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Semantics, conceptual role

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

According to conceptual role semantics (CRS), the meaning of a representation is the role of that representation in the cognitive life of the agent, for example, in perception, thought and decision-making. It is an extension of the well-known ‘use’ theory of meaning, according to which the meaning of a word is its use in communication and, more generally, in social interaction. CRS supplements external use by including the role of a symbol inside a computer or a brain. The uses appealed to are not just actual, but also counterfactual: not only what effects a thought does have, but what effects it would have had if stimuli or other states had differed. Of course, so defined, the functional role of a thought includes all sorts of causes and effects that are non-semantic, for example, perhaps happy thoughts can bolster one’s immunity, promoting good health. Conceptual roles are functional roles minus such non-semantic causes and effects.

The view has arisen separately in philosophy (where it is sometimes called ‘inferential’ or ‘functional’ role semantics) and in cognitive science (where it is sometimes called ‘procedural semantics’).

Citing this article:
Block, Ned. Semantics, conceptual role, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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