Usage is right
All language is folk language
All language is slang
Language and Meaning
Philosophy of language has been quite an active field for the past
half century or more, and understandably there is considerable
overlap between it and philosophy of mind. It is hard to talk about
words, sentences, and their meanings without running up against
questions about concepts, and how they are created and manipulated
in the mind. Likewise, it is hard to ask how
the mind works without running into questions about how it
manipulates symbols and how the symbols it manipulates may
affect its working in turn. We may not think entirely in words, but there seems
to be a strong connection between the way we think and the way we articulate.
It is my opinion, however, that philosophy of language went off
into the weeds for a while during much of the 20th century.
There was a great collective effort to
"naturalize" the notions of reference, meaning, and a bunch
of others, which effectively means an effort to explain them in
reductive materialist terms. This effort strikes me as doomed,
because it is a flail in the direction of admitting that there is
something mysterious about semantics, while trying to ignore the
elephant in the room, namely consciousness.
most formal investigations into semantics and meaning are infected with a
naive realism about meaning, bordering on
Platonism. There often seems to be a pretheoretic assumption
that a given term has a True Meaning that we may only perceive partially,
use of the term muddled by our imperfect sensory apparatus, or limited
cognitive abilities, and our incomplete scientific knowledge. It is assumed
that, armed with a correct philosophy of language, we would be in a position to
determine what any given term really means.
There is no "really means".
It makes no sense to speak of the meaning of a term unless you know
who is doing the meaning and why. What does the user of the term
know or believe about the term? What about the term is important to
the user and the user's audience? What is the user trying to
accomplish by using the term right now?
What sorts of habits and objectives are baked into the speaker's
entire notion of how and why they might coin and use terms in the first place?
What are the preconditions
that would have to hold in order for the user and the
audience to be satisfied that the term was being
used with only a tolerable amount
of ambiguity? Note in particular that these preconditions might
differ considerably from those that you might insist upon before
you thought the term was being used unambiguously. Nor should we allow the
limitations of a given language-using community's scientific knowledge impugn
their use of the term, and their idea of what the term means.
People are sloppy with their terminology. Depending on context and
audience, they use terms with varying degrees of precision. Some
contexts call for more precision, and so people coin new terms.
Technical fields are full of specialized jargon for this reason.
Sometimes people even use a familiar term in a more restricted sense
than most people do sitting around the dinner table. There is
something about the phenomenon of language, though, that beguiles
investigators into thinking that all language could and should be
made infinitely precise. There are urgent and interesting things
about language and minds, but on the way to considering those
things it seems that few make it past the rocks, lured by the siren
call of theories of Platonic infinite precision.
Of central importance to any discussion of language and meaning is
the notion of
intentionality. Intentionality is the property of being
about something else; it is sometimes informally defined as
"aboutness". Beliefs, desires, and propositions all have
intentionality, rocks and teacups do not. Intentionality is real,
it exists as a feature of the universe. There are some things that
really are, inherently, about other things. All such things,
however, are exclusively in minds. In a purely objective,
extrinsic, materialistic world, everything that happens does so
strictly according the the laws of physical causation, like so many
beer cans perched on fence posts hit with rocks. No matter how many
beer cans you have, and no matter how they may be connected (with
dental floss, perhaps) there is no inherent sense in which some set of them
"come together" to be about another set of them. They just
do what they do because they must, each of them blind to all of the
others, with no subset of them "representing" other subsets (or anything else
for that matter) except insofar as we choose to see them that way
with our conscious minds.
Sometimes it is convenient for us to speak and think as if things
out there were really about other things (road signs about gas stations,
for example), but this is a may-be-seen-as kind of thing, a way of talking
about what is, at heart, lots of complex physical interaction.
Left on their own, the mechanics of the physical road sign, and its
interactions with photons of light, up to the point at which those
photons interact with your nervous system, are well understood without
recourse to any notions of "reference".
When someone points to something, they are telling you to do something -
look over there. A reference is a pointer, and as such, it is
prescriptive, not descriptive. It commands. Even this, though,
gives it too much credit. It doesn't actually do anything - it just
sits there. It is a lot like an algorithm in this sense, and in fact
is a degenerate case of an algorithm. As such, unto itself,
it is neither true nor false, it neither represents nor misrepresents,
it just does its physical interaction as do all physical things.
If intentionality is to be a really-there thing at all, it is
a spooky, mysterious,
in-the-mind-only kind of thing, like the redness of red. Like
redness, it really exists, but in order to account for it properly
we will have to overcome our unease at its spooky mysteriousness.
Terms are about things. "Water" refers to, is about, water. "Cat" is about a
cat, or cats in general. So far, so good. The stuff out there in the world that
a term "picks out", the actual cat(s) or the actual water, is called the
extension of the term.
There are aspects of meaning that are not done justice by simply pointing
out the extension of a term, however.
Often there is, implicit in a term, not just what
the term actually refers to, but how it refers to it as well. One of the
most well known examples is that of renates and cordates. Renates are creatures
that have kidneys, and cordates are those with hearts. As it turns out,
everything that has a kidney has a heart, and vice versa. So "renate" and
"cordate" both have the same extension; they both refer to exactly the same set
of actual animals. Nevertheless, it should be intuitively
clear that the terms do not have
exactly the same meaning. One can imagine a creature that is a renate but not a
cordate, or a cordate without being a renate. The terms "renate" and "cordate"
have perfectly distinct meanings, and it seems like an accident of nature that
they happen to coextend.
Intension and Possible Worlds
If extension is the actual stuff that a term picks out, intension is how
the term picks it out. Intension is the questions a term asks the world before
it decides that some aspect or part of the world is denoted by that term or
not. (If all this anthropomorphizing terms themselves seems a little suspect to
you, rest assured, I couldn't agree more. Bear with me.)
To capture and
formalize the idea of intension, philosophers of language have come up with
possible worlds scenarios.
Renates and cordates are the same creatures in our
world, but there are possible worlds in which some renates are not cordates. To
put it in mathematical terms, intension is a function of possible worlds to
extensions in each world. That is, to nail down a term's intension, you let
your imagination range over all possible worlds, and for each possible world
you determine what the extension of the term would be in that world. When you
are done, you have the original (infinite) set of all possible worlds, and for
each one, the extension of the term in that world. The resulting
(infinite) set of
pairings completely captures the term's intension, which comes much closer to
the term's meaning than simply specifying its extension in our world.
This talk of possible worlds has always struck me as a clunky and
unnecessarily extravagant way to talk about why we use the terms we use the way
we do. Surely when ordinary
language users use a term like "renate", infinite sets of possible
worlds do not actually play any role in their mental processes. If theories
based on possible worlds scenarios are not theories of our mental processes as
we learn, interpret, or use terms in everyday life, then what are they
theories of? I honestly do not know, but I detect a whiff of Platonism - the
faith that semantics is something real (albeit non-physically, or
metaphysically real), something we could have theories of,
theories that could be objectively right or wrong independent of our mental
processes. Be that as it may, if infinite sets of possible worlds seem a
bit unwieldy, hold on - it gets worse.
Moreover, talk of possible worlds often seems to assume that picking out the
extension of a given term on a particular possible world is unambiguous. It is
always admitted that on some worlds, a term just might not have an
extension, but on the ones in which it does, there are generally seen to be
no real problems
picking it out, and there are no real problems telling which are the worlds
in which the term has an extension in the first place. All that matters is the
final answer: that crisp, neat mapping of possible worlds to extensions that
defines the intension.
If possible worlds are interesting fodder for speculation at all, it is because
of the ambiguous cases. Are terms defined absolutely, because of some inherent
essence of the thing described? Or are terms (and concepts, for that matter)
defined relationally, in terms of their functional interactions with other
things? Was John Muir right: "When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."?
To the extent that we admit that our idea of what a thing is depends on its
relations to other things (perhaps even, transitively, all other things)
any change a possible world
exhibits from our own puts the burden of proof on someone who
claims that a term is directly transferable from our world to
that possible world. Could there
really be Pepsi worthy of the name in a world with no Coke? Most people would
say "probably", but it gets tricky depending on context.
In how many possible worlds is there an extension of the term "Albert
Einstein"? What if there were a world just like our own, but the man we credit
with discovering special and general relativity, and who adorns countless dorm
room walls, was named Albrecht Eisenstein? What if there were a man named
Albert Einstein who was raised exactly as our Einstein, in exactly the same
family, with exactly the same genetics, but who made his living as a piano
tuner, never entering the world of science at all? What if Albert Einstein
discovered relativity, but was a blond Englishman? What if, in addition, his
name was Edwin Chillingsworth? In how many of these worlds (and any of the
others that we could come up with for hours and hours) can we definitely pick
out the extension of the term "Albert Einstein"?
