A. Riegler, M. Peschl & A. von Stein (eds.)
Understanding Representation in the Cognitive Sciences
Plenum Academic / Kluwer Publishers
Currently a paradigm shift is occurring in which the traditional view of the brain as representing the "things of the world" is challenged in several respects. The present volume is placed at the edge of this transition. Based on the 1997 conference "New Trends in Cognitive Science" in Vienna, Austria, it tries to collect and integrate evidence from various disciplines such as philosophy of science, neuroscience, computational approaches, psychology, semiotics, evolutionary biology, social psychology etc., to foster a new understanding of representation.
The subjective experience of an outside world seems to suggest a mapping process where environmental entities are projected into our mind via some kind of transmission. While a profound critique of this idea is nearly as old as philosophy, it has gained considerable support with the advancement of empirical science into the study of mental processes. Evidence such as the discovery of single cells that respond to particular environmental features, or specific areas of the brain that light up during specific mental processes in imaging studies, have supported the notion of a mapping process, and provided a deep foundation for materialism and "localism".
But the idea of a clear and stable reference between a representational state (e.g., in a neuron, a Hebbian ensemble, an activation state, etc.) and the environmental state has become questionable. Already, we know that learned experiences and expectations can have an impact on the neural activity that is as strong as the stimulus itself. Since these internally stored experiences are constantly changing, the notion of referential representations is challenged. The goal of this book is to discuss the phenomenon of representation on various levels of investigation, as well as its implications.
In order to give much room to conceptual and epistemological questions (and less to technical details) the book starts with our position paper "Does Representation Need Reality?" It opens the ground in reviewing evidence that create problems for the conventional understanding of representations. The paper also summarizes the rationale for the selection of contributions to this volume, which will roughly proceed from relatively "realist" conceptions of representation to more "constructivist" interpretations. The final chapter of discussions, taped during and at the end of the conference, provides the reader with the possibility to reflect upon the different approaches and thus contributes to better and more integrative understanding of their thoughts and ideas.
This book has a truly interdisciplinary character. It is presented in a form that is readily accessible to professionals and students alike across the cognitive sciences such as neuroscience, computer science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. We hope that it will pave the way for a better understanding of representation and inspire its readers in their field of study.
We have greatly benefit from the Austrian Society of Cognitive Science which attracted both the idealism of participants and the money of financiers. It pleases us very much to thank the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Transport and the Arts, the former Christian Doppler Laboratory for Expert Systems (Vienna University of Technology), the Österreichische Forschungsgemeinschaft, and the City of Vienna. Alex Riegler acknowledges the financial support of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, project number 5722/4. The title graphics is reproduced with kind permission of Amanda Heitler (nee Pask). Last, but not least, we would like to thank the following people who have been involved in the process of preparing this book: Liane Gabora, Brigitte Römmer, Johannes Sarnthein, and Véronique Wilquet.
The Editors, March 1999
Overview of contributions