Philosophers like Robert Brandom and Huw Price make a fairly sharp distinction between expression and representation (or at least expressivism and representationalism). Price goes so far as to recommend a wholesale rejection of representationalism in favor of expressivism; Brandom tries to rescue representionalism by treating it as something expressivism enables (or something like that; it's complicated.)

What's the difference? It seems fairly easy to think of representations that do not express anything (I think), how is one to think of expression as not involving representation?

2 Answers 2


As Price acknowledges in Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, "expression" and "expressivism" are misnomers, simply used to label (multiple) alternatives to representationalism, "the assumption that the linguistic items in question 'stand for' or 'represent' something non-linguistic". This requires some sort of unmediated propositional access to said something, non-inferential cognitions through immediate sensations and/or intuitions. Descartes introduced the idea in modern times, and its criticism, along with the whole idea of "immediacy" in general, is usually traced back to Hegel. According to Miller, in Phenomenology of Spirit (§§90–110) Hegel argues that "any attempt to articulate, describe, or individuate the object of knowledge invariably makes use of either universals or contextually circumscribed indexicals (“this,” “here,” “now”) which necessarily require other items of knowledge, that is, they are epistemically mediated."

In 19th century the argument was developed by Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, and through Lewis influenced Quine, Sellars and Davidson, possibly also Wittgenstein. On the continental side Hegel's argument was picked up by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Adorno among others. Sellars elaborated it perhaps the most, and made its target famous under the name of the Myth of the Given. He and Wittgenstein especially emphasized how the myth conflicts with holistic and social aspects of concept formation, and both, but especially Sellars, are Brandom's inspirations.

The pragmatist alternative to the Myth usually takes the form of inferential semantics, an elaboration on "meaning is use". At this point, even prominent reprsentationalists, like Fodor and Lepore, acknowledge (very grudgingly and derisively) in Reading Brandom that "it’s hard not to be impressed by the extent to which Inferential Role Semantics is the consensus view, not just in philosophy but also in cognitive science... It must be nice to have so many people on your side, but you don’t win a war just by assembling an army; you also have to win a battle or two."

According to the argument, impressions are not of a kind with representations, so identifying them is a category error, and there is an explanatory gap as to how one transmorphs into the other. Moreover, a representationalist faces an unpleasant dilemma: either impressions (like pain, etc.) have to be learned, or representations (e.g. concepts) have to be innate, for the two to "fuse" in perception.

Here is Peirce from Four Incapacities (1868):

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes... Finally, no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual.

Here is Sellars from Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (1956):

"The notorious "ing-ed" ambiguity of "experience" must be kept in mind. For although seeing that x, over there, is red is an experiencing -- indeed, a paradigm case of experiencing -- it does not follow that the descriptive content of this experiencing is itself an experiencing... Certainly, the fact that something looks red to me can itself be experienced. But it is not itself an experiencing... It implies that while the process of acquiring the concept of green may -- indeed does -- involve a long history of acquiring piecemeal habits of response to various objects in various circumstances, there is an important sense in which one has no concept pertaining to the observable properties of physical objects in Space and Time unless one has them all - and, indeed, as we shall see, a great deal more besides."