It depends on the kind of conversation we are having. Sometimes, even with
proper names (the paradigmatic examples of what are called "rigid
designators"), we are speaking more abstractly, sometimes less. Moreover, when
we speak abstractly, or figuratively, we do not always carry out our
abstraction along the same axes, abstracting away the same kinds of details as
we might at other times, in different conversations.
Let us imagine, for example, that there is an alliance of advanced
civilizations that calls itself the United Federation of Planets. This
federation never makes overt contact with a newly developing civilization until
that civilization is on the verge of inventing warp drive, which would allow
the civilization to explore the cosmos. In the midst of clandestinely
monitoring one such emerging civilization, a Federation captain might have a
conversation with his First Mate in which he asked, "Have they had their Albert
Einstein?" This might be a slightly awkward way to phrase the question, but
nevertheless it would be reasonably unambiguous, and the First Mate could answer
"yes" or "no", perhaps following up with some detail as to the exact state of
the civilization's technological development. Obviously, the captain was
speaking somewhat abstractly. He did not mean to ask if the civilization had
produced a wild-haired, slightly comical man born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany.
If the planet being watched was populated with gelatinous green blobs that
communicated through their highly developed sense of smell, and had no ears or
eyes, the First Mate could still perfectly truthfully answer "yes" to the
captain's question. The captain is interested in certain of Einstein's
characteristics, but not others.
On the other hand, what if Mileva Einstein (Einstein's
first wife) found herself
sucked out of our universe through a wormhole and ended up on the bridge of our
Federation starship. Once it was clear that she had no hope of ever returning
to her own world, she might ask, "Does this world have an Albert Einstein?"
She would not take yes for an answer if the Albert Einstein being referred
to was a gelatinous green blob that had discovered relativity. She might very
well, however, take yes for an answer if the Albert Einstein were our piano
tuner. She is also speaking abstractly, but she is abstracting along different
lines than the Federation captain is. Both abstractions are perfectly valid, in
their respective contexts.
So it is not enough to think that we may
speak of something either abstractly or specifically. It is not even enough to
see that we may speak more or less abstractly, along a continuum.
In different contexts a term may be abstracted along
different lines, in a continuum, holding different properties as essential.
That is, we cannot even talk about speaking abstractly, even allowing it to be
a matter of degree rather than admitting discrete states, unless we know who is
doing the abstracting and what their interests are, what they consider
essential properties of whatever it is they are talking about, and what they
assume their audience will consider essential properties.
Ours is the only world we are forced to deal with,
and it quickly becomes clear if someone is flat out
using a term to refer to something
that other people would not use the term to refer to. But as soon as we enter
the realm of possible worlds, we open the door to legitimate disagreements, for
a given world, as to what constitutes the extension of a given term. Once we
start hypothesizing in this way, it is often by no means obvious whether the
extension of a term exists, or exactly what its extension is in a given
world. There may be no way, even in principle, of answering these questions
absolutely, depending on the context of the usage, and depending on who
the speakers and listeners are, and what their interests in communicating are.
It is these sorts of inherent ambiguities that possible worlds scenarios should
get us talking about, but which most possible worlds thought experiments
ignore. One of the most well known such thought experiment is Hillary Putnam's
Putnam's Twin Earth
In his widely cited paper, "The Meaning of "Meaning"", (1975)
Hillary Putnam argues against the sort of internalist
characterization of meaning that I argue
for. Putnam's most memorable example is a possible world scenario
hypothetical Twin Earth. Twin Earth is just like our Earth, perhaps
even including a twin me and a twin you, with one exception: on
Twin Earth, the substance that they call "water", while drinkable,
odorless, transparent, and in all other "superficial" ways
identical to our water, is really not made of H2O. It is
instead made of some other chemical compound, that Putnam
abbreviates as XYZ. The question that presents itself immediately,
of course, is whether or not XYZ is really water.
Putnam flatly claims that it is not. If water is H2O,
then the extension of the term water is the set of all
quantities of H2O, anywhere in the universe that they
occur, and nothing else. Anyone who uses the term water in
such a way that it has a different extension is simply wrong, or is
essentially speaking a different language than English as it is
spoken on Earth. Putnam's main point is, as he put it, that
"meaning ain't all in the head". My twin and I may be in identical
mental states as we use the term water, but we mean
different things by virtue of the fact that our respective uses of
the term water have different extensions. For Putnam,
the meaning of a term depends crucially on its
Putnam also says that before about 1750, no one knew that water was
H2O, even though it really was. If it turned out that
some, but not all, "water" on Earth was really XYZ,
it would thus turn out that people who
had referred to quantities of XYZ as water (the pre-1750 people)
were wrong all along.
Putnam claims that the usage of pre-1750 speakers of the term "water"
to denote XYZ would be retroactively
invalidated by future scientific discoveries,
even though they lived and died in a community of
speakers, listeners, and readers who used the term with unanimous and
unambiguous (to them) agreement as to its meaning. I find this
claim downright bizarre.
Usage is right. Usage wins. All language is folk language. All
language is slang.
Water is a cluster concept - a collage of
properties, memories, associations, nuances, connotations,
descriptions, expectations, and "scripts" or algorithms
for dealing with particular types of
watery situations. All of the elements of this collage tend to be
correlated in our world, so we draw a line around them with a purple
crayon and slap a label on them, water, and go about our
lives. We don't have to consider the relative importance of the
different elements of the collage (in terms of being defining
characteristics of the collage) until some clever philosopher
comes up with a contrived thought experiment, and asks us to
consider the collage if one of its elements were removed or changed.
In Putnam's thought experiment,
the element that is swapped out is the fact of water's microphysical
constitution, a fact that most of us learned in high school but which
has little impact on our day-to-day lives. I suspect that many of
our concepts are loose aggregates in this way, and that because their
separate components or properties
tend to be correlated in our experience, we assume that the entire
cluster is much more tightly integrated than it necessarily is.
How many things could turn out to be different about water before you really
felt that you could no longer call it "water"? Do you know how heavy water is?
What if it were a hair heavier than you thought or a hair lighter? What if it
had some magnetic properties you had somehow managed to avoid hearing about
until right now? What if you just read that in certain fields, generated in
high-energy physics laboratories,
water turned orange and viscous? These things might surprise you,
but they would hang like Christmas tree ornaments on the core concept
"water". Other, more abstract concepts are more tightly integrated in our
minds. I would argue, for instance, that there are no superficial properties of
the concept "three". There is not a thing you know about the mathematical
concept of three that you could change without inarguably wrecking the whole
thing. If you change a whisker on three, it just can't possibly be three
anymore. Water might glow in the dark, (but only in the southern hemisphere
during a lunar eclipse) and possibly still be water, but
a number that is exactly like three but not prime just isn't three.
Because we on Earth have only ever been exposed to water as
H2O, we have not had to consider the possibility, but
perhaps we have a "big tent" concept of water. Maybe water is
multiply realizable, like the term building. Buildings,
after all, get to be buildings by virtue of their use,
their functional characteristics,
but can actually be constructed out of a great many things.
We think of water as being H2O, because that is the only kind we
have run up against, but maybe water made out of XYZ would not phase us.
On the other hand, we have strong intuitions
that what something is made of, even if we can't see it and have no
direct evidence of it without sophisticated equipment, has a lot of
authority in deciding what it really is. So maybe XYZ isn't water
after all, and the microphysical constitution element of the
collage trumps all the others. I don't know, and neither does Hillary Putnam.
The question is a
sociological one, not a philosophical one. We could send a colony
to Twin Earth, give them full knowledge of the chemical difference
between Earth water (H2O) and Twin Earth water (XYZ),
and let them go for a
generation or two, and check back to see if they call both
water or if they have come up with another term for the XYZ
kind of water. Maybe they all use the term water for both
kinds of stuff, but every now and then an annoying pedant among them
corrects people, the way some people tend to compulsively point out split
Maybe both H2O and XYZ get to be called water in
everyday conversation, but
the scientific journals use some long Latin names for the chemical
formulae on those rare occasions
when they need to differentiate between the two.
However they go, there's your answer.
We cleave our concepts along lines that are important to us.
Microphysical constitution is important to us, so it gets a
relatively high ranking. We have found it useful or satisfying in
some way to let this criterion determine the extension of water.
