Conceptual role semantics (CRS) is the view that the meanings of expressions of a language (or other symbol system) or the contents of mental states are determined or explained by the role of the expressions or mental states in thinking. The theory can be taken to be applicable to language in the ordinary sense, to mental representations, conceived of either as symbols in a “language of thought” or as mental states such as beliefs, or to certain other sorts of symbol systems. CRS rejects the competing idea that thoughts have intrinsic content that is prior to the use of concepts in thought. According to CRS, meaning and content derive from use, not the other way round.
CRS is thus an attempt to answer the question of what determines or makes it the case that representations have particular meanings or contents. The significance of this question can be seen by considering, for example, theories of mind that postulate a language of thought. Such theories presuppose an account of what makes it the case that a symbol in the language of thought has a particular meaning. Some conceptual role theorists have not clearly distinguished this kind of question from questions about the nature of the meanings or contents of various kinds of representations. CRS, as we understand it, is consistent with many different kinds of positions on the latter question. For example, as we discuss below, CRS has no commitment to the view that the meaning of a symbol should be identified with its conceptual role.
In the first few sections, we examine CRS’s treatment of a few fundamental issues (section 2), consider diverse examples of ways in which representations are used in thought, (section 3), and discuss how to investigate the relevance of conceptual role to content (section 4). Next, in section 5, we turn to information-based versions of CRS and the challenge that they pose to versions that recognize other aspects of conceptual role. Finally, we consider a number of important objections to CRS.