Naturalizing Mental Content

Edited by Dan Ryder (University of British Columbia, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
About this topic

Intentionality is an important part of the classic mind-body problem, and naturalists need to give an account of it.  This should include an explanation for how mental states can have contents, both propositional and non-propositional.  Many types of reductive explanations have been proposed, but none widely accepted.  The two most popular are 1) accounts somehow based on causal connections or information-carrying regularities between mental representations and their referents or truth conditions, and 2) functionalist type "conceptual role" or "causal role" accounts based on causal connections among mental states and/or mental representations, possibly extending into the world as well.  Two less popular approaches are 3) success semantics (according to which truth conditions are determined by success in some sense) and 4) resemblance theories (whereby representations denote by means of resemblance of some sort, e.g. isomorphism).  Teleology, usually in the form of evolutionary function, may be brought in to solve problems that arise for any of the above, particularly in order to solve "disjunction problems" like allowing for the possibility of error and misrepresentation.  The "phenomenal intentionality" strategy is a new kid on the block, and there are non-reductive approaches as well, including non-reductive versions of the foregoing, as well as interpretivism (content is determined by constrained possibilities for interpretation) and deflationism (claims about mental state content are largely trivial and uninformative).

Key works

Many of these ideas can be traced back to Stampe 1977.  The most influential causal/informational approaches are Dretske 1981 (with teleology added in his 1986) and Fodor's asymmetric dependance variant Fodor 1987.  Classic sources for conceptual or causal role semantics include Block 1986 and Harman 1987Millikan 1984 presents the most influential teleological theory; her account blends teleology, resemblance (isomorphism), and success semantics.  For interpretivism, see Dennett 1971 and Davidson 1973, and for phenomenal intentionality see Horgan & Tienson 2002.


The Stich & Warfield 1994 introductory collection has not yet been superseded, and Cummins 1989 is an older but still excellent book-length introduction to the subject. Two recent general reviews are Rupert 2008 and Ryder 2009.  For introductions to specific approaches, see the following: Information-based: Cohen 2002; Causal (not including information-based): Adams & Aizawa 2010; Conceptual/causal role semantics: Block 1998; Teleological: Neander 2004;  Interpretivism: Byrne 1998.