We have been told
a very plausible physical story about the world around us, one involving
atoms and molecules, and we believe it
(for good reason). So when we make distinctions among the things in
our world, we tend to give credence to distinctions rooted in this
story. The point is that any authority or importance microphysical constitution
has in determining whether something is water or not derives from our goals,
rules and conveniences, and not from any immutable natural laws or any Platonic
Meaning Of "Water".
Saul Kripke, in a series of lectures collected in "Naming and Necessity" (1972)
notes that at some point
scientists figured out that whales are not fish, and that is really the right
way to talk about it: they did not change the standard usage of the
words "whale" and "fish"; they corrected the standard usage. Moreover,
most reasonable people at the time would quickly acknowledge this, upon being
told of the biological details involved. This is because, as Kripke says, an
interest in natural kinds was built into the original enterprise of
classification. When people coin and use terms, they tend to like to think that
they are thereby distinguishing fundamental types. Distinctions made in terms
of our current best story about what it means to be a fundamental type are ones
we like to make and formalize in our language. Right now, for most of us, that
story is the one about microphysics.
defends exactly the sort of Platonic understanding of meaning that I argue
against here. His main intention is to argue against what he called the
Frege/Russell understanding of meaning, which he characterizes as identifying a
term with a bundle of descriptive properties.
I said above that water is a cluster
concept. Kripke says that Frege and Russell would agree, and they would
identify "water" with the cluster. That is, to Frege and Russell,
the term "water" is just a shorthand for that cluster of properties.
A consequence of this, according to Kripke,
is that if some of the properties in the cluster turn out to be invalid, the
whole term must be thrown out. Kripke's take on Frege/Russell semantics is that
the cluster does not have one of those clauses that lawyers stick into
contracts saying "even if some clause herein is found to be invalid, the rest
of the contract is still in full effect.".
One of Kripke's examples involves gold. One of the properties of gold is that
it is a yellow metal. According to Frege/Russell semantics, this is a
definitional property of gold: one of the things that makes gold gold is that
it is a yellow metal. What if, due to some highly implausible optical illusion,
it turned out that gold was blue, and had been blue all along, but we had only
thought it was yellow? Kripke rightly points out that we almost certainly would
not say that since gold had been defined (among other things) to be a
yellow metal, this new discovery means that gold does not exist, and we have
some new, blue, metal in its place. Rather,
we would just say that it turns out we
were wrong, and gold is blue, not yellow.
Kripke says that when we link a term
to a cluster of properties, we are not identifying the term with the
cluster. Rather, we are fixing a reference with the cluster.
When we coined the term "gold", we referred right through the superficial
properties by which we identified gold, to the actual thing or stuff that (as
it were) lay behind those superficial properties. Any of the superficial
properties could thus turn out not to be actual properties of the stuff at all,
and that would not affect our reference. Stretching the point a bit (but not
too much - he produces some pretty compelling examples), Kripke
suggests that all of the properties in the cluster could be not real
properties of the referent, and the reference would still hold.
We may use the cluster of properties
to identify the thing referred to, but it is implicitly understood by all users
of the term that the properties themselves are somewhat provisional, that the
important thing is whatever it is that we (for the moment,
anyway) believe possesses the
properties. The properties are not the thing itself, but just a way of pointing
out the thing.
This is a good example of the Platonism I spoke of earlier. The properties are
the shadows on the cave wall, pointing in the direction of the reality that
lies behind, or beyond the (mere) superficial cluster of properties.
Kripke confronts head-on my claim that the coiners and users of a term ought to
have the final say in deciding what counts as being picked out by that term.
He illustrates his point using the common example of Hesperus and Phosphorus.
"Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" are the terms the ancient Greeks used to denote
the evening star and the
morning star, respectively. Although the ancient Greeks (before Pythagoras,
anyway) did not know it, both were actually the single object we now call the
planet Venus. Kripke says that Hesperus and Phosphorus just are Venus, and
always were from the moment the terms were coined.
There may be worlds in which Venus does not exist, but there is no
possible world in which Hesperus and Phosphorus are different objects from each
other, or anything but the planet Venus.
Now I can imagine a possible world in which there are two distinct
the sky. Let us call them (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) Thing 1 and Thing 2. I
bet I could arrange this world in such a way that if we were to teleport the
ancient Greeks to that world, they would accept that Thing 1 is Hesperus and
Thing 2 is Phosphorus. We should think long and hard before we say that the
Greeks are simply wrong to call them that. They coined the terms, after all,
to make distinctions that were important to them in their
lives. They lived and died happily in their use of those terms. They used them
with perfect (as far as their purposes were concerned) unanimity and
unambiguity as to their meaning. I think that this gives them a fair amount of
authority in deciding what the terms mean, and if they decide that Thing 1 is
Hesperus and Thing 2 is Phosphorus, you had better make a very good case that
they are wrong.
It is not enough to point out that the ancient Greeks' scientific knowledge
was wrong or incomplete. That is not what is at issue here. They would probably
have changed their terminology if they had figured out that Hesperus and
Phosphorus were both Venus. But for now I am interested in the ones that never
did know that, and their use of their terms that they invented to make sense of
their world as they experienced it and thought about it. They used the terms,
and the terms had meaning for them. How did this meaning work?
Kripke says that the Greeks had ways of identifying Hesperus in the sky, and
ways of identifying Phosphorus. But these clusters of properties,
these ways of identifying them, are not what
Hesperus and Phosphorus are, even to them. By coining the terms, the
Greeks were fixing a reference to Venus, even though they did not know it at
the time. In effect, they referred right through the properties by which they
identified Hesperus and Phosphorus, to the actual thing behind them, namely the
Kripke's arguments have some intuitive appeal. But rather than argue about
whether the Greeks were really using "Hesperus" as shorthand for a bundle of
observed regularities in the sensory input they received from their
environment, or they were really fixing a reference to Venus, I'd like to take
a step back and ask: on what basis could either claim be right or wrong?
By virtue of what, exactly, can
Kripke say that the Greeks were fixing a reference rather
than identifying a cluster of properties?
When the Greeks used the term "Hesperus", did they thereby instantly
pick out something several light-minutes away, and if so, does this
process of picking out violate relativity theory by traveling
faster than light? Could we verify or disprove Kripke's claims
by building a device to detect the
invisible meaning rays that connect a user of
the term "Hesperus" to Venus? Of course not. Reference is not an actual
physical process that happens in the real world. So if
reference is not a process of physical causation, what
is it? It is nothing. Nothing, that is, except some (admittedly
mysterious) stuff happening in the mind. If you hear me use the term
"water" (more physical causation, involving vocal chords vibrating,
waves of pressure moving through countless air molecules, pushing
on an ear drum, etc.) then I induce some stuff to happen in
your mind. Some of this mental stuff may include certain
"raw feels", expectations, equivalence relations and tests, and who
knows what all else. But it is mental stuff, in the mind only.
The only real questions about
semantics concern what minds do under the influence of terms,
both internally and externally generated. Put another way, once God created all
the physical facts of the universe, as well as the facts about consciousness
(or, depending on your outlook, including
the facts about consciousness), there
simply was no more work for Him to do to create all the facts about
reference. Except insofar as it reflects something about how minds work,
reference is an explanatorily useless concept. Moreover, I see no reason to
think that it constitutes any kind of phenomenon in need of explanation beyond
straightforward physical causation (except, again, insofar as it is a product
of conscious minds, in which case it is very much in need of explanation, as
are all conscious phenomena). So if reference is not a physical phenomenon, and
does not even supervene on physical phenomena (reference travels faster than
light, after all), and reference is explanatorily useless and does not itself
constitute an explanandum worthy of the name, how is it that anyone could have
a theory of reference that they claimed was "right", and that other theories
What does Kripke himself cite as the final authority to back up his claims
about fixing references? He produces some good examples (like the blue gold
described above) that incline us to think that his claim about "fixing a
reference" accords with our intuitions about the way reference ought to work.
Is this enough to convince us that
reference really does work that way, though?
Ultimately, Kripke seems to think that
his particular Platonic notion of reference goes
through because we want it to. Perhaps it isn't so much the case
that Kripke does not think that this Platonism is
objectively true of the universe, but rather that it holds true because all
language users are Platonists at heart. As Kripke
puts it, a desire to classify things into categories of natural kinds was built
into the original enterprise of language use. We all go about our lives knowing
that whatever clusters of properties we use to
identify things are somewhat ad hoc, and
subject to revision if we come across evidence that the underlying reality is
different than what we thought it was.
