Category: philosophy of mind

Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge

Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge

images (1)Cognitive psychology is well-known for attempting to use individual cognitive – and SPECIFIC – failures as catalysts for larger discussions about the structure of processes critical to human rational thinking.

Attached is a power point presentation I created as an undergraduate after reviewing numerous case studies. It summarizes my own commentary re: both the case studies per se and the theoretical stakes of this problem-set.

Category-Specific Deficits 2

Continue reading “Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge”


Intentional Inexistence, Intentional Objects, and the "Relational Nature of Singular Thoughts"

A discussion of intentionality, at least in philosophy, usually involves a reference to the work of Franz Brentano or Edmund Husserl and an accompanying description indicating that it is a philosophical term that signifies the ‘aboutness’ or "directedness" of mental states like thinking,

wishing, remembering et cetera. Of course that captures some of what "intentionality" means in philosophy and in more common discourse. The problem with the standard description is that it seems to lend significance to thoughts, and the significance of language/meaning is either merely implicit or in some sense irrelevant. Additionally, it informs a particular epistemology and metaphysics that treats linguistic acts as mere expressions of thought. Suffice it to say that the absence of the import of language and/or meaning is manifest, I think, in Brentano’s own description of intentionality in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint:

"Every mental phenomena is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understand as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not do so in the same way. In presentation, something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on.[1]"

"This intentional inexistence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We can, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.[2]"

Brentano’s description above, and it is taken to be the starting point for contemporary discussions of intentionality, stresses the ontological dualism between mental and physical things. Brentano tells us that what separates mental phenomena from physical phenomena is that mental phenomena are marked by intentionality. In order for a thing to be mental it has to have intentionality: it must be able to refer to something with the bizarre difficulty that the referent need not exist. This, in a nutshell, is intentional inexistence. It merely holds that a thought about p does not require that p’s referent indeed exists. After all, people have thoughts about unicorns and unicorns don’t exist. If this all seems intuitive, it largely is. However, the reason why it is has to do, as I will later explicate, more to do with linguistic convention than with ‘how mental phenomena really are’.

The second standard of Brentano’s description above is that it yields the idea that it is, in a sense, logically impossible to have a thought simpliciter: that is, whatever else a thought is, it must be a thought of something. One is reminded here of Plato’s Theaetetus in which Socrates and the young Theaetetus are struggling with the notion of false belief: how can one think falsely (if false belief is defined as thinking that which is not) given that one’s thought that p necessitates that something is thought? The relevant point is that Brentano’s characterization echoes the (somewhat) Platonic idea that one cannot have a thought without indicating or being aware of what the thought states is the case, what it represents, what it is about, or what it is in relation to. If one is thinking, one must be thinking of something, and that something is somehow related to the thinker.[3] This second standard can be termed as the relational nature of intentionality.

Third, intentional acts are directed upon things that are not sufficiently specified by the language one uses to describe those acts. Thus if someone describes her occurent–that is, current mental state of— fear of bats in virtue of the fact that she is aware of a bat and is trembling, then it is not the case that the description is sufficient for the content of her intentional state; in effect, the descriptions "S is presently fearful of bats" and "S is aware of a bat and is trembling" are not necessarily equivalent statements since there could be other things present in S’s mind that are not described by the predicate "is fearful" , not to mention the fact that "awareness of a bat and trembling" may occur independent of "being afraid". As Grant Gillett explains, "…those things [that a mental predicate is meant to represent] are in general not adequately specified for the purpose of mental descriptions by mentioning the objects concerned."[4]

Husserl, like Brentano, posits that consciousness is essentially intentional. But where Brentano turns to cognitive significance in his characterization of intentionality in terms of the sort of mental states that have intentional content, Husserl turns to meaning:

"Every intentional experience, thanks to its noetic phase, is noetic, it is its essential nature to harbour in itself a ‘meaning’ of some sort, it may be many meanings.[5]"

I am not certain if ‘meaning’ is used in the sense of ‘meaning to act or behave a certain way’ or if he is referring to the activity of language and the linguistic expression of intentional contents in some psychological states. That said, it is not inconsistent with either Brentano or Husserl’s description, I think, to consider the underspecified nature of linguistic expressions taken to name intentional contents.

Psychological explanations then call for an elucidation of the underspecified mental predicate: to express the meaning of experiences of cognitive significance, a theory of intentionality must elucidate how it is that a particular mental state is realized.

When these standards are put together they inform the following sort of argument (numbered 1-4):

1. If S believes that p, then it doesn’t follow that what p refers to actually exists. (intentional inexistence)

2. Q: In order for S to believe that p it must be that p represents or is about something which is related to something outside the thought or belief itself. (relational nature of intentionality) S’s belief that p must be a belief about something (i.e. the belief must have content).

3. For any relation to obtain, the objects in the relation must both exist; i.e. it’s senseless to hold that A is related to B if it is the case that A or B does not exist.

4. In order for S to believe to that p, where p need not refer to any existent object and "the belief that p" logically necessitates that p be about something, then the content of S’s belief must denote an intentional object. Thus, intentional acts or states are those that express contents that refer to some sort of object (intentional object) that may not really exist.

The conclusion that there must exist intentional objects raises a metaphysical problem: what is an intentional object and in what sense do they exist? On the one hand, it is a principle of all intentional acts (thoughts, beliefs, desires, et cetera) that what is presented as object need not actually exist. On the other hand, something must exist in order for a belief to exist, for if a belief exists it must follow that it is a belief about something (unless Socrates isn’t taken seriously). The existence of intentional objects raises a third realm of existence and seems like an ad hoc conclusion to resolve (otherwise) major metaphysical flaws. That said, the sort of metaphysical and epistemological work that this kind of characterization of intentionality yields is something to avoid, given recent developments in the philosophy of language and (to some extent) in the philosophy of mind.

Introducing intentionality in this (rather) characteristic way is, as I have hinted above, problematic. The reason I want to steer away from this sort of talk is that it masks the essential role of language in determining the intentionality of a thought, belief, proposition, expression, et cetera.

Moreover, that intentionality is described here as "the mark of the mental" is indicative of a dualistic metaphysics, one that presupposes an ontological distinction between "what is mental" and "what is physical." When I say that contemporary discussions of intentionality are not interested in this sort of dualism (although depending on what one means by dualism, certainly it could be argued that in a sense another sort of dualism exists), I mean that (in general) analytic and post-analytic accounts of intentionality either do not ascribe an ontological level to that sort of mental phenomena or are mostly reductive such that intentionality belongs to the physical. Nevertheless, it is a fact that must be appreciated: contemporary discussions of intentionality are not voiced in the interest of carving out the proper object of psychological inquiry. Brentano’s use of the term is indicative of the motivation to establish psychology as a scientific discourse in some sense analogous to physics. The same does not hold true today (though there is, in some instances, the want to treat intentionality systematically according to its logical properties in language, so there is some reverence of science) and this constitutes the second reason why my discussion of intentionality will steer clear of the traditional ontological obstacles described above.[6]

Current work on intentionality in various philosophical circles can be assessed according to levels of explanation. What I mean by that is that the various hallmarks of intentionality, what it conditions and how it is conditioned, are related to the level of analysis in which it is assessed. That’s not to say that there is no interplay between, for instance, a teleological or causal explanation of intentionality, like one offered by Ruth Millikan, and the logical explanation offered by Roderick Chisholm. But treating these levels as somewhat autonomous has the distinct advantage of making clear the sorts of problems philosophers encounter when talking about mental representations, the capacity of the mind to be directed towards something outside of it, and the individuation of meaning. After having introduced the more or less traditional (metaphysical) construction of intentionality, I will now turn to a level-of-analysis approach in which the network of problems associated with intentionality is given proper theoretical context. The levels and the questions appropriate to them might look something like this:

Logical/Linguistic: what are the logical features of intentionality that structure their expression in linguistic acts?

