Epistemological Dualism
Indirect Realism


How inner worlds are related to external reality

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … external truths
  • Knowing is … internalized truths
  • Learner is … recipient (individual)
  • Learning is … internalizing
  • Teaching is … representing


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


Representationalism is the belief that the world one perceives in one’s mind is not reality, but an internal copy/replica/representation of reality. That means there can be no first-hand knowledge of the world; every observation and every concept is an internal re-creation (of reality or truth) that is based on incomplete raw data provided by the senses. (This detail is what separates Representationalism from Realist perspectives – see Naive Realism, Critical Realism.) Constructs associated with Representationalism include:
  • Mental Representation – a hypothetical entity (i.e., projection, reconstruction, or other), presumed to be present in the mind, this is posited to reflect or represent some aspect of reality
  • Representational Thought – thought that is based on symbols – including images, words, and other abstract constructs. The term is used in two contrasting ways, one of which aligns with Representationalism (i.e., the conviction that all thought is Representational Thought) and another that merely acknowledges that symbol usage is a major aspect of conscious thought (i.e., that alphabets, numbers, images, and other symbols are useful tools, but not foundational elements of brain function).
  • Symbolic Thinking (Symbolic Processing) – the assumption, common across most Brain-as-Computer Discourses, that those ideas and imaginings that enable human thought are actual internal representations (as opposed to emergent mental phenomena, which have described by with metaphors based on physical representations)
  • Visual Thinking (Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking) – the assertion that much of cognition involves operating on mental images, based on a conviction that prominent among may Learner Trait Discourses that some people prefer using mental imagery as their principal or exclusive mode of thought


Perhaps the most popular criticism of Representationalism is that it entails “cascading homunculi”:
  • Homunculus (Homunculus Fallacy) – from the Latin for “little person,” a construct used to highlight the shortcoming of Representationism – which, in effect, requires little person inside the mind viewing the posited mental representations of external reality
  • Cascading Homunculi – extending the construct of Homunculus, and aimed at underscoring the absurdity of Representationism, Cascading Homunculi points to the need for each Homunculus to have a Humunculus, ad infinitum
That is, for a perception to make any sense, there must be someone inside one’s mind who is observing the internal representations. Dubbed a homunculus (“little man”), this entity must also have an observer in its mind, and so on. More condemning criticisms come from Neuroscience. Technologies that are able to watch the brain in real time suggest that, whatever cognition is, it is not about projecting an inner reality that mirrors the outer world.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Representationalism is more a category of theories of learning than a theory of learning itself. It encompasses all perspectives on learning that rely on an assumption that one’s internal subjective world is reflective of an external objective reality. Included among these are Cognitivism and other Brain-as-Computer Discourses, which posit that internal representations are digital encodings of reality … but representations nonetheless.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Representationalism is not a theory of teaching, but it’s probably fair to say that the belief infuses most of contemporary educational practice.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Representationalism is not a scientific theory.


  • Cascading Homunculi
  • Homunculus (Homunculus Fallacy)
  • Mental Representation
  • Representational Thought
  • Symbolic Thinking (Symbolic Processing)
  • Visual Thinking (a.k.a. Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Representationalism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List