Volume 18, 1993
The Failure of Dennett’s Representationalism
A Wittgensteinian Resolution
Jerry Fodor begins chapter one of The Language of Thought with two claims. The first claim is that “[T]he only psychological models of cognitive processes that seem remotely plausible represent such processes as computational.” The second claim is that “[C]omputation presupposes a medium of computation: a representational system.” Together these two claims suggest one of the central theses of many contemporary representationalist theories of mind, viz. that the only remotely plausible psychology that could succeed in explaining the intentionally characterized abilities and activities of sentient creatures must refer to computationally related representations. Although “[R]emotely plausible theories are”, according to Fodor, “better than no theories at all”, representationalism is not universally regarded as a “remotely plausible theory”. In what follows I will consider what many people believe to be a significant problem facing representationalism. I will then examine two different ways that this problem can be resolved, one based on the writings of Daniel Dennett, the other on ideas found in the later writings of Wittgenstein. I will conclude that although the resolution based on Dennett’s writings fails, a resolution based on ideas found in the later writings of Wittgenstein succeeds.