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A Boring History of the Philosophy of Mind: Part 1

March 6, 2012

This is the first of three posts that will dig into some important pieces in the philosophy of mind. I’ll spend the next couple weeks moving through some of the major pieces that offer a good idea of the development of predominant theories in the (more or less) modern age. As one might expect, my page long summaries of major philosophical works lack a certain depth; there is far more going on in any one of these texts than I could communicate here.

I should note that this reading list is basically built out of the syllabus, and final essay, I submitted for a philosophy of mind class a while back.  As such the reading selections were made by someone smarter, and more educated in these area’s than I.  Nonetheless, it’s a solid list, and a lot of this stuff is pretty interesting.

So, let’s start with Locke…

John Locke – “Of Words”

Lock’s essay begins with his assertion that man is a social creature, and as such possesses features that he might speak (621).  But, the presence of the physical capacity for speech alone does not entail language.  A parrot might be taught to speak convincingly, but his speech does not entail the use of language.  Unlike a parrot, man can not only speak words, but use them as “marks for ideas within his own mind” (621).  Language then developed to include general terms, so that it would not grow into an incomprehensibly large collection of proper names.  General terms refer to a multitude of particular things.

For Locke, there is no natural connection between words and ideas.  Words are a “voluntary imposition” that arbitrarily marks their corresponding idea (622).  Words stand only for the idea in the mind of the person using them, and they represent these ideas by means of their description.  Each word has a corresponding description, and the idea the word represents is determined by which ideas fit the description.  This description can be built up over time, by adding more characteristics to it.  All people assume that others function in a similar manner. They use words to communicate their ideas, assuming that others will have similar descriptions in their mind, and therefore the word will correspond to similar ideas (622-623).

John Stuart Mill – “Of Names”

Unlike Lock, Mill believes that “names are names of things” (284), and do not rely on descriptions.  These names are not names of the idea, but of the thing in the world.  This is not to say that ideas play no role in the use of names; when a name is used, it is because of an idea (284).  But, for those that hear the name, they know the name is referring to a thing in the world, not a thought in the speakers mind.

Mill specifies a few different kinds of concrete names that appear to operate in unique ways.  At times, there are objects we lack cause to give a proper name.  In these cases, we refer to the thing using a demonstrative, such as ‘this’, ‘that’, or many others.   Beyond demonstratives, there are two different kinds of names, General and Singular.  These function in much the same way they did for Locke.  General names are names that apply to a type of object, where a singular name refers to a particular thing (284-285).  Mill also addresses what he calls ‘collective names’, using ‘the 76th regiment’ as an example.  It is a name referring to a single thing, but that single thing is composed of a multitude of things (285).

In addition to concrete names, there are abstract names.  Abstract names tend to include adjectives; words like ‘white’ and ‘old’ are used as examples (285).  They are names for attributes.  These names would be neither individual nor group names, rather forming their own class.

Mill makes an important distinction between connotative and non-connotative names.  A connotative name refers to a specific thing, where a non-connotative name denotes a thing and implies further information. Mill uses ‘white’ as an example, stating that the word connotes whiteness.  ‘Whiteness’ is not a connotative word, as it only describes a thing (286).

As framed by Mill, all proper names must be non-connotative.  These names denote a particular individual, and connote nothing about the properties of that thing (287).  General names are connotative.  They connote an attribute, such as whiteness or tallness (286).  A proper name like ‘Doug’ connotes nothing, as there is no single property of that, if modified, would cause the name to cease applying to Doug.  There is no Doug-ness to be taken away.

Frege – “On Sense and Nominatum” and “The Thought”

Frege begins by citing the Kantian argument that ‘a = a’ is an analytic truth.  He goes on to argue that if ‘a’ and ‘b’ are different names for the same thing, ‘a’ = ‘b’ must also be analytic (“On Sense and Nominatum” 217).  To make an example of this, ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ are both names for the same thing, Venus.  To say ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’ is analytic, as well as trivial.  Frege argues that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ is no less an analytic truth.  Framed in this manner, statements of identity (i.e. asserting that two things are identical) would be tautologies; trivial truths no more communicative than ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’ (“On Sense” 218).

Of course, there’s a problem with this.  When you inform someone that Hesperus and Phosphorus are names for the same Planet (Venus) at different times, it certainly seems that you are telling them something non-trivial.  Frege solves this problem by distinguishing between the sign (the name), the nominatum (its referent), and corresponding the sense (“On Sense” 218-219).  The sign is the name, which references not the nominatum directly, but its sense.  The sense than refers to the nominatum, the actual thing in the world.  Because the name refers to the sense, and not the object itself, the problem of identity is solved.  When we make statements of identity, we are stating that two names with equivalent nominatum reference that nominatum by means of different senses (“On Sense” 218).

Each person has an inner picture of the objects in the world, which is distinct from the sense and nominatum.  This image is formed from sense impressions and memories.  Each person will have a unique picture, even for the same object.  Words are connected to these pictures, which in turn connect to a sense (“On Sense” 219).

