Thinking Out Loud: An Essay on the Relation between Thought and Language

Thinking Out Loud: An Essay on the Relation between Thought and Language

by Christopher Gauker


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Thinking Out Loud: An Essay on the Relation between Thought and Language by Christopher Gauker

Most contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and linguists think of language as basically a means by which speakers reveal their thoughts to others. Christopher Gauker calls this "the Lockean theory of language," since Locke was one of its early exponents, and he contends that it is fundamentally mistaken. The Lockean theory, he argues, cannot adequately explain the nature of the general concepts that words are supposed to express. In developing this theme, Gauker investigates a wide range of topics, including Locke's own views, contemporary theories of conceptual development, the nature of reference and logical validity, the nature of psychological explanation, and the division of epistemic labor in society.The Lockean theory contrasts with the conception of language as the medium of a distinctive kind of thinking. Gauker explains how language, so conceived, is possible as a means of cooperative interaction. He articulates the possibility and objectivity of a kind of non-conceptual thinking about similarities and causal relations, which allows him to explain how a simple language might be learned. He then takes on the problem of logical structure and gives a formally precise account of logical validity formulated in terms of "assertibility in a context" rather than in terms of truth. Finally, he describes the role that attributions of belief and meaning play in facilitating cooperative interaction. With lucid and persuasive arguments, his book challenges philosophers, psychologists, linguists, and logicians to rethink their fundamental assumptions about the nature of language.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691607702
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 338
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.80(d)

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Thinking Out Loud

An Essay on the Relation Between Thought and Language

By Christopher Gauker


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03400-3


Contra Locke

When a Mail speaks to another, it is, that he may be understood; and the end of Speech is, that those Sounds, as Marks, may make known his Ideas to the Hearer.—John Locke, Essay III.ii.2 (1690)

What matters to successful linguistic communication is the intention of the speaker to be interpreted in a certain way. on the one hand, and the actual interpretation of the speaker's words along the intended lines through the interpreter's recognition of the speaker's intentions, on the other.—Donald Davidson, "The Structure and Content of Truth" (1990, 311)

1. As the quotations above illustrate, philosophers who have little else in common may share a certain very general conception of linguistic communication. I will call this conception of communication the Lockean theory, although Locke's own account is only one of many versions and not even the earliest. The defining tenet of the Lockean theory is that communication takes place when a hearer grasps some sort of mental object, distinct from the speaker's words, that the speaker's words express. This theory contrasts with the view that spoken languages are the very medium of a kind of thought the most basic form of which is overt speech.

In this first chapter I aim to do two things. First, I will set forth and criticize Locke's own version of the Lockean theory. My critique will focus on Locke's underlying theory of ideas. This will be a useful prelude to what is to come, for a constant theme of the critical first half of this book will be that the Lockean has no viable account of the thoughts words are supposed to express. Second, I will introduce some of the ways in which the Lockean theory of communication lives on in contemporary philosophy of language and indicate what is at stake in deciding whether to take the Lockean approach.

Locke's own version of the Lockean theory of communication stems from his interest in preventing certain sorts of misunderstandings. This interest is well expressed in the following passage:

I was once in a Meeting of very learned and ingenious Physicians, where by chance there arose a Question, whether any Liquor passed through the Filaments of the Nerves. The Debate having been managed a good while, by a variety of Arguments on both sides, I (who had been used to suspect, that the greatest part of Disputes were more about the signification of Words, than a real difference in the Conception of Things) desired, That before they went any farther on in this Dispute, they would first examine, and establish amongst them, what the word Liquor signified.... they were pleased to comply with my Motion, and upon Examination found, that the signification of that Word, was not so settled and certain, as they had all imagined; but that each of them made it a sign of a different complex Idea. This made them perceive, that the Main of their Dispute was about the signification of that Term; and that they differed very little in their Opinions, concerning some fluid and subtile Matter, passing through the Conduits of the Nerves; though it was not so easy to agree whether it was to be called Liquor, or no, a thing which when each considered, he thought it not worth the contending about, (III.ix. 16)

Locke finds that many disputes result in this way from our misunderstanding one another's words, and not from any difference in opinion concerning the nature of things (see also III.xi.7). In order to prescribe a remedy, he must formulate a theory of communication in terms of which he may write out the prescription.

Given Locke's theory of ideas, which has many sources, his theory of communication is a natural response to this need. The main problem Locke sees concerns the signification of general terms, such as "man" and "murder." As Locke sees it, the problem is that a constant relation between words and things may be lacking. If the relation between general terms and the things they stand for is to be made more constant, then it is first of all necessary to understand in what this relation consists. Locke's way of explaining it is to divide it into two parts. The first part is a relation between general words and general ideas. The second part is a relation between general ideas and the things they represent (III.i.3, iii.6–13). A single word may be applicable to several particulars—as "man" is applicable to many human beings—inasmuch as it signifies a general idea, which in turn represents those several particulars. This account raises two further theoretical questions: First, what does it take for a word to "signify" an idea? Second, what does it take for an idea to represent several particulars?

