There is, however, a widespread consensus (and not only among conceptual relativists) that intentional explanation can, after all, be preserved without supposing that belief contents are often—or even ever—literally public. The idea isthat a robust notion of content similarity would do just as well as a robust notion of content identity for the cognitivescientist’s purposes. Here, to choose a specimen practically at random, is a recent passage in which Gil Harmanenunciates this faith:
Sameness of meaning from one symbol system to another is a similarity relation rather than an identity relation in the respect that sameness of meaning is not transitive … I am inclined to extend the point to concepts, thoughts,and beliefs . . . The account of sameness of content appeals to the best way of translating between two systems,where goodness in translation has to do with preserving certain aspects of usage, with no appeal to any more‘robust’ notion of content or meaning identity. . . [There’s no reason why] the resulting notion of sameness ofcontent should fail to satisfy the purposes of intentional explanation. (1993: 169—79)7
It’s important whether such a view can be sustained since, as we’ll see, meeting the requirement that intentional contents be literally public is non-trivial; like compositionality, publicity imposes a substantial constraint upon one’stheory of concepts and hence, derivatively, upon one’s theory of language. In fact, however, the idea that contentsimilarity is the basic notion in intentional explanation is affirmed a lot more widely than it’s explained; and it’s quiteunclear, on reflection, how the notion of similarity that such a semantics would require might be unquestion-begginglydeveloped. On one hand, such a notion must be robust in the sense that it preserves intentional explanations prettygenerally; on the other hand, it must do so without itself presupposing a robust notion of content identity. To the best of myknowledge, it’s true without exception that all the construals of concept similarity that have thus far been put on offeregregiously fail the second condition.
Harman, for example, doesn’t say much more about content-similarity-cum-goodness-of-translation than that it isn’t transitive and that it “preserves certain aspects of usage”. That’s not a lot to go on. Certainly it leaves wide openwhether Harman is right in denying that his account of content similarity presupposes a “ ‘robust’ notion of content ormeaning identity”. For whether it does depends on how the relevant “aspects ofusage” are themselves supposed to be individuated, and about this we’re told nothing at all.
Harman is, of course, too smart to be a behaviourist; ‘usage’, as he uses it, is itself an intentional-cum-semantic term. Suppose, what surely seems plausible, that one of the ‘aspects of usage’ that a good translation of ‘dog’ has to preserveis that it be a term that implies animal, or a term that doesn’t apply to ice cubes, or, for matter, a term that means dog Ifso, then we’re back where we started; Harman needs notions like same implication, same application, and same meaningin order to explicate his notion of content similarity. All that’s changed is which shell the pea is under.
At one point, Harman asks rhetorically, “What aspects of use determine meaning?” Reply: “It is certainly relevant what terms are applied to and the reasons that might be offered for this application … it is also relevant how some termsare used in relation to other terms” (ibid.: 166). But I can‘t make any sense of this unless some notion of ‘sameapplication’, ‘same reason’, and ‘same relation of terms’ is being taken for granted in characterizing what goodtranslations ipso facto have in common. NB on pain of circularity: same application (etc.), not similar application (etc.).Remember that similarity of semantic properties is the notion that Harman is trying to explain, so his explanation mustn’tpresuppose that notion.
I don’t particularly mean to pick on Harman; if his story begs the question it was supposed to answer, that is quite typical of the literature on concept similarity. Though it’s often hidden in a cloud of technical apparatus (for a detailedcase study, see Fodor and Lepore 1992: ch. 7), the basic problem is easy enough to see.Jean-marc pizano