Volume 14, 2000
Folk Psychology, Mental Concepts and the Ascription of Attitudes
David M. Rosenthal
Content, Interpretation, and Consciousness
According to Dennett, the facts about consciousness are wholly fixed by the effects consciousness has on other things. But if a mental state's being conscious consists in one's having a higher-order thought about that state, we will in principle have an independent way to fix those facts. Dennett also holds that our speech acts sometimes determine what our thoughts are, since speech acts often outrun in content the thoughts they express.
I argue that what thoughts we have is independent of how we express them in speech, and that this is consonant with speech acts’ often seeming to have more fine grained content than the thoughts they express. This model has the advantage, compared with Dennett’s, of accommodating our folk-psychological taxonomy of intentional states and preserving the traditional idea that speech acts express antecedent intentional states. Speech acts doubtless do sometimes have richer content than the thoughts they express, though sometimes verbally expressing a thought simply makes us conscious in a more fine-grained way of what that content is.
On the higher-order-thought model, as on Dennett’s, a mental state’s being conscious is, in effect, our spontaneously interpreting ourselves as being in that state. But such spontaneous self-interpretation need not be the last word on what content our thoughts have. Even though the content of speech acts sometimes outrun that of the thoughts they express, we can explain why the two seem always to be exactly the same. Even when a speech act is richer in content than the thought it expresses, the well-entrenched pragmatic equivalence between saying something and saying that one thinks that thing ensures that one will be conscious of one’s thought as having the richer content of the speech act that expresses it. We are conscious of our thoughts as having the content that our speech acts would capture.