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Representationism or Representative Theory of Perception, also known as indirect realism, epistemological dualism, the veil of perception, and representationalism, is a philosophical theory of knowledge based on the assertion that the mind cannot directly perceive objects in the external world, but perceives them instead as mental images, ideas or "representations." A barrier, or “veil of perception,” between the mind and the existing world, prevents first-hand knowledge of anything beyond it.

The question then arises about the validity of human knowledge, and how accurately the perceived mental images and ideas actually correspond to their counterparts in the external world. The doctrine, which is still under discussion in some modern philosophical circles, arose from the seventeenth-century dualism of Descartes, the eighteenth-century empiricism of John Locke and David Hume, and the idealism of Immanuel Kant. Indirect realists, unlike idealists, believe that our ideas come from sense data acquired through experiences of a real, material, external world. In any act of perception, the immediate (direct) object of perception is only a sense-datum that represents an external object.


The earliest reference to indirect realism is found in Aristotle’s description of how the eye is affected by changes in an intervening medium rather than by objects themselves. He reasoned that the sense of vision itself must be self-aware, and concluded by proposing that the mind consists of thoughts, and calls the images in the mind "ideas."

The concept of indirect realism raises epistemological problems, such as solipsism (the denial of any reality outside of the individual human mind) and skepticism about the existence of the external world. Nonetheless, Indirect realism has been popular in the history of philosophy and has been developed by many philosophers including Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, René Descartes, and John Locke.[1]

Representationalism is one of the key assumptions of cognitivism in psychology.

Difficulties with Representative Realism


One difficulty of representationalism is that if simple data flow and information processing is assumed, then something in the brain, described as a homunculus, must be doing the perceiving, suggesting that some physical effect or phenomenon other than simple data flow and processing of information might be involved in perception. This was not an issue for the rationalist philosophers such as Descartes, since Cartesian dualism posited a supernatural "homunculus" in the form of the soul. For those who reject the existence of a soul, explaining precisely what it is that “sees” and interprets the representation is problematic. If the transfer of information into a "mind" is taken as the only explanation of how we “see,” the result is the “homunculus fallacy,” or “little man fallacy;” the concept that there must be a theoretical personality (little man) in the mind which processes the perceptual information. In order to process the incoming data, such a “little man” would require another “little man,” or theoretical personality, in its own mind, and so on in infinite regress. Since this argument is obviously flawed, either representationalism is an incomplete or invalid description of perception, or some supernatural intervention or non-materialist, physicalist explanation is needed. Aristotle’s solution was to propose that ideas themselves (representations) must be aware, and that there is no further transfer of sense impressions beyond ideas.



Another difficulty with representationism is that, since we only have knowledge of the representations of our perceptions, we have no way of showing that these perceptions resemble in any significant way the objects to which they are supposed to correspond. Any person perceiving a representation in his brain would need to interact with the represented objects in order to identify them with the representation. According to this theory, the external world is only to be inferred, and each individual must learn about the relations between his electrochemical perceptions and the world.

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A difficulty arises when attempting to explain reference using representationalism.
If I say "I see the Eiffel Tower" at a time when I am indeed looking at the Eiffel Tower, to what does the term "Eiffel Tower" refer? I might wish to say it refers to the Eiffel Tower, but in the representational account, since I am not seeing the actual tower, presumably I am referring to our sense experience of the Eiffel Tower. This would mean that when I refer to the Eiffel Tower, I am referring to my sense experience of it; but when you refer to the Tower, you are referring to your own sense experience. Therefore when each of us refers to the Eiffel Tower, we are not referring to the same thing — an apparent absurdity. The problem is similar to each of us seeing a picture of the Eiffel Tower on our own television; we should be aware that our televisions might be different.

Representative Realism of Bertrand Russell

Representative realism does, unlike naïve realism, take into account sense data (the way in which the object is interpreted, not simply the objective, mathematical object). This invokes the “veil of perception,” wherein we are unsure the table we look at exists because there is no direct objective proof of its existence. The table I'm looking at appears to have a particular shape to me, due to my angle of vision, and to have a particular color due to the way in which the light bounces off of it relative to my position, and that appearance differs from the appearance of the table as seen by the person next to me. Each of us sees not the actual table, but an appearance of it which merely represents an actual table.

The representative theory of perception states that we do not perceive the external world directly; instead we perceive our personal interpretation of an object by way of sense data. A naïve realist assumes she sees the dog upon perceiving a dog, whereas a representative realist assumes she sees a sensory representation of the dog upon perceiving a dog.

The external world is real and continues to exist unobserved. We are only aware of it indirectly; our perception of the external world is mediated by way of sense data such as photons and sound waves. We perceive a representation of reality (not the reality itself); this has been given many names: ideas, sense data, percept or appearance. Representative realism is the idea that our perceptions are directly caused by the intrinsic qualities of objects, and based on these perceptions we can infer things about these objects.

John Locke

The seventeenth century philosopher John Locke was a strong proponent of this theory. He used the term "idea" in his theory of perception to mean roughly the same thing as “sense-datum.”

John Locke thought objects had two classes of qualities:

  • Primary qualities were qualities which were 'explanatorily basic;' they could be referred to as the explanation for other qualities or phenomena without requiring explanation themselves. They were distinct in that human sensory experience of them resembled them in reality. (For example, one perceived an object as spherical precisely because of the way the atoms of the sphere were arranged.) Primary qualities could not be removed by either thought or physical action, and included mass, movement, and, controversially, solidity (although later proponents of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities usually discounted solidity).
  • Secondary qualities were qualities which one's experience did not directly resemble; for example, when one saw an object as red, the sensation of seeing redness was not produced by some quality of redness in the object, but by the arrangement of atoms on the surface of the object which reflected and absorbed light in a particular way. Secondary qualities included color, smell, and taste.


In contemporary philosophy, epistemological dualism has come under sustained attack by philosophers like Wittgenstein (the "private language" problem) and Wilfrid Sellars in his "The Myth of the Given."

Indirect realism is argued to be problematical because of “Ryle's regress” (The Concept of Mind, 1949), a paradox similar to the homunculus fallacy in which every intelligent act is preceded and directed by another, internal theoretical operation in which the agent considers and compares several propositions, ad infinitum. That, and the apparent need for a homunculus, has led some philosophers to abandon realism and suggest the existence of dualism; and others to propose, or suggest that some form of new physics is operating in the brain such as quantum mind, or space-time theories of consciousness.

See also




  • Adam Wager. 1999. "The extra qualia problem: synaesthesia and representationism." Philosophical Psychology 12 (3): 263.
  • Bergman, M. 2007. "Representationism and Presentationism." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 43 (1): 53-89.
  • Harold I. Brown, "Direct Realism, Indirect Realism, and Epistemology." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (2) (June 1992): 341-363.
  • McCreery, Charles. 2006). "Perception and Hallucination: the Case for Continuity." Philosophical Paper No. 2006-1. Oxford: Oxford Forum. An analysis of empirical arguments for representationalism. Online PDF. Retrieved July 14, 2007.
  • Ryle, Gilbert. 1949. The concept of mind. London: Hutchinson's University Library. ISBN 0090238923
  • Tomberlin, James E. 1997. Language, mind, and ontology. Philosophical perspectives, Vol. 12. Oxford, UK: B. Blackwell.

External Links

All links retrieved December 7, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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