Related categories

1202 found
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Material to categorize
  1. Causal Contents.Frederick R. Adams - 1991 - In Brian P. McLaughlin (ed.), Dretske and His Critics. Blackwell.
  2. A Dilemma or a Challenge? Assessing the All-Star Team in a Wider Context.Nikolai Alksnis - 2015 - Philosophia 43 (3):669-685.
    In their update to Intentionality All-Stars, Hutto and Satne claim that there is currently no satisfactory account for a naturalised conception of content. From this the pair suggest that we need to consider whether content is present in all aspects of intelligence, that is, whether it is content all the way down. Yet if we do not have an acceptable theory of content such a question seems out of place. It seems more appropriate to question whether content itself is the (...)
  3. Dretske's Dreadful Question.Robert Almeder - 1995 - Philosophia 24 (3-4):449-457.
  4. Millikan and Her Critics, Edited by Dan Ryder, Justine Kingsbury, and Kenneth Williford.M. Artiga - 2015 - Mind 124 (494):679-683.
  5. Die Tücken des Repräsentationsbegriffs.Wolfgang Barz - 2012 - Erwägen Wissen Ethik 23:36-38.
  6. Das Problem der Intentionalität.Wolfgang Barz - 2004 - Mentis.
  7. The Code Model of Biosemiotics and the Fate of the Structuralist Theory of Mental Representation.Majid Davoody Beni - forthcoming - Biosemiotics:1-9.
    In this paper I am advocating a structuralist theory of mental representation. For a structuralist theory of mental representation to be defended satisfactorily, the naturalistic and causal constraints have to be satisfied first. The more intractable of the two, i.e., the naturalistic constraint, indicates that to account for the mental representation, we should not invoke “a full-blown interpreting mind”. So, the aim of the paper is to show how the naturalistic and causal constraints could be satisfied. It aims to offer (...)
  8. Intentionality and Art.David Best - 1981 - Philosophy 56 (217):349 - 363.
    A work of art is something which is unlike anything else. It is art which, best of all, gives us the idea of what is particular.
  9. Lyons, W.-Approaches to Intentionality.J. Bickle - 1997 - Philosophical Books 38:53-54.
  10. On the Causal Role of Meaning.D. Bolton & J. Hill - 1997 - In Michael J. Power & C. R. Brewin (eds.), The Transformation of Meaning in Psychological Therapies: Integrating Theory and Practice. John Wiley.
  11. Should Intentionality Be Naturalized?Thomas Bontly - 2001 - Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 49:43-60.
    One goal of recent philosophy of mind has been to ‘naturalize’ intentionality by showing how a purely physical system could have states that represent or are about items in the world. The project is reductionist in spirit, the aim being to explain intentional relations—to say what they really are—and to do so in terms that do not themselves utilize intentional or semantic concepts. In this vein there are attempts to explain intentional relations in terms of causal relations, informational relations, teleological (...)
  12. Attention to Form and Surface-Properties of Objects-Semantic Interference on Form Information.M. Boucart & G. Humphreys - 1992 - Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 30 (6):485-485.
  13. Normativity as the Key to Objectivity: An Exploration of Robert Brandom's Articulating Reasons.Jan Bransen - 2002 - Inquiry 45 (3):373 – 391.
  14. Swampman of la Mancha.Deborah J. Brown - 1993 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 23 (3):327-48.
  15. Principles of Mental Representation.Donal E. Carlston & Eliot R. Smith - 1996 - In E. E. Higgins & A. Kruglanski (eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles. Guilford. pp. 184--210.
  16. The Referential and the Logical Component in Fodor's Semantics.Paolo Casalegno - 1998 - Dialectica 52 (4):339–363.
  17. Causes of Misinterpretation of Gurbani and Misrepresentation of Sikhism and the Solution.Devinder Singh Chahal - 2001 - Philosophy 3 (1):13.
  18. Tracking Representationalism and the Painfulness of Pain.Brian Cutter & Michael Tye - 2011 - Philosophical Issues 21 (1):90-109.
  19. Intentionality: Spontaneous Ascription and Deep Intuition.Kim Davies - 1982 - Analysis 42 (June):169-171.
  20. Cow-Sharks, Magnets, and Swampman.Daniel Dennett - 1996 - Mind and Language 11 (1):76-77.
  21. Do-It-Yourself Understanding.Daniel C. Dennett - unknown
    One of the virtues of Fred Dretske's recent work has been the salutary openness with which he has described the motivations he discovers controlling his thought, and this candor has brought a submerged confusion close to the surface. Since this confusion is widely shared by philosophers and others working on the problem of content ascription, an analysis of its influence on Dretske will at the same time illuminate the difficulties it is creating for other writers.
  22. Response to Fodor on DDI.Daniel C. Dennett - unknown
    I've been looking forward to seeing Jerry Fodor's reaction to my book, since his candidly avowed antipathy toward evolutionary arguments was one of the spurs for writing it. For instance, it was his brusque comment to me in 1985 to the effect that Searle was right about robots lacking original intentionality that set me to writing "Evolution, Error and Intentionality" (1987), and that contributed in turn to some of his recent outbursts against evolutionary approaches to these issues. Nothing clears the (...)
  23. Intentionality.Daniel C. Dennett & John Haugeland - 1987 - In Richard L. Gregory (ed.), Southwestern Journal of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 139-143.
    Intentionality is aboutness. Some things are about other things: a belief can be about icebergs, but an iceberg is not about anything; an idea can be about the number 7, but the number 7 is not about anything; a book or a film can be about Paris, but Paris is not about anything. Philosophers have long been concerned with the analysis of the phenomenon of intentionality, which has seemed to many to be a fundamental feature of mental states and events.
  24. An Unintened Misrepresentation.Sharmila Dissanaike - 2012 - Hastings Center Report 42 (3):7.
  25. Intentionality.Richard Double - 1987 - Philosophical Studies 31:481-482.
  26. Is Knowledge Information-Produced Belief? A Defense of Dretske Against Some Critics.Anthony Doyle - 1985 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 23 (1):33-46.
  27. On the Pure Intentionality of Pure Intentionality.John Doyle - 2001 - Modern Schoolman 79 (1):57-78.
  28. Dretske's Awful Answer.Fred Dretske - 1995 - Philosophia 24 (3-4):459-464.
  29. " 1 A Misrepresentation".Fred Dretske - 1993 - In Alvin Goldman (ed.), Readings in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 297.
