On representation hungry cognition (and why we should stop feeding it)


Despite the gaining popularity of non-representationalist approaches to cognition, it is still a widespread assumption in contemporary cognitive science that the explanatory reach of representation-eschewing approaches is substantially limited. Nowadays, many working in the field accept that we do not need to invoke internal representations for the explanation of online forms of cognition. However, when it comes to explaining higher, offline forms of cognition, it is widely believed that we must fall back on internal-representation-invoking theories. In this paper, I want to argue that, contrary to popular belief, we don’t yet have any compelling reason for assuming that non-representationalist theories are, as a matter of necessity, limited in scope. I will show that Clark and Toribio’s influential argument in terms of ‘representation-hungry’ cognition is, for various reasons, flawed. On closer inspection, we’ll see that the argument from representation-hunger (ARH) is, on the one hand, built on an inconsistent notion of representation and, on the other hand, on a conflation of the explanandum with the explanans. I will suggest that, on closer inspection, the ARH seems to be getting its appeal mainly from the unscientific principle that “like causes like”.

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  1. 1.

    For a refutation of the first claim, i.e. that dynamical systems accounts, as well as connectionist accounts can still be said to be employing representations, the work of William Ramsey is particularly useful. See, for instance, Ramsey (2007), especially chapter 4.

  2. 2.

    Henceforth Clark and Toribio’s (1994).

  3. 3.

    At the time of Clark and Toribio’s (1994) paper, van Gelder’s much discussed 1995 ‘What might cognition be if not computation?’ was still in press.

  4. 4.

    Clark and Toribio (1994) certainly lean towards this idea with their distinction between genuine versus non-genuine cognition. This is, however, odd, because it threatens Clark and Toribio’s online/offline cognition distinction itself. After all, if online cognition is deemed non-genuine, then why call it cognition to begin with? But if online cognition isn’t a form of cognition at all, then what is the distinction between online and offline cognition based on? Otherwise put: what, on Clark and Toribio’s account, would make non-genuine cognition still count as cognition? The dismissal of online activity as a form of cognition is much more straightforward with cognitivists like Fred Adams, Kenneth Aizawa and many others defending the idea that the involvement of representations is a conditio sine qua non for cognition. For these authors, the involvement of internal representations constitutes “the mark of the cognitive” (for recent accounts, see Adams and Aizawa 2008; Adams 2010; Adams and Garrison 2013). To the extent, then, that online cognition can be understood without invoking representations, it follows that this form of cognition shouldn’t even qualify as properly cognitive to begin with.

  5. 5.

    Chemero refers to work by Van Rooij, Bongers, and Haselager. See van Rooij et al. (2002).

  6. 6.

    See, for instance, Milkowski (2015).

  7. 7.

    The seemingly superficial, yet crucial difference between ‘standing for’ (representing) and ‘standing in for’ is rarely noticed, but it is highlighted by, for instance, Charles Travis (Travis 2013: p. 24). It has recently also been emphasized by Guilherme Sanches de Oliveira. See Oliveira (2018).

  8. 8.

    See, for instance, Marbach (1993). See also Thompson (2007: p. 25).

  9. 9.

    This picture of representations ‘underlying’ representational abilities is quite common, for instance in the work of Stephen M. Kosslyn, one of the leading authors in the study of mental imagery and imagination. Within the context of Kosslyn’s research, ‘mental representation’ does not only refer to the phenomena under investigation (mental imagery and imagination), but to the sub-personal processes which are said to ‘underlie’ and explain these phenomena qua consciously experienced. The actual experience of imagery is referred to as only “the tip of the iceberg”. Although the tip of the iceberg can be characterized in terms of mental representation, it is ultimately the sub-personal and non-experiential mental representations we find in the submerged portions of the “mental iceberg” (Kosslyn 1980: p. 21) which are of interest to anyone attempting to scientifically explain mental imagery and imagination qua experienced phenomena. For a critique, see Marbach (1993).

  10. 10.

    See, for instance, Husserl (2003: p. 106) for a critique of a reified notion of representation. See also Zahavi (2018) and Zahnoun (2018). For an elaborated critique on Hubert Dreyfus’ contention that Husserl can be seen as the father of cognitivism, and author of a proto-Fodorian theory, see McIntyre (1986) and Preston (1994).

  11. 11.

    I want to thank an anonymous commentator for drawing my attention to this passage.

  12. 12.

    The term ‘really Radical Enactivism’ first appears in the work of Jasper van den Herik. See van den Herik (2014).

  13. 13.

    Rozin and Nemeroff refer in particular to the work of pioneering ethnologists Edwin Tylor, James Frazer and Marcel Mauss.

  14. 14.

    Rozin and Nemeroff (2002) cite as an example the practice of homeopathy: “This cause-effect likeness principle is at the foundation of the tradition of homeopathic medicine”(Rozin and Nemeroff 2002: p. 204). Another example these authors mention is the widespread intuition that, because a certain disease is highly resistant to treatment (e.g., AIDS), the underlying agent causing the disease (e.g., HIV virus) must have the same potent and indestructible properties (which, in the case of HIV, happens to be untrue).

  15. 15.

    In a similar vein, when discussing the role of representations in explanations of experiential phenomenality, Christoph Frey writes: “The invocation of a primitive and sui generis kind of representational state that is essentially presentational in one’s explanation of experience’s presentational character is no better than the invocation of a virtus dormitiva; it is to abandon the view that there is an independent and relatively basic level of explanation for facts about experiential phenomenality.” (Frey 2013: p. 82) Similarly, one might say that the claim that representational explananda must necessarily be explained by representational explanantia is to abandon the view that there is an independent and relatively basic level of explanation for facts about representational cognitive explananda or offline cognition.

  16. 16.

    See also Kosslyn (1978, 1980) and Kosslyn et al. (2010).


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I am sincerely grateful to two anonymous referees whose comments have substantially helped to improve the paper. I’m also greatly indebted to Erik Myin, who offered valuable suggestions to earlier versions of the paper. The research was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO, projects Getting Real about Words and Numbers [GOC7315 N] and Facing the Interface [G049619 N]).

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Correspondence to Farid Zahnoun.

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Zahnoun, F. On representation hungry cognition (and why we should stop feeding it). Synthese 198, 267–284 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02277-8

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  • Mental representation
  • Online versus offline cognition
  • Radical enactive/embodied cognition
  • Anti-representationalism
  • Representation-hunger
  • Scaling-up objection
  • Description versus explanation