Monday, September 28, 2009

Etiology and Meaning

Two people have the same (true) belief. However, one person has the belief because of personal experience. The other person has the belief because a clever lawyer has talked him into it, using deceptive arguments. In what way are their respective beliefs different? The propositional content is the same, and the proposition is true. And yet one has the intuition that the two "beliefs" are not the same kind of mental state. As Plato sees it in the Theatetus (200e-201e), one of them has knowledge and the other does not. One can have a belief by accident, or for the wrong reasons. Thus there is a difference between an accidentally true belief and a belief that is true for the right kind of reasons. One might compare such a belief, as Hilary Putnam does in his article "Brain in a Vat," to an ant trail, say, that bore a resemblance to a face. That would not really be a representation of a face, and nor would one really know anything about the world when possessed of a representation of the world that was only accidentally true.

To see the metaphysical point, imagine that a skywriter perfected the art of cloud-portriature: for a price he can render a likeness of anyone you choose in the medium of clouds, let's say Elvis. Suppose another cloud, unmanipulated by any skywriter, happened to form next to the cloud-portrait. The two clouds might be molecule-for-molecule identical, and both might have the same uncanny similarity to Elvis, but the cloud-portrait seems to differ from the natural cloud in having the property of meaning, or representing, Elvis. Here's a final example that makes just the same point: one day you notice that you have two copies of the city phone book. Thinking nothing of it, you keep one upstairs and one downstairs. You've used them both any number of times, for example to call out for your favorite pizza. However, unbeknownst to you, one of these objects is not a phone book at all. Through a near-miraculous event of quantum randomness (just making that up!), a doppleganger "phone book"-object has appeared in your house. It is both physically and functionally identical to the actual city phone book. Except for one thing: it contains no names, addresses, or phone numbers. It contains accidental conglomerations of matter that resemble such symbols, but it does not contain any actual symbols.

There is a conclusion wrapped in a moral wrapped in this point. The moral is that the significance (the intentional/semantic content) of a symbol is not just a function of the physical properties of the concrete symbol (the physical token), nor is it (more surprisingly) picked out by the functional role that the symbol supposedly plays in some larger process. The significance of a symbol (a name, say) depends on the etiology of the symbol, the process through which that symbol came to function as it does. "Meaning" is a complex relational property, a description, really, of relations between some person or persons and the world. Putnam's slogan for this moral is "Meaning just ain't in the head."

Notice the close affinity between Putnam's externalism and Saul Kripke's account of proper names as "rigid designators." (The affinity is not coincidental, as both philosophers are inspired by Wittgenstein.) Kripke claims that a symbol is an actual name of a thing or a substance just in case that symbol was originally used to designate the thing or substance in question. The payoff of this simple account is that the "meaning" of the name turns out to be nothing more than the history of that symbol in human behavior. There is no mysterious property of meaning left over.

The conclusion from this moral is about intentional predicates (predicating "propositional attitudes" of persons). When we say that {Sam believes that "The fish are in the bucket"}, externalist approaches hold not only the relatively clear point that intentional states are not any sort of brain- or body-state "in the head" (they are predicates of whole embodied persons), but that they are not "mental" states at all, they are "states of affairs": historical and behavioral relations between the person and his/her environment. Seen this way they need not advert to any "mental content": externalism is eliminativist as to mental representation, at least insofar as intentional descriptions are read as adverting to mental representations. The semantics of words like "belief," "desire," "hope," "fear" and so forth are handled without reference to internal "states." There are all sorts of causes inside the body of the person, of course, but these can all be described functionally within the context of the overall intentional description (and only within that context). To say that my intentional state is about something outside of my body is to say that I am in a certain relation to something outside of my body. (Nor is there any reason to think that this account fails for imaginary things like Santa Claus: I am not imagining that Santa Claus is in my head, I'm imagining that he's in my chimney.)


