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Semantics, informational

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-W038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

Information-theoretic semantics (ITS) attempts to provide a naturalistic account of the conditions under which a psychological state such as a belief or desire has a particular mental content: what it is by virtue of which, say, a psychological state is a belief ‘that it is raining’ or a desire ‘that it stop raining’. Because of the complexities of an entirely general account, ITS typically attempts to provide merely a sufficient naturalistic condition for a belief content of the sort normally acquired by perception (for example, that it is raining). It is expected that other sorts of mental contents may require that ITS be supplemented in various ways.

ITS was inspired by Claude Shannon’s theory of ‘information’ (1948), which provided a mathematical measure of the amount of information carried by a signal. Employing a notion of ‘natural meaning’ discussed by Peirce (1931) and Grice (1957), Dretske (1981) supplemented Shannon’s work with an account of what information a signal carries. The intuitive idea is that a signal carries the information ‘that p’ if and only if it naturally means (that is, indicates) that p, as when smoke ‘means’ there is fire.

Natural indication is a key ingredient in ITS accounts of mental content. In their accounts, Stampe (1977) and Stalnaker (1984) appeal to the notion of what a state indicates under ‘optimal’ conditions. Fodor (1987) appeals to ‘asymmetric dependencies’ between the meaning-forming and the non-meaning-forming indication conditions in the causation of psychological states. Dretske (1988) appeals to the idea that, via operant conditioning, a state can acquire a functional role vis-à-vis behaviour because it naturally indicates ‘that p’ and thereby can acquire the natural function of indicating ‘that p‘.

Citing this article:
McLaughlin, Brian P. and Georges Rey. Semantics, informational, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-W038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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