When phrased this way, assuming I haven't badly misunderstood and/or
misrepresented Kripke, his arguments are not so different than mine. This
reference-fixing, the Platonism, is not an actual feature of the universe, it
is a fact about how our minds work, and our needs and desires with regard to
language construction. We want to classify the world in certain ways, so we
build that imperative into our notions of reference. The final authority for
deciding that water is really H2O, then, is our goals and intentions
in using language in the first place, and that's why the Greeks
were really referring to Venus even though they didn't know it.
Unfortunately, I think this does misrepresent Kripke. While he does
talk about our desire to classify things in a certain way, it is pretty clear
from the absolute way in which he phrases his claims that he thinks
of reference as a really-there, actual fact of the universe sort of thing, in a
robustly externalist way. It is necessary that Hesperus is Venus, and it
is necessary that water is H2O, and the Greeks would be
wrong to call my Thing 1 Hesperus, not because of caveats and codicils
they had written into their original charter establishing the goals and rules
of their particular linguistic enterprise, but
simply because they would be absolutely, objectively wrong, and that's that.
He would strongly disagree, I
think, that questions about reference are sociological or psychological, not
"Picking Out" Extensions
Extension is the stuff in the universe that a term "picks
out". Of course, terms do no such thing. With apologies to the National Rifle
Association, terms don't pick things out, people do.
Extension seems like a reassuringly concrete idea: the
extension of the concept of water is a set of actual molecules out
there in the actual world. But extension is not so clear cut.
Putnam allows that determining extension
requires an equivalence relation. We can not specify all the
occurrences of water on Earth without having a way of saying "all
the stuff that is equivalent to this stuff here in this glass".
This equivalence relation, the criteria we use to decide if
something is water or not in various real or imaginary scenarios,
is the intension. Extension is supposedly concrete, while intension is rather
more abstract (remember that intension is a function that maps possible worlds
to extensions on those worlds).
But you can't get to the extension without going through the intension.
Thus extension is itself something of an abstraction: we can never,
enumerate all the molecules of water in the universe, so we can
never actually pick out the extension of the concept of water.
We are always at a certain remove from anything's extension; all we
really have at our immediate disposal is intension.
All we can really do is talk about the general kinds of things we
would consider water. What we
really are talking about when we use the term the extension of
water is a bunch of tests we can apply to
different situations, ways of applying some equivalence relation.
Importantly, we apply those tests, we pick out the water.
By itself, a term
just sits there. By itself, in a sense, a term doesn't even exist.
Putting Meaning Back In The Head
How do we know about water's microphysical constitution, anyway?
Most of us simply read it in a book or were told it in school and
accept it. Some of us ran tests with instruments. Originally,
sometime after 1750, someone ran such tests, and inferred the
microphysical constitution of water from the results of those
tests. But the results themselves, the raw data, are functional
properties of water, facts about how water behaves in different
circumstances. These sorts of properties are no
different in kind than the results of the
"tests" I run when I smell water, dip my hand in it, taste it, etc.
The fact that in one case the instrumentation involved was built by
people, and in the other case the instrumentation
consists of devices I was born with (tongue, fingers, eyes, etc.)
does not make any difference in terms of the type of property
of water we are talking about. For the Twin
Earth thought experiment to go through, there must be at least some
"superficial properties" of H2O and XYZ that differ.
Otherwise, how would any scientist ever have told the difference? At
some point, if you feed H2O into a mass spectrometer you
get one result, and if you feed XYZ in, you get a different result.
Different raw data equals different "superficial properties", just as
much as if H2O and XYZ tasted different.
The microphysical constitution that
Putnam regards as the absolute determinant of true wateriness, is a
story that we inferred from various different superficial properties.
Now I happen to like that story. It is remarkably powerful and
parsimonious in its ability to link all kinds of phenomena in the
world, confer cognitive power upon us, organize our mental economy efficiently,
and ultimately, help us invent microwave ovens and rocket ships
and all sorts of other things. But it is not the only imaginable
We should steer clear of the assumption that the pre-1750 people
used their rough and ready conception of water only provisionally,
and that they were waiting for science to tell them about water's
microstructure so they could be more precise. Pre-1750 people, whether
or not they had ever heard of Aristotle, were basically Aristotelians.
They already knew the elemental constituents of water - namely water.
Water was simply one of the basic kinds of stuff their world was made of,
and most people didn't question whether or not water might be made
of anything still more basic. Their understanding of science
was wrong, but their ability to refer was working just fine.
What if there were a prescientific tribe of people somewhere that had two
words for water. Water referred to the water from the river,
that brought life and was good and blessed by the gods, but
shwater referred to the evil water from the spring that was
cursed. No explaining that water was chemically identical to
shwater would make them change. Microphysical constitution is just
an unimportant property to them compared to the essential goodness or
evil of the water/shwater. The goodness or evil determines what the
substance "really is". Perhaps they are not prescientific, and
they understand about chemistry and H2O, but still hold their
religious beliefs, with full acceptance that there is no empirical
basis for them. They have chosen a different property, a
different element of the collage to define the essential nature of
Lore has it that the Eskimos have 100 words for snow (the actual
number seems to vary a lot depending on where you read this old
chestnut). Let us imagine that one of their 100 words is spelled
and pronounced exactly like our word "snow". This is like the
situation with the pre-1750 people calling both XYZ and
H2O "water", only with us playing the part of the
pre-1750 people, riding roughshod over what to others (the
Eskimos in this case) are important distinctions. We aren't right
and the Eskimos aren't right. We all just make the distinctions
that are important for us to make, and we don't waste time coining
a lot of extra terms to allow us to split hairs we don't have to split.
A term is only as precise - can be only as precise - as is
necessary to make the discriminations of interest to the community
of users of the term. How narrowly or broadly I define my terms is something
I (or my culture) decide in the interests of setting up my conceptual and
linguistic pallatte in such a way as to get the maximum cognitive or
communicative bang for the buck. There is no right or wrong answer as to
the narrowness or breadth of my definition of the term "water".
The success of a
particular scientific theory or another does not absolutely (and
retroactively!) determine meaning. Whenever we have a
collage of data (superficial properties), we infer a story to bind
it all together. The story is the purple crayon we use to demark the
collage. It is this story that we cling to as the determinant of
meaning, the crucial defining characteristic of each of our
concepts. It determines the equivalence relation, the intension,
that in turn
determines our tests for inclusion in or exclusion from the
extension. This story, and thus meaning itself, is in the head.
There is some stuff out there in the world (water), and our interactions
with it have lead us to attribute some "superficial" properties to
it. We also have a story in our minds, an explanatory framework
that we have found to be very useful (our current physical theories
about atoms and molecules and such). Some of this stuff's
superficial properties have lead us to infer that it fits
comfortably into a particular place within this explanatory
framework. I believe that this phrasing of the situation with water
is appropriate because it is accurate and maximally conservative,
in that it makes few unsupported assumptions. But when the
situation is put this way, it should be clear that it makes no
sense at all to speak of something that shares all of water's
"superficial" properties but isn't really H2O. For it
not to be H2O, it must differ in some superficial
I suppose someone could still insist, for the sake of the argument,
on hypothesizing a substance that behaved exactly like
H2O as far as current science was able to determine, but
which really was not H2O. I could take the standard
cop-out that people sometimes take with thought experiments and
demand details. I guarantee that no one could possibly specify such
a situation at any satisfying level of granularity. But the
standard cop-out would lose a larger and more important point.
It is in principle, literally nonsensical to speak of something
that behaved exactly like H2O, and wasn't really
H2O. As I and lots of others have pointed out, science doesn't
really claim, at heart, to tell us what is really going on out
there in the world. It only specifies a bare schema, a circularly defined
pattern of functional dynamics, but it is silent about what is doing
all that functional interacting. To act exactly like an electron is to
be an electron. There is no such thing, by definition, in
principle, as something that acts exactly like an electron but really
isn't an electron. By the same token,
there is no way something could behave exactly
like H2O but somehow not be H2O.
When it comes right down to it, our relationship to the
outside world is entirely functional. That is, we know everything
we know about the world because of the world's dispositional
properties, its behavior. Water is as water does. There simply is
no essense of water that does not manifest itself functionally, at
least none we could ever know, even in principle. Any time we speak
of reference with regard to something out there, we are talking about
reference to a bundle of functional dispositions. This is functionalism
turned on its head: it is not the mind that must be understood in
functionalist terms, but the world.
The main point here is that the story about molecules and such, the
explanatory framework, is entirely in our heads (although there is
a strong likelihood that there are things out there whose dynamics
map nicely to this framework). We can not say what anything "really is"
beyond where it fits into our explanatory frameworks based on its
observed "superficial" properties, which is to say, based on
certain sensory experiences we have had. Speculation to the contrary is
the kind of pursuit that gives philosophy a bad name.