Teleological/Functional: what sort of causality is involved in the intentional relation (‘internal representations’ vs. ‘what the representations are representative of’) and what is its function within a naturalistic metaphysics?

After sufficiently presenting each level of explanation via the philosophers that characterize them, I’m going to turn to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language in an effort to assess the scope and value of these efforts in general. Here I will use particular examples of language-games involving the meaning of psychological ascriptions and compare them to some of the more recent work involving intentionality.[7] What I will show in using Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is that these efforts dissociate the actual contexts of use of philosophically-heavy terms like to know, to remember, to represent and thus cannot, properly said, speak to or about intentionality and all its related phenomena. Wittgenstein’s attention to the social nature of meaning in general serves as catalyst for the conclusion regarding intentionality that I submit: intentionality is social to the extent that it is senseless to theorize about it in the sort of mind-object and/or subject-object relation it is typically characterized in.

[1] See Franz Brentano. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. 1874: 88-89

[2] See Franz Brentano. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 1874: 88-89

[3] Brentano describes the relational nature of intentionality as an implication of the idea that "what is characteristic of every mental activity is…the reference to something as object. In this respect, every mental activity seems to be something relational."

[4] For a useful description of Husserl’s understanding of mental contents and objects see Gillett, 333. Grant Gillett. Husserl, Wittgenstein and the Snark: Intentionality and Social Naturalism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 57, No. 2. (Jun., 1997) pp. 331-349

[5] Edmond Husserl. Ideas (1962) p. 237

[6] At this point I also want to note that while I am aware of the proximity of Husserl’s phenomenological tradition in the development of the notion of intentionality, I am going to steer clear of it as well. However that trajectory influenced the "linguistic turn" turn in philosophy and the emphasis on linguistically realized normative aspects of intentionality is certainly very interesting, it is a topic quite outside the scope of this project.

[7] If it’s not already clear, most of the contemporary work I review here can be characterized as theories of mental content (or theories of intentional content). The move from the philosophical inquiring into intentionality to ‘intentional content’ reflects the practices of positivist and post-positivist accounts of meaning and language. ‘Intentional content’ more or less becomes ‘that which is specified by an ascription of a folk-psychological state’.

Lehrer’s Epistemic Justification and the Appropriateness of Acceptance


Presented in April 2007 at the Goucher College Philosophy Conference (VERITAS) w/keynote speaker John Carvalho, Villanova University

Abstract: In this paper I treat Keith Lehrer’s characterization of knowledge and epistemic justification as presented “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence.” (1999) In doing so, I delineate the appropriateness of Lehrer’s notion of the ‘personal acceptance system’ and advance cases in which one would not require the kind of justificatory mechanism Lehrer ascribes but nevertheless be quick to ascribe knowledge to. At a more general level, this paper attempts to refine certain presumptions and delineations characteristic in epistemology and philosophy of mind so as to arrive at a more complete and provocative conception of certain mental (intentional) phenomena.

Keith Lehrer, in “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence”[1] develops a coherence theory of justification so that the following objectives can be met: (a) setup replies to some traditional skeptical arguments, (b) admit fallibilism in knowledge, and (c) orient the constitution of knowledge around “an adequate match between coherence and truth.”[2] Justification, according to Lehrer, is the key to epistemic responsibility: the avoidance of error and the pursuit of knowledge. However, Lehrer’s theory seems to disallow that some of the things we purport to know need not be processed through some system consisting of states of acceptance. I shall proceed to articulate this assertion through recent work on the philosophy of mind, especially by Searle and Chalmers, as well as through recourse to the distinction between sense and reference. Specifically, Lehrer’s theory of coherence fails to acknowledge the distinction of the ‘psychological conception of mind’ and the ‘phenomenal conception of mind’, which ultimately renders his theory incomplete in an important sense.[3] According to Searle,[4] failure to grasp this distinction correspondingly means a failure to grasp the experiential nature of a belief, which he maintains is necessary for something to be called a belief in the first place. The ‘phenomenal mind’ is conceived of as conscious experience, and “of a mental state as a consciously experienced mental state.” Quite distinctly, the ‘psychological mind’ is concerned with the mind insofar as it is relevant to, produces, causes, or may be affected by human behavior. It will be demonstrated that Lehrer’s epistemology, as articulated in this article, fails to explain this important distinction of mind, one that we should not be so quick to dismiss.

As distinct from my central criticism noted above, I must indicate that throughout my examination of Lehrer’s theory I will partake in a degree of chiding. At various points throughout this essay, I find considerable dilemmas which I must bring to the fore at the time they are approached in the analysis. As these criticisms do not collectively join into one category which I may set aside and treat later, I must acknowledge them as they occur. However, these immediate criticisms depart from what is centrally at stake. After a synopsis of the relevant parts of Lehrer’s theory, I will propose just what I mean by this in more profound and specific ways.

Lehrer begins by positing that coherence produces justification, not truth, but that an adequate matching of the two yields knowledge. Thus, it is clear that Lehrer will not partake in defining knowledge per se, but rather will invoke a conception of knowledge via recourse to the relationship between justification (of a coherence theory) and truth. He then proposes (albeit somewhat confusedly), “Knowledge is based on what we accept as true and on the truth of what we accept.”[5] He further clarifies that it is not sufficient that we accept a true proposition for knowledge, because our reasons, or the way in which we arrive at a true proposition, may be irrational, unwarranted, or perhaps accidental. Acceptance in this respect differs from belief: “acceptance is [different] from belief in [that it constitutes] a positive evaluation of belief at a metamental level of evaluation.”[6] This “metamental level of evaluation” implies to me that the evaluation and subsequent rejection or acceptance of a belief requires conscious awareness, so that we may examine and judge a particular belief, whereas our entertainment of something may be relegated to both the conscious and the unconscious mind; that is, we may entertain something we are completely aware of, or we may entertain something we are completely unaware of. Justification, according to Lehrer, is the method by which accepted beliefs may be converted to knowledge.

Justification is “the place where the sceptic dwells,” according to Lehrer. I find reason to fault this attribution. Justification is something certainly relevant to skepticism, but it is not primary to its condition. Rather, “the sceptic dwells” in conceivability. Whereas there may be several conditions one must satisfy for one to be justified in believing something, that it is conceivable in the first place requires only that its entertainment be epistemically possible. What is epistemic possibility? The answer: namely, anything that is not immediately contradictory in conception. The Cartesian dream argument, which says that we cannot be sure of our ability to distinguish the waking world from the dreaming world, is a position contingent on the fact that to entertain as much does not involve contradiction. With this in mind, it seems evident that, at the very least, metaphysical skepticism resides in conceivability. While it is true that “The sceptic raises objections to what we accept, whether it concerns tables, persons, galaxies or neutrinos,”[7] it is clearer that these objections reside in conceivability, and thus affect justification. Lehrer acknowledges only the latter.

