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Being Clear on Content - Commentary on Hutto and Satne


In the target article Hutto and Satne propose a new approach to studying mental content. Although I believe there is much to commend in their proposal, I argue that it makes no space for a kind of content that is of central importance to cognitive science, and which need not be involved in beliefs and desires: I will use the expression ‘representational content’ to refer to it. Neglecting representational content leads to an undue limitation of the contribution that the neo-Cartesian approach can offer to the naturalising content project. I claim that neo-Cartesians can, on the one hand, help account for the nature of representational content and clarify what makes representational states contentful. On the other, besides explaining the natural origins of Ur-intentionality, neo-Cartesians should also take the role of accounting for the natural origins of contentful states that fall short of beliefs and desires. Finally, I argue that the only alternative for the authors is to embrace some form of non-representationalism, as Hutto elsewhere does. The success of the proposal thereby turns on the fate of the radical non-representationalist position that it accompanies.

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  1. One position that has been gaining ground in recent years and which is not included among the main contenders is the ‘phenomenal intentionality’ view (see e.g., Horgan and Tienson 2002).

  2. Although only partially so. See below.

  3. Similarly, Ramsey (2007), p. 18: “there seems to be a tacit assumption held by many philosophers that a theory of intentionality just is a theory of representation”.

  4. Burge (2010), p. 34.

  5. Burge (2010), p. 432.

  6. Cummins (1996), p. 16.

  7. See Cash (2009), in which this attempt is made but, I believe, in a way that does not do away with eliminativist worries. An ascriptionist strategy is hypothesised also by Fenici (2013). Of course, if one embraces non-representationalism about those cognitive mechanisms, this may not seem to be a problem. Nevertheless, non-representationalists must provide accounts of how complex cognitive abilities can be explained with no recourse to representations. See the section ‘Concluding Remarks’ below.

  8. Though they probably are not, and would rather endorse non-representationalism, thus doing away with what I have been calling here representational content. See below.

  9. Emphasis added.

  10. Alternatively, if the project of naturalising intentionality is thus formulated and taken to cover all forms of intentionality, it opens itself to the charge of overintellectualism (Hutto and Myin 2013, chap. 5).

  11. Burge (2010, pp. 36, 104), for instance, argues that perceptual content is not propositional even though we explain it propositionally.

  12. See Rescorla (2009).

  13. As in Cummins (1996).

  14. See Ramsey (2007).

  15. And neither can the ascriptionism of neo-behaviourists, at least if we want to keep to a realist understanding of representation.

  16. That is the line followed by Hutto and Myin (2013).

  17. Even though some talk of representation in the cognitive sciences may be misleading, as Ramsey (2007) argues at length. But see Shagrir (2012) for a reply that considerably downsizes Ramsey’s point. Burge (2010, chap. 8) also argues against what he calls “deflationary” theories of representation, while Hutto and Myin (2013, pp. 120ff.) adopt a thoroughly non-representational view and contend that the cognitive sciences do not need to posit representations in most cases. See below.

  18. See footnote 7 in Hutto and Satne (2015).

  19. See Ramsey (2007), chap. 1.

  20. See also Cummins (1996), p. 45 and Burge (2010), pp. 300 ff. and passim.

  21. And if I understand the authors correctly, determining the boundaries of this distinction should be the privilege of neo-behaviourists. It is not clear to me, though, that the proposed distinction between intentional agents and intentional patients succeeds in advancing matters. In particular, it seems to me that intentional patients, such as animals and infants, end up having contentful states in ‘merely’ ascriptionist fashion (see Shea 2013, pp. 498–9).

  22. Hutto and Myin (2013, chap. 6) defend the view that perception is non-representational. How perceptual abilities, as well as the aspectual nature of perception, could be accounted for without having recourse to representation is though not clear. See Matthen (2014) .

  23. Hutto and Myin (ibid.) reject Burge’s claim that perceiving constancies is sufficient for warranting talk of representational content.

  24. See Burge (2010), pp. 509 ff., and Rescorla (2009), especially section 3.

  25. See, for instance, Carey (2009).

  26. See ibid.

  27. Hutto and Myin (2013), p. 13.

  28. Ibid., pp. 151–2.

  29. For criticism of the attacks launched in Hutto and Myin (2013) against existing theories of content, see the reviews by Matthen (2014) and Campbell (2014). See also Satne (2014).


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I am indebted to Nicholas Shea for helpful comments and discussion on this material.

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Correspondence to Dimitri Coelho Mollo.

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Coelho Mollo, D. Being Clear on Content - Commentary on Hutto and Satne. Philosophia 43, 687–699 (2015).

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  • Mental representation
  • Mental content
  • Naturalising intentionality
  • Origins of content
  • Enactivism