This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. In the several posts since, I have laid out the evidence that shows that the meaning of language ultimately comes from the ideas that one has in mind when they speak. This meaning is not objective because it is not possible to read other people's minds, at least not at that level of detail. This meaning is instead intersubjective, which essentially means that we have a certain level of mutual understanding of things that we can only know firsthand from personal experience. Last week explained a little about the nature of pure concepts and their relation to language. For today's post, I will take a shot at providing a rough approximation of the conceptual atoms from which all complex concepts, and thus any idea that we can have in mind and/or talk about, must ultimately be derived.
One of the most important factors that allow any degree of mutual understanding of concepts to be possible is the similarity of human minds. People who can form mutual understanding through communication must have an innate understanding of certain conceptual atoms that all complex concepts are constructed from. We can conclude from communication amongst each other that there are certain atoms that are virtually the same for anyone who is capable of conveying meaning to another through speech.
The main influences for this theory are Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism, Bertrand Russell's logical atomism, and Jerry Fodor's language of thought. To briefly define transcendental idealism, Kant argued that there is certain synthetic a priori knowledge that is innate to each mind (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 3.B.(2).b). According to Kant, the four “forms of judgment” are quantity, quality, relation and modality, each of which are subdivided into three “categories of understanding” and a further three “pure categories”, for a total of twelve of each. Kant argued that any token experience that one may have is determined by the effect that external sense data has on these innate mental categories. Side note: there are other aspects of transcendental idealism that I don't agree with, but I won't get into that right now.
Kant's work was groundbreaking at the time, but not all of the “categories of understanding” or “pure categories” that he lists seem atomic. Notably, the categories of understanding within the form quality are affirmative, negative, and infinite, while the pure categories are reality, negation, and limitation. These six categories do very little to categorize all of the qualitatively different experiences one can have. The quality of an experience must be far more complicated than these six categories. Despite its limitations, Kant's basic framework is relevant for this new theory because any idea one can have in mind and try to convey to others is ultimately constructed from their experiences, which can be categorized.
The theory of logical atomism was briefly in a prior post. Logical atomism is relevant to this new theory because it makes sense that if there are conceptual atoms that meaning ultimately is constructed from then it should be possible to come up with symbols that are approximations of these. The meaning behind the symbols that are a used within predicate logic, and perhaps other forms of logic, are probably close representations of at least some of the conceptual atoms that are innate to the mind.
The theory I am proposing is based on Fodor's language of thought theory. Fodor pointed out that the conceptual atoms, whatever they are, must have some sort of symbolic representation within the mind when they are in the form of active thoughts so that the mind can carry out computations. Fodor argued that mental computations can only be possible if the mind creates thoughts by bringing together token instances of these symbols into a regular syntax.
The following is a working list of the atomic categories. It is difficult to pinpoint each conceptual atom because the ideas that we have are so complex that breaking them down to their atoms requires intensive phenomenological research, but this is what has been established thus far:
- Indivisible substance – This is probably the most important building block of thought. Whenever we conceptualize something that is supposed to be indivisible, this is the atom that is being tokenized within the mind. For example, if one has a conception of an electron being indivisible but having certain laws that govern its behavior, then this idea is constructed from a token of this atom along with others, such as cause, time, and space.
- Conjunction – Tokens of this operate on two or more ideas (which are themselves comprised of tokens of conceptual atoms). The English language word that most often invokes this atom is “and”. When someone thinks something like “I want apples and oranges” there is a token of this atom in their mind, along with the ideas that it operates on.
- Disjunction – Similar to conjunction except that the English language word that most often invokes this atom is “or”.
- Negation – Tokens of this operate on a single idea. Tokens of this cannot exist independently. It is possible to think about the negation of any thought that is conceivable, but it is not possible to just have a thought about nothing.
- Existence – We can conceive of imaginary things and we also can know the difference between fantasy and reality. The difference between a thought about fantasy and one that is about reality (at least as far as one understands it) is that the latter has a token of existence.
- Space – Many of the ideas we have involve something being extended in space, especially collections of indivisible substances.
- Cause – Thoughts about one state of affairs necessarily leading to another make use of tokens of this atom.
- Time – Thoughts about one state of affairs being chronologically before or after another make use of tokens of this atom.
- Various types of sensual and emotional data – This is not one atom, but many. There must be one for each type of sense experience and each type of emotional experience. Memories about how something felt or any sensual experiences make use of instances of this kind of token. To list a few examples: the sound of a trumpet, the softness of a pillow, the feeling of pain in the leg. Any token thought or memory of anything like this is comprised of tokens of atoms that are about the specific types of basic experiences.
- Another thought – It is possible to think about another thought. Any reader that is considering the atoms of thought has tokens of this atom in their mind. For example, if one is considering the properties of the statement “apples and oranges”, then this will result in a token of this atom that refers to a thought about apples and oranges. This is also possible in a higher degree, which would then be a thought about a thought about a thought. Readers who understood sentences in this paragraph likely had such a chain of thought references in their mind. This is how the analysis of language and thought is possible. No thought, however, can refer to itself. It has to refer to another thought. If it seems like any thought might be self-referential, what is actually going on is that multiple token thoughts are similar and they each refer to the same thought. It is impossible for a thought to be self-referential.