Lehrer, in response to the objections of “the sceptic,” proposes that he can only appeal to what he accepts, and what he accepts is that which is more reasonable. Lehrer may see it this way, but I am not so sure others do. When S accepts a particular belief p, does he do so because he has more reasons for accepting it compared to those for not accepting it? If so, then acceptance of belief is merely a quantitative act. If not, then Lehrer forgets something important. Is it not the case that S sometimes accepts a particular belief p not because S has more reasons for acceptance, but rather because the reasons S has for acceptance, while perhaps comparatively fewer, are nonetheless better reasons for S. S may accept the particular belief that it rained yesterday merely because when he woke up and looked out the window he saw rain marks on the driveway. Suppose that that is the only reason why S accepts such a belief. Suppose too that S looked at the and read that yesterday’s forecast, which indicated a 0% chance of rain, and suppose too that S talked with a local friend who said that yesterday they had gone swimming all day and all night, and that it was beautiful outside. In this instance, S has more reasons to reject the belief that it rained yesterday, but for S, perhaps these reasons are simply not as good as the fact that when S woke up he saw water marks on the driveway.

Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into all of this. Perhaps that, because Lehrer is only referring to what he accepts, then it is unwarranted that I attack his own view of what he accepts. However, I am not entirely too sure of this position, either. It is at least conceivable and at most probable that people, myself included, go about accepting beliefs merely because they feel that the reasons they have for accepting these beliefs are simply better than the alternatives, which may be greater in number. I am now playing the role of the “sceptic”, and it does not seem Lehrer can adequately respond to my position, so we seem to be at a divergence that lacks simple resolution.

I move now to Lehrer’s discussion of the nature of coherence and of the acceptance system. Personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system, which itself is made up states of acceptance. Lehrer’s response to the skeptic’s objections of what he accepts instantiates these general terms: first, Lehrer reasons that it is more reasonable to believe there is a chair than it is to believe that there may not, or is not a chair. This has to do with personal acceptance. Now, according to Lehrer, if this particular case of acceptance coheres with his personal acceptance system, then Lehrer is justified in accepting this belief over the skeptical alternative. Okay, so the definition of personal justification is coherence with one’s personal acceptance system. Lehrer intelligibly but insubstantially claims that the personal acceptance system is a system consisting of states of acceptance, that is, cases which instantiate the general form of “I accept that p.” “Thus, the acceptance system does not consist of the thing accepted, namely, p, but instead my acceptance of it, of p.”[8] If acceptance is at a metamental level, then what level is the acceptance system at? Lehrer does not explicitly provide an answer, but seeing as how the acceptance system is constructed from states of particular acceptances, it is reasonable to infer that it is at a ‘meta-metalevel’. And what exactly does this level tell us about an epistemic situation? I pose the question only because I do not know. Lehrer’s hierarchical method brings the reader so high he is liable to forget from where he came. This is another one of my gripes.

At last, Lehrer posits that if his acceptance coheres with (the peculiar) acceptance system, and thus achieves justification, the last condition for knowledge is undefeated justification. He posits,

“Justification defeated by error is useless to convert anything into knowledge. If, however, what I accept to meet the skeptical objections is true, then my justification is undefeated by error. Undefeated justification of something I accept is what is required for the conversion of knowledge. It exhibits the need match of coherence and truth.”[9]

So whereas justification requires only coherence of states of acceptance, undefeated justification requires that there be no proposition which contradicts the justification of the set of coherently-linked accepted beliefs. Lehrer posits that the link between a coherent acceptance system and undefeated justification exhibits the match of coherence and truth. I suppose this makes some sense: whereas S’s personal justification is somewhat subjective and does not necessitate that what he is personally justified in is true, if his justification is undefeated then it would be reasonable to say that his personal justification is something he can claim to know, as well. So it is here that Lehrer moves from subjective or personal justification to an objective justification, one that provides the match to truth. Lehrer goes on to qualify this match, but seeing as how he fails to bring up the notion of t-acceptances and the ‘ultrasystem’ later on, it seems trivial to the basic course of his paper. Thus, I will not treat it but simply move past it.

According to Lehrer, his theory allows him to solve all problems of knowledge. I suppose that would include the isolation argument, seeing as how that is an objection to his theory of knowledge. According to this objection, given that personal justification and the acceptance system are inherently subjective notions (i.e., Lehrer’s acceptance system is probably wholly distinct from S’s acceptance system), then it is possible that any acceptance system could be systemically erroneous. Lehrer acknowledges this:

“…but the recognition of fallibilism, which says, in effect, our most fully justified acceptances may be false, reveals that the problem is a problem for any theory of knowledge and is not specific to the coherence theory…so every theory of knowledge, not simply the coherence theory, must face the isolation argument.”[10]

Lehrer’s answer to the isolation argument comes in the first-person singular form, so I suppose such is consistent with the basic nature of his theory. Lehrer maintains that every specific thing he accepts, that is, every state of acceptance, goes towards the undefeated justification that he is not isolated from reality, that he is not deceived, and that his faculties “are connected with reality and are not fallacious.”[11] Lehrer’s response does not presuppose truth, but it personally defeats the isolation argument because the justification of the above is instantiated in every state of acceptance that has to do with something about reality, so Lehrer says. It goes towards undefeated justification, which is, at the least, in the vicinity of truth. I have now finished what is immediately relevant to the proper articulation of the central pursuit of this paper: to see primarily why and how some types of knowledge claims are not at all handled by his theory but that nevertheless should be treated in any complete theory of knowledge and philosophy of mind.

Something immediately wrong with Lehrer’s response is the claim that “it is part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world that I am not isolated from the world and that my evidence about the world is not deceptive.”[12] Without qualification, this response seems entirely too inclusive. What exactly constitutes an acceptance about the world? There are clear-cut instances (e.g. the proposition “The thing in front of me is presented as a tree to me so it is a tree.”), but this generality says nothing certain, I think, about propositions like “I am aware of the way in which my perception of a tree is presented to my conscious mind .” In cases such as these, the subject is predicating conscious awareness of awareness about a tree; if S accepts this, would this instantiate the justification for a conclusion against skeptical arguments? Lehrer may say yes, because perhaps he would think too that ‘consciousness’ is something based on reality, or created from reality, and I suppose reality in this sense denotes objective reality, though he never explicitly states so (at the least I think it is reasonable to assume as much given his notion of truth). But the direct object pronoun in this assertion, namely the awareness of a certain experience of consciousness, does not purport the existence of something in ‘objective reality’, but rather something global about subjective consciousness. In cases such as these, it would prove difficult, I think, for Lehrer to explain this proposition in terms of its instantiation of a more general justification pertaining to the ontological independence of objective reality, even if he would maintain that the proposition is only possible because of objective reality (which is something I think he would maintain).

