Philip Kuchar

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy




Naturalistic philosophical theories of semantic content, such as the influential ones proposed by Fodor, Dretske, and Millikan, on which I focus, are typically judged on whether they account for the differences between a semantic relation and a more naturally fundamental relation, such as a causal or an informational relation. One of the apparent differences is that a semantic relation, between a symbol and something else, has better and worse ways of being instantiated, which is to say that the semantic relation seems to be normatively determined. But these theorists have also tended to identify the semantic relation with one of those naturally more fundamental relations which isn’t normatively determined, adding a theory of content determinacy to a metaphysical account of the relation. I argue that because these theorists take this approach to explaining semantic content, their theories tend to have internal contradictions. These theorists need to explain the apparent normative determination in a way that is consistent with their claim that a semantic relation is a naturally fundamental relation that is not at all normative. Thus, Millikan, for example, posits a purposive function as the determinant, but a function which she claims is only descriptively, or objectively, normative. I argue, though, that this function turns out to be prescriptively normative, and that her metaphysical claims about the nature of a semantic relation conflict with her account of the purposive m function. I propose an alternative naturalistic strategy, one that takes naturalistic methodology rather than ontology as the starting point in an explanation of semantic content, and one that can therefore afford to accept the role of prescriptive norms in determining this content. A philosophical naturalist takes for granted not just what scientific theories say, but the methods scientists use, including the use of explanatory models. These models have substitutionary aspects, which I argue are crucial to the intentionality of mental symbols in general and which aren’t addressed by the other three theorists. I provide, then, a naturalistic, noncircular account of how a mental symbol’s standing in for something else is determined by prescriptive norms.



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