So what is going on in our minds when we use the term "water",
either saying it, hearing it, or thinking it? That
is the $64,000 question. A very interesting question, yes, but a
question about what is going on in here, in the mind, and not a
question about any notion of "meaning" beyond that.
I have characterized the concept of water
as a cluster, a collage, but I have said that it involves
equivalence relations or tests we apply to situations, and that it
is delimited by a story that we infer from experience. Obviously
this all needs a lot of clarification. Do I even have one single
thing in my mind that I can call my concept of water? Does it,
strictly speaking, have a fixed identity that persists over time?
If so, how much of it can you change before you must call it a
different concept altogether? Do concepts subsume other concepts?
What part do qualia, the
what-its-likeness of water's wetness, its (lack of) taste, etc.,
play in all of this? How much relative weight does Kripke's project of language
use (that of dividing things into categories of natural kinds) have?
These are the truly interesting questions about the limits
of the meaning of the term "water", but these are all straightforwardly
questions about minds. There is a lot of stuff going on in our heads
and it will take considerable work to sort it all out.
One thing we can speak of with confidence, however,
is the relationship between all
this mysterious stuff happening in our heads and the outside world.
We do not directly perceive matter. There is a long, twisty causal
chain that links certain events that happen in the physical world
with percepts and concepts in the mind. Or perhaps more
suggestively, our concepts and percepts are constrained or
influenced by these events. Until we understand the concepts
in our heads better, the details of the influence of the external
events upon them will remain murky.
I say events rather than
matter because as far as the causal influences on the mind
are concerned, matter only manifests itself in the form of
particular events - photons bouncing off objects, being refracted
by a lens, striking rods and cones in the retina, kicking off a
whole series of neural firings, etc. No two people are ever subject
to the same series of such events. "Matter" and "the external world"
are just a hypothesis we come up with to account for the largest
number of these events in the greatest detail, subject to
whatever as-yet improperly understood cognitive limitations there
may be. Over the course of my life so far, I have had a huge number
of sensory experiences. Some of these experiences have lead me to
infer the existence of something called "Great Britain". My concept
of Great Britain is a hypothesis I have formed, one that makes
sense of a lot of particular sensory experiences (whatever "makes
sense of" turns out to mean). It may well be an overwhelmingly
plausible hypothesis, but a hypothesis it is nevertheless, formed
under the physical causal influence of my senses.
Note that none of this makes any claims as to the similarity or
difference between the stuff happening in my head and
the stuff happening in yours or anybody else's. There may be a
great deal of variation possible among the possible concepts of
water (or Great Britain) in peoples' heads, as long as whatever the
different concepts are,
they allow for an appropriate correspondence or mapping between matter in the
world (or the events by which matter impinges upon us) and our
So where does that leave us and our term "water" and our associated
concept of water? We have 1) molecules of stuff somewhere
out there in the world in our rivers and streams. These molecules,
as we encounter them, cause physical events to occur, which cause
still other events, etc. until some event(s) in this chain ultimately
impinge in some way upon 2) some
mysterious things happening in our heads; and finally we have 3) our
observable linguistic behavior, which presumably is caused or
influenced by 2). We have a long way to go before we
understand 2) and the exact
relationship between it and 1) and 3), but once we do understand
these things, there will be nothing left to explain about language
It is sometimes said that meaning is merely mediated
by causal connections between the outside world and our minds.
I, however, would say that meaning just is those causal
connections, plus some mysterious stuff happening entirely within
the mind. Any talk of meaning beyond this has no explanatory or
predictive power at all. There simply are no facts about the
universe, either extrinsic, third-person "scientific" facts, or
subjective phenomenal what-its-like-to-see-red-type facts, that are
explained by assuming invisible magic meaning rays connecting
our thoughts to trees, cars, and the Milky Way galaxy.
The causal chain between physical events that happen
in the world and the concepts we form in our minds
may get very complex, but it is still just billiard
balls knocking together.
There is no other kind of connection between the stuff out
there and our concepts in here. The problem with the term
"extension" is that it strongly inclines us to believe that there
is. It presumes a sort of spooky mystical connection between the
collection of molecules of H2O in the universe and our
internal concept of water. There is no such connection.
If you ask me as an English speaker if XYZ
counts as water, I may think for a moment or two then give you my
opinion, which I made up just then.
I may then give you arguments for my opinion, that you may
or may not accept. My opinion may or may not be in accord with that
of the majority of the rest of my linguistic community. It may or
may not even be in accord with the dictionary definition of the
term "water". But my answer is still just something I made up.
Of course, that is what all language ever is - at
some point, someone just makes stuff up, and other people adopt it
in their speech. If, on the other hand,
you ask me as a philosopher if XYZ really counts as
water, I'm afraid I would have to ask you to rephrase the question,
because as stated it is too loaded with presuppositions to admit a
I would like to emphasize, though, that my deference to usage is not a sort of
black-box behaviorism, or functionalism.
Usage is not strictly inter-personal; a great deal of
our usage of terms takes place entirely between our own ears. We use language
not only to communicate with one another, but to think. In stressing
usage I am not trying to equate meaning strictly with
observable linguistic behavior, but also with the cognitive use we make of
words and expressions, and the ways in which terms are related to concepts in
Modes of Presentation
Sometimes the notion of modes of presentation is invoked to solve semantic
problems. The idea is that Lois Lane
knows that Superman can fly. Yet it would surprise her greatly to
discover that Clark Kent can fly. But Clark Kent and Superman are
one and the same person (that is, the term "Superman" and the term
"Clark Kent" have the same extension),
so in some sense the claim that Superman
can fly and Clark Kent can fly should convey exactly the same
information. They both make the same claim about the same
individual. To resolve the apparent conflict,
it is argued that any given claim must be
understood under the proper mode of presentation. Superman
and Clark Kent may in fact be the same collection of molecules, but
facts about them are subject to their mode of presentation.
I find talk of modes of presentation very fishy. As far as I can
tell, attributing any explanatory power
to modes of presentation is just a way
of covering for incomplete or incorrect information. Lois Lane
knows that Superman can fly but would be surprised to find that
Clark Kent can fly because she walks around with an erroneous
model of reality
in her head in which Superman and Clark Kent are two distinct
individuals. She has drawn incorrect inferences about the world.
She has, in fact, been deliberately and systematically deceived by
the individual who is both Superman and Clark Kent.
In the same way, sometimes you read about Pierre, who has read that London
is a beautiful city, one he would like to visit one day, but who once
had to take a business trip to an awful, drab and smoggy place called
Londres. We are told that Pierre has been exposed to the same city in
two different modes of presentation. I prefer to say that
Pierre's model of the world is simply wrong. He thinks there
are two cities, and bases his expectations, desires, beliefs, etc. on this
incorrect model of the world. Maybe someday he will correct the
mismatch between his internal model and external reality, maybe not.
Either way, there is nothing deeply mysterious about any of this.
Any problems in thinking about these situations stem directly from
the intuition of the invisible magic meaning rays that connect our
thoughts and references with the outside world - the idea
that reference is
exclusively or even primarily some kind of instantaneous
connection between something in our thoughts (or Lois Lane's
thoughts) and the outside world.
I do not know exactly what reference is or how it works, but if it
is to have a precise meaning at all in the sense of being
philosophically interesting or useful,
it must be defined as a relationship of some kind between thoughts.
Lois Lane's term "Superman" refers to a Superman concept in Lois's mind.
There is nothing problematic in saying that for Lois, the claim that
Superman can fly and the claim and Clark Kent can fly convey very
different information because for Lois, the concept "Superman" is
simply a different concept than the concept "Clark Kent".
She formed both concepts by
drawing inferences from lots of perceptual experiences she had.
The concepts then contribute to her expectations
of the kinds of perceptual experiences she is going to have in the
The Contents of our Thoughts
An idea closely related to that of the invisible meaning rays
and Platonic Meaning is that of the
content of our thoughts. Many writers use the term with
confidence that it has meaning, then
go on to spend a lot of effort trying to analyze it and figure out
what the content of our
thoughts is, or whether content is narrow (dependent on one's
internal state) or broad (dependent on one's state plus the state of the
world). It always seems to go without saying that there is some fact
of the matter. The content of a thought is a lot like the extension of a
word. It is whatever the thought is "about".
