, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 103-114

Content essentialism

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Abstract

The paper offers some preliminary and rather unsystematic reflections about the question: Do Beliefs Have Their Contents Essentially? The question looks like it ought to be important, yet it is rarely discussed. Maybe that’s because content essentialism, i.e., the view that beliefs do have their contents essentially, is simply too obviously and trivially true to deserve much discussion. I sketch a common-sense argument that might be taken to show that content essentialism is indeed utterly obvious and/or trivial. Somewhat against this, I then point out that a “sexy” conclusion that is sometimes drawn from Putnam-Burge-style externalist arguments, namely that our mental states are not in our heads, presupposes content essentialism — which suggests that the view is not entirely trivial. Moreover, it seems intuitively that physicalists should reject the view: If beliefs are physical states, how could they have their propositional contents essentially? I distinguish three readings of the title question. Content essentialism does seem fairly obvious on the first two, but not so on the third. I argue that the common-sense argument mentioned earlier presupposes one of the first two readings but fails to apply to the third, on which ‘belief’ refers to belief-state tokens. That’s because ordinary belief individuation is silent about belief-state tokens. Token physicalists, I suggest, should indeed reject content essentialism about belief-state tokens. What about token dualists? One might think they ought to embrace content essentialism about belief-state tokens. I end with puzzling why this should be so.