Norwegian version of this page

Agency, Perception and Representation (completed)

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

About the project

In this project we explicitly addressed questions concerning this fundamental feature of agency. In doing so, we continued work begun in our project “The Metaphysics of Mind in Nature.”

We started out with what we thought of as 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.

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 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 can not 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 investigated and essessed this line of argument.


We proposed 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.

Representation and the Natural Order

In this part, we developed a “best systems” approach to linguistic and mental reference, inspired by David Lewis’s treatment of objective probabilities. Our point of departure was 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.


We proposed 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. 
  • Evaluate the resulting account with reference to problems encountered by earlier naturalistic proposals, including those of Dretske, Fodor and Millikan.


The project was hosted by the completed Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN). 

Published Oct. 9, 2020 10:44 AM - Last modified Nov. 27, 2020 9:33 AM