Do babies represent? On a failed argument for representationalism

Synthese 200 (4):1-20 (2022)
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In order to meet the explanatory challenge levelled against non-representationalist views on cognition, radical enactivists claim that cognition about potentially absent targets involves the socioculturally scaffolded capacity to manipulate public symbols. At a developmental scale, this suggests that higher cognition gradually emerges as humans begin to master language use, which takes place around the third year of life. If, however, it is possible to show that pre-linguistic infants represent their surroundings, then the radical enactivists’ explanation for the emergence of higher cognition is defeated. In this paper, I critically assess experiments designed to show that pre-linguistic infants inherit representational abilities. I begin by outlining these experiments in Sect. 2. In Sect. 3, I argue that these experiments only succeed in supporting widespread representationalism by committing a particular kind of circular reasoning, which I call conjunctivist reasoning due to its origins in the debates about the nature of perception. I conclude by developing two independent yet congruent enactivist lines of interpretation for the experiments discussed in 2. I explain the infants’ responses to atypical experimental conditions based on agent-environment codetermination and then I argue that surprise behavior can be explained in terms of embodied habits and unfulfilled anticipation.

Author's Profile

Giovanni Rolla
Universidade Federal da Bahia


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