This list is only a rough approximation and there are probably many more conceptual atoms than these. I suppose it is possible that one or more of the items in this list could turn out to not be atomic but instead to be comprised of even simpler concepts. The most important point to take away from this is that all our ideas and everything we think about and talk about must be comprised of extremely simple concepts. Another important point is that the most effective way of analyzing what these conceptual atoms are is through phenomenology, which I have used in this series of posts to get to this point and I will continue to use for the forthcoming posts as I work towards the conclusion of this series on language and meaning.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. In the several posts since, I have laid out the evidence that shows that the meaning of language ultimately comes from the ideas that one has in mind when they speak. This meaning is not objective because it is not possible to read other people's minds, at least not at that level of detail. This meaning is instead intersubjective, which essentially means that we have a certain level of mutual understanding of things that we can only know firsthand from personal experience. Last week I also explained how the meaning of language is socially constructed. Today's post is about the nature of the pure concepts that our thoughts are about and which language is about as well, albeit indirectly.
Since the meaning of any symbol used for communication ultimately comes from the ideas that people have in mind, which are in turn instantiations of pure concepts, an understanding of the nature of concepts can be quite useful. It is obvious that some concepts are simpler and some concepts are more complex. There are many simple concepts that any intellectually competent human can have instantiated in their mind as an idea and there are often simple symbols, including words, simple phrases, and signs within a system of logic, that can be used in communication to refer to these simple concepts. Most humans can also have ideas in mind that are instantiations of complex concepts, and these would have to be constructed from simpler concepts. Just as complex concepts are constructed from simpler concepts, the symbolic representation of a complex concept usually takes the form of a sentence or a paragraph, which of course are compositions of simpler symbols (words and phrases).
Since complex concepts are constructions of simpler concepts, there must at some point be concepts that are the simplest possible, which can be called conceptual atoms. While the reasoning behind this conclusion is not difficult to understand, it is a far more difficult matter to formulate a reliable list of all of the conceptual atoms that exist. The process of compiling this list partially involves breaking concepts down to their components that are simpler and trying to identify concepts that are so simple that they cannot be made any simpler. For example, a complex concept like a tree can be seen as being a construct of the following simpler concepts:
- What trees typically look like. Every tree looks different but there are certain features that all of them, or at least all that a person has seen, have in common.
- The causal connection that trees have on other things, to the best of one's knowledge. This includes how they are created, the effect they have on other things, and the effect that other things have on them.
- What trees are made up of, to the best of one's knowledge. They are comprised of smaller things. For anyone thinking about a tree, they must have some working understanding of the smallest things that they are comprised of. Perhaps in someone's mind a tree is thought to be comprised of living cells and ultimately comprised of subatomic particles. If so then this person will have to have a conception of the causal effects of these cells and at a lower level of these particles, and this forms a part of their conception of a tree.
- Where in space trees exist, to the best of one's knowledge. This includes where they are known to exist and where they are thought to possibly exist.
This list is not exhaustive. More items could be added, such as what trees typically feel like, etc. Each of the concepts in this list can in turn be seen as constructs of even simpler concepts. Ultimately, the concept of a tree is constructed from each person's experiences with trees, both firsthand and based on claims made by others. No two people's conception of the properties of trees will be exactly the same, but communication amongst people allows them to have some degree of mutual understanding of these concepts and a mutual agreement of what words or phrases are used to refer to them.
So what are the conceptual atoms? I'll take a stab at providing a partial list of these next week.
It is true that there must be a relation between the symbols used for communication and pure concepts, but this relation is quite complex. One thing is clear is that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between pure concepts and the symbols that are a part of any inter-human communicative language. Through communication and personal introspection and reflection we can gradually come to understand the complex relationship between the symbols we use for communication and the concepts that they are supposed to refer to.
The different possible senses that any word or phrase might have is determined by social convention, which in turn is determined by the beliefs each person has regarding the meanings of words and phrases in different contexts. There is a complex process through which a new word or phrase can be coined and be given some mutually understood meaning within a certain population of people who communicate with each other. When new words or phrases are created, they are usually combinations of existing words or are similar in sound or visual appearance to existing words. There is a similar process through which existing words or phrases that already have certain understood meanings can be given new meanings by speakers within a community. If this happens then the new meaning is usually one that is found in a different context than any that this word or phrase was commonly used in before.
These new words, phrases, and meanings have to originate in someone's mind and then can be conveyed to other people through communication, which eventually can lead to the establishment of a new convention for the use of this word or phrase. When someone coins a new word or phrase or creates a new meaning for an existing one, they use this word or phrase in a different context than any established convention. This then allows other people come to intuitively grasp the new intended meaning that the first speaker is trying to convey. If they understand this new meaning then they might use it themselves, which can lead to a community of speakers being familiar with it and then considering it an established convention.
An important part of this is how people are able to understand if a word or phrase is used according to a convention or if it is incorrect. Sometimes incorrect usage can lead to a new convention being established, but it is more often the case that the speaker figures out by the reaction of others that he or she has used a word incorrectly. When a speaker uses a word or phrase in the correct context, those who the speaker is communicating with will usually give a positive reinforcing response.
The glue that holds mutual understanding together is that (most) speakers are able to see and hear the same things and are able to find ways of communicating that certain words or phrases refer to states of affairs or events that any of the speakers can see or hear. This can be done, for example, through bodily gestures or varying the tone or volume of one's voice. Once a speaker has established the conventional meaning of certain common nouns and verbs, they can begin to understand the conventional meaning of the rest of the words and phrases in a language.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Since then, I have posted on a few different theories of language and meaning, most recently on the theory of the “language of thought”, which is also known as “mentalese”. This series follows the modern phenomenological method (MPhM), which I explained in a prior series of posts. Last week's post constituted steps 3 and 4 of this method as applied to the current phenomenological research project on language and meaning. The current post begins step 5 of this project, which is the formulation of a transcendental theory of language that incorporates all evidence that has been considered up to this point, but avoids getting into scientific evidence for the time being (this is saved for step 6). The transcendental theory of language and meaning I'm going to be explaining is kind of complicated, so I will have to split it out into probably four separate posts over the coming weeks. The current post is about the possibility that the meaning of language can be objective.
