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Henry Clarke – “Mental Filing Systems: A User’s Guide”

The painting depicts a person looking out from an interior through a sash window, which echoes the theme of the article: a thinker's view of the world being made up of compartmentalized bodies of information.
“Tall Windows” (1913) Wilhelm Hammershøi

In this post, Henry Clarke discusses his article recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of Henry’s article can be found here.

For many, if not all, of the objects we can think about, we have a reasonably rich conception of what they are like. One of the basic representational functions of the mind is to draw together different bits of information to make up these conceptions. An image that naturally suggests itself is of the mind as a kind of filing system, with folders dedicated to different objects, and descriptions placed in each to be called upon when needed.

The mental filing system idea is philosophically useful in that it provides a framework for understanding how a thinker can treat her beliefs as being about one and the same thing. Doing so results in her being prepared to draw certain implications from the content of a conception without having to decide whether that identity holds. For example, someone with a mental file that contains the descriptions tall, leafy, has brown bark can immediately infer that something is tall, leafy, with brown bark. The inference presupposes that being tall, leafy, etc. are all true of one and the same object. This sort of presupposition is a fundamental part of thought, and of a thinker’s perspective on her thought. Having such a perspective sustains the sort of rationally structured view of the world that we can develop and make use of, and mental files have seemed to many like a good way of capturing this.

But does the mental filing system idea actually tell us something about how the mind works? Or is it just a dispensable metaphor? Rachel Goodman and Aidan Gray (2022) have argued (taking François Recanati’s theory of mental files as their working example), that mental filing – taking one’s beliefs immediately to be about the same thing – doesn’t require taking the file image too seriously. The source of their skepticism comes from an analysis of what it means to say that we ‘can’ treat our beliefs as being about the same thing without having to figure out the relevant identity. They argue that this is a matter of rational permissibility, and if that’s so, then mental files aren’t needed. 

Why would that be? Inferences are permissible because of the contents of the beliefs they involve. If reference isn’t enough to account for permissibility, as it appears not to be, then there must be some other feature that is. Following Kit Fine (2007) Goodman and Gray call this feature coordination. Coordination, like other representational features, can be attributed because it helps to make sense of what and how a thinker thinks what they do. But if we have this representational feature, which can be attributed to make sense of treating beliefs as being about the same thing, then files add nothing. You can have mental filing without mental files. The appeal of this result is that it seems to give a more refined picture of what is actually involved in rationally structured thinking, without unnecessary metaphors.

That is their argument, in outline. Does it work? The main problem is that it overlooks the psychology of mental filing. What calls for explanation is not just the permissibility of inferences that presuppose identity, but also the fact that thinkers are prepared to make them. Mental files can be brought in as entities whose function is to account for when a thinker is prepared to draw these inferences. The causal basis of that function might be described in other terms that tell us how the function is carried out. But as a hypothesis – that at some functional level there is something that brings together different bits of information and so provides the causal basis for a thinker being disposed to presuppose identity – mental files do the job nicely.

This causal-functional view of files shows that there is a notion of a mental file that does some work. This undermines Goodman and Grey’s argument because it renders coordination, the extra representational feature, redundant. Suppose we have the identity-presupposing dispositions in place, because of the presence of a mental file. Then the question is, do we need to add a representational feature (coordination) to make them permissible? It seems not. If a thinker is disposed to make the inferences, and nothing indicates that there is something faulty going on, then the inferences are in good standing. The results of the inferences will be (at least potentially) relied upon by the thinker in pursuing her plans and projects – things that matter to her. This means that, were there to be something to indicate that the conception in question was somehow incorrectly formed, then the thinker should be motivated to check the inferences she is disposed to draw. If she is rational, then she will do this, and so were there to be a problem, the inferences would not be made. Having the dispositions and monitoring their viability is enough for permissibility because it makes them manifestly reliable. So Goodman and Grey’s conclusion ought to be inverted: coordination doesn’t add anything that would otherwise be missing from the account that files provide. 

There is other work for files to do as well. Goodman and Grey suggest that the basis for coordination is a thinker reliably gathering information together that does concern one and the same object. But we need files for this to happen. Interpreting new information when finding out more about what objects are like calls upon the conceptions we already have. The content of a mental file will tell us how to locate the new information we get from various sources: in order to recognize something we’ve already encountered, or to determine (for example) that a new person we meet really is someone new and not an old acquaintance, we need to use information integrated by mental files.

Forming a picture of the world means gathering together these smaller-scale pictures of objects, and to do that, we need the kind of structure that mental files provide. They are not just a metaphor. But how exactly they work remains to be uncovered.

Want more?

Read the full article at


  • Kit Fine (2007). Semantic Relationism. Blackwell.
  • Rachel Goodman and Aidan Grey (2022). “Mental Filing”. Noûs, 56(1), 204–226.

About the author

Henry Clarke is a Senior Project Editor in the Humanities at Oxford University Press. He received his PhD from UCL in 2016. His research focuses on the philosophy of mind.