Locke offers no explicit account of the relation of signification between words and ideas. He is explicit only about the function of signification: inasmuch as a word signifies an idea, hearers may know that a speaker who uses the word has the idea, and, consequently, speakers may use words to convey their ideas to hearers (III.i.2, xi.5). But Locke has little to say about how these things are possible. He says that words "excite" ideas in hearers (Ill.ii.6, 8, iii.3, ix .4), which suggests an automatic reaction unmediated by any kind of inference, and he resorts to the plumbing metaphors of "conduits" and "pipes" (III. xi.5). Some role for inference on the part of the hearer seems to be acknowledged inasmuch as Locke acknowledges that hearers may rely on the verbal context to ascertain a speaker's meaning (III.xi.27). Moreover, what Locke calls "common use" is supposed to "regulate the meaning of Words" somehow (III.ix.8; see also ii.4–8, xi.25). In the speaker, on the other hand, the relation between a word and the idea the speaker uses the word to signify is a "voluntary imposition" (III.ii. 1). That notwithstanding, no one can ensure that others use the same words to signify the same ideas (III.ii.8).

Regarding the second question, concerning the relation between ideas and things outside the mind, Locke has much more to say. For Locke, an account of the relation between ideas and the world will follow the lines of a theory of the acquisition of general ideas. But in fact Locke offers several not apparently compatible theories of general ideas. One of these theories holds that general ideas are the product of something called composition. Another holds that general ideas result from a process he calls abstraction. Moreover, Locke has a couple of different ways of thinking of abstraction. So Locke has not just one account of the relation between ideas and the world but several different accounts, and these correspond to different theories of general ideas.

Locke's official position is that general ideas are the product of abstraction (II.xii. 1). Composition, on the other hand, produces what Locke calls complex ideas. But many complex ideas are also general ideas, and it is clear that Locke often thinks of these general, complex ideas as the product of composition. And so I will treat composition as one of the processes by which Locke explains general ideas. According to the composition theory, the mind's process of forming general ideas begins with its taking in what Locke calls simple ideas, such as solidity and whiteness, which enter the mind through sensation and reflection. These simple ideas are then combined to form general ideas, such as swan (II.xxiii.14) or gold (III.ii.3). (A middle step, which Locke frequently does not mention, is the formation of certain ideas of powers, such as the power of swimming, which may enter into the general idea [II.xxiii.7].)

Given the composition theory of general ideas, the first step toward explaining the relation between general ideas and things outside the mind must be to explain the relation between simple ideas and things outside the mind. Some of these simple ideas are supposed to resemble the things they represent (II.viii. 15). This talk of resemblance and Locke's occasional comparison between ideas and pictures (II.xxix.8, III.iii.7) might encourage an interpretation of Locke as holding that the relation of representation is fundamentally a relation of resemblance. But the explicit exceptions show that this is not so (II.viii.5). The relation that simple ideas in all cases bear to the qualities they represent is a causal relation. Sensory or reflective contact with a thing possessing a certain quality is supposed to cause the corresponding simple idea. Thus Locke's theory of representation might be characterized as a causal theory.

In light of the composition of general ideas from simple ideas and the causal theory of representation for simple ideas, one can explain the relation of representation for general ideas as well. General ideas represent all of those particular things sensory or reflective contact with which will cause the simple ideas that compose the general idea. The general idea swan, for instance, represents various different swans, because sensory contact with any of them will produce the simple ideas that compose the general idea swan. (By this account, a simple idea is a limiting case of general ideas, although a simple idea is not what Locke would call general.)

It is in terms of this composition theory of general ideas that Locke explains his remedy for the misunderstanding of words. In principle, one might prescribe a remedy to the hearer, a method by which the hearer might determine what ideas the speaker uses a given word to signify. But that is not Locke's way. Where there is any uncertainty in the signification of words, the remedy lies wholly with the speaker. The remedy is a two-stage process. First, words for simple ideas may be explained by showing the hearer something that will produce that idea in his or her mind. Second, words for general ideas may be defined in terms of words for simple ideas (III.xi. 13–25). In this way, Locke's explanation of the process of communication serves a regulative function as well as an explanatory one.

As I said, there is also a second theory of general ideas in the Essay, which I will call the abstraction theory. By a particular idea I mean an idea of one particular object, such as a child's idea of its own mother (see Locke's use of the term, II.xi.9 and IV.vii.9). According to the abstraction theory, what enters the mind through sensation is particular ideas in this sense (III.iii.7). General ideas are then formed from these particular ideas by a process of abstraction. Moreover, Locke gives two different accounts of abstraction. According to one account, abstraction is a process of subtraction. General ideas are formed by subtracting from particular ideas that which distinguishes them from other particular ideas. For instance, the general idea person is formed by leaving out of the ideas of Peter, James, Mary, and Jane "that which is peculiar to each" and retaining "only what is common to them all" (III.iii.6–9).

