Content: wide and narrow

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 10, 2020, from

1. Motivating the distinction

Many of our mental states, including our perceptions, memories and beliefs, represent things in the world and properties of those things (see Propositional attitudes). But this fact seems to produce a dilemma. On the one hand, representational states are what they are in virtue of how they represent things to be. That is, they are most appropriately individuated (distinguished from one another) by their different contents, which are comprised of things in the world (objects and their properties and relations; see Intentionality). On the other hand, in so far as these states play causal roles in our psychologies, they do so because of how the world seems to us, and presumably that is solely a matter of what is ‘in the head’. Their psychological roles would be just the same even if one were a brain in a vat or a victim of Descartes’ evil demon. The dilemma, then, is to reconcile the apparent facts that the representational character of mental states depends on their external relations and that their causal efficacy depends on their internal properties (see Methodological individualism). The distinction between wide and narrow content has been thought to resolve this dilemma.

Is this a genuine dilemma? Leaving aside such sceptical suggestions as that the contents of psychological states have no causal efficacy (see Mental causation), one might argue that the dilemma is illusory because, strictly speaking, contents are internal properties. Contrary to what many philosophers have supposed, the mere fact that the notion of content is connected with notions such as reference and truth-conditions does not mean that content is external. For this is compatible with a Fregean conception of content. Frege held that linguistic expressions have sense as well as reference, and the same might be suggested about concepts. Each concept expresses a condition of reference (a sense) and what it refers to is whatever satisfies that condition; and this condition is not dependent on external features of the thinker’s situation and is not otherwise sensitive to contextual factors (see Sense and reference). If concepts are Fregean in this way, then any two thinkers entertaining thoughts with the same conceptual composition are, regardless of their external circumstances, thinking thoughts with the same truth-conditions. This rules out the possibility that, because of sensitivity to circumstances, one could be thinking something true and the other, something false.

One difficulty with this Fregean view is its inability to handle thoughts that are about particular individuals. Thoughts such as ‘That’s a canary’ seem to be essentially indexical, in that their truth-conditions are relative to their contexts of occurrence (see Content, indexical): different people, having qualitatively identical experiences, could think thoughts of that form but be thinking of different birds.

A similar problem for the Fregean picture is posed by recognitional concepts: one might see a certain exotic insect and think, referring to its type, for which one might have no name, ‘That must be indigenous to the Amazon’. One might later observe a similar specimen and think, ‘It must be another one of those’, referring to the same type. One would be mistaken if, no matter how much the second looks like the first, it is actually an insect of a different type. Thus the property of being of the type initially picked out is not a matter of fitting a certain image or conception. Whether or not one’s concept of that type applies to the next specimen depends not on whether it fits one’s conception but on whether it is in fact a thing of the same sort as the one originally picked out. So it seems that the Fregean picture does not apply to recognitional concepts.

Citing this article:
Bach, Kent. Motivating the distinction. Content: wide and narrow, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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