Friday, January 7, 2011

Why doesn't the derived/non-derived distinction matter?

Menary's discussion here is confusing to me.  I am not sure that I understand his objection.  So, the section begins,
In their joint paper for this issue, Adams and Aizawa respond to some of my
concerns about their usage of the intrinsic/extrinsic underived/derived distinctions as applied to representations and content (Menary 2006). Their concern is how something gets its content, the pertinent question is: how does the way that a representation get its content matter to whether or not a representation can count as a cognitive representation? It turns out not to matter much, because Adams and Aizawa really think that there is no difference in kind between underived and derived content. Both underived and derived representations have the same content, they just get those contents determined differently (2010b).
In the last sentence, Menary seems to get our point that there are two questionsone might ask of a representation: 1) What is its content? and 2) In virtue of what conditions does it get that content.  That's what we are on about here:
The first thing to observe about the derived/non-derived distinction is that it concerns the conditions in virtue of which an object bears a particular content. A thought might bear the content that the cat is hungry in virtue of satisfying some conditions on non-derived content, whereas a particular inscription on a piece of paper might bear that same content by satisfying some other conditions on derived content. To put the matter another way, there are two questions one might ask of a representation. The first is what content that representation bears; the second is what conditions make it the case that it bears that content.  (Adams & Aizawa, 2010, p. 582).
Now, what's puzzling in this light is Menary's claim that "Adams and Aizawa really think that there is no difference in kind between underived and derived content."  Well, no.  There is a difference in kind between underived and derived content, namely, the conditions in virtue of what something bears a given content.


  1. While new to the forum, I feel that the debate on derived vs underived content of representations (indeed important) could be addressed in a more simple way. It could be taken into account at a simpler level of evolution, starting with simple organisms dealing with meaningful information, rather than contentful representations. An organism having a survival constraint to satisfy generates a meaningful information when seeing a predator. The meaningful information (the meaning) is “presence of danger” and the system (the organism) generates it in order to determine an action (“go away”) that will satisfy the constraint. (see Such meaning is intrinsic to the system/organism.
    An evolutionary process can then be used to go from meaningful information to meaningful (contentful) representations (the meaning can be intrinsic or derived relatively to the system/organism).
    Beginning with simple organisms allows to represent meaning generation in terms of data processing. And using an evolutionary approach towards more complex organisms (up to humans) obliges us to identify the hypothesis we have to make when going to more complex systems and constraints. More precisely, the level of human brings to explicit the hypothesis related to the unknown nature of human mind.
    Following such a process, one could highlight that we have assumed that we know the nature of life.
    Good point… But we need to strart somewhere…

  2. Hi, Christophe,
    Thanks for stopping by.

    The process you describe is, indeed, one proposal that one might entertain for the conditions under which non-derived content arises. It sounds something like Ruth Millikan's approach to non-derived content.