Representation is a theory of the relation between appearance and reality.

A successor concept to theories of resemblance

Premodern theories understood relation between appearance and reality in terms of resemblance (sharing properties).

  • The paradigm example is that of a picture and what is pictured
    • The appearance of the portrait is veridical to the extent that shape of the ears, the color of the eyes, etc., match the person the portrait is of.
  • The rise of science made this untenable:
    • Copernicus: reality behind stationary Earth and revolving Sun is a revolving Earth and stationary Sun.
    • Galileo: effective strategies of understanding time as line lengths1 and acceleration as triangles … not easily understood in terms of shared properties.

Pioneered by Descartes

Descartes came up with the more abstract meta-concept (which Kant would dub representation, or Vorstellung) as a new way of thinking of the relation between appearance and reality.

Spinoza saw Descartes’ philosophy as being understood in terms of his innovations of relating algebra to geometry. How could strings of algebraic symbols be useful / veridical appearances of geometrical reality?

Empiricists and Rationalists

Favored kind of representing2picture-like sensationssentence-like thoughts
The other kind of representationFancy, abstract sensationsconfused, indistinct thoughts
Kant’s terminology for the aboveimpressionsconcepts
Kind of representation3atomismwholism4
First, in order of explanationrepresentational contentinferential relations
Ontology problems5nothing-but-ism6ontological extravagance7

Kant saw Descartes as having made an advance by assimilating impressions and concepts as species under the genus of representation. But these categorically-different species play different roles in our capacity to know things (rather than being the same species but having a spectrum).

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  1. It’s hard for us to appreciate how radical this is given that the idea of representation is so commonplace now. There is really nothing in terms of directly-shared properties that would tie line lengths and time durations together. We think of Galileo as giving a mathematical model of what was going on, but he thought of himself as using the language of geometry to describe the underlying reality of the motion that we have appearances of because he had no notion of representation.

  2. Descartes did not make this distinction - his ontology simply had representings and representeds without finer structure. Empiricists tried to reduce thoughts to impressions and rationalists vice-versa.

  3. Empiricists did not take the wholist lesson of representation to heart, so they were reactionary / holding onto the atomistic aspect of the antiquated resemblence model.

  4. Rationalist Leibniz would have us understand the content of the map (as a representation) to be the inferences that someone who treats it as a map could make about terrain facts (e.g. a river) from map-facts (wavy-blue line).

  5. Sellars identifies both camps as descriptivists (to be conceptually contentful is just to describe / represent how things are).

  6. Empiricists start with narrow postulate about what representing is and exclude a lot of genuinely contentful thought due to not meeting this standard (e.g. ethics, modality)

  7. Rationalists take all our cognitively contentful expressions as describing the actual world, resulting in ontological extravagance (postulating objective values / universals / propositions / laws).