Narrow Content

According to some causal theories, the referent of a term like "water" is whatever substance bears the appropriate causal relation to the use of that term (Putnam 1975; Kripke 1980; see also Fodor 1987; Dretske 1981; Stampe 1977). This view is supported by Putnam's TWIN EARTH example, according to which the referents of our terms, and hence the truth conditions and meanings of utterances and the contents of our thoughts, depend on conditions in our environment and so are not determined by (do not supervene on) our individual, internal psychology alone. Content that does not supervene on an individual subject's internal psychology is called broad content.

Several considerations, however, suggest the need for a concept of content that would supervene on internal psychology, that is, a concept of narrow content. We normally assume that our behavior is causally explained by our intentional states such as beliefs and desires (see INTENTIONALITY). We also assume that our behavior has its causal explanation in our individual, internal psychological makeup (see INDIVIDUALISM). But if the explanation of behavior supervenes on individual, internal psychology, and the broad contents of our intentional states do not, then it seems that either those states will not figure in the causal explanations of a genuine psychological science or that a notion of narrow content is required. Some theorists have challenged this argument, however, by denying the first assumption (Stich 1978; 1983), some have denied the second (Wilson 1995), and some have denied that the conclusion follows (Fodor 1994). Even the legitimacy of a distinction between broad and narrow content along these lines has been challenged (Bilgrami 1992; Chomsky 1995). Thus the implication that the scientific explanation of behavior requires narrow content remains controversial.

For this reason, other arguments for narrow content have been advanced that involve not just the causal explanation of behavior but explanations that capture the subject's own perspective on the world and thus rationalize and justify that behavior. For example, if all content is the broad content postulated by causal theories, a brain in a vat being fed artificial sensory inputs by a computer will either have no beliefs or its beliefs will be about the computer's internal states, regardless of the nature of the stimulus inputs. Thus although the question how the world presents itself seems just as legitimate for the brain in the vat as for a normal subject, a theory of belief that restricts itself to broad content apparently cannot provide an adequate account.

A third consideration favoring narrow content derives from a problem raised by Gottlob FREGE (1952). Though the expressions "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" both refer to the same object -- Venus -- a person who was sufficiently uninformed could be perfectly rational in believing and assenting to what he would express by saying both "Hesperus is inhabited" and "Phosphorus is not inhabited." The problem is that according to the causal theory these two beliefs are about the same object and say contradictory things about it. And we cannot counter the implication of the causal theory that the subject is irrational by appeal to the different descriptions that the subject associates with the two terms; to do so would undermine the claim of the causal theory that reference is independent of the descriptions available to the subject. Nor can we appeal to the differences in the causal chains connecting Venus with "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus," because these are unavailable to the subject and so cannot explain how it could be rational to hold these beliefs simultaneously. This last point reveals a problem for conceptual or FUNCTIONAL ROLE SEMANTICS and for procedural semantics as accounts of narrow content (Block 1986; Loar 1982; Field 1977; Schiffer 1981; Miller and Johnson-Laird 1976; Johnson-Laird 1977; see also Harman 1982). Functional role semantics answers the question what the subjects and their Twin Earth doppelgängers have in common by reference to the equivalence of the functional states underlying their beliefs (see FUNCTIONALISM). But, because these functional properties, like the causal chains, are not available to the subject in question, this approach cannot characterize the world as it presents itself to the brain in the vat or rationalize and justify the behavior of the uninformed subject.

Another approach to narrow content exploits an analogy between broad contents and the contents of token-reflexive utterances involving INDEXICALS AND DEMONSTRATIVES (White 1982; Fodor 1987). Suppose Jones and Jones' doppelgänger on Twin Earth both say "It's warm here." Because they have different locations, they say different things and express different belief contents. What is common to the two expressions, however, is a function from their contexts of utterance to the contents expressed. If Jones had uttered what he did at his doppelgänger's location, he would have expressed what his doppelgänger did and vice versa. Suppose now that Jones and his duplicate both say "Water is wet." What Jones says is true just in case H2O is wet, and the same goes for his duplicate and the twin Earth analogue of water, XYZ. Again they express different propositions, and their utterances have different broad contents. But suppose Jones had acquired his word "water" not on Earth but on Twin Earth. Then the broad content of his utterance would have been the same as that of his duplicate. In this case too, what the broad contents of their utterances have in common can be expressed as a function -- this time from contexts of acquisition to broad contents .

