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The representational theory of mind is the prevailing theory attempting to explain the nature of ideas, concepts and other mental content in contemporary philosophy of mind, cognitive science and experimental psychology. According to the representational theory of mind, thinking occurs within an internal system of representation. The propositional attitudes of the mind are token mental representations (i.e., mental particulars with semantic properties).

For example, when someone arrives at the belief that his or her floor needs sweeping, the representational theory of mind states that he or she forms a mental representation, one that represents the floor and its state of cleanliness. What makes this representation a belief is its functional role; it plays a function in mental processes in the way that is characteristic of beliefs. Desires and other types of attitudes have their own distinctive functional roles.[1]

In contrast to theories of naive or direct realism, the representational theory of mind postulates the actual existence of mental representations which act as intermediaries between the observing subject and the objects, processes or other entities observed in the external world. These intermediaries stand for or represent to the mind the objects of that world.

The original or "classical" representational theory probably can be traced back to Thomas Hobbes and was a dominant theme in classical empiricism in general. According to this version of the theory, the mental representations were images (often called "ideas") of the objects of states of affairs represented. For modern adherents, such as Jerry Fodor, Steven Pinker and many others, the representational system consists rather of an internal language of thought. The contents of thoughts are represented in symbolic structures (the formulas of Mentalese) which, analogously to natural languages but on a much more abstract level, possess a syntax and semantics very much like those of natural languages.


  1. ^ The Ontology of Concepts—Abstract Objects or Mental Representations?, Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence


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