Three concepts of ‘content’ and one of constitution.

My friend E. is across the hall from me in the Materials Science department. She often comes by to say hi, and then argue about various differences between what philosophers should do and what material scientists should do (I am clear in my opinions about the latter, she in her opinions about the former). E. has some grasp of the terminology used in philosophy, and so can understand a lot of what I say, when I am overwhelmed by frustration and rage — in ‘High Dudgeon’, as she puts it — over some argument about properties, instantiation and possible worlds. E. is also our building’s Fire, Health and Safety Officer; she sometimes does a tour to make sure everything is good (and frequently to get into a ‘High Dudgeon’ about people propping open fire doors with extinguishers etc.).

Last week, I was struggling with a paper about the structure of perception. It was getting worse and worse, as I seemed to have found an argument for the position that, necessarily, perception could have no structure. Finally, I ROARED with mighty rage, I SHOVED my desk back, I PRINTED my paper, and then I grabbed it and TORE it to shreds, before finally flinging it into the wastepaper basket with such force that the bin fell over.

A minute later, as I sat on my desk, head in hands, there was a knock on the door. E. stuck her head in. I gazed up in mute defeat.

She looked at me, then looked at the bin.

“What’s in the bin?”

“What?”  I asked.

“The bin. What’s the bin’s content?”

“Oh –” I took a trembling breath. Hardly able to bear the answer, I spoke just above a whisper. “Its content is an argument for the simplicity of the perceptual act.” I wanted to weep.

Now, E. looked confused. She came in to the room “–No. I mean: what’s in the bin.”

I stared a moment then understood: “Oh” I gestured irritably. “Just paper. And an empty packet of Jaffa Cakes.”

E. sighed noisily and stamped over to the bin. She picked it up, ignoring everything that fell out of it, and turned it over to look at its bottom. “Right –” she read out. “Material content: 40% tin; 40% aluminium; 20% plastic.” She frowned, and left the room.

After a moment, I shouted after her:

“Hey, that’s not content!”


One talks of

1. Content = what something is about, refers to, etc., e.g., the content of the sentence: ‘The dog is in the kitchen’ is what that sentence refers to. Call this content_1.

2. Content = what something contains, but of which it neither refers to nor is constituted by. Something encompasses, engulfs, is a container for it. The container is separate to it. For spatial objects, the container is spatially separated from it. For any other cases, the distinction is less clear (which is why spatial examples are easy, and others not). E.g., paper is the content of the bin in which it’s been thrown. Call this content_2. (Siegel 2010 calls this ‘bucket content’. See below).

3. Content = what something is composed of, constituted, but of which reference need have no relevance. This content is part but not all of the thing to which it belongs. One might talk of a container, of something engulfing or encompassing the content, but the content in this sense is part of it as well. One would talk about my body containing blood, or DNA in this way.  The content of a metal ingot is mainly iron. Chocolate contains sugar and cocoa (just look at the ingredients on the packet). Call this content_3.

  • Content_1 is likely to be what most philosophers mean by ‘content’ when talking about mental content, perceptual content, and such-like. As Siegel 2010 puts it:

“When one speaks of the contents of a bucket, one is talking about what is spatially inside the bucket. An analogous use of “the contents of perception” would pick out what is ‘in the mind’ when one has a perceptual experience. In contrast, when one speaks of the contents of a newspaper, one is talking about what information the newspaper stories convey. Most contemporary uses of “the contents of perception” take such contents to be analogous to the contents of a newspaper story, rather than the contents of a bucket. This notion of content can straightforwardly accommodate the idea that there is such a thing as the ‘testimony of the senses’.”

