Sunday, August 7, 2011

Words and Things without Ideas

How do words and phrases like "Mars," "the first President of the United States," and "Dante Shepherd" mean what they do? A popular first answer is that they mean what they do because they each stand for a particular thing. The notion these kinds of words are just labels for things is called the Theory of Reference for definite descriptions.

Following William Lycan's Philosophy of Language: a Contemporary Introduction, I will describe four puzzles which make the Theory of Reference appear untenable.

Puzzle #1 — Apparent Reference to Nonexistents
Zaphod Beeblebrox is two-headed.
How can "Zaphod Beeblebrox" have meaning by standing in for something, if that 'something' doesn't exist? Lycan puts this intuition more explicitly (paraphrasing a bit):

I. The sentence above is meaningful.
II. The sentence above is in subject-predicate form.
III. A meaningful subject-predicate sentences is meaningful only because it refers to something then ascribes a quality to it.
IV. "Zaphod Beeblebrox" doesn't refer to anything that exists.
V. Given II through IV, the sentence above isn't meaningful...or it refers to something that doesn't exist.
VI. If something doesn't exist, it's impossible to refer to it.

One of the points from I to VI must be false. (Which would you challenge?)

Puzzle #2 — Negative Existentials
The Lemurian civilization never existed.
Assuming this is true, how could it be a true, meaningful sentence under the Theory of Reference? The sentence explicitly denies the existence of the very thing it is supposedly pointing at and talking about, so to speak.

Puzzle #3 — Identity
Howard O'Brien is Anne Rice.
If the Theory of Reference were correct, this should be a very boring, trivial, non-informative kind of statement along the lines of the equation x = x. There sure seems to be more information here than that! Probably even a commentary on her parents' psychology.

Puzzle #4 — Substitutivity 
Debra Morgan knows that the Bay Harbor Butcher dismembers bodies.
Since Dexter Morgan is the Bay Harbor Butcher, it should be possible to substitute referentially equivalent words without changing the meaning.
Debra Morgan knows that Dexter Morgan dismembers bodies.
But she doesn't know this, at least not in the episodes I've seen. The two sentences obviously have very different meanings if one is true and the other false! (Leaving aside the question of whether facts about fictional characters are genuinely true, since real life cases are possible.)

Now What?

The Theory of Reference is nice and simple, but doesn't work out. There are other theories which do a better job of capturing what we mean by 'meaning.' I don't think any of them has universal support among philosophers (what does?). And of course there's always the possibility our notion of 'meaning' isn't neat, so we can't ever capture it neatly.


  1. Does the book make contact with cognitive science? Specifically with the broad scheme that thinking is done through neural nets so that words and sentences must, at the end, be generated and perceived by certain patterns of neural activity?

    It appears to me that from this structure it follows that all language is private in the sense that each person uses it to communicate about his own experiences and imagination. Language is semi-public, in the sense that different people learned and use the same words, but their associations and mental constructs associated with them are never the same. I believe this solves all the supposed problems above.

    Given how the brain, and human organisms, actually use and learn language, I can't really see any other possibility. For example, the "naive" Representative Theory you present above would posit a miraculous ability for different people to imagine the same imagined world, that would also miraculously correspond to the real world, and to also have the equally miraculous ability to communicate by a shared-code despite the fact that each learned this code individually. This is just incongruent with how brains work, how language evolved and is learned, and with how it can function naturalistically.

    Of course, it is simplistic to speak of individual words as meaning anything (meaning depends on sentences, and context), but still. To phrase my view more accurately I believe that words must refer to the sensory information patterns ("red"), internal feelings ("pain"), figments of imagination ("after I die..."), logical intuitions ("necessarily"), and other types of thought that we have learned to communicate and evoke by their use, against the background of an uncertain broad reality that we are attempting to understand and communicate about.

    The "uncertain" bit is critical, as this lies at the heart of our use of language. For example, "pain" refers to a particular feeling I have felt and came to associate with the term, whereas "Animals don't feel pain" refers to its (supposed) lack in animals, out there in the real world, claiming a correspondence between this imagined reality and the world - a claim that would be pointless to make if there was certainty. But evenmoreso, "The people in the next valley don't feel pain" may refer to the feeling of imagined people I've never seen, and "People in Utopia feel no pain" refers to the feeling of people I know I'm imagining and will never see. The use of imagined realities that may be false is vital for us imperfect beings to communicate and succeed in this uncertain reality - and is the origin of fiction.

    In a tagline: Language is about weaving imagined realities out of our own internal lives, and at times about contrasting them with reality.

