The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Seminar #31: Non-representationalism in action

Posted in Seminars by Tom Froese on January 23, 2008

A Special Life and Mind Seminar

**(notice unusual day and time!)**

Monday, 4th Feb, 17:30. Room ENG1 AS01 (Engineering lecture theatre).

We’re very pleased to have Prof. Shaun Gallagher leading our next Life and Mind Seminar (the first of 2008).

As many of you know Shaun Gallagher is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, author of several important articles and books on embodied cognition, philosophy of mind, and phenomenology, and Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy and the Cognitive Sciences Program, University of Central Florida.

He will be speaking on:

Non-representationalism in action

Abstract: I examine the following question: Do actions require representations? Recent work by Mark Rowlands, Michael Wheeler, and Andy Clark suggests that actions may require a minimal form of representation. I argue that the various concepts of minimal representation on offer do not apply to action per se and that a non-representationalist account that focuses on dynamic systems of self-organizing continuous reciprocal causation at the subpersonal level is superior. I further recommend a scientific pragmatism regarding the concept of representation.

All welcome.



6 Responses

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  1. Inman Harvey said, on February 4, 2008 at 8:03 pm


    I am afraid I was disappointed and annoyed by the Gallagher talk, even though he finished up weakly endorsing a position not too far from my own. I had previously quickly looked at his paper “Are minimal representations still representations?”, International Journal of Philosophical Studies (forthcoming) available via and his talk was near-identical.

    I am a veteran of the ‘Representation Wars’ that were waged here in COGS in the early 90s — when Mike Wheeler and Andy Clark, who featured prominently in today’s talk, were around here at Sussex — so I felt obliged to attend to see if the debate had moved on in the last 15 years. On this evidence, it hasn’t, and the quality of philosophical discussion has if anything gone downhill. The same old misunderstandings between people from different schools of thought with different unstated assumptions, and I had not thought lower standards of rigour were possible, but apparently they are.

    Some philosophical debates take place *within* a school of thought where assumptions are shared, which may excuse them being taken as implicit. Where debates take place *between* different schools, this is a recipe for misunderstanding and confusion. In the case of this talk, it was introduced by the speaker as expecting at least 2 conflicting views in the audience — so it should be incumbent on him to explain where he is coming from, and where the different views he was presenting came from. He failed to do this, and misunderstanding from factions in the audience was inevitable.

    When Messrs A, B, C or D ( Wheeler, Rowlands, Clark or Gallagher, or …) talk of [presumably *internal*] representations, are they using the concept within functional explanations or other kinds of explanations. Are they internal to the mind, to the brain or what? Are they concepts at a personal level, a sub-personal level, a neuranatomic level or what? Are representations a relational concept or non-relational, intentional or non-intentional? If, as I suspect, A B and C, also P Q and R in the audience, have differing answers to all these questions — and indeed many of these people slip between different senses within the same paragraph or even the same sentence, without realising — then failure to expose such potential for confusion is criminal.

    I thought the talk was weak; some — but not all! — of the questions were indeed sharper than the talk. Though nominally he came out weakly supporting a version of my own position, I actually thought his heart was on the other side! Most annoying!

  2. ezequieldipaolo said, on February 5, 2008 at 9:21 am

    From your comment, Inman, you seem more disappointed at the talk itself rather than at the fact that the representation debate hasn’t moved forward in the last 15 years. But it may be that what you perceive as annoying in the talk are the signs that the representation debate is – from a certain perspective – actually “inching” forward.

    In that respect, I think Shaun Gallagher did a reasonably good job. He took on the recent writings by supposedly progressive thinkers and attempted to show that *by their own definitions* the concept of representation need not be applied to (skillful) action as they think it should. He described in some detail what they mean by representation and then exposed some of the problems, contradictions and impracticalities of their views.

