Content and Psychology

Dissertation, University of California, San Diego (1991)
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The theoretical underpinnings and practical worth of content-based, intentional, or "folk" psychology have been challenged by three distinct groups of philosophical critics in the past 15 years or so. The first group, comprised by Hilary Putnam, Tyler Burge, and other advocates of "wide" or "externalist" theories of meaning, claims that traditional psychologists have been mistaken in assuming that our beliefs, desires, and other content-laden states supervene on or inhere in our individual minds or brains. The other two groups are both "eliminative materialists," who charge that the intentional approach is inadequate and that it can or will be replaced by a completely non-interpretive discipline: either neuropsychology, in the view of Patricia and Paul Churchland, or a strictly syntactic computational psychology, according to Stephen Stich. ;This dissertation defends "notional world" or narrow intentional psychology against these charges, primarily on the strength of its practical merits, in contrast to the limitations and adverse effects of the proposed alternatives. Psychology is at least partly an applied science with a mandate to help understand and treat concrete psychological problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, I argue, so any theorist who proposes to reconfigure or phase out existing approaches must be prepared to take over these duties with at least equal facility. However, whereas various "narrow" schools of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Therapy are fairly successful in this regard and show every indication of continuing to be needed for the foreseeable future, the Syntactic Theory seems to show very poor promise of being able to help relieve the distress of people with psychological disturbances, while a purely neurobiological approach is inappropriate in many cases, and tends to cause a variety of untoward and dangerous side-effects. As for the "wide" theorists with their emphasis upon the social and environmental contributions to meaning: they must acknowledge that a good deal of content is in the head; and, more importantly, by focusing on the role of the "experts" in a society's language-game, they miss the whole point of a psychological attribution, which is to understand an individual's reasons--however idiosyncratic--for acting as he or she does.
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