Incomplete understanding, deference, and the content of thought

Tyler Burge’s influential arguments have convinced most philosophers that a thinker can have a thought involving a particular concept without fully grasping or having mastery of that concept. In Burge’s (1979) famous example, a thinker who lacks mastery of the concept of arthritis nonetheless has thoughts involving that concept. It is generally supposed, however, that this phenomenon – incomplete understanding, for short – does not require us to reconsider in a fundamental way what it is for a thought to involve a particular concept. In this paper, I argue that the real significance of incomplete understanding has not been appreciated. To the extent that theorists of content address the phenomenon of thoughts involving incompletely grasped contents at all, they tend to assume that some hand-waving about deference to other thinkers who fully grasp the relevant concepts will take care of the inconvenient cases of incomplete understanding. The main lesson of Burge’s arguments is often taken to be that the content of language and thought is socially determined. On this picture, we do not need to change our basic view about what it is to have a concept; we just need to recognize that some thinkers can manage to have a concept by piggybacking on others. In contrast, on the view I defend, taking incomplete understanding seriously forces us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of mental content. Deference is a red herring. The role of society in determining the content of thought is not the main lesson, but at most a useful clue as to the nature of mental and linguistic content.
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