More importantly, I do not think it necessary that such a judgment go through some personal acceptance system. If I say I am aware of the way in which a tree is presented in this state of consciousness, such implies that I am positing a distinct, specific, and phenomenal experience instantiating what may be called a second-order phenomenal judgment.[13] Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments one makes about conscious experiences, not necessarily about sense-datum. It is immediately evident to me that I am phenomenally aware of things in this way and not that way, that the world is presented to my conscious mind in discrete ways; further, this is not something I at all need to justify through some acceptance system I am conscious of…the whole endeavor seems useless, for if one were to claim that it was possible that I am actually phenomenally conscious in another way, I would respond that he does not understand the notion of phenomenal consciousness, and tell him to go look it up in a philosophy of mind dictionary. As distinct from empirical experience, which is reproducible and subject to more objective methods which function to verify (and thus justify) empirical claims, phenomenal consciousness is irreproducible but undeniable; I may linguistically present the fact that in instance A I saw a tree, and that now, in instance B, I see the same tree. However, my conscious mind was different in A compared to B, because the phenomenal presentation of the tree, from A to B, is probably distinct enough for me to notice so long as I attend to, say, the leafs of the tree instead of the bark, in instance B. If I were to form a comparative proposition denoting the phenomenal distinction between A and B, I should not have to go through some acceptance system that coheres with my acceptance of this comparison, which purports that, although I maintain both experiences denote the same object (in the empirical sense), it is not the case that they both were present in my mind in the same way. Language may be ill-equipped to make clear exactly how the two were different, but suppose I say that the senses of A and B were different, because they were presented differently, yet they both denote the same object (the tree); this perhaps would go towards the claim that, within my conscious experiences, two events can denote the same object but present distinctly. To go back to Lehrer, I may say that each case is “part and parcel of any justification that I have for any specific thing that I accept about the world,” only with respect to object denotation, and not at all with the phenomenal content of each assertion. But according to Lehrer, I could not claim to know that my phenomenal experience was different from A to B, because the content is not essential to the state of acceptance. If I cannot instantiate this claim in a state of acceptance, then I cannot, on Lehrer’s account, proceed to undefeated justification and then finally to knowledge. Clearly though, I would want to maintain that I know both A and B may denote the same object, and yet in fact were phenomenally distinct to my mind!

That Lehrer’s theory should fail to make these distinctions reflects his supposition that justification must occur in mental states. Not all knowledge, with the above example in mind, requires justification with appeal to states of acceptances of the form ‘I accept that-p.’ In phenomenal cases such as those characterized above, the general rule can be described via the following: S phenomenally knows p if and only if S is aware of the distinct way in which the object of p is present in his mind at T2 as distinct from another proposition entertained at another time T1, which S thinks denoted the same object, but which S was phenomenally aware of in a different way. Furthermore, I add the following qualification: if S phenomenally knows p, then S need not justify that-p. This qualification is in respect to the notion that knowledge about phenomenal judgments is immediate in the sense that we cannot but help to know immediately that, despite our linguistic denotation of a given object, the sense of the object may be completely distinguishable based on how we attend to it. Propositions that purport distinctions of this kind do not require justification, for they simply are, within the confines of our conscious mind.

It is necessary that I am phenomenally aware in this and not that way about something because it is not possible that I could be phenomenally aware in a different way. Phenomenal awareness, according to Chalmers, Searle, and others,[14] is accessible in only the way in which it is present in the subject. Evidently, the way in which I am conscious of something is contingent on what features I attenuate. The way in which I am aware of my awareness of a tree could be altered if I switched attenuation from the bark of the tree to the color of the tree. Attention instantiates change in the focus of the features of a given object, and while there may be a host of features which would tell someone they are looking at a tree, we can only be aware of a very limited number of these features at once. Thus, if we wish to appreciate and be aware of subtle differences in object perception, we are required to alter our attenuation of which features to delineate. The way which we are conscious changes in response to these attention-shifts, though surely we intend and think it reasonable that our judgments are denoting the same entity. We are knowledgeable of the former, but not the latter. Lehrer’s account of justification, which requires states of acceptance, misses accessible consciousness, and appropriates knowledge claims only insofar as a proposition may be susceptible to states of acceptance which are not concerned with the contents of a given belief but rather that the belief is acceptable.

I would not find reason to fault Lehrer’s account had the essay been published earlier. However, seeing as how such warranted speculation was in circulation at the time in which Lehrer’s piece was published (1999), and taking into account the ‘naturalized epistemology’ attitude of Quine and others following him, I think it reasonable to criticize Lehrer’s on just these grounds. An epistemological theory which fails to account for the most cognitively direct and inevitable attitudes leaves much to be desired as an explanatory device for how we may arrive at justification, and further what may be properly called knowledge.

[1] Lehrer, Keith. “Knowledge, Scepticism, and Coherence,” Philosophical Perspectives, 33:13, 131-139, 1999

[2] Lehrer, 131

[3] Chalmers, David. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford University Press: 1996. Chalmers introduces this distinction in chapter 1 of his book on consciousness.

[4] Searle, J.R. “Consciousness, Explanatory Inversion, and cognitive science,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13:585-642

[5] Lehrer, 131

[6] Lehrer, 131

[7] Lehrer, 131

[8] Lehrer, 132

[9] Lehrer, 132-133

[10] Lehrer, 134

[11] Lehrer, 134

[12] Lehrer, 134

[13] David Chalmers introduces this term in his book The Conscious Mind: in Search of a Fundamental Theory. The sense I am evoking of it here is similar if not equal to the sense of it in Chalmers’ works. Second-order phenomenal judgments are judgments pertaining to the awareness of the way in which the perception of something is distinct in the moment of its presentation. These experiences are not reproducible in the empirical sense, because the qualia involved are not the same.

[14] Again, the work of David Chalmers acknowledges the distinction of phenomenal v. psychological consciousness. Psychological consciousness has to do with the objects of perception, mostly, whereas phenomenal consciousness has to do with the way in which we are conscious of something, the way a judgment is presented in our minds, or perhaps judgments we form about general concepts. I think it is reasonable to claim that we know both forms of consciousness, and can form propositions about them, so I include them here to indicate the limitations of Lehrer’s account.

Husserl on Expression and Meaning

Husserl on Expression and Meaning

Content as object, content as fulfilling sense, and content as sense or meaning simpliciter

“Relational talk of “intimation,” “meaning” and “object” belongs essentially to every expression. Every expression intimates something, means something and names or otherwise designates something. In each case, talk of “expression” is equivocal. As said above, relation to an actually given objective correlate, which fulfills the meaning-intention, is not essential to an expression. If this last important case is also taken into consideration, we note that there are two things that can be said to be expressed in the realized relation to the object. We have, on the one hand, the object itself and the object as meant in this or that manner. On the other hand, and more properly, we have the object’s ideal correlate in the acts of meaning-fulfillment which constitute it, the fulfilling sense. Wherever the meaning-intention is fulfilled in a corresponding intuition, i.e a given object, there the object is constituted as one “given” in certain acts, and, to the extent that our expression really measures up to the intuitive idea, as given in the same manner in which the expression means it.”

This is a difficult passage to grasp. Here Husserl refers to three basic features of an expression. He says that every expression either

  1. intimates something, and here I take that to mean “intends” something in the sense of “being directed towards”
  2. means something (I have no clue what Husserl means here. My educated guess is that “meaning” here means “is representative of” or “has known significance” or “is a sign of”
  3. designates something. Here I think Husserl’s use of “designate” is roughly the same as Frege’s notion of reference. An expression “expresses” via its denotation of an object

In my opinion this section closely resembles Brentano’s description of intentionality as intentional inexistence. Note Husserl’s description of the “meaning-intention” condition, although he does not that satisfaction of that condition isn’t necessary. Apparently an expression can mean something independent from its “relation to a content”.

