© 2011, Noah Sharpsteen


The central premise of concept empiricism is the denial of unique cognitive mental representations. The negative thesis applies as well to classic empiricists as it does to current ones. John Locke’s (1690) refusal to accept ‘abstract ideas’ is one way of denying unique and distinct cognitive representations. Jesse J. Prinz’s (2002) multi-modality hypothesis, according to which cognition functions on a multi-sensory code instead of a central ‘amodal’ one, is another. Both empiricist models have a common foil in a theory that posits one unique kind of ‘intellectualist’ mental representation to account for human cognitive achievements. For Locke, it was Descartes’ abstract mental medium for clear and distinct ideas and for Prinz it is Jerry Fodor’s Language of Thought. In this paper, I explore the empiricists’ denial of unique cognitive representations and argue that both Locke’s and Prinz’s theories privilege a unique representational medium – a spatial ‘code.’ As such, this tacit assumption does not entail that cognition runs on a unique medium. It does not lead to a ‘common code rationalism,’ to use Prinz’s terms, or support computational theories of the mind that privilege innate linguistic structures over sensory ones. To incorporate the idea of a spatial code more smoothly within empiricist intellectual resources, I interpret it through Lakoff’s experientialist account of categorical cognition. Through Lakoff’s embodied experientialist account – embodied neo-empiricism – the spatiality of cognition becomes founded in a broader and more plausible sensory matrix. I further suggest that Lakoff’s ideas on and use of spatial codes can be given a largely externalist reading. Lakoff’s space is not a unique cognitive one. This way, current neo-empiricism can be saved from assuming any unique internal posits including a language of thought.

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