So let's get back to the original question: how does language have meaning? After considering the evidence from the last few posts, the most reasonable conclusion is that the meaning of any symbol, word, phrase, or expression in a language comes from the ideas that the speaker was trying to convey by speaking or writing them. It seems that (nearly) all people are capable of thinking, whether they are able to express their thoughts in language or not. Those who do have the intellectual capacity for language are able to figure out what linguistic expressions will likely convey their intended meaning to others. Although this process is complex and there are several points where it can go wrong, it is nonetheless possible for people to convey meaning to each other through communication and from this to form a mutual understanding of certain ideas.
Communication, though, is not perfect. It is probably impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for people to communicate through language and from this to form a perfect understanding of each other's thoughts. People's ideas are not constrained by the language that they know, at least not entirely. A case in point is that people are able to form complex ideas and sometimes struggle to find ways of expressing them in language. In these situations, it is not the ideas that are being constrained, it is one's ability to express them. Language does not do much to limit people's thoughts, but it does often limit their ability to communicate. Although it is possible for people to communicate complex ideas through language, there is a point at which language becomes inadequate. It is apparent that people can conceive of pure ideas of such complexity that they cannot be straightforwardly communicated by any inter-human communicative language. In these situations, people often have to make creative use of language in order to try to get their point across.
Since the source of meaning can be found in the ideas that people have in mind when they speak, it is important to understand what an idea is. Strictly speaking, ideas are instantiations of pure concepts. Based on this, to say that multiple people have the same idea in mind actually means that each person's idea is an instantiation of the same concept. Also, ideas can take the form of either active thoughts or memories that can later be recalled and become active thoughts.
Gottlob Frege and Ferdinand de Saussure are both very influential linguists from the past, and both would probably agree on this main point: that the symbols (or “signifiers”; words, phrases, expressions, etc.) that we use to communicate with can have different senses (or “signifieds”) in different contexts. Since the meaning of a symbol comes solely from the ideas that the communicator intended to convey, we cannot say that any symbol actually has a meaning intrinsically, and thus no word, phrase, expression, etc. has a sense intrinsically either. While Saussure believed that the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and the result of established convention among language users, Frege's view was that symbols have senses objectively. As was pointed out in an earlier post, the phrases “the evening star” and “the morning star” both have senses that refer to the planet Venus. Also, “Tom Sawyer” has multiple senses, including the book written by Mark Twain and the character featured in this and other books. Frege believed that phrases have these senses objectively. While I understand these senses of these two phrases and it is likely that most readers of this understand these senses, the idea that any symbol can have meaning objectively is problematic.
Admittedly, “objective” is a somewhat ambiguous term, but none of its possible senses seem to be appropriate here. One sense, which I dislike, is that “objective” sometimes is supposed to refer to the reality that exists regardless of anyone's beliefs about it. As was explained above, the meaning of words comes from people's ideas, so if this it is this sense that Frege had in mind when he said that meaning is objective then he had to have been mistaken. The definition that I prefer is “detailed knowledge of an object that is as unbiased as possible, using the most direct methods of perception that are available, with the aim being that anyone else should be able to have a very similar understanding of the same object using similar methods of observation and bias minimization”. This definition seems to be an accurate description of what scientists aim for and what they usually mean when they speak of “objectivity”.
The only way that it would be possible for a symbol to have a sense objectively, according to the definition stated here, is if we all had a shared medium through which we could read each others minds. If this were the case then we could easily compare our own thoughts to the thoughts of others and also understand that other people could read our thoughts. This medium would allow for a truly objective understanding of the ideas that underlie communication. Unfortunately, while we have visual and auditory communications mediums, we do not have one through which we can actually read each others minds. We can use the visual and auditory mediums to build an objective understanding of things like the factors that make water boil and the effects of electrical resistance, but the absence of a communications medium for thought means that we cannot form a truly objective understanding of the ideas that people have in mind when they communicate. We can have an objective understanding of the words that people speak and write, but we cannot have a detailed an unbiased understanding of people's thoughts. So Frege was incorrect in his assertion that words or phrases have their meanings objectively. We can, however, use the visual and auditory mediums to discuss the nature of our thoughts amongst each other and from this to formulate an intersubjective understanding of the pure concepts that underlie the words that we use to communicate with. We can use our objective knowledge of language along with the first person understanding that we all have of our own thoughts to create this intersubjective understanding, which is the next best thing to objectivity.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Since then, I have posted on a few different theories of language and meaning, most recently on the theory of the “language of thought”, which is also known as “mentalese”. This series follows the modern phenomenological method (MPhM), which I explained in a prior series of posts. The past four posts explained existing theories relating to the subject matter, and thus constitute step 4 in the MPhM. In this post I will analyze some common beliefs regarding language and meaning, which will constitute step 3, and I will also detail my own introspective findings regarding language and meaning, which will constitute step 4.
Common Beliefs Regarding Language and Meaning
To begin, people seem to usually think that they have ideas in mind that are independent of the words that they use to express them. There are several common scenarios where this is apparent from analysis of human behavior, including the following:
- People understand that they can be deceitful and lie, which is having one thing in mind but saying another with the goal of misleading others. People also understand that when another person says something that it is possible, in most situations, that they could be lying.
- People from time to time have experiences where they are unable to find the words to express an idea that they have in mind. Many people have also been on the other side of this scenario in which someone else is trying to explain something to them but they are lost for words. In such situations, who would figure that the other person does not have any idea in mind since they have no words to speak?
- People have experiences where they realize that there are multiple ways of expressing a certain idea. In such situations, they might simply pick one way, or they might have to try to explain an idea in multiple ways in order to try to get their point across to others. The same situation happens in reverse, where one person is hearing another try to explain something and they have to tell the other that they don't understand and then the other tries to explain the idea with different words. Eventually, this process might lead to a certain degree of mutual understanding.
