concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Representationalism is an umbrella term for a number of types of philosophy of meaning common in Western philosophy. What these approaches have in common is the belief that the meaning of a symbol is derived from the state of affairs that it represents. This theory is normally applied to the meaning of language, but also has implications for our view of other kinds of symbol. Middle Way philosophy rejects the widespread assumption that meaning can be completely explained in this way, and regards representationalism as forming a dualistic belief in contrast to expressivism.

In representationalism we are assumed to have an understanding in our minds created by a symbol, and when this understanding corresponds to a possible state of affairs in the world the symbol can be judged meaningful. One established version of this theory is the truth-conditional theory of meaning, where the meaning of language depends on our understanding of the conditions in which it would be true. However, not all representationalism is truth-conditional. The theory of the later Wittgenstein is also representationalist because it claims that the meaning of language arises from its socially accepted use - another state of affairs being represented by the language. 

In the representational way of thinking language is the paradigm of meaning, and non-representational language has to be judged meaningless along with music and non-representational art. This approach is inadequate because it divides language from other sorts of meaning, and assumes that all meaning is cognitive rather than emotional. Meaning is felt as well as understood by concrete people with bodies in specific physical situations, so a mere abstract analysis of the cognitive elements of meaning omits at least half of meaning as we actually experience it. The meaning even of a simple phrase like "the cup is on the table" depends not just on an abstract relationship between possible objects in the world, but on my specific experience and associations, including the cups and tables I most commonly use, my physical relationship to them and my feelings about them. A useful theory of meaning needs to include representation as merely one aspect of meaning and put it in a wider context, and the pragmatist theory of George Lakoff provides the beginnings of an approach that can help us do this, by building an account of meaning from our physical experience. Physical experience from the beginning includes both cognitive representation and the expression of emotion within the functions of symbols.

It is important to also recognise that representation does form an aspect of meaning for us. For example, a scientist writing a scientific paper is likely to try to put a premium on using language that accurately represents her observations and her general conclusions about trhe world based on these observations. The focus will be on representation, but nevertheless the language used by the scientist will have overtones of other sorts of meaning. Every scientist has an emotional investment in their work and is also expressing feelings and values in her use even of 'scientific' language. Other sorts of symbol might appear to represent nothing at all - e.g. a Mark Rothko painting, yet there are nevertheless "facts" communicated by the very production of a painting - that there was an artist who used certain materials and that he did not wish to use a representative approach, for example. It is the assumption that representation is all there is to meaning that is so narrow and limiting to human thought.

The negative effects of representationalism can be seen in the metaphysical obsession with "truth" that grips so many people - particularly philosophers, theologians and scientists. If we think of our language as solely representational this makes it possible to think of that language as representing a true state of affairs rather than as necessarily approximate. The idea that, say, the Qur'an, or Mao's Little Red Book, or the latest management theory represents a true state of affairs (or alternatively, that it represents a false state of affairs to be denied) leads to a very narrow approach to conditions productive of conflict. Representationalist assumptions form an essential condition for basic epistemological mistakes and thus to a basic confusion about ethics. The fact-value distinction, which dooms us to an endless quarrel between absolutism and relativism, is based on the representationalist assumption that the meaning of factual statements can be clearly related to experience in a way that values cannot, so values are 'just feelings'.

Of course, it is theoretically possible to be a representationalist and not to make these further epistemological and moral assumptions. However, in this case representationalism is still a dead end with no practical value. We can think of language as representing states of affairs without believing that those represented states of affairs can ever be true ones, yet that just leaves us in a relativistic world still without any possibility of justifying any view as more objective than another one. It is the decisive avoidance of both representationalism and expressivism that provides a way forward in avoiding other dualisms and thus uniting theory with practice.  

Links to related discussion

Language (introductory page)

Representationalism and expressivism (from thesis - scroll down to subsection iii)

Wittgenstein (from thesis)


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