An (attempt) at explaining my thesis (and/or its motivation)

A (relatively) brief explanation of my senior thesis:

The general topic of my thesis is intentionality. The standard way to introduce intentionality is to describe it in much the same way Franz Brentano did: it is a term that more or less stands for the ‘aboutness’ of folk-psychological states like remembering, perceiving, thinking, wishing, intending, et cetera. Brentano’s use of the term was ontologically motivated in the sense that it justified the proper object of investigation for empirical psychology: here “the mental” was precisely that which admitted of ‘intentional inexistence’. I’ll introduce Brentano’s characterization of intentionality since he is often remarked as the starting point for contemporary discussions, but then head in another (more recent) direction.

My senior thesis is comprised of two essential parts: one part is an account of various contemporary efforts to explain the philosophical sense of intentionality; the other part is an application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language in respect of this issue. By ‘contemporary efforts’ I mean efforts which might fall under an analytic and/or post-analytic label (not that I think that label is particularly healthy). In particular, these efforts could be said to fall under contemporary philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. In retelling the ways in which intentionality has been explained in these schools, I will posit two distinct levels of explanation: a logical or linguistic level, and a functional/teleological level.

The logical or linguistic level of explanation is comprised by thinkers like Roderick Chisholm and Saul Kripke. Here I’ll deal with Chisholm’s efforts to bracket off intentional propositions as those with representational content, opacity, and intentional inexistence (this latter term he borrows from Franz Brentano’s description of intentionality as the mark of the mental in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint). I’ll also account for Kripke’s fracturing of the Fregean notion of sense (as distinct from reference) and its relation to the possibility of semantic analysis of a posteriori necessity. I’ll include an explanation of intension and the developments which lead to the contemporary method in post-analytic philosophy of mind called two-dimensional semantics. At this logical or linguistic level of explanation, it’s clear that intentionality is structured as a distinctly syntactical phenomenon. Properly speaking, the gist of this section is to point out that intentionality is conditioned at this level via the notion of intension. I may also include Putnam’s earlier work regarding intentionality and meaning in his Twin-Earth experiments and the externalist motives they indicated. It is here that the logical or linguistic level connects to or motivates the functional/teleological level: what starts as an essentially logical assessment of “mental predicates” yields an externalist prescription regarding the determination of meaning and the sense in which intentional phenomena are individuated or determined from “outside the head.”

The functional/teleological level of explanation is comprised by thinkers like Ruth Millikan, Fred Dretske’s, and Daniel Dennett. I’ll review Millkian’s theory of biosemantics, which may be essentially understood as an attempt to widen the scope of intentionality to include not just the human mind, but all biological entities, in some sense. Dretske’s naturalistic conception of intentionality predicates intentional states to instruments. He argues that because our instruments have a certain capacity to represent certain kinds of things, there is no reason why intentionality must be thought of as distinctly ‘mental’. Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance advocates a sense in which representational content exists in artificially intelligent systems. Again, there is nothing distinctly human or mental about intentionality: having intentional content comes to adopting strategies for dealing with nature’s obstacles. These three together can be taken to indicate a sort of scientism in some analytic and post-analytic accounts: intentionality is primarily cognitive, not uniquely psychological, thus our philosophical explanations of intentionality need to be made consistent with empirical claims we make about biological and cognitive function. If intentionality yields representational content, it does so for a reason: evolution. At this level of explanation, teleology trumps syntax/language.

The final piece of my thesis, and the most important (in the sense that it contains a proper ‘thesis’ and not a mere account) is an application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language. I will use particular examples of language-games that indicate quite a different role philosophy should take in assessing intentionality; most of these examples occur throughout Philosophical Grammar, The Philosophical Investigations, and The Blue and Brown Books. Wittgensteins’ diagnosis is that philosophers are continuously deceived by language, but this deception is the result of bracketing off and defining intentionality absent the social contexts in which the ascription of folk-psychological states occur. Both the linguistic and the functional levels of explanation are possible only if the meaning of a proposition or utterance is conceived as “what the proposition is a picture of.” Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is a rebuttal of “the picture theory of meaning”. I’ll show that Wittgenstein’s successful critique of that theory is enough to cast doubt on the efforts described in the previous sections.

According to Wittgenstein, when philosophers describe rather than explain, when we look at language before us and keep in mind that the sense of a proposition is how it is explained according to its use in a social context, we see that making metaphysical and/or epistemological constraints on the notion of intentionality and “how something comes to represent something else” is at best limited and almost certainly unable to explain all the various sorts of language-games that intentional phenomena (like representation, mental content, et cetera) manifest within. The descriptive approach that Wittgenstein advocates yields the sense in which philosophy is undertaken therapeutically, to dissolve the sense of mystery that typifies experiences and separates our analysis of them from the social context that determines their meaning.

An additional (but somewhat secondary) motive of this part is to show how many contemporary specialists in intentionality (like John Searle, Daniel Dennett, et cetera) end up reducing the import of Wittgenstein’s method in using him to develop and justify their own theories. Many of these theorists do little in the way of providing a context for the passages they take as justification for the theories they advocate. My application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy directly to these accounts will clear up systematic misunderstandings that (I think) are somewhat dangerous in the portrait of Wittgenstein they yield.

After showing how the above efforts fail and why they do (given my interpretation of Wittgenstein’s efforts in the aforementioned works) I will draw conclusions regarding the direction philosophical inquiry could take in attending to meaning and representation, including a discussion of the dissolution of various debates in the philosophy of mind and language relating to intentionality (in particular externalism vs. internalism, the boundaries of the individual with respect to representational content, and the relationship between conscious awareness and intentionality in the cognitive sciences/philosophy of mind). I argue that if one takes seriously the notion that the use of a concept in a social context determines its meaning, then a philosophical treatment of intentionality must specify the social context and describe (not formalize and/or define) the meaning of intentional acts as determined by its use in that social context. This will limit the scope or applicability of theories of intentionality and create more precise and grounded accounts.

Possible evidence for the linguistic relativity hypothesis

I’ve been researching–or attempting to research–any academic work that’s been done on semantic representation (i.e. intensions/extensions) AND linguistic relativity.  My search so far has proved unsuccessful.

Oppositely, I’ve found a wealth of information concerning the empirical justification for linguistic relativity. offers an informative review of the issues concerning linguistic relativity, but mostly from the standpoint of social psychology.

That said, I find this evidence particularly favorable for linguistic relativity:

One of the most telling tests was one that dealt with the duplication of lines on a piece of paper. Gordon drew single and multiple lines on a piece of paper and asked the Pirahã members to copy those lines. For one, two, and three lines, the Pirahã had no difficulty completing the task. As the number of lines increased, the discrepancy between the number of lines and number of copied lines also increased. For instance, many only reproduced three lines when shown four (Holden).

Of course, in order to justify the strongest version of the hypothesis, the researchers (Holden, and I’m not sure who else) would have to show that the task itself was completely non-linguistic.  Surely we think of simple copying tasks as non-linguistic, but the description above is obviously a summary and therefore incomplete.

Nevertheless, interesting evidence.

Kuhnian and Conceptual Reflections on Dennett’s Critique of the Hard Problem

Disclaimer: A draft of a paper written for an analytic philosophy course. Propety of David M. Price. 2007.  No use, reuse, or sale of any or all of the following or any other content on this blog unless otherwise authorized by David M. Price.   Feel free to discuss and refer to my blog, but do not cast the content on this blog as your own.  Thanks very much!