- People from time to time have experiences where they speak incorrectly, often because they didn't know the correct definition of a word or phrase, but sometimes also because they simply spoke a different word than they had intended to speak. People also understand that when another person says something, that this is not necessarily what the other means. Scenario 1 above mentions how the other person could be deceitful, but it is also possible that the other person could be unintentionally misusing language.
There are also scenarios that seem to show that people at times think of words as having definite meanings. This way of understanding the meaning of words is probably more common among those who have a high degree of religious faith because this often involves the literal interpretation of holy scriptures and perhaps also the belief that words (as prayer, the Lord's name, etc.) have power in their own right, regardless of what the speaker has in mind. Outside of a religious context, however, it seems far more common for people to believe that the source of meaning is the ideas of the speaker and not a literal interpretation of the words that are spoken. It is reasonable to conclude that people in general believe that meaning comes from what ideas one has in mind when they say what they do rather than from the words themselves.
My Own Introspective Findings Regarding Language and Meaning
When I introspect on the meaning of language, it is clear to me that meaning transcends any language that I use to communicate with. I have ideas in mind and I try to find the words to express these ideas with the goal of getting others to understand what I have in mind. The words that I express, in writing and in speech, do not have inherent meaning. I know from my own first person experience that these letters, words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are simply those that I have chosen with the goal of allowing the reader to hopefully understand, as much as possible, the ideas that I have in mind. The ideas that I am trying to convey when I speak are the meaning of the act of speech. Whether or not anyone understands the meaning I am trying to convey with these words does not affect the meaning of what I say. The meaning of any statement I say or write is entirely determined by the ideas that I am trying to convey to others.
The process of conveying meaning to others through language is often quite difficult and there are several things that can go wrong. First of all, I am often unable to find the words to express my thoughts. When this happens, I have one or more ideas in mind, but I am unable to come up with words that I figure are able to adequately convey this meaning. Also, on several occasions in the past, I have spoken with the intent of conveying a meaning to others, but I found from the reactions of those that I was speaking to that I misspoke and gave them the wrong idea. When this happens, it is often because I did not know the generally accepted meaning of a certain word or phrase. Another problem with communication that sometimes happens is that I realize, after trying to communicate, that my speech act did not adequately convey the meaning I had in mind. I make this judgment based on the reaction of those who I am speaking to. When this happens, I might try to find an expression to supplement my previous expressions, which basically involves explaining the same idea in a different way. This works because no concept is entirely dependent on specific words or phrases. When I do find an alternative way of explaining myself, I have found that this sometimes seems to allow others to come to understand the ideas that I have in mind.
I also understand from personal experience that what I say is not bound by what I am thinking. Admittedly, I do lie occasionally. I am a human being and as such I am imperfect. I am guilty of sometimes saying things that I believe to be false in order to mislead people, which sometimes works. In these situations, I have one idea in mind, but I seem to be able to convey a different idea to those that I speak to because of my choice of words.
I realize that I have the ability to think in an imaginary version of speech, which is a phenomenon that can be called subvocalization and is sometimes also called one's “inner monologue”. I sometimes think subvocally, but there are always thoughts about pure concepts that I have that do not come with an inner monologue. I often have purely conceptual thoughts followed by inner monologue thoughts that are about the same thing, often with the effect of making more clear for myself the ideas that I was already thinking about.
I also often hear and read linguistic expressions and from this I have an idea in mind of what I think it means. When I see or hear an expression, I am usually able to come to a conclusion regarding what I believe the speaker of the expression meant to convey with this expression. I have ways of coming to reasonable conclusions regarding what I believe others intend to convey with their speech acts, but I concede that I am not able to read other people's minds. Nonetheless, I am certain that I am able to understand at least some of the meaning that others intend to convey through speech because it would be simply inconceivable to deny this.
So after looking at all of this evidence, what is the answer? What is the connection between language and meaning? In order to answer this, we first have to ask whether the meaning of any expression in a language can truly be objective. This is the subject of next week's post.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Since then, I have posted on a few different theories of language and meaning, most recently on semantic holism, which is the most popular theory within contemporary analytic philosophy. Today's post explains a novel approach to explaining how words, signs, phrases and expressions in language can come to have meaning – the idea that our thoughts are facilitated by an innate language and that the languages that we speak and write in are attempts to approximate our natural language of thought.
As was touched upon in the first post in this series, John Locke held that the meaning of words must be ideas. Each person has his or her own mind and the ideas in the mind must be unique to that person and they are also only accessible to that person. He argued that when a person speaks, that they first have an idea in mind and then try to find the appropriate words to express these ideas so as to allow others to understand these ideas. Likewise, when a person hears or reads words or sentences, they try to figure out what ideas the speaker had in mind when they said what they did. This idea-based semantics differs remarkably from all other semantic theories that were described in prior posts because none of these identifies the source of meaning with the ideas that someone has in mind when they communicate.
Jerry Fodor formulated a modern version of this, which he detailed in his books The Language of Thought (herein referred to as “LOT 1”) and its sequel LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited. Fodor argues that even beings that do not have language, such as animals, infant humans, and humans afflicted with aphasia, are nonetheless capable of thinking. From this Fodor concludes that thinking cannot be completely dependent on any inter-human communicative language (LOT 1, p. 57).
