The myth of social content


Social externalism is the view that the contents of a person's propositional attitudes are logically determined at least in part by her linguistic community's standards for the use of her words. If social externalism is correct, its importance can hardly be overemphasized. The traditional Cartesian view of psychological states as essentially first personal and non-relational in character, which has shaped much theorizing about the nature of psychological explanation, would be shown to be deeply flawed. I argue in this paper that social externalism faces insuperable difficulties. The first difficulty is that if syntax and semantics are independent, then social externalism is committed to the absurd consequence that many people have beliefs with formally inconsistent contents. I argue none of the possible responses to this objection are plausible. The second difficulty is that if syntax and semantics are independent, then social externalists are committed to a contradiction. After raising and defending these objections, I identify what I think is the underlying flaw in the social externalist position, a failure to pay attention to the structure of communication intentions, and briefly indicate how to neutralize the linguistic evidence social externalists advance in favor of their view.

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Kirk Ludwig
Indiana University, Bloomington


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