Common for most contemporary views of Philosophy of Mind is their view of intentionality as the most fundamental feature of the mind. This view can be traced back to a proposal made by Franz Brentano in 1874 that dubs intentionality to be “the mark of the mental.” It is also related to the writings of Edmund Husserl who saw intentionality as the “essence of experience.” In this view, to be conscious is to be conscious of something. This notion of intentionality naturally yields a subject–object relationship where a subject is aware of an object, which leads to a view that can be said to be something of a hallmark of these contemporary views, namely the subject–object dichotomy.

Another feature that these views have in common is content externalism. This notion derives from the nature of the subject–object relationship which entails that the content of a subject’s mind is determined by whatever object he perceives. Thus, the content of the subject’s mind lies not in the skull but in the perceived environment. There has been an enormous amount of philosophical elaboration on this topic and a common agreement amongst contemporary philosophers (in particular linguistic–oriented ones) is that the meaning of the language is not to be found in the head of the speaker but in the external surrounding world. Some philosophers of mind even claims that consciousness itself is entirely based on external factors with the brain as a mere mediator of content.

I shall in this essay deal with an alternative to these views. This alternative is dubbed Biological Realism and I will base my discussion on Antti Revonsuo’s account of it, as it is described in his book Inner Presence (2006). (Following Revonsou, the contemporary externalistic views which I describe above will be referred to as representationalism.) The purpose is to examine whether the doctrine of representationalism is incompatible with Biological Realism or if they can co-exist. And if they can, how could such a reconciliation be accomplished? At a first glance it may seem like they are contradictory in their respective views of the determinants for mind and consciousness, but I will attempt to show that this contradiction is illusionary. To accomplish this, I will begin with a summary of the main features of Biological Realism and its metaphysical commitments. I will then turn to a comparison with the metaphysical standpoints of representationalism in an attempt to examine this supposed contradiction. Finally, I will briefly examine a philosophical theory that includes features from both these views.


Biological Realism

Biological Realism takes a somewhat different stance from contemporary accounts on the nature of consciousness. The key idea is the launching of a research program for the science of consciousness, but the view of consciousness is different from the ones found in representationalistic theories. The focus of Biological Realism is the study of subjective phenomenal experiences rather than abstract relations between the mind and external objects. The standpoint is that consciousness is to be regarded as subjective phenomenal experiences with intentional relations as a derivative from these experiences. Thus, phenomenology is regarded as the fundamental feature of the mind, not intentionality. That is, in this view, phenomenology becomes “the mark of the mental”.


Multilevel Explanations

The metaphysics behind Biological Realism is based on the notion of multilevel explanations. This notion is based on the standard methodology in biological sciences which stems from the fact that biological explanations usually looks very different from the ones in, let say, physics. This difference boils down to two somewhat opposing views on methodology in current philosophy of science: The unification approach and the mechanistic approach:

The unification approach

This is based on the common view of science, and constitutes the “standard” method in physics, for instance. It is a descendant of the so-called deductive-nomological view in philosophy of science, a view that seeks laws of nature which are as universal as possible. Such laws would provide the basis of a systematized, coherent overall picture of how the world works. In this view, scientific knowledge consists of theories and laws which are often clothed in mathematical formulas or some other idealized formal language.

The mechanistic approach

The above “standard” method of physics and similar sciences has seemingly little to do with actual practice in biological sciences (including neuroscience), according to Revonsuo. In his view, the standard mistake in current philosophy of mind is the attempt to apply this standard method of physics on the science of consciousness. If you regard consciousness as a biological phenomenon (as Biological Realism does), a science of consciousness would benefit more from adopting the methods used in biological sciences. That is, the mechanistic approach would be more fruitful then the unification approach in this matter.

What then is the mechanistic approach, and how does it differ from the unification approach? The standard method for explaining biological phenomena is the explanation of “hidden” mechanisms and structures in biological systems. This is closely related to the notion of levels: The idea of this notion is to understand a system by analyzing it different levels of organization. This concept of levels of organization is an ontological notion; that is, a notion about things that exists “out there” in the real world. In contrast, the related concept levels of description refers to the human constructions designed to capture these levels of organization in nature. In other words: Levels of organization are the phenomena that are to be described with the levels of description. The idea is that different scientific disciplines are concerned with different levels. Example of such a hierarchical level-structure:

Higher level
  • Biological phenomena.

