Content: Wide vs. Narrow

[entry for the Routledge Enclyclopedia of Philosophy]

Kent Bach

A central problem in philosophy is to explain, in a way consistent

with their causal efficacy, how mental states can represent states of

affairs in the world. Consider, for example, that wanting water and

thinking there is some in the tap can lead one to turn on the tap. The

contents of these mental states pertain to things in the world (water

and the tap), and yet it would seem that their causal efficacy should

depend solely on their internal characteristics, not on their external

relations. That is, a person could be in just those states, their

perspective could be just the same, and these mental states could play

just the same psychological roles, even if there were no water or tap

for them to refer to. However, certain arguments, based on some

imaginative thought experiments, have persuaded many philosophers that

thought contents do depend on external factors, both physical and

social. A tempting solution to this dilemma has been to suppose that

there are two kinds of content, wide and narrow. Wide content comprises

the referential relations that mental states (and their constituents)

bear to things and their properties. Narrow content comprises the

determinants of psychological role. Philosophers have debated whether

both notions of content are viable and, if so, how they are connected.

1. Motivating the distinction

2. Twin Earth thought experiments

3. Two kinds of content?

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). On the other hand, insofar as

these states play causal roles in our psychologies, they do so because

of how the world seems to one, 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's 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 INDIVIDUALISM,

METHODOLOGICAL). The distinction between wide and narrow content

has been thought to resolve this dilemma.

Is this a genuine dilemma? Leaving aside such skeptical 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 like 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. 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 or 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.

2. Twin Earth thought experiments

A similar difficulty was revealed by Putnam's (1975) celebrated

'Twin Earth' thought experiments, which introduced the distinction

between wide and narrow content. Twin Earth is a place where

everything is just like it is here, except as otherwise specified. In

one scenario, two men, Art and Bart (Art's counterpart on Twin Earth),

each have thoughts that they express with the words, 'Water quenches

thirst'. However, on Twin Earth the clear liquid that fills the seas

and falls from the skies is composed not of H2O but of some other stuff

XYZ. It is 1750 and Art and Bart, like everyone else, are ignorant of

chemistry and could not, even if they had the opportunity, tell the

difference between H2O and XYZ. Nevetheless, Putnam contends, Art and

Bart use the word 'water' to express different concepts. If Art were to

classify a sample of XYZ as water, he would be wrong, for it would not

be a substance of the same kind as water. As for Bart, he does not take

XYZ to be water, for he does not have the concept water. So Art and

Bart, even though they are not different neurally, have different

concepts, with different conditions of correct application. Their

concepts are not determined solely by what is in their heads.

Burge (1979) conducts another thought experiment designed to show

that differences in people's social environments can make for differences

in mental content. An arthritic patient called Al complains to his doctor,

'My arthritis has spread to my thigh'. Nothing in his acquisition of

the term 'arthritis' has kept him from supposing that this inflammatory

disease can occur in the bones as well as the joints. Meanwhile, Cal,

his Twin Earth counterpart, registers a similar complaint. There,

however, the term 'arthritis' is used to refer to an inflammatory

disease of either the joints or the bones. Cal's exposure to the term

'arthritis' is the same as Al's, but, given how it is used on Twin

Earth, he understands it correctly. Now, according to Burge, both

patients are correctly said, on their respective planets, to believe

that arthritis can occur in the bones, but, since Cal's belief is true

and Al's is false, what they believe is different. However, there is no

internal difference between them. Therefore, what they believe is

partly an external matter. Contents are not, and do not supervene upon,

what's in the head.

These thought experiments have met with considerable enthusiasm

but also with neglected criticism (see Unger 1984, Bach 1987, and Crane

(1991). For one thing, they are conducted selectively: varying their

details can yield contrary intuitions, e.g., that XYZ is a kind of water.

Also, even granting the correctness of the intuition, e.g., that XYZ is not

a kind of water, they leave it a mystery why the references of different

concepts should be determined in different ways. The reference of the

concept we express with 'water' depends on the nature (H2O) of the clear,

plentiful liquid around us, but this is not the situation with the concepts

we express with the terms 'earth', 'air', and 'fire', whose references are

chemically heterogeneous and are determined by the satisfaction of

certain phenomenological conditions. Putnam and his followers do not

explain why the fact that water is a chemical natural kind and earth, air,

and fire are not should make the concept water a different kind of concept

from the concepts earth, air and fire, with its reference determined in a

fundamentally different way, even back in 1750.

