Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Michael Devitt

Committee Members

John Greenwood

Ruth Garrett Millikan

Richard L. Mendelsohn

Steven Ross

Subject Categories



Theoretical attempts to naturalize mental contents, that is, to explain how wholly physical organisms manage to represent the external world to themselves, are mostly conducted in accordance with causal-informational and/or functionalist approaches based on nomic physical correlations. In 1984, Ruth Millikan and David Papineau simultaneously, though independently, injected new life into the naturalist program by introducing a divergent approach known today as "teleosemantics."

In first approximation, teleosemantics purports to naturalize mental content by substituting for the former concept of nomic correlations found in causal and/or functionalist models, the biological concept of etiological functions resulting from natural selection. Since its introduction, teleosemantics has been an object of constant misunderstanding and resolute opposition. The goal of this dissertation is to demonstrate that, when properly conceived, teleosemantics is indeed a coherent project capable of responding to the central objections raised against it. Offering a defense of teleosemantics is of critical value to the general program of naturalization of mental content because the spirit of the teleosemantic approach resonates best with the deepest philosophical tenets of the naturalist enterprise. I want to argue that only a teleological perspective, that is an analysis of etiological functions grounded in the actual history of selected beneficial mechanisms for generating mental representations, is able to explain the real nature of intentional content. Millikan's models of teleosemantics will function as my main frame of reference: her model represents the best contemporary program of intentional realism developed in strictly naturalist terms.

This dissertation develops into four chapters. Chapters one and two present a criticism of causal-functionalist models and an analysis of their inability to overcome the challenge of misrepresentation, giving reasons to look for an alternative perspective. Chapter three introduces teleosemantics as a potential candidate for such an alternative model, focusing on Ruth Millikan's perspective, with the ambition to alleviate the many misunderstandings and confusions generally attached to this view. Chapter four addresses the apparently powerful objections against the historical dimension of teleological functions and the controversial role this historical dimension is supposed to play in fixing the intentional content of mental representations in teleosemantics.


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