  1. I'm not sure I follow your line of thought. Are you saying we should adopt Kripke's model because it eliminates meaning, where "meaning" (at least partly) involves mental states? Because that's exactly why it seems to me Kripke's model should be rejected, or, at least, be adopted as a model of intension rather than as a model of meaning. Meaning goes beyond intension. To say of a symbol X "this is how X has been used in the past" is quite different from saying "this is how X ought to be used and/or is correctly used". (For example, many technical scientific or academic words are used incorrectly by very many members of the general public, yet it is the scientists and academics that are right about the meanings of those words.) If you would deny this, I'd like to see a sound argument against it.

    I made a post on this issue in my blog dated 7/28/2007. Lance and Hawthorne make similar observations in their 1997 book, The Grammar of Meaning. You're probably also familiar with Dummettian anti-realism and Brandomian neo-pragmatism.

  2. Just as you don't have to posit mental states---you don't have to posit meaning.

    And how prove that there is such a thing as meaning? And what is this thing precisely, this meaning---this supposed entity apart from and in addition to merely understanding? I say invoke Ockham and get rid of this useless entity --meaning--and be done with it. This endless wrangling about whether and how and why some words might or might not mean the same thing as some other words is terminally pointless. How would you prove such a thing one way or the other? Seems to me you are simply assuming to begin with one side or another on the issue.
    No, please be done with this silly

  3. So, Anonymous, do you think one can be clear about "understanding" without being clear about "meaning"? I think any account of understanding that lacks a concept like "meaning" must be quite vacuous indeed. Tell me, how do we identify whether we understand each other?

    "Wrangling about whether and how and why some words might or might not mean the same thing as some other words" is not terminally pointless, assuming that the wranglers don't let the wrangling become endless. Some individuals are more interested in seeing how there might be several distinct useful concepts related to "meaning", and believe that conflating them all under a single term (or trying to eliminate one or more of those distinct concepts) does less than full justice to the subject matter at hand. That is just how analytic philosophy works, when it does work, (and how it fails to work, when it doesn't).

  4. Kevin and Anonymous (if you're still with us): This is a very central issue for me right now and i will write a new post soon. Kevin is more conversant in some philosophy of language that I am so I need to look up some stuff. But the short story is a) I am an eliminativist about non-physical properties (and thus in some sense a sympathizer with anonymous's spirit, anyway), and b) I think that the intentional property of mental states is the actual purported "non-physical property" here, and the semantic property of language is just (metaphysically speaking) a prosthetic of that. Not that that's an eliminativist argument. The intentional property needs somehow to be washed out of the semantics of psychological words like "belief," "desire," etc. My fairly narrow focus at this point is on the metaphysics of the mind-body. But I'll just do a new post soon. Hoping one or both of you sees this, yours, AB

  5. I've never been more encouraged by a (non-graduate student) philosopher than I am by your observation that I might be more conversant than you on something. Thanks a lot for that. I wish I had gotten any of that when I was in graduate school.

    Allow me to adjust my viewpoint by dusting off my ontologist hat, where surely you're much more conversant than me. I have sympathies for both sides on most ontological debates. I do think one desideratum for a theory of mind is that it redescribe in physical terms ("eliminate") such things as "beliefs" and "desires". But I also think that one desideratum for a theory of everything is that it somehow accommodate (both logical and moral) imperatives. Maybe my conclusion would be that meaning-talk has chiefly a normative roll, and thus is an acceptable part of a theory of everything, but not an acceptable part of a theory of mind (or at least not of the more interesting kinds of theories of mind, the scientific ones).

    I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts, Anderson!

  6. When I was a student there were always
    writing on the blackboards:
    To know history is beneficial because one learn to avoid mistakes.
    Or if you know where you come from this and that.
    What a bunch of crap.
    The future is today and is totally
    fucked up.
    What can I say?
    The utility of all this is material
    for a good debate...
    As to the universal value for half
    the starving, illiterate, with no
    electricity and water,,,world...
    What will the value of this words
    will be there?