Mental content, holism and communication
Pollock, Joanna Katharine Mary
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In this project, I defend a holistic, internalist conceptual-role theory of mental content (‘Holism’, for short). The account of communicative success which must be adopted by the Holist is generally thought to be unattractive and perhaps even untenable. The primary aim of my thesis is to show that this account is actually far more plausible than the accounts available to competing theories of mental content. Holism is thought to suffer from a special problem of communication because it entails that no two subjects ever mean the same thing by an utterance of the same word-forms, or share the same thought content. Many think that it is necessary for communicative success (or, at least, sometimes required) that the content grasped by the hearer is the same content as that which is expressed by the speaker. As such, theories such as social externalism are thought to be well-equipped to explain communicative success because they can posit shared content. Holism claims that subjects think, and speak, in their own idiosyncratic idiolects. As such, Holists must deny that it is ever required for communicative success that subjects share content. Holists must maintain instead that successful communication requires only similarity of content between speaker and hearer. This is supposed to be a serious cost of the view. In this project, I argue that it is, in fact, a virtue. Views like Holism, which can posit only mere similarity of content, are better placed to explain communicative success than views which can posit shared content. In the first part of my thesis, I argue that externalist theories of content face a dilemma when it comes to explaining communicative success. They must choose between (a), endorsing an account of communication which renders the relationship between the content expressed by the speaker and grasped by the hearer irrelevant to communicative success and (b), endorsing an account which gives implausible diagnoses as to the success and failure of communicative attempts. I argue that the reason that externalist theories face this dilemma is because they allow that content and understanding can come apart. Interestingly, it is, in part, because they posit a communal language that they face the dilemma. In contrast, the Holist’s similar content account does not face the dilemma. It can naturally incorporate understanding into its explanation of how mental content facilitates communicative success because, on Holism, understanding perfectly tracks mental content. In the second part of my thesis, I develop an account of communicative success for the Holist and defend the account from objections. The account claims that communication succeeds to the degree that content is similar across communication partners. In defending the view, I propose a criterion for similarity of content for the Holist. I also argue that (pure) internalists can agree with externalists as to the extensions of concepts and the truth-conditions of contents without the need to appeal to any factors outside of the individual. Finally, I explain how my account of communication impacts upon a theory of testimony. Most work on testimony stipulates that the content of the testimony grasped by the hearer is the same as that expressed by the speaker. I present and defend an account of testimony which claims instead that testimonial exchanges can be successful even when the content grasped by the hearer is merely similar to the content expressed by the speaker.