Agency, Perception and Representation

Agency is essentially an intentional phenomenon, and throughout our investigations of agency we appeal to intentional and perhaps more broadly representational notions.

About the project

In this project we will explicitly address questions concerning this fundamental feature of agency. In doing so, we continue work begun in our existing project “The Metaphysics of Mind in Nature.” However, we now think there are two particularly promising strategies for making substantive progress. The first considers the bearing of cognitive psychology on our understanding of the intentional aspect of agency. The second is more broadly philosophical, though cognitive psychology plays an important role in gauging the relevance of philosophical hypotheses and proposals.

1) Representation in Perceptual Psychology

Some philosophers and psychologists hold that representational notions are acceptable as theoretical terms only if they can be explicated in terms of (say) causal covariation, biological function or information theoretic notions. In contrast, Burge (2010) argues that the notion of representation actually employed in the explanatory practice of perceptual psychology cannot be explicated in this way. This practice, he argues, starts out from the assumption that individuals have approximately accurate perception. Furthermore, it makes essential use of a distinctively psychological notion of representation in explaining how these perceptions are formes. We will investigate and essess this promising line of argument.


We propose to:

  • establish whether scientists really do invoke distinctively psychologial notions of representation ("non-deflationary" notions), and whether their explanations deman it (cf. Gallistel 1990, 1996);
  • consider whether the explanations of perceptual psychology can provide independent justification for treating perception as a representational competence.
  • determine whether explanations invoking non-deflationary notions might be seen as "second-grade", as Hartry Field (following Quine) has argued.


2) Representation and the Natural Order

In this part, we will develop a “best systems” approach to linguistic and mental reference, inspired by David Lewis’s treatment of objective probabilities. Our point of departure is the idea that there are many folk-psychological theories which differ in the contents they attribute to our words and thoughts, while agreeing on the other matters on which representation supervenes. These “systems” differ in their simplicity, generality and possibly along other theoretical dimensions as well. In the simplest case, one system is better than all of the others, overall, and the content of a representation is whatever this best system attributes to it.


Specifically, we propose to:

  • consider how the choice of the supervenience base affects the resulting account. Can this fill the need in vision science, identified by Burge, for an inflationary notion of reference?
  • establish which are the relevant theoretical dimensions and how they combine to enable overall evaluation of systems. Morreau (2010) discusses questions about aggregation of dimensions that we will have to consider here;
  • evaluate the resulting account with reference to problems encountered by earlier naturalistic proposals, including those of Dretske, Fodor and Millikan.
Published Jan. 20, 2012 3:11 PM - Last modified Feb. 1, 2012 9:02 AM