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Wennekes, J.W.

Author: Jan Willem Wennekes

Graduation: 2006 (Research master)

Department: History of Philosophy

Master's Thesis:

Wittgensteinian arguments against a causal theory of representation



Daniel Dennett and Fred Dretske are two well known philosophers who have written substantially on representation (also referred to as intentionality or aboutness). Both are under the impression that the solution for the problem of representation (i.e. how do representations manage to represent something?) will have to be constituted by a causal explanation of the processes at work. In their philosophy, they have embraced the hypothetico-deductive method of the natural sciences, which functions against the background of a causalist view on the world. Both Dennett and Dretske describe simple ‘intentional systems’, such as thermostats as having an internal state that is about an external world property (in this case the natural magnitude temperature) because of some essential causal relation between the internal state and the outside world property represented by it. I have therefore characterized their views as the causal theory of representation, since they aim to find a causal explanation for representation.

The aim of my thesis is to apply and extend Wittgenstein’s criticism on views of representation to the contemporary theories of Dennett and Dretske. In my thesis I first describe their viewpoints on representation. I then give an overview of Wittgenstein’s method of philosophy, which constitutes an entirely different approach from the scientific method both Dennett and Dretske have embraced. Instead of approaching the problem from a scientific point of view, Wittgenstein believes that the ‘problem’ of representation originates in a misunderstanding of our own language, e.g. by assuming that “because my muscles contracted” and “because I felt like it” are explanations of the same type to the question “why did you hit him?”. Two of my main arguments against the causal theory of representation are that it fails to make the distinction between (1) causes and reasons and (2) internal and external relations. Failure to appreciate these distinctions results in a number of problems within the causal theory of representation. In the fourth chapter of my thesis I discuss these differences and show how they throw a different light on the nature of representation.


Last modified:01 November 2013 2.56 p.m.