Fodor's theory is based in part on the computational theory of the mind and the related representational theory of the mind. Fodor analyzes how thinking must work and points out that the brain is functionally representational and computational and computation necessarily involves the manipulation of symbols. From this, he concludes that at least some mental processes are computations on mental representations (LOT 2, p. 20). Fodor argues that the symbols that are being manipulated inside the brain and which represent ideas that correspond to things in the world constitute an inner language. According to Fodor, this inner language cannot be the same as any so-called natural language such as English or Chinese because it is possible, to a large extent, to translate a text from one inter-human communicative language to another while preserving the ideas that the text is about.
For example, if a native English speaker were to read and understand something written in English and then a native Chinese speaker were to read and understand the same passage after it is translated as accurately as possible into his own language, then the result of this will probably be that the two will have similar thoughts, and these thoughts transcend any inter-human communicative language. So it is not that an English speaker thinks in English and a Chinese speaker thinks in Chinese, but that there is a certain language that exists inside each person's brain that facilitates pure thoughts.
Fodor argues that this language of thought, which can be called mentalese, exists in one form or another within the mind of any being that is capable of thinking. Mentalese is thought to be more natural than any so-called natural language because it is supposed to be innate to the brain, whereas any language used for inter-human communication was created by humans. Mentalese is thought to have an indirect relationship to inter-human communicative languages in that a person thinks in mentalese but figures out the best words to use for inter-human communication and then speaks or writes these words.
According to Fodor, there are features of mentalese that are similar to inter-human communicative languages. For one, he argues that thoughts are fundamentally comprised of certain atomic symbols that represent certain basic concepts and that more complex concepts are formulated through some composition of these basic concepts. He also argues that smaller units, mostly words, lexemes, morphemes, are the basic units of semantics in thought and that sentences are constructions of this. One important point of argument that he has advanced is that these atomic symbols in the mind are combined using syntactic rules that are likely analogous, at least to a certain extent, to the syntactic rules that are features of inter-human communicative languages. As Fodor explains:
One of the respects in which Mentalese is supposed to be language-like is that its formulas exhibit constituent structure. To a first approximation, the constituents of a discursive representation are its semantically interpretable parts, and it is characteristic of discursive representations that not all of their parts need be semantically interpretable. Consider a complex expression like sentence (I) below. It's constituents consist of: the sentence itself, together with the lexical items 'John', 'loves', and 'Mary' and the two phrases 'John [noun phrase]' and '(loves Mary [verb phrase])'. By contrast, it has among its 'parts' non-constituents like (e.g.) 'John loves' and (assuming that 'parts' can be discontinuous) 'John … Mary'. So, then, every constituent of a discursive representation is one of its parts, but not vice versa.
(I) John loves Mary.
I assume that all this holds for mental representations too. As usual, the arguments in the case of Mentalese run parallel to the arguments in the case of English. (LOT 2, p. 59)
Among those who favor this theory, there is a lot of disagreement regarding which concepts are fundamental. Fodor has argued that nearly all words in one's language that are not compound words are innate atomic concepts in the brain, including words like “tree”, “chair” “carburetor”, “horse” and the like (LOT 2, p. 129). He believes that even the word “kill” has an atomic equivalent in the mind, rather than this concept being a mental construction of the simpler concepts “cause” and “die”. On this note, Fodor's opinion is quite eccentric. Stephen Pinker has suggested a more moderate version of mentalese in which complex concepts like a carburetor or an umbrella are constructed from simpler concepts within the mind and where the only atomic concepts are those that couldn't conceivably be understood as a construction of any simpler concepts (The Stuff of Thought, p. 97).
A counterargument to the idea of a private language comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein, wherein he seeks to show that this sort of account is incoherent. Wittgenstein defines a private language as one that is understandable to only one person and cannot conceivably be understood by anyone else. It would seem that something like mentalese, as Fodor and Pinker have described it, would qualify as such because it is impossible for someone to experience someone else's thoughts, and thus it follows that it must be inconceivable that these thoughts could be understandable to anyone but the one who thinks them.
Wittgenstein addresses whether there could be any internal experience that the word “pain” refers to:
If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means––must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?
Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!–––Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.––Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine, such a thing constantly changing.––But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people's language?––If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something; for the box might not even be empty.––No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (Philosophical Investigations, §293)
In this, Wittgenstein is arguing that any private concept, be it the first person experience of pain or the atoms of meaning from which the complex concept “carburetor” is constructed in the mind, if they exist are like objects in boxes that we all have but cannot speak about because they are fundamentally private to us and therefore they cannot conceivably be made public. Just as when everyone speaks of this “beetle” in their box, it might be different for each person and it might be changing constantly, so is the situation of trying to talk about the contents of one's own first person experience. Each person has their own experience and it is not possible to have someone else's experience. Wittgenstein is arguing that while there is a word “pain” and we can talk as if we have a shared understanding of what this is, that it is not possible for us to have this shared understanding.
For Wittgenstein, thought is inevitably tied to language, which is inherently social. Therefore, there is no 'inner' space in which thoughts can occur. Wittgenstein believed that one's public language is their language of thought. So an English speaker thinks in English and a Chinese speaker thinks in Chinese. This conception of how a person thinks leads to the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in which one's language determines their possible thoughts and puts certain constraints on their cognitive capabilities.
Who is correct here, Fodor or Wittgenstein? What theory of language and meaning makes the most sense? Is it mentalese, as explained here, or perhaps is it semantic holism or logical atomism or some other theory? In the next few posts, I will provide what I believe are the best answers to these questions and my reasons for believing as I do.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Last week's post explained a little about past attempts to use logic to answer this question, specifically logical atomism and logical positivism. I kind of like logical atomism, but it does not come close to explaining how language comes to have meaning and how we can come to know the meaning that symbols have. I dismissed logical positivism mostly because it tries to say that statements have to be verifiable in order to have meaning, which is absurd if you think about the implications of this claim. Today's post explains a little about the theory of meaning that has the most support among contemporary analytic philosophers: semantic holism.
