Consider the following theses:
1) Both the contents and the vehicles of contents of perception are out of our heads
2) The content of perception is conceptual in a minimal sense
3) The content of a thought can be identical to the content of a perception
Recall the last time you’ve stared at the sea from the vicinity of a beach. If you’ve never had this particular visual experience, allow me to use the picture below to aid your imagination:
It follows, from the conjunction of theses 1), 2) and 3) that it could be the case that while you’re contemplating that scene, your thought is made of water. Literally.
The intentional content of your thought and and your thought itself could very well be the same thing. In sum, your thought would be constituted solely by its referent.
Does this look really absurd? Consider opposing views such as that your thoughts are constituted by arrangements of nervous cells (as in neurocentric varieties of Type-Materialism) or that they are extramental and abstract Fregean sensa. If you’re looking for immediate intellectual fulfillment on the ontology of thoughts – and mental states in general – you won’t find it anywhere. Our pretheoretical intuitions are a terrible guide here.
Theses 1-3 were taken from the published repertoire of Alva Noë, particularly from his brilliant book Action in Perception. Precursors from similar views however are found in early analytic philosophy. In his posthumously published monograph Theory of Knowledge, section On The Nature Of Acquaintance, Bertrand Russell wrote “if anything is immediately present to me, that thing must be part of my mind“.
Proponents of mental content internalism have struggled for decades proposing solutions to the problem of how the referents of thoughts could be fixed. An ordinary, albeit fallacious, accusation done by detractors is that there is nothing in the states of nervous systems that really look like the intentional content of mental states. But representations do not need to look like the events or conditions they represent (even though there were many attempts of locating empirically the structural isomorphs of intentional contents, sometimes with strikingly similar results).
But if you are to give some importance to this intuitive ‘similarity constraint’… the conjunction of active externalism with perception enactivism provides a simple, elegant answer for how the referents of some thoughts about water are fixed. On at least a certain class of water-toughts, your thought is about water and it is structurally isomorphic with water because… it is identical to the very water you’re experiencing. Thoughts with purely intentional content would be self-referential.
Given these considerations, it would seem natural to claim that the same wouldn’t follow from different sorts of water-thoughts, those that would be employing cognitive/descriptive content from the concept ‘water’ – what is usually called the narrow content of the concept ‘water’, supervenient to the organism’s internal cognitive states. I believe that with the enactivist framework of Noë and his reflections of perception being intrinsically skillful, we could provide externalist answers to cases involving what could be considered paradigmatic narrow mental content.
When you see the sea (pun intended), you’re not just perceiving such-and-such mass of fluid in certain spatial orientation from your point of view. You’re also perceiving the possibilities of engaging organismically with the ocean. Had you been armed with the relevant prior sensorimotor knowledge, it will present to you a suite of affordances, prospects for action. If you’d jump in the sea, you’d get wet and have your body immersed, depending on your tissue composition and depth of of the water. If you’d attempt to grab the water with your bare hands, the liquid would escape through your fingers. If you were to move inside it, it would demand more bodily effort.
The information for (some?) of the wetness, viscosity and density used in our descriptions of ‘water’ is supplied externally in this view. The environment itself is providing you with the different ways of presentation of ‘water’, presumably with no need to access your long-term memory. The contribution from the agent is the sensorimotor know-how to accurately engage with the environment and extract this information from it.
Or is it? This picture of organism/environmental coupling looks analogous to pieces from a jigsaw puzzle. If a piece from a jigsaw board is missing, one can infer precisely what’s the pattern of the missing piece by paying attention to the shapes of the adjacent ones. And if they are providing information, even indirectly, they are contentful. Perhaps this analogy mis-matches with the case of perception due to the the fact that the later is highly context-dependent and slight changes in the position and focus of attention of the agent could completely alter the available specifications while there’s only one configuration for a jigsaw puzzle.