Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp 317–336 | Cite as

Intentions and Motor Representations: the Interface Challenge

  • Myrto MylopoulosEmail author
  • Elisabeth Pacherie


A full account of purposive action must appeal not only to propositional attitude states like beliefs, desires, and intentions, but also to motor representations, i.e., non-propositional states that are thought to represent, among other things, action outcomes as well as detailed kinematic features of bodily movements. This raises the puzzle of how it is that these two distinct types of state successfully coordinate. We examine this so-called “Interface Problem”. First, we clarify and expand on the nature and role of motor representations in explaining intentional action. Next, we characterize the respective functions of intentions and motor representations, the differences in representational format and content that these imply, and the interface challenge these differences in turn raise. We then evaluate Butterfill and Sinigaglia’s (2014) recent answer to this interface challenge, according to which intentions refer to action outcomes by way of demonstrative deference to motor representations. We present some worries for this proposal, arguing that, among other things, it implicitly presupposes a solution to the problem, and so cannot help to resolve it. Finally, we suggest that we may make some progress on this puzzle by positing a “content-preserving causal process” taking place between intentions and motor representations, and we offer a proposal for how this might work.


Lexical Decision Task Motor Representation Motor Schema Interface Problem Action Concept 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Elisabeth Pacherie’s work was supported by grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*.

Myrto Mylopoulos would like to thank audiences at the Institut Jean Nicod PaCS workshop and the Carleton University philosophy colloquium for useful discussion. Elisabeth Pacherie would like to thank the audience at the Spring School on Action in Tübingen.

Both authors are grateful to Daniel Burnston for helpful comments on an earlier draft.