In the 1950's and '60's, it became clear to many analytic philosophers that the theories of logical atomism and logical positivism were overly simplistic and that neither were able to adequately deal with the question of meaning. As was mentioned in the previous post, Ludwig Wittgenstein came to realize the problems with logical atomism and he came to believe that even whole propositions and other expressions within a language do not have meaning in isolation. Late in his career, Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of an expression derives from its use within the language as a whole, which is an integral part of “the stream of life”. In the following passage, Wittgenstein argues that the question of meaning is really in essence a question of how language is used:
...think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked 'five red apples'. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked 'apples', then he looks up the word 'red' in a table and finds a color sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word 'five' and for each number he takes an apple of the same color as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—"But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word 'red' and what he is to do with the word 'five'?" Well, I assume that he 'acts' as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word 'five'? No such thing was in question here, only how the word 'five' is used. (Philosophical Investigations, §1)
Wittgenstein's conception of meaning is a version of semantic holism, in which a certain instance of the use of some language, be it a word or expression of some sort, can only be understood through its relations to a larger subset of the language to which it belongs. For example, the statement “All males eighteen years or older must register for the draft” actually does not make sense unless one has some understanding of all of the words used therein and their syntactic relations to each other. Several of these words can have multiple meanings depending upon the context in which they appear. There are also many different ways of parsing the words into syntactic relations. How can one understand the meaning of the words in this statement and how they relate to each other?
Within the semantic holism of W. V. O. Quine and Donald Davidson, the conditions that must be met for someone to grasp the meaning of a given statement can be roughly summarized as follows:
- This individual has already come across instances where the words and syntactic relations used in the statement were used in other contexts.
- This individual has successfully used these words and syntactic relations in other contexts as well, where success is determined by positive stimulus provided by others. In situations where a word or syntactic relation is misused, the speaker will likely receive negative stimulus. If they are used properly, then the speaker will likely receive positive stimulus.
- This knowledge allows this individual to associate these past successful uses of words and syntactic relations to those that exist in the statement currently being evaluated.
Quine even went so far as to argue that translation from one language to another is extremely difficult and that radical translation, in which the meaning of a statement in one language is perfectly translated into another language, is probably impossible. Quine imagines a situation where someone is trying to translate a newly discovered language into their own and hears the native speakers of this language utter the word “gavagai” used in the presence of a rabbit. Quine argues that this word could simply mean “rabbit” but it could also have other similar meanings (perhaps “undetatched rabbit part” or “temporal stage of a rabbit” or “the universal rabbit”) and that the specific meaning would be indeterminate in this situation if each of these meanings is associated with the same stimulus response by the speakers. Even with extensive observation of this new language in use, Quine argues that it will still be impossible to perfectly translate it into one's first language because all the translator has to rely on is the positive or negative stimulus response of the speakers.
Some philosophers, including Jerry Fodor, have criticized semantic holism. Fodor argues that its central tenet, which says that for one to understand any statement within a language that they must understand its relation to a (previously understood) larger segment of the language, seems to imply that communication is impossible unless one first understands all words and all possible uses in this language. On the basis of this central tenet, however, it is not possible to understand any word or statement in isolation, which brings about a chicken-and-egg problem: one cannot understand a statement without understanding its relation to the language as a whole, but one cannot understand the language as a whole until they understand all possible statements in the language. This is especially problematic since languages are constantly changing. It is a fact of any natural language that new words will be added and syntactic rules will be slightly modified as time passes. Therefore, even if one could somehow have perfect knowledge of a language at a specific moment in time, it is difficult to see how they could understand any changes to the language that occur without prior knowledge of them.
I will explain in more detail the theory of the language of thought, which is also called “mentalese”, in next week's post.
This post continues the series on language and meaning. The first post asked the question of how language has meaning and how we can come to know what words and sentences mean. Last week's post explained the simplest proposed answers to this question, direct reference and mediated reference. Actually, there are several theories of mediated reference that are derived in part from Gottlob Frege's original theory. Today's post explains different attempts at using logic to answer the question of how language refers to things in the world.
As was mentioned in last week's post, Frege argued that a word or phrase can have multiple senses, each of which might refer to a different object. From Frege's writings, one can gather that the meaning of a word is the sense of a word combined with the object that it refers to. Frege said that words can have different senses depending on the situation, which implies that the meaning of the word depends on the situation as well. As Frege said in The Foundations of Arithmetic, “never...ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition”.
The idea that one can understand meaning by understanding a proposition inspired the idea that one can iron out the ambiguities in natural human language by formulating a language of logic that is a more clear representation of reality. The theory, called logical atomism, was espoused by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, at least for a period of time in their careers (probably the period from 1910 to 1930). Russell believed that there were certain fundamental logical atoms in reality from which all facts in the world are constructed and that these can be categorized as either particulars, predicates, or relations. He believed that a logical language could be formulated that has a symbol for each atom and that statements could be constructed from this that are representations of reality. Russell did not by any means invent logic, though he did make some advancements in the field. Nor was he the first to argue that a logic can be formulated that is capable of representing any fact in the world. Eighteenth century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz may have been the first to argue this, and David Hume and Immanuel Kant, among others, worked in this area before Russell as well.
The central idea of logical atomism is that there are certain words in natural language that represent concepts that are fundamental atoms of meaning. Each such word should then have an equivalent in this logical language, for example “and” can be represented as “&”, “or” as “∨”, “not” as “~”, “all” as “∀”, “exists” as “∃”, “if” as “→”, etc. and also any object can be represented by some variable like “x” or “y”. The idea is that in natural language, we are using these concepts but that it is often unclear what we mean so this logical language makes communication as clear as it possibly can be.
