Meeting 39

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DATE: Tuesday, September 28

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Theories of Mental Representation in Early Modern Philosophy

SPEAKERS: Manuel Fasko (University of Basel), Lauren Slater (Birkbeck College), Peter West (Durham University)

CHAIR: Patrick Connolly (Lehigh University)


This panel explores treatments of mental representation in Early Modern philosophy. By considering representation as it was understood by three thinkers – Descartes, Berkeley, and Anton Wilhelm Amo – this panel will explore the various ways the Early Moderns thought one thing could represent another. In doing so, the panel will show that ‘representation’, in Early Modern philosophy, is a complex issue. For instance, while some thinkers werecommitted to a simple, univocal notion of representation, others came to appreciate that there is more than one way in which things might represent. For some thinkers, this was even manifested in a terminological distinction; between representation and signification.

On a typical reading of Descartes, ideas represent their objects in the external world in virtue of a causal (albeit mysterious) relation that holds between them. However, there are also signs that Descartes thought the relation between ideas and objects is more like the relation between words and their meanings. Berkeley, in contrast, assumes that representation must involve resemblance. It remains unclear why he took this to be the case and, moreover, why he seems to attribute this view to his opponents, including Locke. Finally, Amo maintains that the role of ideas is to stand in for and present that which is absent. For instance, Amo argues that there are no ideas in the mind of God since nothing is absent from his understanding. However, it is not clear how Amo thinks ideas present that which is absent. Is it the same way that a portrait might be said to stand in for its subject or more like the way a politician stands in for (and thereby represents) her constituency?

A consideration of the various ways in which this question was addressed during the period will also deepen our understanding of the important Early Modern concept of ‘ideas’: mental objects which, in some form or another, represent the external world to us.

Re-presenting Representation: Cartesian Ideas and their Objects

Lauren Slater

In the preface to the Meditations, Descartes distinguishes between ideas taken in the material sense and ideas taken in the objective sense. I argue that this distinction helps to uncover an ambiguity in the word ‘representation’ for Descartes. Sometimes, Descartes seems to understand ‘representation’ as a notion of presentation: a presentation of content in the mind. At other times, Descartes seems to use ‘representation’ in a more everyday sense: the sense in which representation is a relation that holds between ideas and external features and objects. I then turn my attention to sensory ideas and their representational status; since, out of all the kinds of ideas, they seem the most likely to represent the external world to us. I argue that Cartesian sensory ideas do represent (in the relational sense) external objects and features, even though they bear no resemblance to them. This is possible due to the language-like connection between the body and the mind that is instituted by God.

“No representation without resemblance: Berkeley’s resemblance thesis and the necessary conditions for representation

Manuel Fasko

While we also ought to distinguish two kinds of representation in Berkeley’s writings, I will not focus on how words ‘represent’ things. Rather, I will focus on the (representational) relation between our ideas and the part of reality they are ideas of (i.e. the part of reality they represent). It is widely agreed that Berkeley is convinced that resemblance is necessary for representation. However, there is currently no (exhaustive) list of all the further necessary conditions that representation requires. I argue that there are in fact three necessary conditions which this kind of representation requires. First, there ought to be an act of perceiving (in order to have something we can have an idea of). Second, an act of imagining or remembering is necessary (by means of which an idea of something is generated). Third, representation necessarily requires resemblance (i.e. our idea of A is only one of A and not of B if it resembles A). Yet, on a closer look this third condition, in turn, requires two sub-conditions because the relation of resemblance only obtains if i) there is an agreement between the relata in at least one respect and ii) there is an act of comparing.

Amo on Ideas and Representation

Peter West

Prior to Anton Wilhelm Amo’s writing in the 1730s, it is possible to identify two dominant accounts of the way an idea represents its object. First, a causal (or quasi-causal) theory which has been attributed to Descartes and other Cartesians. Second, a resemblance theory which can plausibly be attributed to Berkeley and other critics of the epistemology espoused in Locke’s Essay. However, in his Inaugural Dissertation (published in 1734) Amo characterises an idea as something that represents by means of standing in for something which is absent. I argue that, in doing so, Amo offers a novel theory of representation that requires neither causation nor resemblance. Instead, for Amo, ideas play a specific functional role in the mind (comparable to the role played by sensations in the body) by means of which they represent – that is, stand in for – their objects. This explains why Amo argues that there are no ideas in the mind of God; there being nothing absent in God’s mind, it would not be possible for something to play this functional role.

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