Kuhnian and Conceptual Reflections on Dennett’s Critique of the Hard Problem


Daniel Dennett, in Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness, opposes Chalmers’ strategy of ‘divide and conquer’-the proposal that explanatory problems of consciousness can be divided into categories of easy and hard-on the basis that the strategy is misguided and empirically distractive. The main thrust of Dennett’s argument is motivated by a certain kind of analogy he makes (the kind of analogy is presented in two examples, but I will focus mainly on the example of the vitalist here since they share a common and essential thread).  In particular, Dennett attempts to show that Chalmers’ position is analogous in its defectiveness to the following sort of claim: x is a hard problem for discipline y because the functional breakdown of x does not necessarily explain x itself.  Dennett charges Chalmers with the “[need] to defend his claim that his counterpart is not a conceptual mistake as well.”  Finally, Dennett maintains that in fact the hard problem of consciousness, accounting for the experience of consciousness and/or the qualia one experiences in consciousness, is wholly accounted for via recourse to the functions associated with consciousness explicated by cognitive theories.  “If you carefully dissociate all these remarkable functions from consciousness—in your own, first person case—there is nothing left for you to wonder about.” (Dennett, 5)

In what follows, I will argue both that (a) the sort of analogy Dennett has in mind falls prey or at least is possibly susceptible to Kuhnian-type criticisms and (b) on a conceptual level, Chalmers’ introduction of the hard problem is not without justification; the conceivability argument against a materialist identity theory is at least partially predicated on the empirical possibility of spectrum-inversion.  This possibility is what Chalmers later uses to develop his argument from conceivability against materialist frameworks of mind, but all that requires discussion here is the conceptual possibility of spectrum-inversion within theories of cognitive science. It shows that, on a conceptual level, the concepts do little to explain certain instances of seeing such and such.  I will first represent the major points of Dennett’s thesis and the sort of analogy they rely on.  I will then expose those points to a Kuhnian perspective of the philosophy of science.  Lastly, I will show that because theories of cognitive science allow for spectrum-inversion, Dennett’s claim that there is a relation of identity between the functional components of conscious states and consciousness itself may not be completely justified. 

            Dennett attempts to typify the problematic kind of proposal Chalmers makes via an analogy between, on the one hand, the hard problem of consciousness and explanations of the cognitive/functional components of consciousness, and on the other hand, the relation of the hard problem of life and the biological explanation of the processes necessary for it.  Dennett attributes the creation of “artifactual” (Dennett, 4) problems to the position typified by the vitalist position (a position which attempts, in all cases, to separate hard problems of being x itself from the easy problems of empirically breaking down x into functional components). The hypothetical vitalist is “…somehow under the impression that being alive is something over and above all these subsidiary component phenomena [including reproduction, development, growth, metabolism, et cetera].” (Dennett, 4)  Essentially, Dennett’s analogy is motivated by the claim that in each case, there really is nothing, or rather any real mystery, over and above the breakdown of the problem into the functional components explained by each respective branch of science.  To insist that there is something else going is to “misdescribe what is going on.” (Dennet, 4) 

Dennett next prescribes the proper solution to ‘artifactual’ problems: one must take explanatory concerns like the hard problem of consciousness (qualia or phenomenal consciousness) and life itself (though of course no one really purports vitalism anymore, Dennett simply uses it for comparative purposes) and break them down into functional components.  “Is it similarly a mistake, following Chalmers, to think that he can make progress on the easy questions without in the process answering the hard problems? I think so…I make the parallel claim about the purported subjective qualities…of experience: if you don’t begin breaking them down to their functional components from the outset…you create a monster…” (Dennett, 5)  Dennett draws parallels from the example of the vitalist to Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness, but also oddly states “Chalmers has not yet fallen in either of these traps—not quite.” And while “[Chalmers] understand that he must show how his strategic proposal differs from these [the case of the purported vitalist and the hypothetical neuroscientist Crock]” it is also clear that Dennett thinks Chalmers either cannot at all, or at the least hasn’t yet: “Chalmers says this would be a conceptual mistake on the part of the vitalist, and I agree, but he needs to defend his claim that his counterpart is not a conceptual mistake as well.” (Dennett, 5)

In what follows, Dennett attempts to take Chalmers’ cue for first-person explanation: Dennett purports that, contrary to Chalmers’ claim (that there is nothing necessary about phenomenal consciousness implied by the concepts of cognitive functionalism ), careful dissociation of the remarkable functions of consciousness leaves one with nothing left to ponder.  Essentially, Dennett argues that the functional components denoted by cognitive theories actually are identical with the referents of introspective states that call attention to consciousness itself.  “In the course of making an introspective catalogue of evidence, I wouldn’t know what I was thinking about if I couldn’t identify them for myself by these functional differentia.  Subtract them away and nothing is left beyond a weird conviction there there is some ineffable residue of qualitative content bereft of all powers to move us, delight us, annoy us, remind us of anything.” (Dennett, 5)  If Dennett is not claiming a relation of identity between phenomenal states and cognitive states (assuming both are conscious states), then I am not sure exactly what he is saying since it seems clear that: x is identical with y if and only if the conditions under which x is identified as x are exactly the same as the conditions under which y is identified as y; that is, x and y are identical if and only if x and y share identity conditions.  Clearly, that seems to be what Dennett is arguing.

What is remarkable in this is that, in addition to involving a conceptual mistake which Chalmers either has not and/or cannot defend against, Dennett additionally charges Chalmers with the introduction of a concept of experience that “does not do any explanatory work.” (Dennett, 6) Another analogy surfaces here, and Dennett is quick to draw another parallel to Chalmers’ proposal: “we can see this [that experience as a concept does no explanatory work] by comparing Chalmers’ proposal with [another] non-starter: cutism, the proposal that since some things are just plain cute…and other things aren’t cute at all…we had better postulate cuteness as a fundamental property of physics alongside mass, charge, and space-time.” (Dennett, 6)  The point here is to indicate that analogous to cutism, the introduction of experience as a fundamental property of things does absolutely nothing to develop explanations and/or invite depth to the conceptual schema already in place.  Like the cutism example, Chalmers’ introduction of the hard problem, and the proposal to take experience as a basic property of things, do not offer independent ground.  They are unjustified and unmotivated concepts that do nothing to solve puzzles. 

