Friday 30 November 2007

Contents and vehicles

One informal project that those of us from the more philosophical side of the Institute are engaged in is trying to get a better understanding of the embodied, embedded, enactive (and some add extended) approach to philosophy of mind that has sprung up recently from a number of distinct sources. My own sense that we should do this sprang from frequent references to this family of views in both philosophical and clinical papers at the Leiden IPPP conference in 2006. (My colleagues have their own reasons, of course, including interests in similar Continental philosophical approaches.)

Falling, as one is wont, to talking shop over a very fine pint in the Sun Hotel in Lancaster last night, I realised (very much guided by Gloria) that although I navigate much of philosophy through appeal to familiar distinctions (and when philosophers such as Quine propose giving up a distinction my general assumption is that something will be lost rather than gained) a fresh application of one can have me stumped and wondering whether I understood it in the first place.

In this case, the distinction is from the philosophy of thought between the content of mental states (often what comes after the word ‘that’ in saying, eg., Smith believes that Flaming Nora is a fine beer) and the vehicle for, or of, that content. In the case of the sentence I’ve just written, one might explain the vehicle as the squiggles you’ve read and the content as what they mean. In philosophy of thought or mind, the vehicles are usually neurological states in the head. One advantage of this approach is that the vehicles of content are what can causally explain a subject’s actions. As neurological states, they can operate the causal pushes and pulls that end up making a chap raise a glass to his lips. (It is less clear how the content itself – that FN is a fine beer – can do this.)

Now the neat picture that might be suggested was put under threat thirty years ago by arguments by Putnam and Burge that content – or meaning – was sometimes at least determined by external features: ie. features of the broader natural or social context. Thus Putnam argued that thoughts that I might express using the word ‘water’ are constituted as the thoughts they are by the chemical make up of the world (such that my twin on another world where the surrounding liquid is undetectably but chemically different expresses different thoughts using the same sounding sentences). Content, they argued, was broad or external, not narrow or internal and a fiddle was needed to preserve a simple causal role for internal vehicles (of something less than the full content or meaning of a thought, some internal element of thought common between me and my twin).

But in the context of the 3 (or 4) Es, the new notion is one of vehicle externalism. The thoughts themselves are carried by vehicles that are outside the skull. Such vehicles might be an extended feature of the body or, perhaps, a shopping list. Now I think I can begin to understand this. I think I can see how a shopping list might not only constitute my shopping intentions but ‘carry’ those intentions. But I begin to lose my grip now on the distinction between content and vehicle at just this point. What is its purpose? Without the neat picture of internal vehicles causing my actions neurologically, what is the need for the distinction between content and vehicle?

I’m suffering, in other words, from the confusion that is characteristic in philosophy as the ship, as it were, is put into the bottle. I look forward in about a week, I hope!, to when I understand what this amounts to. But typically, I will simply forget how I didn’t understand it before.