Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Problem of Representations

One of the main methodologies in cognitive science is functional analysis (Cummins, 1983), which involves analyzing functions into organized systems of simpler subfunctions.  In order to ensure that this methodology provides explanations, the lowest level of the analysis must be subsumed into physical mechanisms (Cummins, 1983; Dawson, 1998; Dennett, 1978; Fodor, 1968).  This bottom level of primitive functions is called the functional architecture of cognition.

The problem of representations (Cummins, 1989) is in essence determining the nature of the architecture of cognition.  “Although we know that states of and processes in the nervous system play the role of representations in biological systems, it is an open question just which states and processes are involved in which activities and how” (Cummins, 1989).  Cummins goes on to suggest that there are four general classes of solutions to this problem: (1) Mental stuff and physical stuff have the same form; (2) Mental representations are mental images; (3) Mental representations are symbols; and (4) Mental representations are neurophysiological states.  However, this general approaches can each yield a variety of candidate architectures. Dawson (1998, Table 6-1, p. 170) provides an incomplete list of candidate architectures – a list of 24 different proposals!

It is important to distinguish between the problem of representation (singular) and the problem of representations (plural) – they are very different problems, both discussed by Cummins (1989), and both given their own entry in this dictionary.


  1. Cummins, R. (1983). The Nature Of Psychological Explanation. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
  2. Cummins, R. (1989). Meaning And Mental Representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Dawson, M. R. W. (1998). Understanding Cognitive Science. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  4. Dennett, D. (1978). Brainstorms. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  5. Fodor, J. A. (1968). Appeal to tacit knowledge in psychological explanation. Journal of Philosophy, 65(20), 627-640.

(Added October 2010)