Clarifying Concepts of Reference and Representation

A major source of misunderstanding in human thought among many people is confusion between reference and representation. I will make some clarifying comments below.


By reference I mean an indication of something independently of the manner used to indicate it.

For example: if two people were in a room and one points to a red rubber ball and says “Look at that”, the person would be referring to the piece of rubber inflated with air and has a red appearance to a human with a specific kind of visual functioning (or however else a person may care to phrase it, regardless of what is emphasised or omitted in referring to it).

A reference can only be made to the actual physically existing universe.

For example: if one person writes a story about a fictional character, Rachel, whose son has a toy car, another person reading that story can talk about “Rachel’s son’s car” and be referring not to a particular physically existing car but to an understanding, that both people are familiar with, relating to a fictional scenario written as if referring to a toy car. This understanding physically exists in the arrangement of both of their brains etc. in the context of also being within the physically existing universe.

Despite the simplified ‘complex formulas and structures’ used by many in attempts to explain such things, the result of any expression about something will always be, at best, an approximation and not an identical substitute for the thing referred to.


By representation I mean a concept that something can be observed (or at least encountered in some way) and converted to a form corresponding to it, and that this form can substitute for the original thing observed.

For example, if a person takes a photo of a section of a beach while on holiday and shows it to another person upon returning home, that the photo is a substitute for that section of beach.

This is where the simplified ‘complex formulas and structures’ come in. Many try to pass off an approximate expression about something as a re-presentation of what the expression is used to refer to, as if reading the expression were identical to having what the expression refers to present in front of a person.

A verbally expressed description of that section of beach, or a photo of it, does not offer a complete substitute for actually being there. There are many things that can be discovered by a person actually at that beach that can’t be discovered just by reading a verbal description or looking at a photo of it.

Reductive Linguistic Notions of Representation

In order to hold onto the use of representation, many people claim that any expression refers to a verbal description of its meaning rather than to the actual thing physically existing in the universe.

An alternative but equivalent notion is claiming that physically existing objects can only be experienced by a person as a representation made by ‘the language of perception’.

Another alternative but equivalent notion is the adopting of Aristotle’s grammar in The Categories and treating it as representational rather than referential, resulting in a range of claims such as that objects are grammatically expressed words or word-based ideas rather than things which physically exist within the universe; that a person’s identity is equivalent to a specific grammatically expressed description of them; and a myriad of other strategies to reduce the physically existing universe to verbal language.

Terms for Clarifying Reference

I propose the following terms, to be understood referentially, for use in clarifying what someone is referring to:

Ontic: pertaining to what is, in the physically existing universe
- NOT what appears to be, NOR what is known or knowable about what is.

Phenomenal: pertaining to what appears to be, under specific circumstances within the physically existing universe.
- NOT what hypothetically should appear to be, according to a theory.
From the phenomenal an understanding of the ontic from which phenomena arise may be approximated and refined to degrees of accuracy useful for specific uses.

Epestemic: pertaining to how a person knows something within the physically existing universe
- NOT how a person thinks they know something, NOR how a person imagines something.

Metaphysical: pertaining to what a person knows within the physically existing universe.
- NOT what a person thinks they know, NOR what a person imagines.

Reasoning: inferring ideas and possibilities based on observations within the physically existing universe.
- Reasoning based on reference rather than representation is about what is, not about what a person claims to be so.
A verbal expression of reasoning can be modified in any number of ways, such as swapping interchangeable terms, as long as they are still being used to refer to the same thing.

For example, using again a photo of a section of beach, a person who has the ontic-phenomenal experience of actually being present at the beach can make some observations about the beach that someone who has an ontic-phenomenal experience of the photo - a partial recording of the phenomena generated from the ontic environment that is the beach - cannot. While human perception can be considered to be a partial phenomenal recording of the ontic environment that a person is present in, perception can gain much more sophisticated approximations of that ontic environment than recordings like photos. There is a distinct difference between the two (the photo and observation via perceptual experience) in the kinds and degrees of approximations of the ontic environment. Determining what can be inferred from each and why is an epistemic concern, while inferring specific facts to within a certain degree of accuracy is a metaphysical-reasoning concern.

An understanding of what kinds and degrees of reference someone is using enables a person to clearly understand not only what is being referred to but also enables an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of what is being expressed, including the extent to which it does or can refer to something of concern.

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