Fodor on imagistic mental representations

Daniel C. Burnston


Abstract: Fodor’s view of the mind is thoroughly computational. This means that the basic kind of mental entity is a “discursive” mental representation and operations over this kind of mental representation have broad architectural scope, extending out to the edges of perception and the motor system. However, in multiple epochs of his work, Fodor attempted to define a functional role for non-discursive, imagistic representation. I describe and critique his two considered proposals. The first view says that images play a particular kind of functional role in certain types of deliberative tasks. The second says that images are solely restricted to the borders of perception, and act as a sort of medium for the fixing of conceptual reference. I argue, against the first proposal, that a broad-scope computationalism such as Fodor’s renders images in principle functionally redundant. I argue, against the second proposal, that empirical evidence suggests that non-discursive representations are learned through perceptual learning, and directly inform category judgments. In each case, I point out extant debates for which the arguments are relevant. The upshot is that there is motivation for limited scope computationalism, in which some, but not all, mental processes operate on discursive mental representations.

Keywords: Computational Theory of Mind; Mental Representation; Perception; Mental Image; Jerry Fodor


Fodor e le rappresentazioni mentali come immagini

Riassunto: La concezione della mente di Fodor è rigorosamente computazionale, ossia le entità mentali di base sono rappresentazioni mentali “discorsive”. Le operazioni su queste rappresentazioni hanno un fine architettonico ampio, che va fino ai confini della percezione e del sistema motorio. In periodi diversi del suo lavoro, Fodor ha proposto due modi per definire un ruolo funzionale per la rappresentazione non-discorsiva come immagine. Tratterò criticamente entrambi. Per il primo, le immagini giocano un particolare tipo di ruolo funzionale in certi tipi di compiti deliberativi, mentre, per il secondo, sono relegate unicamente ai confini della percezione, agendo come medium per fissare il riferimento concettuale. Contro il primo sosterrò che un computazionalismo così ampio come quello di Fodor rende le immagini in principio funzionalmente ridondanti. Contro il secondo sosterrò che l’evidenza empirica suggerisce che le rappresentazioni non-discorsive vengono apprese percettivamente, agendo direttamente sui giudizi di categorizzazione. In entrambi i casi considererò gli argomenti più rilevanti nel dibattito corrente. Si vedrà che ci sono buone ragioni in favore di un computazionalismo più limitato, in cui alcuni processi mentali (ma non tutti) operano su rappresentazioni mentali discorsive.

Parole chiave: Teoria computazionale della mente; Rappresentazione mentale; Percezione; Immagine mentale; Jerry Fodor

Parole chiave

Computational Theory of Mind; Mental Representation; Perception; Mental Image; Jerry Fodor

Full Text


Riferimenti bibliografici

Barsalou, L.W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. In: «Behavioral & Brain Sciences», vol. XXII, n. 4, pp. 577-609.

Barwich, A.-S. (2014). A sense so rare: Measuring olfactory experiences and making a case for a process perspective on sensory perception. In: «Biological Theory», vol. IX, n. 3, pp. 258-268.

Bayne, T. (2016). Gist!. In: «Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society», vol. CXVI, n. 2, pp. 107-126.

Briscoe, R.E. (2018). Superimposed mental imagery: On the use of make-perceive. In: F. Macpherson, F. Dorsch (eds.), Perceptual imagination and perceptual memory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 161-185.

Brozzo, C. (2017). Motor intentions: How intentions and motor representations come together. In: «Mind & Language», vol. XXXII, n. 2, pp. 231-256.

Buckner, C. (2018). Empiricism without magic: Transformational abstraction in deep convolutional neural networks. In: «Synthese», vol. CXCV, n. 12, pp. 5339-5372.

Burnston, D.C. (2016). The evolution of evolutionary psychology - URL:

Burnston, D.C. (2017). Cognitive penetration and the cognition-perception interface. In: «Synthese», vol. CXCIV, n. 9, pp. 3645-3668.

Burnston, D.C. (2017). Interface problems in the explanation of action. In: «Philosophical Explorations», vol. XX, n. 2, pp. 242-258.

Burnston, D.C. (2017). Is aesthetic experience evidence for cognitive penetration?, in: «New Ideas in Psychology», vol. XLVII, pp. 145-156.

Burnston, D.C. (manuscript). There are higher-level perceptual contents, and they’re non-conceptual (in submission)

Burnston, D.C., Cohen, J. (2015). Perceptual integration, modularity, and cognitive penetration. In: J. Zeimbekis, A. Raftopoulos (eds.), Cognitive Influences on Perception: Implications for Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Action, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 123-144.

Butterfill, S.A., Sinigaglia, C. (2014). Intention and motor representation in purposive action. In: «Philosophy and Phenomenological Research», vol. LXXXVIII, n. 1, pp. 119-145.

Carruthers, P. (2015). The centered mind. What the science of working memory shows us about the nature of human thought, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ferretti, G., Zipoli Caiani, S. (2019). Solving the interface problem without translation: The same format thesis. In: «Pacific Philosophical Quarterly», vol. C, n. 1, pp. 301-333.

Fodor, J.A. (1968). The appeal to tacit knowledge in psychological explanation. In: «The Journal of Philosophy», vol. LXV, n. 20, pp. 627-640.

