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Intentionality: Frege and twin-earth cases


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Intentionality: Frege and twin-earth cases
Date: 4th October 2011 14:07

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 28 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Philosophy of Mind module, in response to the question, 'What do Frege cases and/or Twin-Earth cases show about intentionality?'

What you've written is two short essays, on the Frege cases and the Twin-Earth case, with a short introduction and conclusion indicating the relevance, as you see it, of the two mini-essays to the question of the nature of intentionality. That is an answer to the question, but I don't think that it is the best answer, or the best strategy for coming up with an answer.

The question which has become known as the debate between 'internalism' and 'externalism' or between 'narrow content' and 'broad content' is a deep problem. But it is easy to forget that there was a time, not so very long ago, when the very idea of broad content or externalism would have been laughed to scorn. The credit goes to Wittgenstein for first raising the question, in Philosophical Investigations:

663. If I say 'I meant HIM' very likely a picture comes to my mind, perhaps of how I looked at him, etc.' but the picture is only like an illustration to a story. From it alone it would mostly be impossible to conclude anything at all; only when one knows the story does one know the significance of the picture.

Page 177. What makes this utterance into an utterance about HIM? -- Nothing in it or simultaneous with it ('behind it'). If you want to know whom he meant, ask him.

(These might not be the best quotes, as I had to rely partly on memory and partly on Google.)

It was Wittgenstein who first argued, 'meanings are not in the head' (cf. Putnam), that you can't determine whom my thought is about by examining my thought, by itself and out of its external context (form of life etc.). It's the context which determines content. But how can that be? 'If you want to know whom he meant, ask him.' 'OK, whom did you mean?' 'I meant Mark.' -- How does that tell us anything, if there are two or more candidate 'Marks'??

I struggled with these questions, as a first-year graduate student working under McDowell. Many of the articles which you reference hadn't been written (back in 1976!).

There is, in your essay, an indication that you see the point where we feel pulled both ways, where you talk about 'psychological' and 'social' content. I am going to elaborate on this, because I think that this is what the question was asking for. How is it, that we can have our intuitions about intentional content pulled in these different and opposite directions?

Meanings are not in the head. Philosophers defending narrow content these days don't make the error of thinking that you can equate a thought with a mental image, or thinking that mental content is some kind of 'private object'. Instead, one considers the question of what it takes strictly to explain the subject's actual behaviour. If during your sleep you were kidnapped by Martians and placed in a perfectly lifelike simulacrum of Sydney, peopled by androids designed to mimic all the people that you know, or half know, your behaviour, as determined by objectively observable bodily movements could be predicted on the desires/ beliefs model, with exactly the same results, matching margins of error etc.

The principle is the same, whether we are dealing with a person or a jet engine. If you subject the entity in question to the same inputs, the you will get the same observable outputs.

The next question, then, is how the idea of broad content or externalism could even get a look in? That is equivalent to, what MORE are we trying to do, when we account for a person's actions, than predict outputs on the basis of a given input?

I have expressed the question in a form which virtually forces you to come up with, not just one answer, but a variety of answers. The person whose actions we are seeking to explain isn't a laboratory specimen. We are there, we are in with them, in the same world, dealing with the same or similar situations etc. If you want to know whom he was thinking about ask him, and the answer WILL mean something to you. It won't necessarily mean anything to just anyone, but it will mean something to YOU because...

I find the very idea of 'explanation' as applied to human beings mind-blowing, because we are 'in there', there's no separation between observer and observed. (And of course, we are also explaining ourselves to others.) What is explanation? what is it's point? how does it relate to justification, criticism, praise, rebuke, knowledge, authority? These things are essential, not accidental, because they provide the point.

Getting back to the question: I think a better strategy would have been to deal with the various issues around Frege and Twin-Earth from a more lofty perspective. What we are trying to do here is find some leverage into the debate about content, something that will offer clues as to how one should go forward, rather than picky disputes about the details of the various 'intuition pumps'.

All the best,