For example, the natural (English) language sentence “All males eighteen years or older must register for the draft” can be represented in predicate logic as
Where “x” is a general variable that represents any object, “M” represents the predicate of being male, “E” represents the predicate of being eighteen, “O” represents the predicate of being over eighteen, and “R” represents the predicate of being required to register for the draft. The idea is that any natural language statement is supposed to be expressible in a symbolic language like this that wholly and unambiguously captures the meaning of the statement.
Sections of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus lay out a detailed theory of logical atomism, but he later argued against the possibility that any language, natural or artificial, can ever be crystal clear and he also strongly disagreed with the idea that communication could ever be reduced to atoms of meaning. In his Logical Investigations, Wittgenstein explains the original line of though behind logical atomism:
But now it may come to look as if there were something like a final analysis of our forms of language, and so a single completely resolved form of every expression. That is, as if our usual forms of expression were, essentially, unanalyzed; as if there were something hidden in them that had to be brought to light. When this is done the expression is completely clarified and our problem solved.
It can also be put like this: we eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact; but now it may look as if we were moving towards a particular state, a state of complete exactness; and as if this were the real goal of our investigation. (§ 91)
But he goes through a lengthy process of subtly elucidating the numerous irreconcilable problems that arise from this theory and makes the case that no proposition can be fully understood completely on its own. In his words “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique” (§ 199).
In the 1920's, logical atomism was popular among some philosophers but there was a movement against it among some who believed that it involved meaningless metaphysics. This then leads to another approach to addressing the question of how language can have meaning, which is to first acknowledge that not all possible statements actually have meaning. It is not difficult to come up with an example, such as “blither blather, blither blither blather”. This last quoted statement is meaningless to me, despite the fact that I'm the one who wrote it. Most readers will probably agree that the last quoted statement does not appear to have any meaning, while (hopefully) most other statements that I am writing herein actually do have some sort of meaning, not just those in quotes but also those within this work that begin with a capital letter and end with a period.
As soon as one acknowledges the fact that some statements have meaning and that others do not, one can then try to figure out the properties that a statement must have in order to be meaningful. One proposed solution to this problem is that statements are only meaningful if it is possible to verify whether or not they are true. This view, called verificationism, holds that a statement that can be empirically verified to be either true or false has meaning and all other statements do not have meaning. Logical positivism, a collection of views espoused by philosophers such as Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer, involves a version of verificationism in which the only statements that can possibly have meaning are those that are empirically verifiable also those that are logical tautologies and all other statements are meaningless.
Within logical positivism, a statement like “the boiling point of water is 100 degrees Celsius” has meaning because it can be verified by putting a thermometer into a beaker of water and heating it and observing the mercury level when the water begins to boil (or something close to this). Likewise a statement like “the boiling point of water is 50 degrees Celsius” has meaning because one can empirically verify that it is false (using similar methods as would apply to the first quoted statement in this paragraph). Also statements that are logical tautologies, such as “1 + 1 = 2” are meaningful according to logical positivism. On the other hand, a statement like “the boiling point of water is blither blather” is not meaningful because there is no way of verifying whether it is true or false (assuming that “blither blather” is not code for anything). There are other types of statements that logical positivists would see as meaningless, such as “it is wrong to kill other people in most cases” or “the universe was created by a higher power” or “the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are beautiful”. These are all supposedly unverifiable, at least according to logical positivists such as Carnap and Ayer, and are therefore meaningless statements in their opinions. More specifically, Ayer argued that metaphysical statements, and ethical and aesthetic opinions are meaningless but can indicate the beliefs the speaker has on these matters.
The biggest problem with a strict form of verificationism similar to that which exists within logical positivism is that there must be statements that are not verifiable (or tautologous) that have meaning. Most notably, it is not possible to articulate an argument in favor of verificationism that is itself verifiable. Peter Van Inwagen and Dean Zimmerman explained this in their book Metaphysics: The Big Questions:
But how does the logical positivist's thesis fare by its own standards? Consider the statement, “The meaning of a statement is entirely in the predictions it makes about possible experience”. Does this statement make in any predictions about possible experiences? Could some observation show that this statement was true? Could some laboratory experiment show that it was false? It would seem not. It would seem that everything in the world would look the same – like this – whether or not this statement was true. And therefore if the statement is true is it meaningless; or, what is the same thing, if it is meaningful, it is false. Logical positivism would therefore seem to say of itself that it is false or meaningless; it would seem to be, as some philosophers say, “self-referentially incoherent.” (p. 6)
Aside from the problem with verificationism being self-referentially incoherent, there are many situations where we will come across statements made by others that are not verifiable but nonetheless seem to have meaning. If one can understand, within reason, what another is trying to communicate when they speak, then they are understanding at least some of the meaning of this statement. For example, even someone who believes in verificationism will have to admit that the statement “God created the universe” is more meaningful than “blither blather, blather blither” in that they can understand what is meant by the first statement, at least to some extent, while the second statement is devoid of meaning. While it is possible that the words “blither” and “blather” could mean something in another language or that they could be some secret code for something, if the second quoted statement is interpreted based on the basic lexicon and syntactic rules of English, then it fails to produce meaning. The first quoted sentence, however, clearly has a meaning. One can argue that the first quoted statement is false, but the idea that it does not convey any meaning whatsoever is simply without merit.
Next week I'll be going over some more complex theories of meaning that enjoy broad support among contemporary analytic philosophers.
Last week's post introduced the problem of meaning and language. This problem might be summed up with the questions:
- “How does language have meaning?”
- “What is the relationship between a word, phrase, sentence or symbol in language and things that they are supposed to refer to?”
- “If words, phrases, sentences or symbols in a language have meaning, then how can one come to know this meaning?”