This is a good spot to begin my critique.  First, on the level of the philosophy of science, it is quite clear from Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the perception of anomaly (and equally of crisis-evoking anomalies), does not require that the perceiver be immediately ready to offer a new way to explain the anomaly or set of anomalies. It may not be an appropriate time to do so: alternative theories are only necessary during states of scientific crisis, whereby the number of theorists who actually see the anomaly is at some critical level and a large part or the whole of what was the paradigm of normal science becomes something dubious to the most respected theorists. Certainly, some sort of alternative explanation may come about, but these alternative explanations need not always represent full-fledged and confirmed hypotheses.  It is reasonably certain that, for Chalmers (who, in addition to being a philosopher, was also trained on the graduate level in cognitive science) the hard problem represents a sort of anomaly for cognitive science.  It is something which cannot be accounted for in cognitive science; that is, no tweaking of the methods of functional analysis, no implementation of advanced software tools in the branch of AI, could possibly account for phenomenal consciousness. Certainly, such seems to be implied when Chalmers frames his thinking in the following way: “We can think of these phenomena [senses of consciousness having to do with discrimination of stimuli, reporting of information, monitoring of mental states] as posing the easy problems of consciousness…the problems of explaining them have the character of puzzles rather than mysteries [my italics]…the hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. Human beings have subjective experience: there is something it is like to be them.” (Chalmers, 247)

Chalmers points out in Consciousness and Its Place in Nature (Chalmers, 1996) that there is nothing in theories of cognitive science which necessitates the phenomenology of consciousness. Thus, in a sense, artificial intelligence could pass the Turing Test and seem intentional to the relevant audience: us.  Chalmers concedes that cognitive theories have indicated various functions which are alongside or accompanied by consciousness (such as internal reportability, specific sorts of memory, and the executive control of other cognitive processes) but they do not require the ability to be conscious in different ways of the same object, for example, and/or the ability to be conscious of the fact that one is conscious of a particular judgment (Chalmers calls these second and third-order phenomenal judgments).  I do not intend to defend the content of these ideas here, but it is quite clear that Chalmers sees functional analysis as being unable to provide an adequate account of the experience of being conscious.  Thus, to say that Chalmers’ introduction of the hard problem is misguided and generative of illusions is really to say nothing at all (redundant from a Kuhnian perspective on the involvements of paradigm-crises and perceptions of anomalies): any instance of a perceived crisis-evoking anomaly involves the perception of a problem perceived as fundamentally at odds with the current paradigm-in this case, cognitive science.

One might say that necessarily, the perception of a crisis-evoking anomaly involves the perception of something which misdirects attention, that is, its motivation is to direct the attention of theorists in the field away from normally assumed principles or explanations.  To defend his thesis against the claim that “well, really Chalmers and Dennett are simply arguing from the perspective of competing paradigms: Chalmers can see an anomaly in a location perhaps Dennett has looked before, though Dennett can’t (yet) see it,” Dennett would have to go about tweaking the paradigm such that functional analysis did provide a sufficient explanation for phenomenal consciousness.  Although, it is entirely possible that, at the current time, there is no alternative with which to explain consciousness in its phenomenological form.  Certainly there have been philosophical attempts, but on the empirical level, phenomenology is not exactly historically constitutive of normal science.  Still, at the least, Kuhnian philosophy of science indicates that if Chalmers perceives an anomaly, there is good reason to suspect the possibility that (a) its perception is not wholly unjustified, it may really indicate something fundamentally at odds with the paradigm and (b) the offering of an alternative paradigm or at the least an alternative explanation is not absolutely necessary for the act of perceiving an anomaly; on a significant level, the perception of anomaly and the posing of an alternative theory are separate or at least possibly disassociated. 

On a conceptual level, Chalmers’ introduction of the hard problem may be more justified than Dennett gives him credit for.  Chalmers’ conceivability argument to some extent can be situated in the empirical possibility (a possibility sometimes cited in the cognitive science literature) that one can posit, without contradiction, that all the conditions of a cognitive theory of vision hold for the visual perception of redness without the subject actually experiencing what the authority or the normal-state individual means by’ seeing red.’ This phenomenon is known as color-spectrum inversion.  Essentially, it shows that while the meaning of the concept red in a cognitive theory of color vision means to be in such and such conditions, one could be in those conditions while still seeing something other than what was meant by the concept red as it occurs in the theory. The concept of ‘seeing red’ means to be in a certain network of cognitive states which are causally connected in the right sort of way: there is an activation of receptors on the retina, the information is passed to V1 and so forth, and finally the subject reports “yes I see red.” As the theory stands, one could have the right receptors activated, be in the right cognitive state, reply yes to the question “did you see read?” and still not phenomenally see the same sort of red we mean when we ask that question.  Physically speaking, their red is the same as our red, but on a phenomenal level, if we saw their red, we would not call it red.  Perhaps we’d call it green, despite the fact that the same functional and causal conditions apply. 

If Dennett was right in the assertion that the functional contributions of consciousness are identical to consciousness itself, that there is nothing about consciousness which is somehow over and above the functional conditions consciousness realizes on the cognitive level, then it would not or should not be possible for a subject to identify the color red when he or she was experiencing what the theory says should be red but what would actually be green to us in our consciousness.  That is, the functional conditions necessary for the attribution of “I am aware of redness” or “Yes, what I see is red, or appears red to me” does not exhaust the possible meanings of the concept of red.  It is possible to be causally conditioned to see red, but to not really see red in the sense that we want red to be taken in.  I think that this empirical possibility lends conceptual support for Chalmers’ proposal to introduce the hard problems of consciousness.  It is clear in cases like these that it is not a matter of functionally analyzing the relevant causal and cognitive states, doing so cannot exhaust the meaning of being conscious of a certain mental state, so there may be or there must be something else to the nature of consciousness which is left out by the current paradigm of cognitive science.





























Works Cited



Chalmers, David (1996).  Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford University Press


Dennett, Daniel C. (1996) Commentary on Chalmers “Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness”.  Journal of Consciousness Studies 3 (1) (Special Issue- Part 2) 4-6


Response to de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief

The following is a short response I wrote to de Villiers and de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief. (de Villiers, J.G., and P. A. de Villiers. Language for Thought: coming to understand False Beliefs. Chapter prepared for Whither Whorf? (in press)) You can view a version of it here, although I’m not sure it is the final version.


de Villiers and de Villiers, in Language for Thought, articulate the view that language is prerequisite to thought and not merely an effect of it. They focus exclusively on the issue of false belief and our ability to reason and form explanations about them. Specifically, the acquisition of language is a necessary condition for the ability to describe not the content of false beliefs (others’ false beliefs).


De Villiers and de Villiers offset their hypothesis that language is prerequisite for thought with the following dilemma: any appropriate experimental design results in either triviality or incoherence, depending on the criterion for acceptable results and/or the encouraging of participants (children, in this case) to use intentional language capable of describing false beliefs. (351) To resolve this tension, de Villieres and de Villiers propose two solutions:


1) Select tasks that do not require the explicit use of “linguistic complements”—the propositional content of an intentional expression—and thus accept responses that fail to denote ‘what about the belief is false’.

2) (a). Select tasks that require very little regarding the understanding of linguistic complements, so in effect children would merely be required to imitate (i.e. “repeat”)—and not grasp–the false intensional expressions they hear. (b) Inquire as to whether children have “mastered complements with nonmental verbs, such as verbs of communication that require precisely the same complement structures syntactically and semantically as mental verbs, but with none of the reference to invisible mental events.” (352)


I want to focus on the latter half of the second proposed solution. The authors seem to imply a sort of dualism concerning mental predicates such that so-called folk psychological states—i.e., intensional verbs—necessarily denote a state with content that cannot be confirmed in an empirical sense; hence de Villiers and de Villiers use of “invisible mental events”. This is the hallmark of 20th century theories of mental content-intentional states like to believe, to think, to remember, and to wish, are understood as states having objects that do not refer to anything physical and/or confirmable; at least not in the sense that “The ball is front of the desk” is.


