Intentionality and Representation

Course description

Can the intentionality of the mind be explained by a naturalistic conception of the world? Intentional mental states are those that are ‘about’ things in the world. This is sometimes described as their having representational content. The intentionality of mental states has been considered to be a defining characteristic of the mind and of mental life. And many of the people who think this also accept that the mind is a natural phenomenon. This has lead to a demand on theories of the mind: that an adequate theory of mind needs to show how the intentionality of mental states is rooted in the natural order. In this course we will consider attempts to meed this demand, by looking at theories that purport to ‘naturalise’ intentionality. The proposals we will consider are causal theories of intentionality, teleo-functionalism (or teleosemantics), and conceptual role theories.

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General reading

  • Cummins, Robert (1988). Meaning and Mental Representation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
  • Fodor, Jerry (1987). Psychosemantics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
  • Millikan, Ruth (1984). Language, Truth, and Other Biological Categories (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

Online resources

Outlines and handouts will be made available on:

Where and when

Friday 3-4pm. Lecture Block Room 8

Lecture 1: Naturalising Intentionality

Intentionality is one of the two features (consciousness is the other) that poses a problem for a naturalistic theory of the mind. But ‘intentionality’ is a technical term, and so is ‘naturalism’. We will contrast different conceptions of intentionality, and ask whether naturalising intentionality requires us to derive normative facts from natural facts. (Handout)

Suggested Reading
  • Anthony, Louise (2008). ‘The Mental and the Physical’ in Routledge Companion to Metaphysics (London: Routledge).
  • Crane, Tim, ‘Intentionality’, in E. Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 29 July 2015).
  • Chisholm, Roderick, ‘Intentional Inexistence’, in D. Rosenthal, ed., The Nature of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 297-304.

Lecture 2: Causes as Objects of Thought

The natural order is first and foremost a causal order. Can intentionality be explained in terms of causation? In this session we’ll discuss the causal theory of content, and evaluate its main attractions and problems. (Handout)

Suggested Reading
  • Fodor, Jerry (1987). Psychosemantics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), ch. 4 ‘Meaning and the world order’.
  • Dretske, F. (1981), Knowledge and the Flow of Information (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press).
  • Rupert, Robert D. (2008). ‘Causal theories of mental content’. Philosophy Compass 3 (2):353–380.

Lecture 3: Teleology in Nature

The teleosemantic approach explains the intentionality of mental states not in terms of causes, but in terms of its biological function—roughly, what that type of state was naturally selected for. (Handout)

Suggested Reading
  • Macdonald, Graham and David Papineau (2006). ‘Introduction: Prospects and Problems for Teleosemantics’ in Graham Macdonald and David Papineau (eds.) Teleosemantics: New Philosophical Essays Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Millikan, R. (1984) Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Neander, Karen (2004). ‘Teleological theories of mental content’. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Lecture 4: Functional profiles

Conceptual role semantics looks at the functional character of the representational vehicles themselves. What determines the content (semantics) of a representation first of all is the way it fits in a network of inputs, outputs, and other representations. (Handout)

Suggested Reading
  • Block, N. (1986). “Advertisement for a Semantics for Psychology,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 10: 615–78.
  • Harman, G. (1982). “Conceptual Role Semantics,” Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 28: 242–56.
  • Fodor, J. and Lepore, E. (1992). Holism: A Shoppers’ Guide (Oxford: Blackwell). (CH.3)