    My own reaction to the Clarks and Wheelers has been to chuckle away what I see as nostalgic attempts to save a sinking ship. But I am guilty of not spelling out my view as clearly and openly as I should, simply because I have more interesting things to concentrate on, namely, the advance and exploration of the possibility of a non-representational science of cognition. I have written in my review of Wheeler’s book about the poor programmatic choice of exposing how powerful and at the same time how anti-intuitive embodied and dynamical accounts of actions can be, and following that act with a call for safer and more intuitive grounds where some form of representation can still be salvaged for actions by introducing dodgy properties such as decouplability. The choice is poor because being exposed to the limitations of our intuitions for the “easier” cases of embodied action with strong sensorimotor coupling should be a lesson about their potentially more serious weakness for higher forms of cognition. How much more wrong we could be about these more complex forms of cognition if we thought catching a ball required a representation! However, that’s as much as I care to say, when much more could be said. And I wonder if the speed of progress of this debate is not partly the fault of attitudes such as mine.

    I think there is a lot that one can positively contribute to the debate to speed it up. In particular, I think there are several widespread misconceptions about the alternatives to representationalism. I see people often claiming without proof that dynamical accounts of cognition are necessarily very complex, that they work for simple systems only, that they are hard to unpack, descriptive but not explanatory, and so on. All of these opinions are demonstrably wrong as can be seen in much of the work done at Sussex, Zurich, Indiana and other places. But although these lessons become rapidly incorporated into a body of scientific practices, they do not necessarily spread to the wider community of cognitive science (or even to other sub-communities within Artificial Life, such as the information-worshippers). The current situation is that unless you’re already doing it, you won’t probably know about it.

    So if these positive alternatives are better exposed, maybe things will move at a less annoying speed?

    [NB: to those who think my position is largely ideological, let me just reply with a resounding yes! But let me add that this does not make my position necessarily dogmatic or any less scientific, nor are so-called pragmatic views any less ideological.]


  3. tomfroese said, on February 5, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    While progress in the “Representation Wars” is indeed slow, I think we should be happy that high-profile philosophers like Gallagher continue to refute recent efforts by others to further stall the debate by deluting the already ambiguous notion of representation even more by latching onto crucial insights of embodied/embedded/enactive/dynamic cognitive science.

    As Ezequiel said, we might be more interested in developing a positive alternative to representational accounts of cognition than to worry about these desparate efforts to save the notion of representation. Indeed, it is not enough to criticize, we also need to develop an alternative!

    However, it is just as important to provide a negative critique of the more recent representationalist positions, in particular if those accounts pretend to capture the best of both sides and are promoted by high-profile members of our research community. For many working cognitive scientist the accounts of Clark & co. will be their only contact with these issues, so it is important that we make an effort to challenge them.

    Indeed, I think that in order to make progress in this debate and generate a broader consensus it is crucial that we also engage in such public relations. Inman, perhaps it is time that you wrote up your position in this debate?


  4. matthewegbert said, on February 7, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    I have added a link to a video of this talk to the Audio / Video page of this blog.

    [link to the Audio / Video page]

  5. Joel Parthemore said, on August 11, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Hmm, I was just pointed to this discussion by Tony. Like Inman, I was quite disappointed with the Gallagher talk. Although I don’t agree with Ron’s position on representations, I thought his questions were quite cutting and effective and that Gallagher’s responses were disappointingly weak.

    I think Inman has defined representations as well as anyone I know about. I think that, defining representation as Inman does, that representation is a critical concept to understanding human cognition. I probably do disagree with him about the extent or importance of representations in e.g. non-linguistic human cognition and I almost certainly do when it comes to non-human animal cognition, but at least I’m pretty clear that we’re talking about the same thing!

    For myself, I suspect there has been a lack of positive alternatives to representational language because it really is conceptually indispensable! (I’m just reading a book at the moment, BODY CONSCIOUSNESS by Richard Shusterman, that critiques Merleau-Ponty’s anti-representationalism in, I think, a very effective way, while agreeing with Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of “traditional” representationalist approaches. I have a book review to write and submit by Friday; if people are interested, I could post a link to the review once it’s online?)

  6. tomfroese said, on August 11, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Joel! Sure, post a link to the review in this discussion when you have it ready.

    I thought that you might be interested to know that Inman Harvey has just given a talk at the Alife XI conference entitled “Misrepresentations”. A copy of the paper can be found as part of the on-line proceedings here:


    I’m not sure whether the paper is a direct response to this discussion, but it does refer to Gallagher’s talk at Sussex.

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