Unfollowed Rules and the Normativity of Content

Analytic Philosophy 61 (4):323-344 (2020)
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Foundational theories of mental content seek to identify the conditions under which a mental representation expresses, in the mind of a particular thinker, a particular content. Normativists endorse the following general sort of foundational theory of mental content: A mental representation r expresses concept C for agent S just in case S ought to use r in conformity with some particular pattern of use associated with C. In response to Normativist theories of content, Kathrin Glüer-Pagin and Åsa Wikforss propose a dilemma, alleging that Normativism either entails a vicious regress or falls prey to a charge of idleness. In this paper, I respond to this argument. I argue that Normativism can avoid the commitments that generate the regress and does not propose the sort of explanation required to charge that its explanation has been shown to be problematically idle. The regress-generating commitment to be avoided is, roughly, that tokened, contentful mental states are the product of rule-following. The explanatory task Normativists should disavow is that of explaining how it is that beliefs and other contentful mental states are produced. I argue that Normativism, properly understood as a theory of content, does not provide this kind of psychological explanation, and therefore does not entail that such explanations are to be given in terms of rule-following. If this is correct, Normativism is not the proper target of the dilemma offered by Glüer-Pagin and Wikforss. Understanding why one might construe Normativism in the way Glüer-Pagin and Wikforss must, and how, properly understood, it avoids their dilemma, can help us to appreciate the attractiveness of a genuinely normative theory of content and the importance of paying careful attention to the sort of normativity involved in norm-based theories of content.
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