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.