- This important collection contains six papers on overlapping topics, all dealing in one way or another with the notion of content of psychological states, especially as the notion of content bears on the possibility of a scientific psychology. Three of the papers (those by Daniel Dennett, Stephen Stich, and Andrew Woodfield) emerged from a Philosophy of Mind Workshop held at Bristol University in 1978; the other three papers (those by Kent Bach, Tyler Burge, and Colin McGinn) were commissioned for this volume.
- Although the articles are representative of current research on so-called propositional attitudes, the collection is by no means introductory (nor was it intended to be). Rather, it contributes to an ongoing discussion that is by now quite mature. Prominent in the background of most of the papers presented here is "Putnam (Hilary) - The Meaning of 'Meaning'" (1975); a reader would also be well-advised to be familiar with articles appearing in the intervening years
- Among the topics addressed in these essays, one that stands out is the issue of methodological solipsism. Methodological solipsism (the term in its current use begins with Putnam) depends on distinguishing psychological states "in wide sense" from psychological states "in the narrow sense." As Putnam made the distinction, psychological states in the narrow sense do not presuppose the existence of anything other than the individual whose states they are. Such narrow psychological states may be characterized semantically in terms of conceptual content, but not in terms of reference and truth. On this construal, psychological states in the narrow sense are taken to be independent of the physical and social context of the subject. Call the view that narrow states so construed should be the objects of scientific psychology 'weak MS'.
- On the other hand, there is an even narrower approach to psychological states, stemming from consideration of "Fodor (Jerry) - Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology" (1980). According to this narrower approach, narrow psychological states are individuated solely by their computational, formal or "syntactical" properties. On this construal, psychological states in the narrow sense are taken to be independent of conceptual content altogether. Call the view that narrow states so construed should be the objects of scientific psychology 'strong MS.'
- I shall try to locate the views of the contributors to Thought and Object with respect to weak MS and strong MS. Dennett and Bach take positions favorable to weak MS; Stich and Woodfield take positions favorable to strong MS. The positions of McGinn and Burge may be construed as critical of both weak and strong MS.
- In "Beyond Belief,", the lead essay, which occupies almost one third1 of the volume, Dennett takes psychological states in the narrow sense to be the "organismic contribution to the fixation of propositional attitudes," that is, what is left "when we subtract facts about context or embedding from the determining whole" (p. 19)
- In "De Re Belief and Methodological Solipsism," Bach aims to give an account of an exemplary kind of de re belief (viz., perceptual belief), which both allows perceptual belief to be irreducible to descriptive belief and reconciles such perceptual belief with (weak) methodological solipsism.
- One way to support strong MS would be to argue that the notion of content cannot be made scientifically respectable, and hence has no place in a scientific psychology. Stich and Woodfield both take this approach.
- In "On the Ascription of Content," Stich's project is "to explain how it is possible to identify a belief by specifying its contents" (p. 160). It soon turns out that the "cognitive mechanism underlying our intuitions about content" (p. 185) does not yield stable ascriptions.
- In "On Specifying the Contents of Thoughts," Woodfield is concerned with the possibility of a scientific taxonomy of specification of thought-contents. He argues that even if content is understood "solipsistically," i.e., even if psychological states in the narrow sense are understood along lines of weak MS, content does not lend itself to classification suitable for science.
- The other two contributors, Burge and McGinn, offer demurrers to methodological solipsism of both forms.
- In "The Structure of Content," McGinn offers a view of content, according to which weak MS is half right. McGinn considers the content of a belief (or a sentence) to be "inherently a hybrid of conceptually disparate elements" (p. 211). On this view, belief contents have semantic properties of reference and truth as well as causal properties; methodological solipsism is accordingly deemed inadequate as a full theory of content since psychological states in the narrow sense do not "fix" reference or truth.
- In "Other Bodies," Burge's approach differs from that of the contributors'. Continuing the discussion he began in "Burge (Tyler) - Individualism and the Mental" (1979), Burge reaffirms a line of argument that goes roughly as follows: crucial for characterizing a person's mental states are the obliquely occurring expressions in attributions of attitudes; mental states, individuated by those obliquely occurring expressions, cannot be understood in terms of purely non-intentional, functional, or individualistic features without regard for the subject's social and physical environment (p. 99). Arguments in both Burge's articles tell against the functionalists' idea that psychological states in the narrow sense supervene upon the subject's internal physical constitution; intentional mental phenomena cannot be understood in terms of the individual.
- Although Thought and Object does not solve the problems surrounding intentionality, it does advance the debate. There are many other topics of abiding interest that are discussed at length -most notably the question of a distinction between de re and de dicto belief -that have not been considered here. This volume is recommended for anyone interested in current work in the philosophy of mind.
Footnote 1: So, evidently not the same as "Dennett (Daniel) - Beyond Belief", which is only 6pp.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)