Intermediate level

  • Chemical phenomena.

Lower level

  • Physical phenomena.

Once an interesting phenomenon is found and described at a particular level, the next step is to figure out its components, how they interact with other levels, and how they produce the observed effects on the system as a whole. From this information, the task is hereafter to build an idealized model of the system in order to reveal its general structure and the functions of its components. Such a model is referred to as a multilevel model and forms the levels of description for the system. Furthermore, in a multilevel model one distinguishes between different kinds of explanations which together constitutes the framework of multilevel explanation:


Contextual explanation

The role of the entity at a higher level of description. Answers to questions about how the phenomenon is related to other ones at that higher level.


Etiological explanation

The causal history of the explanandum. This explanation deals with the causal chain reaching from non–conscious to conscious stages of processing, but etiological explanations can be understood in other ways as well. For example, as the development from non–conscious embryo to adult human or as the evolutionary development from non–conscious to conscious creatures.


Constitutive explanation

This refers to the decomposition of the phenomenon to its constituent parts and their causal interaction at the immediate underlying lower level of description. For example: The constitutive basis of consciousness includes those lower-level entities on which consciousness is ontologically dependent. That is, the ones which consciousness could not exist without. (This in contrast to the etiological explanation: The etiological causal chain that generates phenomenal experiences can be constructed in many different ways; there is not one causal chain whose realization is an absolute necessity. This is important to realize because the view of Biological Realism is that phenomenal experiences can be caused by incoming signals from the external world as well as internal impressions generated by the dreaming brain.)

The key idea of Biological Realism is to deliver the multilevel model for consciousness and the suggestion is that consciousness is to be found at the phenomenal level of organization in the brain (where the phenomenal experiences is supposed to be generated). (Remember, in Biological Realism, consciousness is understood as phenomenal experiences.) This raises some questions about the metaphysics of Biological Realism:


The Metaphysics of Biological Realism

A metaphysical analysis of Biological Realism raises three questions in general (as all theories of mind do):

  • What are phenomenal objects?
  • How are they perceived?
  • Who carries out the act of perceiving? A homunculus?

These are all classical questions of philosophy of mind, and any theory that claims any legitimacy must be able to answer them. The standpoint of Biological Realism, however, is that these questions are all mistaken. Let me elaborate a little bit on this point: The reason for viewing these questions as mistakes are that they all are based on inaccurate presumptions: The questions presuppose a particular structure of the phenomenal level and assumes that it embodies certain relations. These presuppositions are based on mistaken applications of the notions “perception” and “object”. To perceive is to utilize a systematic causal chain between an external object or event and the phenomenal level. The famous notion of a homunculus that sits in the head and observes incoming perception is mistaken because there are no repetitions of the subject–object relation inside of the phenomenal level. Instead, the phenomenal level constitutes the last link in this perception act, and this level is the place where phenomenal experiences springs to life through organized patterns of neural activity. Important to understand is that neither the phenomenal level nor any of its parts are somehow perceived themselves. The phenomenal level generates virtual objects inside its internal, simulated world but these are not objects in the same sense as “real” external objects are. There is no subject inside the phenomenal level that perceives the virtual object; instead, the phenomenal level as a whole (including all its virtual objects) constitutes the subject. For these reasons, the nature of phenomenal objects in Biological Realism is regarded as self-presenting.


Comparison with Representationalism: Representationalism Revisited

As we have seen, the philosophical assumptions of representationalistic theories involves the view that mental states are about something – they represents something external to mind. This is a position widely held in analytical philosophy of language, partly because it is easy to combine with the notion that a public language needs public meaning. (Otherwise it would be hard to explain how we can understand one another – there is a linguistic need for objective meaning to our words that our language can refer to.) Apart from this use in philosophy of language, it is also widely used in philosophy of mind and its notion of content (as mentioned). Many think that the environment determines the content of the mind as the mind is directed towards external objects. In other words: The mind is intentionalistic, it is about something. The mental state of a thought determines the extension of objects in the external world. Hence, there is a necessary connection between mental states and external objects in this view.

