Pulp Naturalism

There is a compelling idea in the air. Both contemporary philosophers of mind and philosophers of language are engaged in developing theories of (mental or linguistic) content that are naturalistic. The stand has been taken: semantic properties are not part of the primitive ontological furniture of the world. If we want to vindicate those properties as real, we will have to show that it is possible to unpack them into some other –primitive– set of properties. It is taken for granted that there is no alternative way of avoiding circularity in explaining the semantic properties of mental or linguistic representations. The following quote from Fodor's Psychosemantics is probably the locus classicus for this trend: "I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they've been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won't; intentionality simply doesn't go that deep. It's hard to see, in the face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and the intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with (or maybe of their supervenience on?) properties that are themselves neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else." (Fodor, 1987, p. 97) The naturalistic project seems thus to be deeply rooted in the search for a non-circular, explanatory account of intentional categories. Although, in principle, one should not take naturalism in regard to some realm as committing one to any sort of reductive explanation of that realm, in the context of contemporary philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, naturalism and reductionism como easily upon a meeting point. The reason is that explanatory, non-circular answers are taken to be reductionist. If this is correct, we would have to conclude that naturalism entails reductionism (regarding a theory of content) or, even more strongly, that naturalism is constitutively dependent upon the defense of a reductionist thesis. In this case, we would have to admit that there cannot be a non-reductionist naturalistic theory of content. The main aim of this paper is to cast some light on the issue of what naturalism means regarding a theory of content. It is a matter of a some urgency to find out exactly what it takes for a theory of content to be naturalistic. Until we do so, we cannot properly evaluate the existing theories (or indeed, develop our own). I will center my discussion of this topic on the question of whether naturalistic theories of content ought to be reductionist theories. The claim I want to defend is that, despite the current trend regarding the relations between naturalism and reductionism, the former is not constitutively dependent upon the latter. I will argue that, in fact, the strong requirements of a reductionist thesis are the very reason the project of naturalization seems to be doomed. However, I will try to show that once we have weakened those requirements, non-reductionist answers are certainly acceptable, in the sense of being informative, non-circular, and above all, explanatory. I propose a safe[r] characterization of naturalism that seems to better fit our theoretical views about content, and to turn the whole project into a more promising enterprise.
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