Without getting into the matter of how best to think about the meaning of such expressions, it should be acknowledged that anyone, let alone children, need not be using intensional verbs in such a Cartesian way (‘Cartesian’ because such verbs are taken to denote mental, ‘invisible’ things). In many circumstances one might be disposed to say that his or her use of the predicate ‘to think that’ ought not be thought of as denoting a mental state but rather as merely ‘directing the audiences’ attention’. Here the meaning of intensional verbs becomes less mysterious and more socially embedded. Thus, the use of intensional verbs might be merely for emphasizing what follows the intentional verb. Compare “I think that the Patriots are too good” with “The Patriots are too good”: with regard to syntax alone, the latter expression would not fall under de Villiers and de Villiers’ notion of complement structures since it lacks an intensional verb conjoined with a corresponding ‘mental’ or representational content. In a room of crowded people, someone who uses ‘I think’ or ‘I wish’ might be more realistically be thought of as an attention-grabber. I suppose the use of intensional verbs might be looked at in both ways simultaneously, and certainly I don’t think that the two are incompatible.


That said, if it’s the case that, on many occasions, an individual might not use intensional verbs in the strict sense that the authors require in order to resolve the alleged dilemma, then they need to rethink just how pressing the tension is in the first place.


Note: After reviewing this rather hasty response, I need to qualify my critique, to an extent. Yes, the description of intensional predicates as ‘invisible’ sounds or seems to imply a sort of Cartesian dualism-the fact is, the authors do not require a separate ontological category of “mental substance”, so its not entirely (that is, ontologically) dualistic.

“Language Games”: Blue vs. Brown

It really is amazing how much different Wittgenstein’s conception of language games appears once you step back and consider a description of language games from The Blue Book vs one from The Brown Book.

Here’s one I like from the Blue Book:

“I shall in the future again and again draw your attention to what I shall call language games.  These are ways of using signs simpler than those in which we use the signs of our highly complicated everyday language.  Language games are the forms of language with which a child begins to make use of words.  The study of language games is the study of primitive forms of language or primitive languages.  If we want to study the problems of truth and falsehood, of the agreement and disagreement of propositions with reality, of the nature of assertion, assumption, and question, we shall with great advantage look at primitive forms of language in which these forms of thinking appear without the confusing background of highly complicated processes of thought.” (Wittgenstein, The Blue Book, 17)

This description makes it seem that Wittgenstein is proposing a research program into various aspects of language.  In fact, I must note the affinity between this way of talking about language, that is, with recourse to “forms of thinking” (from this view, language must answer to thought–language is the vehicle of expression for thought), and contemporary discourse on linguistic processes present within the cognitive and linguistic sciences.  Notice also that how the use of the term “language games” is coordinated with the notion of simpler, more basic and/or elementary forms of language.  Later on, Wittgenstein rejects the idea that any language game is really more or less basic than other language games.

Lastly, I was surprised at Wittgenstein’s attitude towards the kinds of standard protocols characterized by a Cartesian or Lockean epistemology.  Was Wittgenstein still in the clutch of traditional western epistemology here?  Does he intend, or did he intend, to really use ‘language games’–here as more primitive forms of language–as a way to answer questions about the nature of truth and falsehood?  Would we say that he’s exercising a sort of representational theory of meaning, and thus a correspondence theory of truth?  I’m not so sure, but it certainly ought to make you aware of something: even in this “later” period, Wittgenstein may not have totally grasped the implications of seeing language and meaning as an activity.

Now let’s look at a description of language games present in the later work, The Brown Book:

“Systems of communication as for instance 1), 2), 3), 4), 5), we shall call “language games”.  Children are taught their native language by means of such games,  [Notice–this position is not altogether consistent with most contemporary theories of cognitive development whereby infants learn the meaning of words via being able to represent what the word(s) denote] and here they even have the entertaining character of games.  We are not, however,regarding the language games which we describe as incomplete parts of a language, but as languages complete in themselves, as complete systems of human communication.  To keep this point of view in mind, it very often is useful to imagine such a simple language to be the entire system of communication of a tribe in a primitive state of society.  Think of primitive arithmetics of such tribes.” (Wittgenstein, Brown Book, 81)

Well, clearly this description lends itself to a very different kind of interpretation.  Here, language games are not conceived as more or less simple versions of ‘real’ “everyday” language.  On the contrary, language games are considered as complete systems of language.

Wittgenstein needs to be careful here, though.  It is quite easy to take “language games are complete systems of language” as meaning that a particular language game is complete in the sense of operating on quite independent syntactic and semantic rules such that the ‘meaning’ of an expression within that particular game need not be interpreted further.  Wittgenstein shouldn’t be read here as saying that, in all cases for p within language game S, p need not be further interpreted by speakers of language game S.  The possibility ought to remain, even with a “complete system of language” for any p to be ‘given a new sense’/interpretation.

To sum up: the completeness of system of language does not guarantee that any expression within that system is immune to interpretation.

But to go back to my main point, here clearly Wittgenstein’s intentions are quite different as compared to his somewhat epistemic intentions implied by his description of language games in the Blue Books.  If you’re interested in Wittgenstein’s development from the Blue to the Brown Books, consult Rush Rhees’ forward to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books of which Rush is translator.  Rhees takes a different approach to this kind of discussion, but it is quite enlightening and highly recommended none the less.

Quine’s weak Whorfian hypothesis?

I am continuing to notice both implicit and explicit parallels between two different discourses: on the one hand, the philosophy of language/mind, and on the other, cognitive and psycholinguistics. Its eye-opening: I hadn’t been aware how influential many of the anglo-american philosophers I am familiar with were to other, non-philosophical discourses.

F. Xu, in The role of language in acquiring object kind concepts in infancy (Cognition, 85), showcases Quine’s influence on “theories of conceptual development in which language plays a crucial role.” (Xu, 224)  Quine’s view may be seen as a weaker Whorfian hypothesis to the extent that it holds cross-linguistic differences as corresponding to cognitive differences between groups. More importantly, apparently, is Quine’s regard to the ontological effect of such cross-linguistic differences.

“Quine…considered how language may be used to build our ontology.  Most widely discussed is the case of the conceptual distinction between objects and substances from the linguistic distinction of count/mass syntax.  Quine proposed that the infant’s world is profoundly different from ours for lack of representations of enduring objects, and that it is by learning the count/mass syntax of a natural language, e.g. English, that the infant is able to “boot-strap” herself into a more adult-like conceptual scheme.  On this view, [call what follows p] cross-linguistic differences result in profound conceptual differences in adults; e.g. speakers of Japanese, which lacks the count/mass distinction, would not represent the ontological distinction between individuated entities, such as objects, and non-individuated entities, such as substances. Furthermore, [call what follows q]children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

Oddly, Xu goes on to imply that Quine’s view can be distinguished further: “Empirical investigations of this issue have found that the strong version of this view is wrong: even English-speaking children who have not mastered the count/mass syntax already differentiate objects from substances in extending word meanings.” (Xu, 224)

To be honest, I’m not entirely familiar with Quine’s theory of cognitive development.   I’m not entirely sure, either, of what the “strong” version of this account is–though I suspect it is the idea that “children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

To review, the difference between the strong and weak Whorfian claim is allegedly that the former supports a “linguistic differences correspond to cognitive, non-linguistic differences in thought between groups” line of thought while the latter supports the lesser claim that certain KINDS of cognition, a “thinking for speaking” kind, might be influenced by linguistic effects.

The alleged distinction in Quine’s theory of cognitive development (i.e. that BOTH p and q) doesn’t parallel the strong/weak distinction in the context of Whorfian claims.  Unless someone else can offer another way to read Xu’s interpretation of Quine’s view, that is.