It should be clear from what I have said so far that these representationalistic theories are totally focused on external interpretations of the mind as a system. That is, they have a tendency to take an observer–relative point of view. A prime example of this is Daniel Dennett’s intentional stance as it is presented in his article “True believers: the intentional strategy and why it works” (1981). In this view, a system is deemed intentionalistic if it behaves in a certain way (as a rational agent with beliefs, desires and so on). Clearly, this is not a theory concerned with any study of possible phenomenal experiences. Such considerations are completely redundant for Dennett; the important thing for him is the observed behavior of a system, not its internal workings.


Biological Realism: A Different Point of View

The main point that I am driving at is that these representationalistic views does not talk about phenomenal experiences at all, in contrast to Biological Realism which takes phenomenal experiences to be fundamental. They are the starting point for a science of consciousness, and such a science should therefore focus on explaining these phenomena first and foremost, according to Biological Realism. Therefore this theory focuses on phenomenal experiences that exists in the mind of a subject, not external interpretations of the subject’s language and behavior. Representationalists may use the same terminology but are clearly not talking about the same thing at all; their concept of consciousness is altogether different.


Proposal for a Reconciliation

Now, is Biological Realism compatible with these externalistic frameworks at all? Can they be reconciled? I claim that they can. To show this, let me elaborate a little bit on the concept of cognitive representations. I have not talked about these, but it is a common agreement (even in Biological Realism) that the brain contains ensembles of neurons that acts as cognitive representations of external objects. A neuroscientific account of this is to be found in, for example, M.M. Merzenich & R.C. deCharm’s text “Neural Representations, Experience and Change” (1996) in which the authors expresses the view that the nervous system (particularly the cerebral cortex) “is best understood in terms of ensembles of neurons that are used to represent the perceived world.” (p.61)

The existence of such cognitive representations are also acknowledged by Revonsuo (2006) in his claim that the brain contains lots of cognitive representations (or cortical sensory “maps”) of the external world. However, according to Revonsuo, there seems to be no necessary connections between representations and phenomenal consciousness since representations concerns the “relationship between a mental phenomenon and something else […] phenomenal consciousness per se is not dependent on them and should not be confused with them.” (p.53) This may be so, but my view is that the representations nevertheless should be viewed as a part of the etiological pathway leading up to the phenomenal level of organization (that is, a part of the immediate chain of impressions). My main point is: If we acknowledge these cognitive representations, it would allow representationalists to have there way about their view of mental content, and this content could then be viewed as the external content which these cognitive representations refers to via the etiological pathway. (This content should not be confused with phenomenal content, however. What we need is a terminology that distinguish between these different notions of content.) Alongside of this assignment of external content, we should also acknowledge an internal connection between cognitive representations and phenomenal experiences. This leads to a theory that includes both external and internal assignments (connections, associations). The external one is the one that many philosophers likes to talk about, that is, the one that concerns the “real” references of the representations. The internal account on the other hand, is solely dedicated to phenomenal experiences inside the brain according to the framework of Biological Realism.

Supporting theory: Conceptual Role Semantics

Is there any philosophical theories that supports this view? The discussion in preceding sections seems to be closely related to the philosophical dispute about wide and narrow content. A good definition of these concepts are given by Hilary Putnam in his classic work “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” (1975), in which he declares those psychological states narrow that do not presupposes the existence of anything other than the subject itself. That is, psychological states that are independent of the world outside the head are deemed as “narrow” while those that are determined by the environment are referred to as “wide”. Many philosophers have written about this dichotomy, among others Ned Block in his text “Advertisement for a Semantics for Psychology” (1994). The theory that Block advocates bear close resemblance to Biological Realism and I will therefore describe it in somewhat detail:

Block’s purpose with the mentioned text is to “advocate an approach to semantics relevant to the foundations of psychology, or, rather, one approach to one branch of psychology, namely cognitive science.” (p.81) An intention of his is to elucidate old philosophical conflicts like, for example, the debate about indexicals. That is, words that are subject-relative, like the word “I” in the sentence “I am reading”, for instance. The belief that is expressed with this sentence would in one sense have the same content regardless of the speaker (“The person who says this is reading”), but in another sense, the content would differ depending on who utters it. This corresponds to narrow and wide aspects of meaning; the content that remains the same regardless of speaker yields narrow meaning while the content that changes between speakers is the basis for wide meaning. (Block does not see them as different kinds, though. He prefers to talk about different aspects of meaning.) In this view, narrow meaning is “in the head” (it indicates supervenience on physical constitution) whereas wide meaning “depends on what individuals outside the head are referred to.” (p.85) The main point for Block is to show the need for a semantic theory that recognizes both wide and narrow aspects of meaning and content, and his proposal for such a theory is what he refers to as Conceptual Role Semantics. This theory has two components: one conceptual role component that is entirely “in the head”, and one external component that has to do with the relations between the representations in the head and the referents of these representations in the world. (For him, the exact nature of the external factor does not matter; it can be described by a causal theory of reference or by a theory of truth-conditions as long as it is compatible with the concept of narrow meaning.) (p.93)

In Block’s view, the narrow meaning is dependent on the internal roles amongst our concepts (hence the name “Conceptual Role Semantics”). However, he admits that “it is possible to take conceptual role as a part of a theory of the narrow of narrow meaning of part of the language – the non-primitive part – while appealing to some other conception of meaning of primitives.” These primitives, he asserts, can be of a phenomenal nature and derive its meaning from their sensory- content while other terms gets their meaning from “their conceptual roles to one another and to the phenomenal terms as well.” He refers to such a version of conceptual role semantics as a “mixed” conceptual role/phenomenalist theory”. (p.95) This mixed version seems to be a good match for Biological Realism as it acknowledges the importance of subjective phenomenal experiences and makes a distinction between this internal aspect and the external, observer-relative one.



The intention of this inquiry was to compare the traditional representationalistic view of the mind and the more biologically oriented theory of Biological Realism and to investigate the possibility of a reconciliation between them. Their respective views of the essence of consciousness seems to make the two doctrines incompatible: Representationalism often take an observer-relative view in its analysis of mind and consciousness as their theories revolves around the relation between the mind and the environment. Biological Realism, on the other hand, focuses on the subjective phenomenal experiences and equates these with consciousness. One purpose with this essay was to find a way to reconcile these seemingly opposing views.

I found the essential difference between the two views to be their viewpoint on consciousness; representationalists generally take an observer-relative stand while Biological Realism instead focuses on subjective phenomenal experiences. As a matter of fact, this difference seems to enable compatibility between the two doctrines since they do not seem to talk about the same thing at all in their respective analysis. Hence, the two views are not necessarily exclusive. A proper reconciliation can then be accomplished with the utilization of the cognitive representations inside our brain that are supposed to represent the world: Representationalists can use them for an external or observer-relative interpretation, that is, they can view them as representations that denotes objects in the environment in a fashion that satisfies their desiderata for their theories. On the other hand, these cognitive representations can also be viewed as a part of the etiological pathway leading up to the phenomenal level of consciousness. This latter usage yields a connection between cognitive representations and phenomenal experiences in a way that makes them a part of an internal interpretation alongside the external one. This allows us to make use of both external and internal aspects (or wide and narrow aspects in philosophical terms –an example of a theory that already incorporates both these aspects is Block’s Conceptual Role Semantics). In this way we can build up a formal theory of meaning that takes both these aspects into account. The development of such a theory should be a priority for future theoretical research on this topic.


  • Block, N. (1994) Advertisement for a semantics for psychology. In S. P. Stich & T. A. Warfield, (Eds.), Mental representation : a reader (pp. 81‒141). Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1981/1997) True believers: the intentional strategy and why it works. In J. Haugeland, (Ed.), Mind design II (pp. 57‒79). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Merzenich,
  • M. M., & deCharms, R. C. (1996). Neural representations, experience, and change. In R. Llinás & P. S. Churchland, (Eds.), The mind-brain continuum (pp. 61‒81). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Putnam, H. (1975/2002) The meaning of “meaning”. In Chalmers D. J., (Ed.), Philosophy of mind: classical and contemporary readings (pp. 581‒596). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Revonsuo, A. (2006). Inner presence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.