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The Semantic Shuffle: Shifting Emphasis in Dretske's Account of Representational Content

David Sturdee
Erkenntnis (1975-)
Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jul., 1997), pp. 89-103
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20012787
Page Count: 15
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The Semantic Shuffle: Shifting Emphasis in Dretske's Account of Representational Content
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Abstract

In "Knowledge and the Flow of Information," Fred Dretske explains representational content by appealing to natural indication: a mental representation has its content in virtue of being a reliable natural indicator of a particular type of state of the world. His account fails for several reasons, not the least of which is that it cannot account for misrepresentation. Recognizing this, Dretske adds a twist in his more recent work on representational content (sketched in 'Misrepresentation' and elaborated in Explaining Behavior): a mental representation acquires its semantic content when the fact that it naturally indicates some type of state of the world acquires explanatory relevance. This shift in emphasis from natural indication to function (and, so, to behaviour) is intended to address the disjunction problem. Whether or not it succeeds (I argue that it does not), new problems emerge as a direct result of the shift to emphasis on behaviour. First, although Dretske appeals to appropriate response behaviours for particular types of representations, it is not at all clear that such behaviours exist. Second, Dretske's theory cannot account for representations that never figure in the behaviour of the organism of which they are a part. In response to these problems, I suggest two possible routes to recovery: one, an appeal to implicit beliefs (or dispositions); and, two, an appeal to compositionality. Although it seems clear that Dretske must enlist one of these options if he is to formulate a successful causal naturalist theory of representational content, given his theoretical commitments, neither option is readily available to him.

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