Alternatively, abstraction is defined as a process "whereby Ideas taken from particular Beings, become general Representatives of all of the same kind" (II.xi.9; see also III.iii. 11–13). Locke does not clearly explain what this amounts to, but he may have in mind something like Berkeley's theory, according to which a particular idea, while retaining all that makes it particular, is made to do duty in our thinking for a variety of other particular ideas that merely resemble it (Berkeley Principles, intro. §16). According to Berkeley, one may draw conclusions about triangles in general by reasoning about a particular triangle inasmuch as the proof may make no mention of the distinctive features of the particular. For Locke, the point would be not so much that our reasoning may be abstract while our ideas remain particular, but that particular ideas may serve us as standards or patterns to which other particular ideas, through their similitude, may be found to agree (II.xi.9, III.iii. 11–13).

No doubt Locke would deny that there is any conflict between the composition theory and the abstraction theory. At one point he presents them both in the course of one long sentence:

For observing, that several Things that differ from their Idea of Man, and cannot therefore be comprehended under that Name, have yet certain Qualities, wherein they agree with Man, by retaining only those Qualities, and uniting them into one Idea, they have again another and a more general Idea; to which having given a Name, they make a term of a more comprehensive extension: Which new Idea is made, not by any new addition, but only, as before, by leaving out the shape, and some other Properties signified by the name Man, and retaining only a Body, with Life, Sense and spontaneous Motion, comprehended under the name Animal. (III.iii.8)

Here Locke describes the idea animal as both the product of uniting the ideas of several qualities into one (composition) and as the product of leaving out ideas of certain qualities that distinguish the idea man from the idea animal (abstraction as subtraction).

These two accounts of general ideas are blended even in the context of Locke's prescription for remedying uncertainty in the signification of words. In concluding his discussion of the utility of definitions, Locke adds one final point, namely, that when it comes to explaining the signification of words "standing for Things, which are known and distinguished by their outward shapes," the true signification is best taught by means of pictures. For instance, we get a clearer idea of the meaning of "ibex" from a picture of the animal than we could get from a long definition (III.xi.25). (This is a point that Locke emphasizes as well in Some Thoughts concerning Education, §156.) It is as though Locke were recommending that the signification of a word be taught, not by teaching the pupil the composition of the idea, but by giving the pupil suitable materials from which to abstract.

One ought to beware of a certain specious reconciliation in which it turns out that composition and abstraction are simply inverses of one another. Simple ideas, we might suppose, may enter the mind in either of two ways. First, contact with a particular object may produce a particular idea in which several simple ideas are united. In this case the mind may form simple ideas by abstraction. Second, simple ideas may enter the mind separately, through contact with several objects. In this case, the mind may compose them. On this view, the product of composition is ultimately a particular idea, not a general idea. Such an interpretation squares with some of the things Locke actually says. Where Locke explicitly distinguishes in Book II between combining, by which complex ideas are made, and abstraction, by which general ideas are made, he lists as examples of complex ideas the idea of a man, the idea of an army, and so on (II.xii. 1; see also III.iii.9). Here it seems that the product of composition is a particular idea. The problem is that elsewhere, even later in Book II, Locke is at least as clear that what we produce by combining simple ideas is ideas of sorts of substances (II.xxiii.6–7). And in many places in Book IIT it is absolutely clear that the product of composition is supposed to be a general idea (e.g., III.v.4, vi.30).

Perhaps it will be said that Locke conceived of particular ideas and general ideas as lying on a continuum and that he conceived of both as products of composition. Particular ideas might be, for Locke, as for Leibniz, just maximally specific general ideas. (They will still differ from Leibniz's individual concepts in allowing ideas of place and time as components [see III.iii.6].) By composing simple ideas, we arrive, first, at general ideas. By composing them still further, we arrive at particular ideas. The trouble is that if abstraction is the inverse of composition, then the final output of abstraction must be the basic input to composition, which means that maximally general ideas have to be simple ideas. That is clearly not what Locke thinks. For instance, one of the most general of ideas is the idea body. But the idea body is not a simple idea. Rather, Locke holds that the idea body is a complex idea comprising such simple ideas as solidity and extension (II.iv. 1, xiii. 11). Moreover, simple ideas are not maximally general. The simple idea red may indeed be general, but an even more general idea is color, which according to Locke is not simple (III.iv.16).


Excerpted from Thinking Out Loud by Christopher Gauker. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 3

Pt. A Destructive 9

1 Contra Locke 11

2 Communication 32

3 Mental Content 51

4 Conceptual Development 72

5 Psychological Laws 96

6 Reference 116

7 Validity 133

Pt. B Constructive 155

8 Similarity Judgments 157

9 Causal Judgments 178

10 Command and Assertion 202

11 Structure and Assertibility 225

12 Context Logic 248

13 Interpretation 271

14 Interpretationism 293

References 313

Index 323

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