for obvious devastating returns.

At this early stage, I believe the first part of my thesis will concentrate on concatenating what all MR theories find plausible about the notion of a mental representation in the first place. Instead of attempting an analysis of any particular theory for virtues and weaknesses, I would like to step back from the peculiarities of any one debate to isolate the points of agreement on both sides, to see if resolution is even possible. While I am admittedly skeptical of the very notion of a MR, it is my intent to read the theories as generously as possible- which means, in essence, taking (1) above for granted and understanding MRs as an empty class waiting to be filled in. The two most interesting attempts to fill this in involve the debate over the structure of represented language and the structure of mental images. There is considerable overlap between these two debates, but it will take some digging to bring these similarities to the surface

More later
23:09 :: :: eripsa :: permalink