Fodor, J.A. (1975). The language of thought, Crowell, New York.

Fodor, J.A. (1983). The modularity of mind, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Fodor, J.A. (1987). Psychosemantics. The problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Fodor, J.A. (1998). Concepts. Where cognitive science went wrong, Oxford University Press 1998.

Fodor, J.A. (2001). The mind doesn’t work that way. The scope and limits of computational psychology, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Fodor, J.A. (2003). Hume variations, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Fodor, J.A. (2008). LOT 2: The language of thought revisited, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Fodor, J.A., Lepore, E. (1992). Holism: A shopper’s guide, Wiley, London/NewYork.

Folstein, J.R., Gauthier, I., Palmeri, T.J. (2012). How category learning affects object representations: Not all morph spaces stretch alike. In: «Journal of Experimental, Learning, Memory & Cognition», vol. XXXVIII, n. 4, pp. 807-820.

Gauker, C. (2011). Words and images: An essay on the origin of ideas, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, J.M. (2002). Unraveling mechanisms for expert object recognition: Bridging brain activity and behavior. In: «Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance», vol. XXVIII, n. 2, pp. 431-446.

Goldie, P. (2007). Seeing what is the kind thing to do: Perception and emotion in morality. In: «Dialectica», vol. LXI, n. 3, pp. 347-361.

Goldstone, R.L., Steyvers, M. (2001). The sensitization and differentiation of dimensions during category learning. In: «Journal of Experimental Psychology: General», vol. CXXX, n. 1, pp. 116-139.

Green, E.J. (forthcoming). The perception-cognition border: A case for architectural division, in: «The Philosophical Review».

Green, E.J., Quilty-Dunn, J. (2017). What is an object file?. In: «The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science», first online: 01 December 2017 – doi: 10.1093/bjps/axx055.

Gureckis, T.M., Goldstone, R.L. (2008). The effect of the internal structure of categories on perception. In: B.C. Love, K. McRae, V.M. Sloutsky (eds.), Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Cognitive Science Society, Austin (TX), pp. 1876-1881.

Landy, D., Allen, C., Zednik, C. (2014). A perceptual account of symbolic reasoning. In: «Frontiers in Psychology», vol. V, Art.Nr. 275 – doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00275.

Larkin, J.H., Simon, H. (1987). Why a diagram is (sometimes) worth ten thousand words. In: «Cognitive Science», vol. XI, n. 1, pp. 65-99.

Machery, E. (2007). Concept empiricism: A methodological critique. In: «Cognition», vol. CIV, n. 1, pp. 19-46.

Mandelbaum, E. (2017). Seeing and Conceptualizing: Modularity and the shallow contents of perception. In: «Philosophy and Phenomenological Research», vol. XCVII, n. 2, pp. 267-283.

Mylopoulos, M., Pacherie, E. (2017). Intentions and motor representations: The interface challenge. In: «Review of Philosophy and Psychology», vol. VIII, n. 2, pp. 317-336.

Mylopoulos, M., Pacherie, E. (2019). Intentions: The dynamic hierarchical model revisited. In: «Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science», vol. X, n. 2, 2019, Art.Nr. e1481 – doi: 10.1002/wcs.1481.

Nanay, B. (2016). The role of imagination in decision‐making. In: «Mind & Language», vol. XXXI, n. 1, pp. 127-143.

O’Callaghan, C. (2012). Perception and multimodality. In: E. Margolis, R. Samuels, S. Stich (eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of cognitive science, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 92-117.

Quilty-Dunn, J. (2016). Iconicity and the format of perception. In: «Journal of Consciousness Studies», vol. XXIII, n. 3-4, pp. 255-263.

Shepherd, J. (2017). Skilled action and the double life of intention. In: «Philosophy and Phenomenological Research», vol. XCVIII, n. 2, pp. 286-305.

Shyns, P.G., Rodet, L. (1997). Categorization creates functional features. In: «Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition», vol. XXIII, n. 3, pp. 681-696.

Siegel, S. (2006). Which properties are represented in perception. In: T.S. Gendler, J. Hawthorne (eds.), Perceptual experience, Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, pp. 481-503.

Silins, N. (2013). The significance of high-level content. In: «Philosophical Studies», vol. CLXII, n. 1, pp. 13-33.

Sowden, P.T., Davies, I.R.L., Roling, P. (2000). Perceptual learning of the detection of features in X-ray images: A functional role for improvements in adults’ visual sensitivity?. In: «Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance», vol. XXVI, n. 1, pp. 379-390.


Copyright (c) 2020 Daniel C. Burnston

URLdella licenza:

Rivista internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia - ISSN: 2039-4667 (print) - E-ISSN: 2239-2629 (online)

Registrazione al Tribunale di Milano n. 634 del 26-11-2010 - Direttore Responsabile: Aurelia Delfino

Web provider Aruba spa - Loc. Palazzetto, 4 - 52011 Bibbiena (AR) - P.IVA 01573850516 - C.F. e R.I./AR 04552920482

Licenza Creative Commons
Dove non diversamente specificato, i contenuti di Rivista Internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia sono distribuiti con Licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione 4.0 Internazionale.