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 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
  • Multiple Trace Theory (Gordon Bower, 1960s) – a perspective on concept construction founded on the assumption that every experience has its own memory “trace” – that is, each experience is neurally encoded. Percepts and concepts arise as one knits together multiple-trace representations drawn from one’s vast and ever-growing pool of memory traces.
  • Neural Representation – the manner in which personal knowings are instantiated in the associations and activities among neurons – interpretations of which vary dramatically. Among Brain-as-Computer Discourses, Neural Representation is most often understood in terms of a literal internal modeling of the external world. In contrast, among Cybernetic-Systems Discourses, Neural Representation is understood in terms of emergent and dynamic co-activity of neurons and brain regions. Within education, there is a pronounced tendency to lean toward the former naïve interpretation.
  • 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. Closely associated constructs include:
    • Mind’s Eye (Mentis Oculi) (Cicero, c. 50 BCE) – the imagined ability to “see” a world (or a model of the world) inside one’s head.
    • Visual Memory – a popular version of Representationalism, whereby memories are described as retention, recording, encoding, or other storage of visual information as images that are “seen” from within … presumably by a Homunculus (see below)
  • World Simulation Metaphor (Antti Revonsuo, 2000s) – a model of consciousness based on the metaphor of “experienced world as virtual reality” – that is, one’s sense of the world is seen as a simulation in the brain


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 Representationalism – 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 Representationalism, 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. associated critiques include:
  • Cartesian Theater (Daniel Dennett, 1990s) – a derisive term, based on “Theater of Consciousness” (see below) that was coined to highlight remnants of Representationalism in contemporary theories of mind. (The word “Cartesian” is a reference to René Descartes, whose philosophy figures prominently among Correspondence Discourses. See Cartesianism, under Rationalism.) Associated discourses include:
    • Cartesian Materialism (Daniel Dennett, 1990s) – in derisive term that is nearly synonymous to Representationalism. It refers to the common-sense belief that one’s conscious experience at any given moment can be located in the brain – that is, that somewhere in the brain there is a clear and coherent representation of everything one is consciously perceiving.
    • Theater of Consciousness – a popular metaphor of consciousness, by which bits of conscious awareness are seen as analogous to actors and nonconscious processes are seen as support staff and audience.
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. All this said, it is important to note the not all discourses on learning that invoke metaphors of “internal representations” and “brain contents” should be subject to the above critiques:
  • (Theory of) Mental Content – any perspective that deliberately uses the metaphor of “content” to describe and explain mental states or functions. Many prominent Coherence Discourses, such as Schema Theory, fall into this category. (Note: By this definition, Representationalism is not a Theory of Mental Content, since it uses notions of “content” or “representation” literally rather than metaphorically.)

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.


  • Cartesian Materialism
  • Cartesian Theater
  • Cascading Homunculi
  • Homunculus (Homunculus Fallacy)
  • (Theory of) Mental Content
  • Mental Representation
  • Mind’s Eye (Mentis Oculi)
  • Multiple Trace Theory
  • Neural Representation
  • Representational Thought
  • Symbolic Thinking (Symbolic Processing)
  • Theater of Consciousness
  • Visual Memory
  • Visual Thinking (Visual–Spatial Learning; Picture Thinking; Real-Picture Thinking)
  • World Simulation Metaphor

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Representationalism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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