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Content: wide and narrow

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-W040-1
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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/content-wide-and-narrow/v-1

3. Two kinds of content?

Burge is satisfied that there is only one kind of content, the externalist kind revealed by the thought experiments and specified by ‘that’-clauses in attitude ascriptions, and that no other kind is needed for psychology. Other philosophers, such as Loar (1988) and Block (1986), accept the thought experiments but propose another kind of content – narrow as opposed to wide – which captures the person’s subjective point of view and serves the purposes of psychological explanation. Narrow contents capture what earthlings and their twin earth counterparts have in common, and explanations that ignore narrow contents miss crucial generalizations. If so, what is narrow content and how is it connected to wide content?

Loar and Block take narrow content to be ‘conceptual role’, which is defined in terms of a concept’s inferential connections to other concepts. The main challenge for this view is to find a non-arbitrary way of constraining the relevant connections, so that each psychological state can turn out to possess a determinate narrow content, and to explain how this constrains its truth-condition (see Semantics, conceptual role). Another conception of narrow content, originated by White (1982) and championed by Fodor (1987), is that narrow content is a function from context to wide content. One challenge for this approach is to define the operative notion of context and to specify narrow contents informatively, rather than by abstraction from wide contents. Also, although the distinction between wide and narrow content acknowledges a systematic discrepancy between ordinary attitude attributions and scientific psychological explanation, and is motivated by a respect for both, one might wonder whether there really are two kinds of content or merely one kind described in two different ways.

It is difficult to assess the competing views because none of them has yet been developed in any great detail. A plausible if tentative assessment is that the distinction between wide and narrow content is well-motivated but not well-formulated. It is well-motivated since, in many cases, a thought’s truth-condition is not wholly determined by what is in the head, and yet what is in the head does determine, independently of environmental factors, the thinker’s perspective. Also, as Frege first recognized, wide content is too coarse to distinguish distinct perspectives on the same state of affairs or otherwise mark relevant differences in cognitive role. Realizing this, opponents of narrow content have suggested syntactic form or computational role as a surrogate for narrow content. However, this suggestion cuts things too finely: it fails to reckon with the possibility that mental representations of different forms or different computational roles might nevertheless embody the same cognitive perspective.

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Citing this article:
Bach, Kent. Two kinds of content?. Content: wide and narrow, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/content-wide-and-narrow/v-1/sections/two-kinds-of-content.
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