We can also appeal to such functions to show what the brain in the vat has in common with normal subjects. Had the brain acquired its beliefs in the same context as normal subjects, it would have had the same broad-content beliefs that they have, and vice versa. Thus in this example as well, the narrow contents that the beliefs have in common can be expressed as functions from contexts of acquisition to broad contents. Furthermore, we can appeal to the same functions to distinguish the content the uninformed subject would express in saying "Hesperus is inhabited" from what that subject would express in saying "Phosphorus is inhabited." Though there is no possible world at which Hesperus is not identical with Phosphorus, there are worlds epistemically identical with the actual one such that had the subject acquired the terms at those worlds they would have referred to different planets. Thus the terms "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus," though they have the same referent, are associated with different functions from contexts of acquisition to referents. Hence the two beliefs whose broad contents are contradictory have narrow contents that do not support the charge of irrationality.

The appeal to narrow content in this sense answers the three objections to broad content that we have been considering. This approach, however, is not fully satisfactory. First, it underestimates the theoretical significance of narrow content by making its ascription parasitic on the ascription of broad content. Second, it provides only an indirect answer to the question what the subject believes, where the question concerns narrow belief. Third, narrow contents, so defined, do not lend themselves easily to a characterization of the logical or epistemic relations among a subject's beliefs, nor to an analysis of the relations in virtue of which they figure in practical reasoning or decision-making.

An alternative approach to narrow content takes its cue from the fact that the truth conditions of a belief or utterance are often represented as the set of possible worlds at which that belief or utterance is true. As we have seen, the causal theorist's notion of truth and truth conditions leads directly to broad content. However, we can represent the narrow contents of the subject's beliefs as the set of worlds where those beliefs are accurate or veridical and then define these in a way that is independent of truth. One suggestion is that there is a conceptual connection between possible worlds at which one's beliefs are accurate and worlds at which one's actions are optimal (and nonaccidentally so), given one's desires and one's available alternatives. The intuition is that if one performs an action that from one's own point of view is the best action under the circumstances (it is not weak willed, etc.), then it could only fail to be optimal if some of one's beliefs were inaccurate (White 1991).

See also

Additional links

-- Stephen L. White


Bilgrami, A. (1992). Belief and Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Block, N. (1986). Advertisement for a semantics for psychology. In P. French, T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol 10. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chomsky, N. (1995). Language and nature. Mind 104:1-61.

Dretske, F. (1981). Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Field, H. (1977). Logic, meaning, and conceptual role. Journal of Philosophy 74:379-409.

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1994). The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Frege, G. (1952). On sense and reference. In P. Geach and M. Black, Eds., Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harman, G. (1982). Conceptual role semantics. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 23:242-256.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1977). Procedural semantics. Cognition 5:189-214.

Kripke, S. A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Loar, B. (1982). Conceptual role and truth conditions. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 23:272-283.

Miller, G. A., and P. N. Johnson-Laird. (1976). Language and Perception. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning." In H. Putnam, Ed., Mind, Language and Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schiffer, S. (1981). Truth and the theory of content. In H. Parret and J. Bouveresse, Eds., Meaning and Understanding. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Stampe, D. W. (1977). Toward a causal theory of linguistic representation. In P. French, T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stich, S. (1978). Autonomous psychology and the belief-desire thesis. Monist 61:573-591.

Stich, S. (1983). From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

White, S. L. (1982). Partial character and the language of thought. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 63:347-365. Reprinted in S. L. White, The Unity of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

White, S. L. (1991). Narrow content and narrow interpretation. In S. L. White, Ed., The Unity of the Self. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Wilson, R. A. (1995). Cartesian Psychology and Physical Minds: Individualism and the Sciences of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Further Readings

Burge, T. (1979). Individualism and the mental. In P. French, T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 4. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Field, H. (1978). Mental representation. Erkenntnis 13:9-61.

Fodor, J. A. (1978). Tom Swift and his procedural grandmother. Cognition 6:229-247.

Fodor, J. A. (1980). Methodological solipsism considered as a research strategy in cognitive psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3:63-73. Reprinted in J. A. Fodor, Representations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson-Laird, P. (1978). What's wrong with grandma's guide to procedural semantics: A reply to Jerry Fodor. Cognition 6:241-261.

Kaplan, D. (1989). Demonstratives. In J. Almog, J. Perry, and H. Wettstein, Eds., Themes from Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stalnaker, R. (1989). On what"s in the head. In J. Tomberlin, Ed., Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 3, Philosophy of Mind and Action Theory. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Woodfield, A., Ed. (1982). Thought and Content. New York: Oxford University Press .