Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Development of Representations: The Origins of Mental Life

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Development of Representations: The Origins of Mental Life

Article excerpt


Developmental psychology, like anthropological psychology, has allowed us to see that others, including the young, must be described not merely as failed attempts to achieve modern adult norms but as peoples in their own right. Secondly, it has shown that the structures and processes needed for the explanation of adult minds, specifically symbolic representational systems, cannot be assumed to be present in children. In this paper I examine the notion of representation and its role in cognitive theory. The representational theory of mind simply takes for granted the existence of such representational states and processes as symbol use, belief, meaning and intention. The problem for developmental psychology is to explain the origin and development of such states. A sequence of developments is proposed which would have the effect of reworking the elementary sensorymotor schemata present at birth and which are causal in nature into the propositional representational states which develop in twoto four - year - olds and which operate on the basis of meaning, significance and intentionality. The theory is used to explain a series of intellectual achievements of young children.

In her introduction to this symposium Callaghan (this issue) cited the contradictory claims of Wundt and Baldwin as to the relation between developmental theory and general psychological theory, Wundt claiming that development cannot be studied fruitfully without reference to adult norms and Baldwin that adult norms can be understood only in terms of their developmental history. In my view both are right. A theory of adult cognition is required if we are to understand developmental changes as solutions to problems which are more or less universal and which have been solved in particular ways by adults in that culture.

Equally important, however, is the significance of developmental theory for theories of adult cognition. Baldwin's claim was that no process can be understood unless we understand how it came to be -- a view which would be hotly contested by structuralists who insist that we distinguish synchronic from diachronic descriptions. That, after all, was what made possible the development of modern semantic theory as opposed to the traditional etymological accounts of word and sentence meaning.

Developmental studies make at least two other contributions to general psychology. First, they help free us from our adult ethnocentrism which sees all members of all cultures other than the currently dominant one as faltering steps toward or failed attempts at achieving modern adult norms by insisting that other cultural or age groups be understood on their own terms and in their own rights. That, after all, was the legacy of modern anthropology to cultural studies and it was the legacy of Piaget to developmental studies.

But secondly, developmental studies may permit us to critically examine the underlying assumptions about mental functions and to either reject them as unwarranted or, in the best case, provide a basis for justifying them. This is the case for the topic I shall develop, namely, the assumption that the mind is a representational system, a system which operates on the basis of symbols and meanings rather than simply chemical and biological causes. The Problem

A central question in cognitive psychology is how the brain, which is a purely physical - biological causal system, can ever produce or come to be a mental system, one which operates on the basis of meanings, beliefs and intentions. It seems inescapable that we experience the actions of ourselves and others in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions -- mental states -- and yet as scientists we are committed to the view that the brain is a purely causal system. How are we to reconcile these seemingly incommensurable notions?

We are all familiar with the traditional alternatives. Abolish the notion of mind as the behaviourists attempted to do and explain behaviour in terms of complex causal states which reflect accumulated patterns of experienced objects and events. …

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