I find the term at best to be a strong pretheoretic nudge
in a particular direction, and at worst grossly misleading.
have a box. If I put a cake in the box, then the cake constitutes
the contents of the box. I could have put the cake in a different
box, in which case that other box would have had the same contents
that this box now has. Or I could have put some old newspapers
in the box, in which case the same box would have different contents.
The box is blank, empty, until I put some contents into it. These
are the sorts of images and relationships we drag into play as soon as we
invoke the highly loaded term "content".
I have thoughts, that is all. As far
as I can tell, I have no separate "contents" of those thoughts.
Two Dimensional Semantics is getting a lot of attention these days. Chalmers
writing about it,
as have other people. The motivation for 2D semantics is the opinion that
intension alone, characterized in the possible-worlds sense, does not quite
capture meaning. Specifically, there are terms whose intension is the same
(i.e. the terms pick out the same extension in all possible worlds), but that
seem as though they have different meanings anyway. I'll hand the mike over to
According to Kripke, there are many statements that are
knowable only empirically, but which are true in all possible worlds.
For example, it is an empirical discovery that Hesperus
is Phosphorus, but there is no possible world
in which Hesperus is not Phosphorus (or vice versa),
as both Hesperus and
Phosphorus are identical to the planet Venus in
all possible worlds. If so, then
"Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" have the same intension
(one that picks out the planet
Venus in all possible worlds), even though the two terms are cognitively
same goes for pairs of terms such as "water" and "H2O":
it is an empirical discovery
that water is H2O, but according to Kripke, both "water" and
"H2O" have the same
intension (picking out H2O in all possible worlds).
So Kripke's claim as paraphrased by Chalmers is that because we
now know that they are both just Venus, Hesperus and Phosphorus both must pick
out Venus in all possible worlds, and so have the same intension (same
extension in all possible worlds = same intension). Yet most people would agree
that "Hesperus" does not quite mean exactly the same thing as "Phosphorus". To
accommodate this in our theory of semantics, the following reasoning is
invoked. Because of the way our actual world turned out, Hesperus is Phosphorus
is Venus, and this must hold true across all possible hypothetical worlds. But
if we imagine for a moment that our actual world had turned out differently,
and in our actual world Hesperus was a different object than Phosphorus, and
then we let our imagination range across all possible worlds, we might
come up with a different intension for each world so considered.
So essentially we set up a grid:
first, along one axis (say, the vertical axis),
we lay out all possible worlds, and imagine that for
each of them, that is the way our actual, real world might have turned
out. Then for each of those, we do the old-school possible worlds exercise,
considering each possible world as hypothetical (along the second axis, the
given that the possible world on the first axis is being considered as actual.
2D semantics is motivated by the Platonic impulse: the
certainty that what something "turned out" to be in our actual world somehow
fixes its meaning absolutely for all time and in all contexts. Thus, in order
even to toy with the idea that things might have "turned out" differently in
our world, we have to add a whole new dimension to our already infinite array
of possible worlds. So instead of simply (!) considering infinite possible
worlds, you consider infinite possible worlds for each possible world, with the
possible world on the vertical axis imagined as the way the actual world
If possible worlds scenarios are clunky, then 2D semantics is clunkiness
Does anybody imagine that when a little kid learns a new term, say "Mommy",
that kid constructs a two-dimensional array in her head and fills in all
the spaces in that array with the appropriate intensions and extensions
of "Mommy" in all possible worlds as demanded by two-dimensional semantics?
No - no one thinks this. So if two-dimensional semantics is not a theory
of what actual language users do when they acquire and use terms in the
real world, what is it a theory of, exactly? The same question could
be asked of many theories of semantics. If two-dimensional semantics
is the answer, what was the question?
The whole point of needing a second axis (i.e. the second dimension) in 2D
semantics is that in our world, renates all turned out to be cordates. Hesperus
and Phosphorus both turned out to be Venus, and water turned out to be
H2O. We may imagine possible worlds in which things could have
"turned out" differently. This phrasing is misleading in that it draws a sharp
distinction between a "superficial" acquaintance with the concept of water on
one hand, and what water "turned out to be" on the other. Water has not turned
out to be anything. We could still find out all kinds of things about water
that would surprise us. I could be in the Matrix with a cable jacked into the
back of my neck, in a "real" world in which physics is completely different,
and in which there is nothing remotely resembling water. Perhaps in
prescientific times, peoples' conception of water underwent revisions along
the way, before people figured out about atoms and molecules.
We have a set of empirically-derived properties of water on one hand
(oderlessness, transparency, etc.) and another set of empirically-derived
properties on the other (inferred microphysical constitution), and these two sets
of properties have always seemed to coextend in our world. When we let them
float free of each other in our imagination, we have to decide for the
first time which set gets to keep the tag "water", like a judge deciding which
of a divorcing couple gets to keep the house. Because there are two sets of
properties, we need two axes in our n-dimensional grid, hence two-dimensional
semantics. There could be any number of sets of empirically-derived properties
of water, however, so the number two is arbitrary. We actually would need as
many axes in our infinite grid of possible worlds as we can come up with
logically independent sets of empirically-derived properties.
Imagine a stone-age people who had a word, "pog" that meant, to
them, "tool or weapon". As time went on, and the civilization advanced, the
same term, "pog", might come to mean more specifically "pointed stick used as a
weapon". Later still, it might mean "spear made of ash". Would it be right,
then, to characterize the situation by saying that "pog" turned out
to mean a spear made of ash, and that really had meant a spear made of
ash all along? That the
stone-agers who called a rock a pog turned out to be wrong? Would
anything interesting be revealed about what meaning is or how it works by
hypothesizing a Twin Earth in which the inhabitants used the word "pog" to
refer to spears made of birch?
I have a model of reality in my mind (I am not hereby endorsing
theory about how we represent reality, much as this seems to imply the
existence of some sort of database
or something - I am using "model" very loosely).
My memories and sensory experiences are
somehow more or less integrated into this model, and the model gives me some
predictive and/or explanatory powers as I move about in my
world. As I experience more, the model changes. My knowledge about the world is
always expanding, and I often acquire new facts and new perspectives that make
me think of things I thought I knew well in a new way. In real life, concepts
do not float free, then one day "turn out". They are always turning out; they
never stop turning out.
A pre-1750 person, say Isaac Newton,
had a significantly different model of reality in his head,
but he had experiences
and memories similar to mine, and he fit his experiences and memories into
his model. In both our cases, "water" is
defined, at least in part, relationally - in terms of where it fits in the
reality-model relative to lots of the model's other elements. But my concept of
water has certain associations within my reality-model that Newton's does
not have, associations that further constrain the concept. There are fewer
possible universes that contain stuff I would agree was water than there are
for Newton (assuming that I buy into the idea that water is and must be
I prefer my model of reality to Newton's. I like the neatness, the power,
the integrity, etc. of my scientific picture of the world. But in terms of
what is going on when we refer, water has not "turned out to be"
anything. Newton and I have different reality models, with different
constraints upon the universe. Based on our different models, our concepts of
water have different satisfaction criteria.
This is not oops-my-brains-just-fell-out relativism. I like
science. I believe in science. Atoms are real. Newton was ignorant. But it
is a strange form of scientific hubris to build Newton's ignorance of
our science into a
theory of reference, or to reify the distinction between "prescientific"
notions of water, Hesperus, or anything else on the one hand
and the way things "turned out to be", or the way they "really are",
on the other, and to imagine that this alleged distinction
tells us anything interesting about meaning. Just because a cathedral is made
of stones, it does not follow that my concept of a cathedral is made of my
concept of stones, and just because water is made of H2O,
it does not follow that my concept of water is made of my concept of
The external world seems to fit nicely into a certain type of
reductive framework. As we try to figure out how concepts and terms behave in
our minds, we should not assume that they are arranged in a sort of
hierarchy that matches the structure that our science
tells us that the outside world exhibits. Any discrepancies between my internal
model of reality and the outside world may interfere with my ability to reach
efficacious conclusions, and may limit my ability to communicate effectively
with other people, but such discrepancies do not automatically invalidate my
ability to refer.
Terms never do "turn out": while sometimes we do
discover big important things about stuff we thought we already understood
pretty well, the process of
turning out is unfolding all the time, and is never finished. We never resolve
symbols "all the way down". A possible exception to this might be things
that are defined as part of a
self-contained system in which everything is circularly
defined explicitly in terms of other things within the system, as in
mathematics. But even then, we may still discover new truths and untruths
within the system that reflect back on our original basic terms.
Consider my car. I have an abstract notion of my car in my mind, and one might
think that it maps straightforwardly to some specific collection of
molecules, and that this mapping pretty much resolves the notion of my car
all the way down.
