Seminar on Narrow Content

Instructor: Jonathan Cohen ( (omit text in caps, which reduces automated spam))
office: (732) 445 6163
home: (718) 499 1213
Office hours: Tuesday, 12:30 to 2:00, in Psychology A132, on Busch Campus.

What The Seminar Is About

Among the more interesting properties of mental states, it is widely agreed, is their intentionality: mental states, unlike most everything else in the universe, can be about other things, and in this sense may be said to have intentional content. In the 1970s, philosophers such as Putnam, Kripke, and Burge argued persuasively that the content of mental states depends crucially on various aspects of the extra-dermal environment of the thinker (hence, Putnam's slogan: content ain't in the head).

On the other hand, views of content respecting such insight (so-called externalist views about content) seem to conflict with equally plausible intuitions about the role of content in intentional explanations. Content appears to figure essentially in intentional explanations of behavior of this form: he ate the pizza because he desired that he would gain weight and believed that his eating the pizza would cause him to gain weight. And, it seems reasonable to think that such an explanation would serve equally well as an explanation of the identical behavior of molecular duplicate individuals in quite different environments (why do both of them start munching on pizza at precisely the same moment?). However, prima facie, it's hard to see how to reconcile this intuition with content externalism: if content ain't in the head, then the variations in the two environments would have the consequence that we cannot explain the identical behavior of our molecular twins by attributing to them states with identical content.

This clash, among other motivations, has led some to think that there must be some aspect of content in the head, or that there is something in the head which determines content. This they have dubbed `narrow content'. Of course, this term is just a placeholder so far. The interesting theoretical question, at this point, is what a viable notion of narrow content could look like.

In this seminar I want to study narrow content in some detail. I want to consider arguments concluding that there must be some such notion and also arguments concluding that there can't be any such notion. And, of course, I want to consider several proposals for understanding the notion. We shall be asking what (if anything!) we should be looking for in a conception of narrow content, and then attempting to assess the various proposals in light of these desiderata.

Course Requirements

If you are taking the class for credit, you may choose either to write one long paper (~25 pages) at the end of the semester, or else two shorter papers (~12 pages). In addition, everyone attending the seminar will be responsible for at least one presentation of the week's reading.

Reading List