  30. Moral Phenomenology and Moral Intentionality.John Drummond - 2008 - Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7 (1):35-49.
    This paper distinguishes between two senses of the term “ phenomenology ”: a narrow sense and a broader sense. It claims, with particular reference to the moral sphere, that the narrow meaning of moral phenomenology cannot stand alone, that is, that moral phenomenology in the narrow sense entails moral intentionality. The paper proceeds by examining different examples of the axiological and volitional experiences of both virtuous and dutiful agents, and it notes the correlation between the phenomenal and intentional differences belonging (...)
  31. Explaining Representation: A Reply to Matthen.Frances Egan - 2013 - Philosophical Studies (1):1-6.
    Mohan Matthen has failed to understand the position I develop and defend in “How to Think about Mental Content.” No doubt some of the fault lies with my exposition, though Matthen often misconstrues passages that are clear in context. He construes clarifications and elaborations of my argument to be “concessions.” Rather than dwell too much on specific misunderstandings of my explanatory project and its attendant claims, I will focus on the main points of disagreement.RepresentationalismMy project in the paper is to (...)
  32. How to Think About Mental Content.Frances Egan - 2013 - Philosophical Studies (1):1-21.
    Introduction: representationalismMost theorists of cognition endorse some version of representationalism, which I will understand as the view that the human mind is an information-using system, and that human cognitive capacities are representational capacities. Of course, notions such as ‘representation’ and ‘information-using’ are terms of art that require explication. As a first pass, representations are “mediating states of an intelligent system that carry information” (Markman and Dietrich 2001, p. 471). They have two important features: (1) they are physically realized, and so (...)
  33. Naturalistic Inquiry: Where Does Mental Representation Fit In?Frances Egan - 2003 - In Louise M. Antony (ed.), Chomsky and His Critics. Malden MA: Blackwell. pp. 89--104.
  34. Computation and Content.Frances Egan - 1995 - Philosophical Review 104 (2):181-203.
  35. How Neurons Mean: A Neurocomputational Theory of Representational Content.Christopher David Eliasmith - 2000 - Dissertation, Washington University
    Questions concerning representations and what they are about have been a staple of Western philosophy since Aristotle. Recently, however, these same questions have begun to concern neuroscientists, who have developed new techniques and theories for understanding how the locus of representation, the brain, operates. My dissertation draws on philosophy and neuroscience to develop a novel theory of representational content. ;I begin by identifying what I call the problem of "neurosemantics" . This, I argue, is simply an updated version of a (...)
  36. Material and Mental Representation.Lars Elleström - 2014 - American Journal of Semiotics 30 (1/2):83-138.
    The aim of this article is to adapt Peirce’s semiotics to the study of media and arts. While some Peircean notions are criticized and rejected, constructive ways of understanding Peirce’s ideas are suggested, and a number of new notions, which are intended to highlight crucial aspects of semiosis, are then introduced. All these ideas and notions are systematically related to one another within the frames of a consistent terminology. The article starts with an investigation of Peirce’s three sign constituents and (...)
  37. Robert B. Brandom, Making It Explicit. Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment.Michael Esfeld - 1999 - Erkenntnis 51 (2/3):333-346.
  38. "Narrow" Aspects of Intentionality and the Information-Theoretic Approach to Content.Hartry Field - 1990 - In Enrique Villanueva (ed.), Information, Semantics, and Epistemology. Blackwell. pp. 102--116.
  39. Psychosemantics.Jerry Fodor - 1988 - Journal of Philosophy 85 (7):384-389.
  40. 5. The Informational Content Of Necessary Truths.MarÍa FrÁpolli & Francesc CamÓs - 2006 - Logique Et Analyse 49.
  41. The Rules of Inference. Inferentialism in Law and Philosophy, Egea, Milano.D. Canale G. Tuzet (ed.) - 2009 - Egea (Pp. Pp. 29-44).
  42. Neo-Pragmatism and Enactive Intentionality.Shaun Gallagher & Katsunori Miyahara - 2012 - In Jay Schulkin (ed.), New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science: Adaptation and Cephalic Expression. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  43. Intention (Doing Away with Mental Representation).Jay L. Garfield - unknown
    Mental representation is a metaphor. It has perhaps become so entrenched that it appears to have been frozen, and it is easy to lose sight of its metaphorical character. Literally, a representation is a re-presentation, a symbol that stands for something else because that thing can’t be with us. I send my parents photos of the grandchildren because e-mail is cheaper than air tickets. I consult a map of Adelaide to find the shortest route to the philosophy department because wandering (...)
  44. Review Essays: Thought, Norms, and Discursive Practice: Commentary on Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit.Allan Gibbard - 1996 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56 (3):699-717.
  45. Thoughts, Norms, and Discursive Practices: Commentary on Brandom.Allan F. Gibbard - 1996 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 56 (3):699-717.
  46. FODOR, JERRY A. The Elm and the Expert. Mentalese and its Semantics. [REVIEW]Samuel Guttenplan - 1995 - Philosophy 70:293.
  47. The Elm and the Expert. Mentalese and its Semantics By Jerry A. Fodor MIT Press, 1994, Pp. Xiv+129, £15.95.Samuel Guttenplan - 1995 - Philosophy 70 (272):293-.
  48. Is There Mental Representation?Gilbert Harman - 1978 - Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 9.
  49. Fred Dretske on the Explanatory Role of Semantic Content.B. Hassrick - 1995 - Conference 6 (1):59-66.
  50. Making It Implicit: Brandom on Rule-Following.Anandi Hattiangadi - 2003 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66 (2):419-31.
    In Making it Explicit, Brandom aims to articulate an account of conceptual content that accommodates its normativity--a requirement on theories of content that Brandom traces to Wittgenstein's rule following considerations. It is widely held that the normativity requirement cannot be met, or at least not with ease, because theories of content face an intractable dilemma. Brandom proposes to evade the dilemma by adopting a middle road--one that uses normative vocabulary, but treats norms as implicit in practices. I argue that this (...)
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