There have been many theories regarding the meaning of language and many ways of answering these questions. As a part of this series of posts on meaning and language, I will be describing a few of these theories. I'll start today by explaining a little about two of the most basic theories – direct reference and mediated reference.
The simplest theory of meaning is that words directly refer to things in the world. For example, “bird” refers to all birds that exist or ever existed, “Cicero” refers to the Roman statesman from ancient times, and “white” refers to all things that are white. 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill was an advocate of this theory of meaning. Mill argued that proper names have no meaning above and beyond the object to which it refers. This theory of meaning might be the first thing that comes to mind when many people first think about how language has meaning, but it quite quickly falls apart when the implications of this theory become clear.
In the late 19th century, Gottlob Frege provided some very influential examples that seem to show that words and expressions do not directly refer to objects and that instead a word or expression can have multiple senses, each of which might refer to different objects. For example, the name “Tom Sawyer” can either refer to the novel written by Mark Twain (as an abbreviation for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) or to the character that is featured in this and other books. Using the most common way of translating Frege's terminology into English, “Tom Sawyer” can be said to have at least those two senses, each of which have their own referents (the novel and the character respectively). Likewise different expressions can have the same referent, such is the case with “the morning star” and “the evening star” both having a sense that refers to the planet Venus. This is equivalent to saying that both of these phrases have the same nominatum (again, the planet Venus). As Frege explains in “On Sense and Nominatum”:
Now it is plausible to connect with a sign (name, word combination, expression) not only the designated object, which may be called the nominatum of the sign, but also the sense (connotation, meaning) of the sign in which is contained the manner and context of presentation...The nominata of 'evening star' and 'morning star' are the name but not their senses.
Frege's mediated reference theory was influential because it is easy to intuitively realize that a given expression can often have multiple senses and that expressions that are, in a literal sense, quite different can nonetheless have senses that refer to the same object. Most people who read examples similar to those in Frege's writings can easily understand that, at the very least, direct reference is not a workable theory of meaning. There is significant disagreement, however, regarding whether signs (expressions, etc.) actually have senses and if so, how one can come to know about these senses. A sense, after all, is not something one can find in the world. One can find signs of all types, including letters, words, sentences, sounds, etc. One can also find all kinds of objects that these signs are supposed to indirectly refer to. But finding clear evidence of some entity, either one that matches Frege's definition of a sense or anything else, that somehow connects signs to objects is far more difficult.
Therefore it seems that if senses do exist then the main factor that determines the different possible senses that a sign has is not something that can be studied objectively. If people often come to agree with Frege's arguments because they seem intuitively reasonable, then the driving force that determines the senses that a sign has would probably have to be one's intuition or some other mental content or mental activity. This then seems to imply that meaning is subjective and that therefore signs do not actually have senses, or nominata for that matter, as a part of what they are, but these senses are only determined by what people think about these signs and what they experience in relation to these signs.
In the coming weeks, I'll be explaining several more theories of language and meaning. Some of the theories will take an approach that emphasizes one's thoughts and intuition, while others try to identify an objective basis for communicative meaning.
The world is permeated with a multitude of languages of all types that facilitate a wide range of communication. There is wide diversity among the world's languages in how they are communicated, how they were created, and what they are used for. What is common to all languages is that all are comprised of symbolic representations of concepts and are all used for communication. In our daily lives, we regularly communicate though sounds, bodily gestures, written text, and through other means as well. We all have experiences both in originating communication and in perceiving communication that originated with others.
Anyone reading this has the experience of understanding the meaning of what they are reading, or they at least have to think that they likely have some understanding. Everyone has certainly also come across situations where they did not understand the meaning of a certain written passage or a certain utterance made by another. So therefore it makes sense that everyone who is capable of using language at different times has both the experience of understanding the meaning of certain things and of misunderstanding certain other things. This then leads to the general question of what exactly is meaning and how one can come to understand the meaning of symbols, words, expressions, statements, utterances, and other communicative acts.
Though it may seem to some that words and sentences obviously mean what they say, this is certainly not true for every sentence and every word. There are often many interpretations of what a phrase means and a word can often have many different senses depending on the context. John Locke argued that all language begins with ideas in people's minds and these ideas are not dependent on language. He argued that we find words to express the ideas that we have in mind and when we come across language that we try to figure out what the speaker had in mind when they said what they did.
Man...had by his nature so fashioned, as to be fit to frame articulate sounds, which we call words. But this was not enough to produce language; for parrots, and several other birds, will be taught to make articulate sounds distinct enough, which yet by no means are capable of language. Besides articulate sounds, therefore, it was further necessary that he should be able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the ideas within his own mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the thoughts of men's minds be conveyed from one to another. (Locke, Human Understanding, Book III, Sec I)
There are more modern theories that have similarities to Locke's conception of language and meaning, the most notable of which involves one's inner thoughts being based on a language that is innate to the mind, which can be called the “language of thought” or “mentalese”. The idea that the meaning of language is derived from one's thoughts might seem obvious to some, but it contrasts with the idea that words or phrases inherently have meaning as properties of what they are. The idea that there is a language of thought is also very problematic and many philosophers have rejected this idea in favor of other theories of how meaning can be derived from language.
In the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts that will analyze the meaning of language. This series will make use of the Modern Phenomenological Method (MPhM) that I outlined in my recent series of posts on phenomenology. Several different theories of meaning will be analyzed - some of which will find the meaning of language in the words that are used or in how sentences are constructed, others attempt to dissolve the question of meaning or argue that it is insoluble. The theory of mentalese will also be explained in more detail in a future post. These posts will come every Wednesday or Thursday for the next several weeks, so keep an eye on this blog if this topic interests you.