By creating this picture of language, Frege hopes to propose a logically perfect language, where all sentences can be classified as true or false.  Words with no nominatum are excluded from this language, which prevents the words in a sentence from being true or false individually.  Rather, they have a referent, or they don’t (“On Sense” 220).  When a sentence is formed, its subject and predicate become components of a proposition.  To say that “5 is a prime number” is to say “I propose that ‘5 is a prime number’ is the case”.  This makes the nominatum of a sentence its truth value.  This makes the True a thing, which propositions can reference.  The True is independent of ideas.  The laws that dictate ideas are not the same as those that dictate Truth, as ideas can easily be formed in error (“On Sense” 220-223).

Frege distinguishes ideas from thoughts.  An idea belongs to the individual.  If we are discussing the thought, “the Pythagorean Theorem”, and all involved can recognize the theorem in discussion, no one person is the bearer of the theorem.  It somehow exists outside the individual minds that compose the group, as well as outside the physical world.  Frege concludes that “a third realm must be recognized” (“The Thought” 43).  The contents of this realm correspond to ideas, and cannot be perceived by the senses.  Because of this, they are timeless.  It is “by being apprehended and take to be true” that these thoughts act (“The Thought” 48).

Bertrand Russell – “On Denoting” and “Descriptions”

Russell’s theory of denoting relies heavily on the concept of variables.  In his example sentence of “I met a man”, Russell demonstrates the way this would work.  Russell translates the sentence to mean:  ‘“I met x, and x is human” is not always false’ (“On Denoting” 230-231).  In this case, x is to be read as a specific human, not as ‘a human’ in the general sense.  This is the reason for the sentence being ‘not always false’, instead of simply ‘true’.  Because of this variability, all sentences acquire a truth value based upon their content.

This makes sentences containing terms with no referent false, unlike Frege who regarded neither true nor false.  In the case of “the present King of France is Bald”, Frege would say the sentence was nonsense, as there is no present King of France (“On Denoting” 232).  Russell will conclude the sentence to be false, based upon a rephrasing of the proposition in his variable based structure.  Russell would begin by rewording the sentence as:  ‘There is an x, and that x is the present King of France and that x is bald’.  In simpler language, this means that there is an entity that exists, and that entity is the present Kind of France, whom is bald.  Worded as such, the sentence is plainly false, as there is no present King of France.

Through his conversion of simple sentences into their variable based form, we can see the beginnings of Russell’s description theory.  According to Russell, the name of an object implies not the object itself, but a description that an object might meet.  The object best suited to that description is the objects referred to by the name (“Descriptions” 240).  However, the picture is slightly more complex than this, as this theory implies a kind of internalism that must be reconciled.  The use of names, if they are only abbreviations of a description, would require that we have some sort of mental picture to accompany them.  If we did not, we would have no sense of whether the name we were using actually referenced that which we wanted to reference.  Therefore, the only logically proper names are for the images in our mind.

W.V.O Quine – “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”

Quine begins by attempting to do away with what he calls the “two dogmas of empiricism”.  The first of these two dogmas is the idea that there is a difference between synthetic and analytic truths.  Quine distinguishes these types as follows; Synthetic truths are grounded in fact, and analytic truths are grounded in meaning.  The second dogma is reductionism, defined by Quine as “the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms that refer to immediate experience” (63).  Quine argues that if analytic truths are true by meaning only, it is because of synonymy, and they tell us little (65, 67).  The “logical construct” of reductionism is likewise built on this synonymy, and is similarly uninformative (71).

For Quine, the meaning of a name is not determined by description, as it is in Russell, or by Sense, as in Frege.  Furthermore, the name is not directly tethered to the thing it points towards in the world.  Instead, the “unit of empirical significance is the whole of science” (73).  This is a “field of force” composed of all our beliefs (73).  In the event that part of this field is modified, the effect is felt throughout the field, and may set off a chain reaction of sorts, revising content throughout.

Another consequence of Quine’s dismissal of the two dogmas is a shift in the manner translation must behave.  For Quine, there is no “sense” for the word, as there was in Frege.  As such, there is no pure language existing in a second realm, and cannot be formed by the relation of words this sense. Instead, meaning must be found in behavior of language users.  Quine uses the fictional word “gavagai” as an example of what he calls radical translation.  Quine supposes that a translator is in the company of a man from a “primitive” tribe (do your best to ignore the euro centrism for the moment), the man from the tribe sees a rabbit, and then says “gavagai!”  The translator infers that gavagai must mean rabbit.  Of course, the tribesmen could have meant any number of things by “gavagai”, and the translator has no way of being certain that “gavagai” has the same sense that “rabbit” does.  Instead of a sense, the translator can only be certain of the behavior and situation that accompanied the statement “gavagai”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 1:46 am

    Oh yeah…

    The page citations are from an anthology called “The Philosophy of Language”, that was edited by A.P. Martinich (5th edition). It’s the anthology I used while taking the class where large portions (in same sections, all) of this essay were originally written. I opted to leave them in, because for those without access to a well stocked college library, that book is probably the easiest (and cheapest) way to get a hold of of this material.

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