    I'm hopeful, however, that my intuitions on this are mistaken, and that other theories also make sense - I like learning I'm wrong. I just hope the book makes contact with reality, not just armchair speculation.


  2. I haven't gotten far in the book, but from skimming ahead it doesn't look like the sort of thing you're describing is talked about much. The section on Grice comes closest. See

    At least this puts the focus on individuals trying to communicate with others, rather than some quest to discover the true meaning of a word.

    I've always visualized word meaning as a sort of blob covering some space of ideas in a person's head. The reason words work well enough for communication is that people have similar — but not identical — blobs in their heads.

    This justifies the process of 'learning what a word means' as learning approximately how some population will understand the word if you use it...without any sort of ontology of word meaning.

  3. "Zaphod Beeblebrox" doesn't refer to anything that exists.

    It doesn't refer to anything that exists in reality, but it does refer to something that exists in fiction. "Zaphod Beeblebrox" is a character we're capable of reading about, and this character indeed has two heads. This sentence tells us that if we read about Zaphod, we will be reading about a character with two heads.

    If the Theory of Reference were correct, this should be a very boring, trivial, non-informative kind of statement along the lines of the equation x = x.

    Why does the Theory of Reference suggest that "x = x" must be boring?

    I don't think I hold the Theory of Reference; I think that sentences in some way suggest experiences that we anticipate. And I don't think that the examples in this book aren't revealing or worth discussing. #4 is definitely worth thinking about.

    But some of the examples are a bit... trivial.

  4. Peter,

    .."It doesn't refer to anything that exists in reality, but it does refer to something that exists in fiction."

    Strictly speaking, only things that exist "in reality" exist. I take fictional characters to involve the sort of ideas we have about real people, except without a person. I'll probably write a followup post on Frege's terms 'sense' and 'reference.' The names of real people have both, while fictional characters only have a sense without a reference.

    .."I don't think I hold the Theory of Reference; I think that sentences in some way suggest experiences that we anticipate."

    Right. The point I was trying to make with the post title is that words express ideas over and above being simple stand-ins for entities. "The great Kansas City massacre of 1994" puts some expectation in your mind, even though there wasn't such an event.

    "But some of the examples are a bit... trivial."

    They're supposed to be somewhat absurd to show that we do get more information from definite descriptions than the thing they reference.


    By the way, I sometimes question whether it's such a great idea to sit down and read a book on the history of philosophical positions on a topic (as Lycan's book does), as opposed to trying to polish up one's own ideas first or at least trying to find a book which sets out the _current_ top explanations.

    History of Science is interesting, but we don't teach science undergrads all the weird ideas and old terminologies before getting around to current science. At least not to the extent philosophy studies apparently do. A cynical person might get the idea history of philosophy is all philosophy can muster.

  5. It looks as if each puzzle has a distinct reason why it fails. Puzzle #1 fails because VI is false. We can and do regularly refer to things that don't physically exist. I don't think it fair to restrict words to describing only physical existence, especially since I think we agree that words ARE ideas (which makes the article title impossible).

    Puzzle #2 expresses the above idea well, conflating the ideas behind the Lemurian civilization (and all that entails) with its physical existence, or lack thereof.

    You can solve Puzzle #3 by using the correct equation. It's not 'x=x', which would be non-informative, but 'a=b' which is informative.

    Puzzle #4 requires extra information to solve. You merely have to add the statement, "Debra Morgan does not know that the Bay Harbor Butcher is Dexter Morgan". With the addition of this extra statement, Sentence 2 becomes false if looking from imperfect information. To remain true, you'd have to modify Sentence 2 to "Debra Morgan knows that Dexter Morgan dismembers bodies, but she does not know that she knows that."

    So far, I'm going to stick with the Theory of Reference, though I readily admit I may just be too new to this.

  6. I think we do successfully refer to ideas, even though ideas aren't things that exist. Ideas, in turn, may or not match up with things that exist.
    It makes me wonder...was the "theory of reference" presented in this book just a crude, unsophisticated version that no one has ever defended? Reference that can target ideas does seem to dodge the first puzzle.

    For Puzzle #2, could we say that the predicate "exist" always operates like this:

    "X exists."
    breaks down into...
    "The idea of X corresponds to a thing."

    So saying that Lemuria never existed would be saying that the idea of Lemuria has never corresponded to a thing.

    For Puzzle #3 & #4, we could say that the two names refer to different ideas...which just happen to correspond to the same thing (the same human).

    Overall, yeah, I think a more sophisticated theory of reference might work...unless "theory of reference" is well-established in philosophical circles as meaning the unsophisticated version.