But is the gasoline in the tank part of the car? If not, then there are
situations, not all that far-fetched, in which I might have access to my car,
all of my car, but be unable to drive it, and this would surprise me. On the
other hand, if the gas is part of the car, its molecules are constantly being
spit out the tail pipe, and I periodically put new ones in the tank. Which
incarnation of my car am I invoking each time I refer to my car? Is the
air in all the hoses and ducts and manifolds part of the car? How about all the
other fluids, that the car needs to run but which pretty much stay put (unlike
the gasoline), but which still need to be replaced occasionally? Are the oil
filter and the air filter parts of the car? How about the after-market floor
mats? And what can we make of the car collector who claims to have replaced
all of the parts of his vintage 1950's convertible, but still thinks of it as
the same car he bought at a junk yard ten years ago? What collection of atoms
constitutes the car?
All of these questions go away if we accept that we humans deal with vagueness
all the time, easily and naturally. When I speak of my car, I'm not talking
about a collection of molecules. I'm talking about whatever it is that roughly,
more or less, conforms to my notion of my car. Vagueness is easy. It is
precision that takes effort. You have to think carefully and hard to give
consistent answers to the questions above about exactly what does and what does not
constitute the extension of my term "my car". You may, after some thought, be
able to answer the questions in a way that satisfies you, but only after effort
and creativity on your part. In expending this effort, you would not be telling
the truth about your pre-existing concept of my car, but rather you would be
making up answers in response to this novel challenge. You might easily have
gone to your grave without ever having answered those questions, and without
even ever realizing that the questions existed to be answered, and this is
perfectly fine. It is much easier to live with
the ambiguity and not even notice it. It strikes me as backwards that some
philosophers of language write chapters in books about The Problem Of
Vagueness. We don't have to resolve the term "my car" all the way down, so we
never do. "My car" has not, and never will, turn out to be one single,
unambiguously specifiable collection of matter.
The mathematical notion of symbol evaluation is partially to blame
for the bias philosophers have for this idea of "turning out". In algebra,
you can have a variable, x, that everyone can see is a variable. It can be
manipulated as a variable, but at some point, you may resolve it, by
substituting a number, like 43, for it. There is an unambiguous, explicit
delineation between the variable before it was resolved, and the value it has
afterwards. There is also a universally understood sense in which x is
unresolved, and exactly what aspects of it obey certain mathematical rules
anyway, and what aspects of it are left unspecified.
In real life, as we generate and parse natural
language, things are almost never that neat.
Symbol evaluation in natural language
is not an either/or kind of thing, as it can be in
mathematics. For most of the terms we use in daily life, there are various
degrees of specificity of resolution, and we resolve terms or inhibit their
resolution to the appropriate degree, and in the appropriate order according to
all kinds of rules of context as we string terms together in our thoughts or
utterances. Modern semantic theory posits a very sharp distinction
between a term's intension and its
extension. The trouble is, rigidity of designation, to use the philosophical
term, is a sliding scale. Parsing and generating
language is less like symbol resolution as traditionally conceived than it is
like tuning a complicated musical instrument.
Early vs. Late Binding
In certain contexts in computer science, the term "binding" is used to describe
symbol resolution: a variable expression is "bound" to a particular value, and
thus ceases to be a variable. Furthermore, there is an idea of "early binding"
and "late binding" of variable expressions.
The idea is that you can have a variable, and you can
resolve it right away (early binding), then feed it into other calculations, or
you can let it exist as a variable in those calculations, then resolve it to a
specific value at the end (late binding). Sometimes you can get very different
results depending on when you do your variable bindings.
Some of the sense of
this can be illustrated with the slightly awkward sentence, "By the year 2050,
the president of the USA will be a woman." The likely intent here corresponds to
late binding of the term "the president of the USA". We let that term
float in the
abstract as we evaluate the sentence, knowing that it will not be resolved
until 2050. Or we could bind it early: as I write this, the president of the
USA is Barack Obama, so the term "the president of the USA" resolves
immediately to "Barack Obama", and the sentence then states that
by the year 2050, Barack Obama will be a woman, a considerably less likely
claim. Different terms seem to call for earlier or later binding, more or less
specific resolution depending on context (which, of course, is made of other
terms, which need to be resolved as well).
A great deal of the jargon associated with philosophy of semantics can be
recast in terms of early vs. late binding. To me, this is often clearer and
When Kripke speaks of fixing a reference as opposed to identifying a term with
a cluster of properties, he is talking about early binding as opposed to late
binding. When the Greeks coined the term "Hesperus", they bound it early (if
unknowingly) to the actual thing, Venus (at least, that's what Kripke thinks).
Kripke attributes to Frege and Russell
the counterclaim that it is OK to bind terms late, and that the Greeks
let the properties float free of any binding,
so there could be a possible world in which
Hesperus is something other than Venus. If the "superficial properties" are the
x, and Venus is the 43, Kripke says that as soon as the Greeks said x, they
immediately meant 43 even if they didn't know it. Frege and Russell, on the
other hand, say that it is fine to let x stand in its own right, and we could
perfectly meaningfully find out later that x is 43, or 23, or 101.
Gareth Evans' example about Julius also boils down to early vs. late binding.
The idea here is that we allow the term "Julius" to refer to whoever invented
the zipper (if anyone did) in whichever particular possible world we are
considering. Semantic hijinks ensue from considering how, and to what extent,
"Julius" refers to an actual person in any given world. Here we see that by
hypothesis, "Julius" floats free of any binding (i.e. it is late-bound).
"Julius" is defined by a descriptive criterion only, and is not bound to a
particular individual until we touch down in a particular world, at which
point the variable gets bound to the actual person who invented the zipper in
that world. Once again, though, the example is somewhat contrived. It is
set up to mimic mathematics rather than real life. "Julius" is a bistate term:
either unbound or bound. In its unbound state, it is strangely specific about
how to bind it, and there is a clear, unambiguous distinction between its
bound and unbound state. It seems designed to be as close to an algebraic
x as English prose can get.
Another example is one that William Lycan cites in his introductory book
"Philosophy of Language" (2008): "I wish that her husband weren't her husband."
In the first instance of the term "her husband", it is early bound, and
picks out an actual guy, but the latter instance of
"her husband", it is late bound (or rather, not bound at all within the
sentence, but still waiting to be bound by the time the sentence ends).
In its late bound state, the term is allowed to persist as an abstract
specification, as binding criteria for some future binding to an actual person.
This distinction between early and late binding is really what motivated 2D
semantics. In ordinary 1D semantics, with only a single infinite array of
possible worlds to consider, you bind your terms early, according to what they
mean in our actual world. This early binding corresponds to what is sometimes
called a term's secondary
intension. So water's secondary intension is H2O, for example.
Then, once that meaning is fixed, you let your
imagination range over all possible worlds, picking out the extension on those
worlds (i.e. the H2O on each world). This, at least,
is how Kripke characterized it in his objection to 1D
semantics that Chalmers paraphrased above. But in 2D semantics, you allow for
some late binding as you consider possible worlds. In the first part of the 2D
semantics exercise, when you are considering each possible world as actual,
you let some more abstract version of the term float over all
possible worlds, and do your binding in each imaginary possible world,
then with the meaning so fixed, let your imagination range over all
possible worlds. This is sometimes called the primary intension of a
term. While water's secondary intension is H2O in all
possible worlds in the 1D semantics case (we bound it early, in our actual
world), water's primary intension is H2O in our world, but XYZ in
Putnam's Twin Earth (we bind the abstract specification - the watery stuff - to
the actual extension late: after we've switched our attention to the
hypothetical XYZ world, i.e. considered it as "actual").
It is assumed that there is no ambiguity in deciding what aspects
of a given term should be allowed to float free across possible worlds to be
bound by the contingencies of each one, and what aspects are constant across
all worlds, both considered as actual and as considered as counterfactual.
That is, which aspects of water are to be considered part of the abstract
characterization (e.g. its odorlessness), and which aspects are the actual
essence that the "superficial" properties "turn out" to be (e.g. water's
microphysical constitution). It
is also assumed that there is the abstract characterization (unbound) of a
term, and the actual extension (bound), and none but those two completely
discrete states. That is, you have the variable, the x (the watery stuff in the
environment) and the value it resolves to (H2O or XYZ).
