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


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

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Representationalism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List