  1. Arbib, M.A. 1981. Perceptual structures and distributed motor control. In Handbook of Physiology – The Nervous System II, ed. V.B. Brooks, 1449–1480. American Physiological Society: Motor Control.Google Scholar
  2. Arbib, M. A. 2003. Schema theory. The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks (second ed.), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 993–998.Google Scholar
  3. Arbib, M.A. 2008. From grasp to language: embodied concepts and the challenge of abstraction. Journal of Physiology, Paris 102(1): 4–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bach, K. 1978. A representational theory of action. Philosophical Studies 34(4): 361–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Banks, G., P. Short, J. Martinez, R. Latchaw, G. Ratcliff, and F. Boller. 1989. The alien hand syndrome: clinical and postmortem findings. Archives of Neurology 46: 456–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brand, M. 1984. Intending and acting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bratman, M. 1987. Intention, plans, and practical reason. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Braun, D.A., A. Aertsen, D.M. Wolpert, and C. Mehring. 2009. Motor task variation induces structural learning. Current Biology 19(4): 352–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Braun, D.A., C. Mehring, and D.M. Wolpert. 2010. Structure learning in action. Behavioural Brain Research 206(2): 157–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Butterfill, S., and C. Sinigaglia. 2014. Intention and motor representation in purposive action. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 88(1): 119–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Campbell, J. 2002. Reference and Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Castiello, U., Y. Paulignan, and M. Jeannerod. 1991. Temporal dissociation of motor responses and subjective awareness. A study in normal subjects. Brain 114(Pt 6): 2639–2655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clark, A. 2013. Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36(03): 181–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Clark, M.A., A.S. Merians, A. Kothari, H. Poizner, B. Macauley, R.L.J. Gonzalez, and K.M. Heilman. 1994. Spatial planning deficits in limb apraxia. Brain 117: 1093–1106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Davidson, D. 1980. Essays on actions and events. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Davis, L.H. 1994. Action. In A companion to the philosophy of mind, ed. S. Guttenplan, 111–117. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  17. De Renzi, E., and F. Lucchelli. 1988. Ideational apraxia. Brain 111(5): 1173–1185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Della Sala, S. 2005. The anarchic hand. The Psychologist 18(10): 606–609.Google Scholar
  19. Desmurget, M., and S. Grafton. 2000. Forward modeling allows feedback control for fast reaching movements. Trends in Cognitive Science 4: 423–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Friston, K. 2011. What is optimal about motor control? Neuron 72(3): 488–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodale, M.A., D. Pélisson, and C. Prablanc. 1986. Large adjustments in visually guided reaching do not depend on vision of the hand or perception of target displacement. Nature 320: 748–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gopnik, A., C. Glymour, D.M. Sobel, L.E. Schulz, T. Kushnir, and D. Danks. 2004. A theory of causal learning in children: causal maps and Bayes nets. Psychological Review 111(1): 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hauk, O., I. Johnsrude, and F. Pulvermüller. 2004. Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex. Neuron 41(2): 301–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hayakawa, Y., T. Fujii, A. Yamadori, K. Meguro, and K. Suzuki. 2015. A case with apraxia of tool use: selective inability to form a hand posture for a tool. Brain and Nerve 67(3): 311–316.Google Scholar
  25. Hohwy, J. 2013. The predictive mind. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Israel, D., J. Perry, and S. Tutiya. 1993. Executions, motivations and accomplishments. The Philosophical Review 102: 515–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jacob, P., and M. Jeannerod. 2003. Ways of Seeing, the Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jeannerod, M. 1997. The cognitive neuroscience of action. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Inc..Google Scholar
  29. ——— 2006. Motor Cognition: What actions tell the self. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kiefer, M., and F. Pulvermüller. 2012. Conceptual representations in mind and brain: theoretical developments, current evidence and future directions. Cortex 48: 805–825.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Levine, J. 2010. Demonstrative thought. Mind & Language 25(2): 169–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lucas, C.G., S. Bridgers, T.L. Griffiths, and A. Gopnik. 2014. When children are better (or at least more open-minded) learners than adults: developmental differences in learning the forms of causal relationships. Cognition 131(2): 284–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lycan, W.G. 1996. Consciousness and experience. Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.Google Scholar
  34. Maloney, L.T., and P. Mamassian. 2009. Bayesian decision theory as a model of human visual perception: testing Bayesian transfer. Visual Neuroscience 26: 147–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mele, A. 1992. Springs of action. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Milner, A.D., and M.A. Goodale. 1995. The visual brain in action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Nanay, B. 2013. Between perception and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ochipa, C., S.Z. Rapcsack, L.M. Maher, L.J.G. Rothi, D. Bowers, and K.M. Heilman. 1997. Selective deficit of praxic imagery in ideomotor apraxia. Neurology 49: 474–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Orbán, G., and D.M. Wolpert. 2011. Representations of uncertainty in sensorimotor control. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 21(4): 629–635.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Orbán, G., J. Fiser, R.N. Aslin, and M. Lengyel. 2008. Bayesian learning of visual chunks by human observers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(7): 2745–2750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pacherie, E. 2006. Towards a dynamic theory of intentions. In Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? An Investigation of the Nature of Volition, eds. S. Pockett, W.P. Banks, and S. Gallagher, 145–167. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  42. Pacherie, E. 2008. The phenomenology of action: A conceptual framework. Cognition 107: 179–217.Google Scholar
  43. Pacherie, E. 2011. Nonconceptual representations for action and the limits of intentional control. Social Psychology 42(1): 67–73.Google Scholar
  44. Perfors, A., J.B. Tenenbaum, T.L. Griffiths, and F. Xu. 2011. A tutorial introduction to Bayesian models of cognitive development. Cognition 120(3): 302–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Pulvermüller, F., O. Hauk, V.V. Nikulin, and R.J. Ilmoniemi. 2005. Functional links between motor langauge systems. European Journal of Neuroscience 21: 793–797.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Reason, J. 1990. Human error. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Schmidt, R.A. 1975. A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review 82(4): 225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. ——— 2003. Motor schema theory after 27 years: reflections and implications for a new theory. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 74(4): 366–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Searle, J.R. 1983. Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shepherd, J. 2014. The contours of control. Philosophical Studies 170(3): 395–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tenenbaum, J.B., and T.L. Griffiths. 2001. Structure learning in human causal induction. In Advances in neural information processing systems, vol 13, eds. T. Leen, T. Dietterich, and V. Tresp, 59–65. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  52. Tenenbaum, J.B., C. Kemp, T.L. Griffiths, and N.D. Goodman. 2011. How to grow a mind: statistics, structure, and abstraction. Science 331(6022): 1279–1285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Ungerleider, L.G., and M. Mishkin. 1982. Two cortical visual systems. In Analysis of visual behavior, eds. D.J. Ingle, M.A. Goodale, and R.J.W. Mansfield, 549–586. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  54. Willems, R.M., L. Labruna, M. D’Esposito, R. Ivry, and D. Casasanto. 2011. A functional rôle for the motor system in language understanding: evidence from theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation. Psychological Science 22: 849–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wolpert, D.M., Z. Ghahramani, and M.I. Jordan. 1995. An internal model for sensorimotor integration. Science 269(5232): 1880–1882.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wolpert, D.M., R.C. Miall, and M. Kawato. 1998. Internal models in the cerebellum. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2(9): 338–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wolpert, D.M., J. Diedrichsen, and J.R. Flanagan. 2011. Principles of sensorimotor learning. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12(12): 739–751.Google Scholar
  58. Wu, W. (2015). Experts and deviants: the story of agentive control. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 90(3), online first.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut Jean Nicod, CNRS UMR 8129, Institut d’Etude de la CognitionÉcole Normale Supérieure & PSL Research UniversityParisFrance
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy and Institute of Cognitive ScienceCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada

Personalised recommendations