The Formats of Mental Representation. Explaining Differences in Human and Nonhuman Animal Thought

PhD project Michael O'Leary

This PhD project strives to contribute to the current debate in the philosophy of mind regarding the formats of mental representation, i.e. the inner workings of the mind. In that debate two formats of mental representation have traditionally been on offer: On the one hand, the sententialist view, according to which the structure of mental states resembles that of sentences in natural languages; on the other the pictorialist view, according to which mental states are images in the mind. Contrasting the two traditional contenders, this project investigates a third format that has appeared in the debate only recently: cartographic mental representation.

The notion of cartographic mental representation is not only a philosophical concept, but also appears in the literature of cognitive psychology and ethology, where behavioural studies on the navigational skills of many animal species, including honey bees, suggest animals mentally represent their environment by means of “cognitive maps”. This empirical research can be employed to address the philosophical puzzle as to what distinguishes human from nonhuman animals with regard to their cognitive abilities. One central question of the PhD project is thus whether we can explain cognitive limitations of nonhuman animals, as opposed to humans, by means of the distinction between (animal) cartographic mental representation and an (exclusively human) capacity to mentally represent sentential contents.

This project is supervised by Markus Wild (Basel) and Elisabeth Camp (Rutgers).