But early and late are relative terms. Moreover,
the whole notion of binding, no
matter how early or late, is really the same thing as symbol resolution, and
subject to the same problems. How narrowly do
we construe or intend terms? How figuratively are we speaking or interpreting
a term at a given moment? What aspects of a concept do we consider fair game to
abstract away and what aspects do we hold constant as we do our figurative
construing? In the Twin Earth thought experiment, it was taken as a given that
water's "superficial properties" were to be held constant, and its
microphysical constitution could be abstracted away as we considered different
in real life, the narrowness or broadness of construal of a term, and the
aspects of a concept we choose to hold constant and the aspects we feel free to
abstract away, and exactly when we bind our terms to specific extensions
("resolve" a more abstract characterization of a term to a more specific
extension) can vary wildly, often along a continuum, and are highly
context-dependent, even within a single sentence.
A tautology is an expression of the form x = x. Since x is always equal to x,
regardless of what x actually is, tautologies (in theory) convey no
information about x or anything else. A fancy way philosophers have of
saying this is that tautologies have no "semantic content", and thus
(in theory) have no meaning. But as with so many aspects of language,
theory and reality do not always line up.
Let me indulge here in a bit of fiction.
Jimmy and Frankie grew up together in the same working class neighborhood. In
their pre-teens they stole hubcaps together, then later whole cars. Soon enough
they hooked up with the mob and worked together. Some years go by, and their
bosses become aware that Jimmy is skimming a little off the top each month. As
a test of loyalty, they send Frankie after him. Frankie has no trouble
cornering his old friend, and in the ensuing confrontation, Jimmy pleads,
"Frankie, its me, Jimmy. I've always been there for you, Frankie, more times
than I can count. This can't be the end, Frankie. Not like this. I know I
screwed up, I screwed up bad. And you know I'll make it up, Frankie, you know I
will. Come on, Frankie, please!" Frankie says nothing for a moment, just looks
at Jimmy with his expressionless unblinking eyes.
Then he quietly says, "Business is business, Jimmy."
Or how about this conversation:
"Every time I think about the holocaust, it shocks me all over again.
You'd think that
after hearing and reading about it all these years, I'd be jaded, or numbed,
but no. I still can't get my head around the enormity of it, the reality of
"Hey, what happened, happened."
"What do you mean? It wasn't just something that happened. Real people did it!
A government staffed by human beings coolly presided over the deaths of
"People are people."
"How can you say that? Killing six million Jews is not normal human behavior!"
"Well, you know, Jews are Jews after all."
"You jerk! What kind of a Nazi are you, anyway?!"
Then there is always the trendy "It is what it is."
Along the same lines, there is the saying that by the time you are
thirty, you must accept that no one is your mother, not even your mother.
For poor Jimmy, the supposedly information-free tautology is literally a
matter of life and death. The point here is that these are not particularly
special cases. People talk like this all the time. They convey lots of
information in ways that a logician would say is impossible. The uses of the
terms in these tautologies are perfectly valid, and must be accounted for by
any theory of meaning. In these tautologies,
the same term is interpreted narrowly or broadly, bound earlier or later,
considered abstractly or specifically
in different ways and to different degrees
depending on its use in different places within the
same sentence. The meanings of the terms in question are determined on a case
by case basis, on sliding scales. Dictionaries seduce us into thinking that
there is a discrete number of meanings any term can take on. To be sure, there
are some stakes in the ground, but between these stakes there is often
a continuum of meaning, and people slide up and down that continuum so
effortlessly that they almost do not notice it.
In modern usage, the word "quick" means fast. When Shakespeare referred
to the quick and the dead, he meant "alive". It may well be that in Elizabethan
times, that was a common sense of the word "quick", one that has fallen out of
favor. But to our ears, it is a poetic turn of phrase, a case of Shakespeare
speaking figuratively. This figurative sense of the word "quick"
plays off of its more restricted sense, and makes sense to us. It is just a
broadening of the term. How broadly or narrowly we use terms is in constant
flux, and highly context dependent. There is no distinct line we cross when we
use a term to mean one thing, but take liberties with its breadth, and when we
use a different sense of the term.
The other day on the highway I saw a flatbed truck carrying an enormous
underground water tank. Obviously the tank was not underground, yet you
probably never thought of the term "underground" as referring to a
type before. You probably always thought that it must mean literally, under the
ground. We very often, perhaps almost all the time, do not speak literally. Am
I speaking figuratively, metaphorically, then, when I mention the
underground oil tank when it wasn't underground at all? Well kind of, I guess,
but no, not exactly.
Most people are perfectly comfortable using a term
figuratively in one breath, and literally in the next, to varying degrees
depending on all kinds of variables.
Ambiguity lurks everywhere. Determined and ingenious people can
tie themselves into knots, finding ambiguity just about anywhere
they look hard enough. No one
seems to have a problem with this except philosophers,
a fact that does not speak well of philosophers.
Metaphysics of Reference
I have already
that to a reductive materialist, the fundamental things of which the
universe is made are unimaginably blind, stupid, and amnesiac.
There are no relations between them except causal ones. Moreover,
causal relations are instantaneous, and are "forgotten" immediately.
Once a particle nudges another, the second particle careens in a new
direction. Was just just nudged a moment ago, or a hundred years ago?
Or was it simply always careening in this direction? It, of course,
has no idea. Hypothetical causal interactions, functional dispositions,
a whole pile of maybes, are nothing but imaginary clouds: counterfactuals
don't count (as I have also
The only real relations, standing relations that persist through time,
In particular, there is no room for the relation of reference in such
a blind, stupid, billiard ball universe. Reference is phenomenological.
There is more to qualitative consciousness than seeing red.
My strictly internalist construal of intentionality and meaning may
seem counterintuitive or flat-out wrong. A naive realist about
meaning might say, "Look, there's a lawn mower. Its really there,
you can touch it. It isn't a hypothesis or an inference, and when I
think about it or talk about it, I'm thinking and talking about
it, period." When I call the lawn mower a concept I have
formed from lots of sensory experiences, and when I say that
my thoughts about the lawn mower are really thoughts about that
concept in my head, and not truly about the actual, physical,
out-there-in-the-world lawn mower, this sounds at best like a
needlessly indirect and awkward way of characterizing the situation.
Perhaps, but is there a good way
to decide really and actually whose is the right way to think about
reference? What empirical result could ever
decide the issue? What rides on the outcome? What possible
objective difference could it make who is right and who is wrong? If the
answer is that there really is no difference, then right there we
have a concession that there is no real, objective thing called
"meaning" that exists between a concept or perception in my mind
and a lawn mower. No invisible magic meaning rays
beam from my forehead to the lawn
mower. It comes down to a choice of how we want to
characterize the terms "meaning" and "intentionality", and
(to my mind) a trade-off between a desire to respect our pre-theoretical
intuitions and a desire to carve Nature at the joints, as the
cliche says. We should feel free to define terms in such a way as
to facilitate clear and fruitful analysis going forward. This is one
of those situations in which the philosophical latitude to define terms
any way we want, and then go on to prove all kinds of things on the
basis of those definitions has lead generations of epistemologists to
build castles in the air. As we define (or perhaps more loosely, merely
characterize) our terms, when given the choice between respecting
our intuitions and common usage on one hand, and zeroing in on
a potentially unique phenomenon in the universe on the other, I
prefer the latter.
Now I will continue, in my everyday life, to speak about
things in the outside world. "About" is a perfectly good colloquial
English word, and from a very early age we all use it as if it darn
well is a connection between our minds and the outside world
(I have thoughts, desires, etc. about stuff out there in the
world), and even between some things in the outside world (like
molecules of ink on paper) and other things in the outside world
(like fire hydrants). I am just saying that the use of the term in
this way does not reveal anything about how the universe works.
If you are interested (as I am) in reference as something that is
really there, at work in the universe and not just one of those
may-be-seen-as kinds of things, then you
are forced to the admittedly indirect internalist
characterization of intentionality and meaning. The externalist
take on meaning will always be reducible to other stuff,
and in itself is as explanatorily useless as the luminiferous ether.
The only respectable way of construing meaning externalistically
that I can see is to take meaning as really just a shorthand way of talking
about an unwieldy amount of physical causation, plus some mental
stuff. For my current purposes, it is the mental stuff that I would
like to zero in on and figure out, and I do think that "reference" and
"intentionality" and "meaning" entail some unique and interesting
mental happenings, above and beyond the redness of red. Like seeing
red, these mental phenomena are actual, fundamental facts of the
universe, and are worth exploring. I believe that this is an
important part of the puzzle of the mind, the part that will allow
us to put what it's like to see red together with what it means to
think in the same big picture. Clinging to the naive realist
position, with its invisible magic meaning rays
just serves to obscure what is really
interesting about these phenomena, and to postpone serious inquiry