The arthritis argument depends essentially on the supposition that

one can have beliefs with contents one 'incompletely understands'. It

assumes, for example, that Al not only misunderstands the word

'arthritis' but operates with the concept arthritis rather than with

some broader concept (call it tharthritis) that he mistakenly associates

with the word. So, it might be objected, Al understands the term

'arthritis' in precisely the same way as Cal does, and has the very same

belief, namely that his tharthritis has spread to his thigh. Whatever

evidence there is that he also believes that his arthritis has spread to

his thigh is overridden by his idiosyncratic understanding of the term

'arthritis' (we are not tempted to say that he believes that he has

inflammation of the joints in his thigh).

In any case, we cannot assume that what 'that'-clauses capture is the

sort of content relevant to psychology, that is, to characterizing people's

perspectives and explaining their actions and inferences. As Loar (1988)

and Patterson (1990) have both argued, one can grant that the thought

experiments succeed in showing that the truth conditions of attitude

ascriptions are sensitive to aspects of the physical and social environment

without granting that 'that'-clauses capture psychological content (see

PROPOSITIONAL ATTITUDE STATEMENTS). After all, linguisticsemantics

is not psychology.

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,

at the time of this writing, has 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.

References and further reading

* Bach, K. (1987) Thought and Reference, Oxford: Oxford University Press,

ch. 13. (Challenges Putnam's and Burge's Twin Earth thought experiments.)

* Block, N. (1986) 'Advertisement for a semantics for psychology', in P.

French et al., eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 10,

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; reprinted in Stich and

Warfield. (Surveys a wide variety of theories and defends a conceptual

role theory of narrow content.)

* Burge, T. (1979) 'Individualism and the mental', in P. French et al.,

eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 4, Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press. (Employs a variety of Twin Earth thought experiments to

argue that mental contents are to a degree socially constituted.)

* Crane, T. (1991) 'All the difference in the world', Philosophical Quarterly

41: 1-25. (Challenges Putnam's and Burge's Twin Earth thought experiments.)

* Fodor, J. (1987) Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the

Philosophy of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (Explores White's idea

that narrow content as a function from context to wide content.)

Fodor, J. (1994) The Elm and the Expert, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

(Argues that wide content is the only notion of content needed for the

purposes of psychological explanation.)

* Loar, B. (1988) 'Social content and psychological content' and 'Reply

to Bilgrami', in R. Grimm and P. Merrill, eds., Contents of Thoughts,

Tucson: University of Arizona Press. (Argues, contrary to Burge, that

psychological content is not in general what is captured by oblique


Loewer, B. and G. Rey, eds. (1991) Meaning in Mind: Fodor and His

Critics, Oxford: Blackwell. (Articles, with replies by Fodor, addressing

main issues in the theory of content.)

* Patterson, S. (1990) 'The explanatory role of belief ascriptions',

Philosophical Studies 59: 313-332. (Argues that the orthodox

interpretation of Burge's Twin Earth thought experiments does not do

justice to the ways in which intentional states are individuated in

commonsense psychology.)

* Putnam, H. (1975) 'The meaning of "meaning",' in K. Gunderson, ed.,

Language, Mind, and Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Press. (Devises Twin Earth thought experiments to argue that meanings

cannot both determine reference and be 'in the head'.)

Stich, S. and T. Warfield, eds. (1994) Mental Representation: A Reader,

Oxford: Blackwell. (Contains important articles on major theories of content.)

* Unger, P. (1984) Philosophical Relativity, Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press, ch. 5. (Challenges the Twin Earth thought experiments

by showing how varying their details yields conflicting intuitions.)

Wallace, J. and H. E. Mason (1990) 'Some thought experiments about

mind and meaning', in C. A. Anderson and J. Owens, eds., Propositional

Attitudes: The Role of Content in Logic, Language, and Mind, Stanford:

Center for the Study of Language and Information. (Argues that ordinary

language provides much richer and subtler ways of attributing mental

contents than is allowed by the orthodox interpretation of Burge's Twin

Earth thought experiments.)

* White, S. (1982). 'Partial character and the language of thought',

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 63: 347-365. (Proposes a conception of

narrow content as a function from context to wide content.)