  • thanks, a nice concise account of some of the problems of representationalism, but I can't find an answer there to my basic question. Say X represents Y. this is easily understandable in relational terms, which is of course the problem. Now what if X' expresses Y'? if "expresses" is also merely relational, then what's the diff? I don't think it works to say their different kinds of relation. I suspect the trick is to stop thinking of X and Y as "thngs" that can stand in relation to each other. but I'm having a hard time coming up with a good articulation of the idea.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 22:57
  • @mobileink Peirce distinguishes representation as triadic "X represents Y through Z", where Z is the "interpretant" (habit), from expression (he calls it "real relation") as dyadic. In the latter Y enters through direct "reaction", not interpretation. This parallels his distinction between symbol and index in semiotics en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotic_elements_and_classes_of_signs Sellars and Brandom do something similar but not quite, in expression Y is a "functional role" made explicit in X, not a represented object, the latter is adjoined in discourse, like a theoretical entity.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 19:37
  • where does Price say that expression and expressivism are misnomers? I have the book you cite and have spent many hours trying to decipher it. I don't recall seeing this. considering the fact that the main thrust of his argument is in favor of global expressivism it would be a little odd if he were to call that a misnomer.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 1:22
  • I understand the critiques of empiricism and representationalism. But they don't solve my problem. take a minimal example: "that is red". A brandomian might say that that is expressive rather than desciptive: it expresses a deontic attitude with respect to red things and thus use ofvthe term "red", etc. but then why not say that it represents such an attitude? do you see what I'm trying to get at?
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 1:55
  • ps. Regarding peirce and seniotics, maybe you can enlighten me. I'm under the impression that semiotics expired long ago, along with structuralism (except maybe in lit. depts.) I've been reading a lot of philosophy (mostly pragmatism, I admit) over the past few years and I cannot recall a single instance of semiotics even being mentioned.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 2:05

Expression and representation are supposed to work in opposite directions. Language represents what is "outside", the objective. Language expresses what is "inside", the subjective (roughly speaking). We are all familiar, for example, with expressing feelings. Robert Brandom holds is that the role of expression is language is much wider. It is not limited to feelings, to art etc. Instead, nearly all the workings of language are based on expression.

object => language <= subject

representation     expression

Brandom holds that expression is basic, primitive, whereas representation is a relatively complex phenomenon, to be explained on top of expression. One might object that expression is just representation in reverse. Instead of looking outside (representation), one is looking inside (expression). Therefore Brandom works to distance the notion of expression from the metaphor of "looking inside". For one, it is all about doing, about making. When one is using language, according to Brandom, one is expressing, that is making explicit what has been already implicit (unconscious, as it were) within one's actions.

The representational paradigm of what mindedness consists in is sufficiently ubiquitous that it is perhaps not easy to think of alternatives of similar generality and promise. One prominent countertradition, however, looks to the notion of expression, rather than representation, for the genus within which distinctively conceptual activity can become intelligible as a species. . .

We might think of the process of expression in the more complex and interesting cases as a matter not of transforming what is inner into what is outer but of making explicit what is implicit. (Brandom, Articulating Reasons)

  • Interesting, thanks. But I'm a little skeptical. The problem is that "object => language <= subject" makes it look like representation and expression are two species of one genus. in both cases we have a world => word relation, which would mean there's not much difference.. I'm not sure a card-carrying expressivist would agree. Plus 'subject' is a problem - Brandom for one is explicitly anti-psychologistic. I would be inclined to call "subject =>language" a romantic view of expressivism, which is quite different than what I have in mind. thoughts?
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 22:38
  • @mobileink Hi. (1) My "Brandom holds" paragraph already deals with your first objection. (2) "Subject" is not a psychological term. Brandom uses it unproblematically (3) Brandom is explicitly allying himself with 19th century German Romanticism. Commented Sep 10, 2016 at 12:29
  • hi Ram. still thinking this thru, but: I cannot recall Brandom ever mentioning inside v. outside, and I've read a lot of Brandom. World v.Word, yes, but that has nothing to do with inside/outside, as far as I can see. Ditto for "(un)consciousness". it's not one of his words, I think. his project is to explore the structural conditions of rationality/discource, to the explicit exclusion of such concepts. he was after all Rorty's student - no minds around here!
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 1:44
  • plus "object => language" as representation strikes me as just plain wrong. Big R is usually "word => world", not the other way around.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 1:47
  • @mobileink Hi (1) Cannot recall? just read again my answer. I gave a direct quote of Brandom's using the terms "inner" and "outer". You will find them in any place where B writes about expressivism. (2) I've read quite a bit of Brandom's too. He does not advocate a Cartesian mind, of course. Yet he uses freely term like "consciousness" and "subjectivity". He uses them in non-Cartesian senses. (3) By "object => language" I meant that in representation the object is the norm, so to speak, and language attempts to adapt itself to the object. Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 9:59

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