8.1 Mental Content
In the previous section we discussed the qualitative aspect of some mental states. We now turn to the question how cognitive states, which are expressed by propositional attitudes, get their content.
We can distinguish feeling pain from the thought of being in pain. You can wonder whether you will be in pain at the dentist’s tomorrow, without feeling any pain now. Your thought that you have a dentist’s appointing may be accompanied by a feeling of dread, but the feeling and the thought are different and you can have one without the other. How do propositional attitudes get their contents? In virtue of what do the concepts we employ in propositions describing our propositional attitudes get their meanings? What makes it the case that, for example, the concepts or words ‘cow’, ‘grass’, ’London’, ‘water’, ‘3’ or ‘justice’ mean what they do?
Naturalistic accounts of mental content try to explain the content of concepts by looking at how occurrences of concepts are caused in thinkers’ minds by instances of things the concept applies to (causal correlative theories), or what having a concept is supposed to do or what it was selected by evolution to do (teleosemantics). Conceptual role semantics looks at the role of a concept in a belief system. It is closely connected to functionalism.
It is generally agreed that there are two aspects to our use of language. Frege distinguished the sense of an expression from its reference. Frege characterised the sense of an expression as its cognitive content. Its reference is what it stands for. Frege points out that there is a difference in the meanings of ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Evening Star’. They have different cognitive content — say ‘the first heavenly body other than the sun or the moon to appear in the evening sky’ and ‘the last heavenly body other than the sun or the moon to be visible in the morning sky’. Their meanings also has something in common: they both stand for the planet Venus. Similarly, the predicates ‘is an isosceles triangle’ and ‘is a triangle with two equal angles’ have different senses, but are true of the same things.
Although Frege himself was thoroughly anti-psychologistic, it is tempting to locate the sense attached to an expression in speakers’ psychologies. Understanding a word or grasping the sense it expresses allows a speaker to use that word, and that capacity consists in a psychological state of the speaker. It is also often agreed that the sense of an expression determines its reference: it is because an expression has a certain sense that it has a certain reference. Semantic internalists claim that the role the concept plays in the individual’s thinking and psychology determines its sense, which in turn determines its reference.
Semantic externalists claim that what matters is the way a term is used by the linguistic community and its causal links to the environment. One line of thought to establish this claim follows Putnam’s Twin Earth example to show that the content of a concept like ‘water’ is not determined entirely by speakers’ psychologies. Suppose there was a planet that is exactly like Earth, only that the stuff that flows in rivers, stagnates in lakes and rains from the sky is not H2O but some other substance XyZ. Twin Earth is an otherwise exact duplicate of Earth, so any inhabitant of Earth has a twin on Twin Earth who does exactly the same things. Consider Oscar, an inhabitant of Earth, who thinks to himself ‘I want a glass of water’. Twin Oscar, too, thinks to himself ‘I want a glass of water’. As they are exact duplicates, their psychological states are also exactly the same. Nonetheless, their thoughts are not the same, as Oscar wants a glass of H2O, while Twin Oscar wants a glass of XyZ. Part of what we mean by ‘water’ is that it is the kind of stuff in our rivers, lakes and rain and that is H2O on Earth, but XyZ in Twin Earth.
Whereas in the last section we have phrased questions regarding mental content in terms of what constitute the contents of individual concepts or thoughts, we can also approach the question of what goes on in a mind by looking at the behaviour exhibited by the whole creature. We have already mentioned how Davidson’s anomalous monism is based on his philosophy of language. Speakers interpret other speakers’ utterances and behaviour and in that way assign propositional attitudes to them. Meaning comes about by speakers interacting and interpreting each other. For Davidson, it is essential that we are considering linguistic agents. Daniel Dennett picks up on some ideas from Davidson and argues that they work for a wider class of agents he calls intentional systems: their behaviour can be explained and predicted by ascribing desires and beliefs to them. It is left wide open what can count as an intentional system: it all depends on whether we have an explanatory and predictive strategy for it that involves ascribing propositional attitudes to it.
There is much that the two approaches discussed here and in the last section have in common. Most importantly, both are likely to characterise mental content holistically. They share this methodology with functionalism.
8.3 Intentionality as the Mark of the Mental
Intentionality is so pervasive amongst mental phenomena that it has been suggested that it is the mark of the mental: it is the feature that distinguishes mental phenomena from merely physical ones. This proposal stems from Franz Brentano’s work in philosophy and psychology. It is a remarkable feature of the mind that not only can we have beliefs that are true, represent the world correctly and are about things that exist, but that we can also misrepresent the world, have beliefs that are false or think that something exists which does not. Nothing else in the world can be directed towards what is not the case or what does not exist.
Thoughts, desires, fears and hopes are about things. They are or aim to be directed towards objects. Even the false belief that the Morning Star is not the Evening Star is about the Planet Venus. We can be mistaken about what exists or make things up. I can think about the Planet Venus, but also about the Goddess of Love. We can imagine things that do not exist and invent stories about them. This is called referential intentionality.
Thoughts, desires, fears and hopes can be expressed in complete sentences, which may or may not be true. Our mental states represent facts, which may or may not obtain. I can expect to see the Planet Venus tonight or pray to the Goddess of Love. This kind of intentionality is called content intentionality.
Content and referential intentionality are closely connected. To specify what my mental state is about (the object of my thought), I need to describe that object in some way using a proposition. To specify the referential intentionality of a mental state, we use propositions, which have content intentionality. Conversely, as propositions purport to be about things, if I specify the content of a mental state by using a proposition, I thereby say what it is about. By specifying the content intentionality of a thought, I also give its referential intentionality.
It is debatable whether intentionality is the mark of the mental. There seem to be mental phenomena that do not exhibit intentionality, thus intentionality is not a necessary condition for mentality. Pains, tickles or pins and needles do not seem to be about anything. On the other hand, maybe we can say that the pain you feel when you cut your finger is directed towards the finger you’ve cut. Feeling pain involves being aware of your body and where it hurts. Your pain is directed towards that part of the body in which it occurs.
There may also be non-mental phenomena that exhibit intentionality, so that intentionality is not sufficient for mentality either. An address book contains information about where a person lives, so a non-mental thing can have intentionality. On the other hand, it is plausible to say that the address book exhibits intentionality only in as far as someone uses it to record information about people in it, in other words, its intentionality is dependent on the intentionality of the mental states of its user.
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