This paper is concerned with representational explanations of how one experiences and acts with one’s body as an integrated whole. On the standard view, accounts of bodily experience and action must posit a corresponding representational structure: a representation of the body as an integrated whole. The aim of this paper is to show why we should instead favour the minimal view: given the nature of the body, and representation of its parts, accounts of the structure of bodily experience and action need not appeal to a representation of the body as an integrated whole. The argument proceeds by distinguishing two kinds of explanatory roles for representations: standing-in for absent targets and structuring ambiguous sensory information concerning a target. Representations of body-parts are suited to fulfil both kinds of explanatory role, whereas a representation of the body as an integrated whole is only suited to fulfil the latter, as a means of coordinating representations of body-parts. It is then argued that the structure of the body can itself serve as a means of coordinating body-part representations, rendering representation of the body as an integrated whole explanatorily superfluous.
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It should be noted that this distinction is also orthogonal to the short-term versus long-term distinction made by some (following O'Shaughnessy 1980/2008) to contrast kinds of represented spatial properties by their temporal variability.
The standard view is also assumed by neuroscientists (Berlucchi and Aglioti 1997, p. 560; Blanke 2012, p. 557; Brecht 2017, p. 991; Melzack 1990, p. 91; Petkova et al. 2011, p. 4; Serino et al. 2015, p. 11), and philosophers and neuroscientists in collaboration (Blanke and Metzinger 2009, p. 7 ff.; de Vignemont et al. 2006, p. 148). Though, of course, the degree to which non-philosophical authors are committed to what philosophers consider a viable notion of a representation is notoriously unclear.
See also the discussion of boundedness and connectedness in Bermúdez (2017, pp. 124–128). I should note that whilst Bermúdez has done more than most to illustrate the phenomena which would form the explanandum for the standard view, it is not at all clear whether his accounts of these require the notion of an integrated representation of the body (see Bermúdez 1998, Ch. 6; 2005). Bermúdez is not unique in this regard, rather it is typical of theoretical discussion concerning body representation that notion of a representation of body as an integrated whole is often, at best, implicit. Suffice to say that if theorists are tempted to endorse such a notion, I hope that my arguments will rid them of that temptation.
Indeed, with the exception of Gadsby and Williams (2018), theorists in this literature (such as Bermúdez 2005; de Vignemont 2018; Metzinger 2003; and O'Shaughnessy 1980/2008) have not provided arguments specifically designed to show that ‘body representations’ do indeed meet standard criteria for representations—let alone representations of the body as an integrated whole, which also go unmentioned in Gadsby and Williams’ (2018) discussion.
See also the discussion of metaphysical and epistemological anti-representationalist claims in Chemero (2009, pp. 67–68).
See Cummins (1989, pp. 27–34) for a discussion of why unconstrained resemblance is implausible as the basis for any general account of representation.
Thanks to a reviewer for pointing out that this assumption is rarely considered in much detail. For more on this point, see note 10 below.
I am grateful to two anonymous reviewers for noting this point.
It is, of course, rather more plausible for accounts of what figures in an individual’s understanding of the concept human body. But that is beyond the scope of the present discussion.
In addition, I would note that psychologists and neuroscientists working in this area do not typically care about whether, and, if so, how some central process of interest ought to be thought of as a representation. Rather, what they care about is whether causally intervening upon that thing’s activity affords manipulation of behaviour, and does so in a systematic fashion that reveals something about the role of that thing in generating a particular phenomenon (see e.g. Romo et al. 1998). Thus it might be plausible to say that, notwithstanding incidental use of terms such as ‘model’, many researchers in this area are not committed a structural notion of representation—what Ramsey (2007) calls ‘S-representation’—rather, they are committed to what Ramsey calls a ‘receptor’ notion of representation. This latter notion is motivated by the fact that anything sufficiently reliably correlated with (or indeed, nomically dependent upon) a specific cause can serve to represent that cause (Dretske 1981, pp. 63–82). But for many who operate with that notion, the distinction between representation and causal relay may be one without a difference, raising the question of whether the former notion is really doing explanatory work that could not be achieved in terms of the latter (Ramsey 2007, p. 142). See also Morgan (2014) for discussion.
For an overview of these approaches, see Desmurget and Grafton (2000).
In recent years, a significant split has emerged between approaches which posit models that implement a mapping from sensory to motor signals (so called inverse models, see, e.g., Wolpert and Kawato (1998)) and those that do not, in more strict accordance with a general ‘predictive coding’ account of neural architecture (see, e.g., Shipp et al. (2013)). This difference is immaterial for the present purposes, but see Pickering and Clark (2014) for discussion.
Cf. also the discussion of ‘minimal memory strategies’ in Ballard et al. (1997, p. 732).
Henrik Ehrsson’s lab uses a similar multisensory stimulation protocol to generate a body swap illusion, see Ehrsson (2007), Petkova and Ehrsson (2008). See Blanke (2012); Serino et al. (2013) for reviews. In recent work, Andrea Serino and colleagues have pursued the hypothesis that there is a “general representation of the space around the body [to] which other smaller body-part centered representations are referenced” (Serino et al. 2015, p. 11). Though this might not be, strictly speaking, a version of the standard view, there are similar issues to be worked out here, for which see (Alsmith forthcoming).
See also Longo’s (2017, p. 86 ff.) discussion of body representations being biased towards prototypical representations of the body.
See Chemero (2009) for a notable exception.
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I gratefully acknowledge the direct support of a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation (No. 89429) and the support of the French National Research Agency to the Jean Nicod Institute (ANR-16-CE28-0015, ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL). This article develops ideas mentioned in passing in article in the wonderful (but now deceased) journal Psyche, published under my previous name during my graduate studies (Smith 2009). One of the reviewers pressed me to at least mention this origin—given how far departed the current treatment is, this seems like the most appropriate place. I am also grateful to the editor, Catarina Dutilh Novaes, for so professionally managing a rather unusual set of circumstances compromising blind review and arranging a further three blinded reviewers for the journal, all of whom offered supportive and useful remarks. Versions of this material have been presented at various events in Berlin, Copenhagen, Düsseldorf, London, Marseilles and Tübingen. I am grateful to the organisers and members of the audience on each occasion, especially Chiara Brozzo, Glenn Carruthers, Sascha Fink, Thor Grunbaum, Patrick Haggard, Bigna Lenggenhager, Matt Longo, Thomas Metzinger and Hong Yu Wong. Especial thanks are due to Bernard Hommel for a usefully aggressive set of objections in Düsseldorf. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Frédérique de Vignemont for her persistent encouragement and characteristic generosity in her countless insightful comments on previous versions of this material.
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Alsmith, A.J.T. Bodily structure and body representation. Synthese 198, 2193–2222 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02200-1
- Mental representation
- Body representation
- Body schema
- Body image
- Structural properties
- Bodily sensation
- Phantom limb