I take it that it comes from the philosophy of language, from which a lot of contemporary philosophy of mind has developed (just consider the line from Wittgenstein, through Anscombe, through to Lycan, to the representational model of consciousness and qualia; see Lycan; for critical views, see White and Robinson).
So, Content_1 is representational or intentional content; it encompasses talk of narrow and wide content. It includes for some philosophers perceptual content and phenomenological content (which of course is relevant to what I say here), even if such philosophers deny that there is any such content, e.g., David Bain tells me that Bill Brewer, in his arguments against a conceptualisation of perception, argues that there is no perceptual content. I don’t think anyone here means that there is no content in the senses of a bin or alloy.
  • However, when combined with issues in metaphysics and ontology — with philosophy which cares about what things exist in the world, and how to explain them — there is some scope for ambiguity here. One might think that what is meant by ‘content’ is Content_2: what is in a mind in the sense that the mind is quite literally a container of some sort; thinking of the mind this way has the metaphysically interesting commitment that minds can (again, quite literally) encompass, hold or engulf something that is not mental. Or: one might think that what is meant by ‘content’ is Content_3: what is ‘in’ a mind is a constituent of it.
  • Maybe not much scope for ambiguity. But it matters, because of the different commitments and the different assumptions one can make about the relationship between the mind and content, and the ontological implications of asserting the relationship. There are very different implications for each.
  • Given ‘content_1’, one can talk about the mental event having content even if it is not the case thatthe content exists or is real. The content is inexistent, meaning it need not be real but can be real (which is why it is inexistent, not nonexistent). I can think about the argument for the necessary structurelessness of perception without there being any such argument. Better:   I can think about being chased by an angry unicorn through a Liqorice Forest without being chased by anything, or there being unicorns or liqorice (p.s., I hate liqorice).
  • Given ‘content_2’, one can talk about the mental event having content only if it is the case that the content is real. But one can also strip away all content, and still have a mental event. So the mental event does not depend on there being Content_2 for it to occur itself. As there’s still the bin, even if it’s empty, so, if a mental event has no Content_2, there is still the mental event.
  • Given ‘content_3’, one can talk about the mental event having content only if it is the case that the content is real. And if one strips away all content, we do not have that mental event. This is because Content_3 constitutes or is an element of the mental event itself. As a house cannot exist without some kind of structures like walls, roofs, foundations, etc., or a ship cannot exist without planks, sails, or some kind of constituting material, so minds cannot exist without Content_3.

The point here is not that professional philosophers ever talk any of these ways about the content of mental events. It is that people do so in everyday talk. And there are interestingly different ontological implications from each concept of content (as other philosophers might agree, e.g., Siegel writes that ‘The claim that experiences have contents in this sense[Content_1, in my terms here] is substantive’).


That perception and experiences have representational content might be substantive, and this is likely to come out as the discussion on time and illusion progresses. But I am particularly concerned here with (what I call here) ‘Content_3’. This is because I am interested in the structure of perceptions: how perceptions occur, how they are made, what elements are necessary in order that they can occur such that, if you removed those elements, you could not get a perception. I am interested in the temporal and spatial properties of perceptions and their causes. I am interested in the range of causes of perception.

But more importantly, I am interested in what Rowlands 2010 calls the constituents and constitution of perception; one might also include the relations that hold between the entities that compose a perception (these are what I have called the real perceptual structure and elements of perception). It is also what is referred to by Content_3. But I will not call it content, in order to avoid confusion with how philosophers of mind talk.

Why talk about the constitution and composition of perception? Unless one supposes that perception has no structure (see despair above) then like anything with structure, it has elements, relations between them, and so on, i.e., it is constituted in some way. Not only that: unlike ‘Content_1’, unlike representational content, which can include unicorns, monkeys with wings, and other inexistent things, such structure, such constitution involves a commitment about what is real, about what exists, about what there is, because it implies a commitment to what makes it possible for perceptions to happen. I consider this important — more important than questions about ‘Content_1’ which, unless it involves commitment to something regarding the constitution, is of less interest to me.

Many philosophers might reply here that perceptual content, in the sense of Content_1, also implies commitment: perceptual content is what we perceive; what we perceive is real; perceptual content is real. But I have found that, when it comes to debates about time, this is far less obvious in the thinkers around it. They seem to treat the temporal content of perception as intentional content that requires no ontological commitment, no positing of the contents as real, i.e., as a form of Content_1. For example, regarding the perception and general experience of time, Grush 2005 states that a lot of problems regarding it come from confusing the vehicle and content (e.g,, Grush 2005, and I’ve been told Tye has said something similar(but have no references)). I can’t see why there is too much of an issue here if one is committed to the reality of both the vehicle and content of perception. In any case, the point here is: whatever we say about perceptual content, what we say about perceptual composition involves a commitment to what is real.

Getting down here, I realise I need to make One Last Point: when I say perception is constituted, I mean it is not simple, and is composed of entities standing in relation to each other. I do not mean that it is actively constituted or fabricated, that the subject of perception makes it, or that there is any sort of intent guiding a construction of it. I am not going as far as making the claim, however true, that perceptions are constructed as wasps nests, buildings, microscopes or warrens are constructed; I am only claiming that they are constituted as a cloud, a ruin, a puddle of water or a mole hill are constituted.


8 thoughts on “Three concepts of ‘content’ and one of constitution.

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