Thursday, December 16, 2010

Menary on the Lack of Consensus

What is a mental or cognitive representation? There is no philosophically or
empirically agreed upon account of what makes something a cognitive representation.  This is quite a stunning fact. Imagine genetics without a model of genes, this is the position in which cognitivism finds itself. Adams and Aizawa are not alone in having no criteria for determining when something is to be counted as a representation (oh the irony!) This brings us to the second leg of the grail quest, a theory of content. Adams and Aizawa make much play of a purported naturalistic theory of content for cognitive representations. However, they have no convincing theory available to them, and this explains why they do not attempt to explain how cognitive representations get their contents. This is also quite stunning. (Menary, 2010)
Yes, it is unfortunate that there is no consensus on what makes something a cognitive representation.  But, this is philosophy.  It's typical for there to be no consensus on what makes anything anything.  I surfed over to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and found that there is no consensus on what death is!

So, I don't put that much stock in "lack of consensus" arguments, but if Menary does, maybe he should chew on the fact that there is a lack of consensus in the EC literature regarding the conditions under which cognition extends.  Many of the options are discussed in Chapters 5-9 in The Bounds of Cognition.


  1. Well, unless you think the lack of consensus might be a hint worth following up.

  2. No, I suspect that folks care about lack of consensus only when it supports an agenda they already have. Menary cares about the lack of consensus on naturalized semantics because that favors his EC agenda. He doesn't care about the lack of consensus on conditions of cognitive extension because that does not favor his EC agenda. If you're inclined toward behaviorism, then lack of consensus over what cognition is favors that behaviorist agenda.

    I guess I'm just an insensitive clod when it comes to these arguments. They just don't seem that telling to me.

  3. They aren't a slam dunk. But I do think they can be a hint.

  4. I know it's knockabout stuff on here Ken, but the point I'm making is that if you endorse cognitivism as a model of cognition you have to give an empirical account of the conditions under which something is a representation and the conditions under which it has the content that it does.

    It's not just a point about how philosophers rarely agree, because we are talking about scientific models of cognition. This is a serious point, so I'm not being disingenuous, okay.

  5. Hi, Richard,

    I'm probably a little cheekier here than in print (though a lot less cheeky here than in person), but I do try to write what I believe here.

    I agree that in developing a theory of cognition one does want an account of how non-derived representations arise.

    And, Fred and I have written about that. Fred wrote his dissertation with Dretske during the Knowledge and the Flow of Information days. (Check out the preface where Dretske mentions Fred.) And Fred and I have a paper on Fodorian Semantics that was pretty widely read. We mention some of this stuff in footnotes in our papers, but maybe we should have been a bit more aggressive in our self-promotion.

    By contrast, in pointing out what we take to be the inadequacies of many current arguments for EC Fred and I do not need to make a further commitment to the conditions under which non-derived representations get their content.

    Doesn't this relativity of goal sound right to you, Richard?

  6. Maybe lack of consensus matters in many contexts, as in homogeneous linguistic communities, but I don't think it matters much in philosophy.