Content and Context
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Philosophical Perspectives 8: Logic and Language, pages 17–32
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Beliefs are ordinarily attributed in English by sentences with embedded 'that'-clauses-for example, 'Jones believes that rock-climbing is dangerous.' Such sentences identify beliefs by what have come to be called 'broad contents.' Since broad contents individuate beliefs in part by reference to the believer's environment, beliefs are relational mental states: the conditions for having a belief, say, that water is wet or that arthritis is painful, depend not only on the intrinsic properties of the believer, but also on the nature of the believer's physical and social environment.
  2. Assuming that beliefs individuated by broad contents are relational, I am here concerned with the explanatory status of belief states. Are beliefs (or the properties that individuate them) causally explanatory? Are relational properties ever causally explanatory? Some philosophers-prominently, Jerry A. Fodor - acknowledge the causal relevance of relational properties generally, but take beliefs individuated by broad content to be metaphysically unsuitable for purposes of psychological explanation.
  3. Explanatory properties in the relevant sense are taxonomic, i.e., they are projected by the laws of some science; and since the sciences aim at causal explanations, Fodor holds, taxonomy in the sciences is by causal powers. Fodor argues that broad contents do not contribute in the relevant way to an individual's causal powers, and hence that they can not be taxonomic in psychology. Nonetheless, he upholds the explanatory status of other relational properties; indeed, Fodor says, "Taxonomy by relational properties is ubiquitous in the sciences." (MANC, 12)Thus, Fodor defends the conjunction of (A) and (B):
    1. Relational properties that individuate belief states are not taxonomic in psychology.
    2. Some relational properties are taxonomic in the special sciences.
  4. I shall try to show that (A) and (B) do not sit comfortably on the same bench. Fodor's arguments, I shall urge, either fail to disqualify broad contents as taxonomic, or else disqualify all relational properties as taxonomic. I am not going to claim that broad contents must be taxonomic in psychology, only that the metaphysical considerations against their being taxonomic are faulty. Logically and metaphysically speaking, as broad contents go, so go relational properties generally – Fodor's claims to the contrary, notwithstanding. Fodor's new argument for (A) is part of an argument that intentional psychology individuates states with respect to narrow content, where narrow contents are nonrelational. Narrow content supervenes1 on the subject's intrinsic properties, without regard to the subject's environment. The skeleton of Fodor's new argument for narrow content is this:
    1. All scientific taxonomies individuate states with respect to their causal powers.
    2. Intentional psychology individuates states with respect to intentional content.
    3. Difference in broad content does not suffice for (relevant) difference in causal powers.
    4. Intentional psychology individuates states with respect to narrow content.
  5. Fodor's latest argument consists mainly of a new defense of (iii), in which Fodor proposes a necessary condition (what I shall call the "no-conceptual-connection" test) for a difference to count as a difference in causal power, and then claims that broad contents fail it.
  6. Fodor formulates two tests-the "no-conceptual-connection" test and the "cross-context" test-for determining when a property is a causal power and hence may be taxonomic in some science. More precisely, the tests are to show when the difference between having a particular property and not having it is a difference in causal power, in virtue of the responsibility of the property for properties of the subject's behavior. Only properties whose possession makes a difference to the bearer's causal powers can be taxonomic; taxonomic properties in psychology must make a difference to the subject's actual or possible behavior. Broad contents can not be taxonomic in psychology, Fodor argues, because they fail the no-conceptual-connection test; but other relational properties, like the property of being a planet, can be taxonomic in other sciences, because they pass both tests. ,
  7. In the next two sections, I shall argue that the only principled way that Fodor has to rule out broad contents as taxonomic would also rule out other relational properties, like that of being a planet, as taxonomic. In particular, broad contents actually pass Fodor's no-conceptual-connection test in the relevant way – ie, difference in broad content is difference in causal powers, in virtue of the responsibility of the property for the properties of the subject's behavior; and any interpretation of the cross-context test which would disqualify broad belief as taxonomic would also disqualify relational properties generally as taxonomic. In the final section, I shall turn to larger issues.


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