The focus of Wallis (1992) is a critique of Fodor's theory of mental representation. I discuss some foundational issues that Wallis has passed over too quickly. In particular (a) the importance of representation for Fodor's project and (b) some issues surrounding the role of representation in cognitive science in general. My point is that the lack of an acceptable account of mental representation is not just an idle puzzle but rather has important implications for foundational issues in cognitive science.
1.1 The focus of Wallis (1992) is a critique of Fodor's theory of mental representation. In this commentary, I discuss some foundational issues that, I believe, Wallis has passed over too quickly. In particular, I will focus on (a) the importance of representation for Fodor's project in particular and (b) some issues surrounding the role of representation in cognitive science in general.
2.1 In paragraph 1.3, Wallis claims that a naturalized theory of representation that was consistent with the findings of cognitive science would "clarify the representation relation and its role in explanation in cognitive science and would make an important contribution to solving the mind/body problem." In this section, I want to argue that a naturalized theory of mental representation, with respect to Fodor's project, is much more important than Wallis suggests.
2.2 Our behavior results, in large part, from the workings of the brain. The brain, of course, is a physical device, and so transformations among brain states are causal transformations governed by causal laws. As such, causal transformations from one state to another occur because of certain properties, such as the electrical and chemical properties, of those states, and they do not occur because of the fact (if it is a fact) that a state represents my grandmother or corresponds to my belief that I am about to run out of gas. Even if brain states have representational properties (e.g., the property of representing my grandmother or gasoline), such properties appear, at first glance, to be causally inert (Churchland and Churchland 1983; Fodor 1987).
2.3 In spite of this, Fodor (1975, 1981, 1987) is committed to the view that representational properties (and intentional properties in general) are causally efficacious. But since causally efficacious properties seem to be restricted to naturalistic properties (such as electrical and chemical properties), Fodor needs to show that, in spite of initial appearances to the contrary, mental representation is a naturalistic property after all. In short, Fodor needs a naturalized theory of mental representation.
2.4 How important is such a theory to Fodor's project? He could, of course, give up intentional realism -- that is, the view that representational properties (and intentional properties in general) are causally efficacious. However, intentional realism has been a cornerstone of Fodor's career project, so this is not really a live option.
2.5 Alternatively, Fodor could give up the commitment to the view that only naturalistic properties can be causally efficacious. However, this would require a dramatic realignment of Fodor's views on causation. Such views are also fundamental to his approach, and they have been largely unchanged at least since Fodor (1975). So this too appears not to be an acceptable option.
2.6 Given Fodor's commitment to intentional realism and certain (seemingly plausible) views on causation, the only alternative is to find a naturalized theory of mental representation. In short, Fodor's career project is in danger of collapse unless he can provide such a theory. In this way, Fodor's search for a naturalized theory of mental representation is not, as Wallis suggests, merely a matter of clarifying the explanatory role of mental representation and providing a contribution to the mind/body problem. For Fodor, and many other intentional realists, it is much more than that.
3.1 For Fodor at least, mental representation provides a problem in distinct need of a solution. But do those with motivations different from Fodor's also need to be concerned about puzzles surrounding representation? Wallis, again in 1.3, suggests that the role of representation in cognitive science needs clarification, but he says little more about why this is so. I want to argue that this issue is potentially more problematic than Wallis and others seem to realize.
3.2 A survey of the literature in cognitive science and related disciplines will quickly convince one, if one was not convinced already, of the central explanatory role that representation plays. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, there is a widespread uneasiness concerning representation. Representation and other intentional concepts just do not seem to be the right sorts of concepts on which to base explanations. As mentioned in the section above, there are serious questions about the causal role of intentional properties. Moreover, at least since the scientific revolution of the 1600s, no other mainstream scientific theory has used intentional concepts in such a central role. It would be nice to have a theory of representation that alleviated such worries about the legitimacy of using intentional concepts in explanatory roles. This, then, is one general benefit that would result from an acceptable theory of representation.
3.3 I turn now to a second and much more fundamental worry concerning the lack of a naturalized theory of representation. Wallis has provided a plausible argument to the effect that Fodor's attempt to give a naturalized theory of mental representation is unacceptable. Dretske (1981), Millikan (1984), Loar (1982), and many others have explored different approaches to providing a naturalized account of mental representation, but these too have come under attack (see Cummins 1989 for a summary). At present, it is safe to say that there is no widely accepted naturalistic account of mental representation, and no genuinely new ideas seem to be on the horizon.
3.4 To see one fundamental puzzle this raises, notice that lacking a naturalized account of mental representation entails that mental representation, at present, can only be characterized in terms of cognitive agents. That is, mental representations are, roughly, those things that cognitive agents have. In turn, the usual definition of cognition, and hence of cognitive agents, makes essential use of the notion of representation (see, e.g., Cheney and Seyfarth 1990). A tighter circle is rarely found: an understanding of mental representation presupposes an understanding of cognitive agents, and an understanding of cognitive agents presupposes an understanding of mental representation. Thus, two of the fundamental notions of cognitive science -- mental representation and cognitive agent -- are threatened by circularity. As with Moliere's virtus dormitiva (Dennett 1991), such circularity is unacceptable.
3.5 This alleged circularity requires more analysis than can properly be given here. My point, however, is that the lack of an acceptable account of mental representation is not just an idle puzzle. Rather, it has important implications for foundational issues in cognitive science. And these foundational issues are potentially more worrisome than they are generally given credit for.
3.6 In closing, I want to mention that my intent, especially in this last section, was not to provide a skeptical argument designed to undermine cognitive science. Rather, it was to provide commentary on Wallis's target article and, along the way, suggest some foundational issues within cognitive science that need further work. That need is, I think, more urgent than Wallis suggests.
Cheney, C. and Seyfarth, R. (1990) How Monkeys See the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Churchland, P. S. and Churchland, P. M. (1983) Stalking the Wild Epistemic Engine. Nous 17: 5-18.
Cummins, R. (1989) Meaning and Mental Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Dretske, F. (1981) Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fodor, J. (1975) The Language of Thought. Scranton, PA: Crowell.
Fodor, J. (1981) Representations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fodor, J. (1987) Psychosemantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Loar, B. (1982) Conceptual Role and Truth Conditions. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 23: 272-283.
Millikan, R. (1984) Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wallis, C. (1992) Asymmetric Dependence and Mental Representation. PSYCOLOQUY 3(70) fodor-representation.1