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Ideational theory of meaning

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Nathalie Morasch

on 31 August 2016

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Transcript of Ideational theory of meaning

the purposes of language
Language is an artificial tool used by us to convey
thoughts to one another.
Language also enables the
of thoughts
...other assumptions
words are mere marks (forms); they don't mean anything in and of themselves

thoughts can be divided into smaller components: Lockean Ideas; words stand for these smaller components
Formation of ideas
We have innate mental abilities through which we construct complex ideas out of simple ones.
Simple ideas are derived from sense experience and reflection.

I experience several thousand particular dogs and through comparison and contrast, I construct the general concept
. (For Locke: the nominal essence).
Words signify ideas
Words mean/signify ideas. These ideas in turn
represent things outside the mind
. This means that a word primarily/directly signifies an idea and then indirectly signifies an object/objects in the world through some medium (an idea).
Thank you!
What are the framing assumptions Locke makes about the philosophy of language?
Morris's objection
Locke renders communication impossible. What is Morris's argument in favor of this conclusion?
Ideational theory of meaning
John Locke
Syrus is a dog. Let's say my sense experiences of Syrus had something to do with my idea formation of my Idea
. This would explain why my Idea
is (also) about Syrus. Why is my Idea
about dogs I haven't experienced?
What strikes you as missing? Discuss!
The primary purposes is inter-subjective communication of processes in the individual's mind. Locke doesn't appear to be concerned with the problem of "aboutness".
Form + Meaning approach...
there is a form and it looks like this:
There are various words that share the same form. Most philosophers take the form-question to be trivial. The important work is to be done in semantics. Philosophers like Davidson, Kaplan and Ebbs take issue with this assumption. Identifying the form is actually not trivial. It appears that the form dissolves in isolation of linguistic intentions.
Alex's utterance of : "oua-oua" is a repetition of my word 'water'.
According to some words don't only lack an intrinsic meaning, they also lack an intrinsic form; which isn't to say there couldn't be a standardly recognized form.
For Descartes and Malebranche, there are pre-existing, innate ideas that enable us to grasp the essential nature of reality.

Locke, in contrast, believes that we can construct all of our ideas from experience alone.
What is a Lockean Idea?
"It seems to be the best word to stand for whatever is the
object of the understanding when a man thinks
; I have used it to express whatever is meant by 'phantasm', 'notion', 'species', or whatever it is the mind can be employed about in thinking" (Book I ch.1)
Words are about the kinds of things the associated ideas pick out/are about. So let's take a closer look at how Lockean Ideas
reach beyond themselves.
Use-mention distinction
You use words to express your thoughts, which is about some fact. Example: Dogs bark.

In philosophy of language, we need a way to indicate that we aren't using the word
but we are mentioning
to talk about
itself. Unfortunately, the convention is flexible. Some use double quotes, some use single quotes, some italicize
. I will be using single quotes to mention a word in this class.
Example: 'Dog' is a three letter word.
In contrast, the sentence, 'Dog is a three letter
word' is false and possibly non-sense.
Stab 1:
Let's say I haven't ever met Fido (which is a dog). Fido resembles Syrus (and the other dogs I have met). This is why my kind term 'dog' also denotes Fido.
Speaker utters: "Snow is white".
Words mean ideas. These ideas are hidden from the hearer. On what grounds can the speaker assume that the hearer will associate the same idea with 'snow' as she does?
"I must confess then, that when I first began this Discourse of the Understanding, and a good while after, I had not the least Thought, that any Consideration of Words was at all necessary to it. But when having passed over the Original and Composition of our
, I began to examine the Extent and Certainty of our Knowledge,
I found it had so near a connection with Words, that unless their force and manner of Signification were first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and pertinently concerning Knowledge
..." (III.9.21).
Locke regarded philosophy of language as the first step in epistemology
According to Locke, language allows us to reveal our minds to one another. Since we cannot immediately perceive anyone else's ideas or mental acts, we require some medium through which communication can take place.
"[Locke's] way of ideas threatens to dissolve objective word-meaning in a sea of subjectivity" (p. 218).
Hannah Dawson writes in her book
Locke, Language and Early-Modern Philosophy
Possible reply?
What might Locke say in response?
The meaning of a word
is what is common to all ideas of those who use
The little bit of content you get from such an overlap in individual conceptions/ideas is unlikely to suffice to still adequately pick out what we intend to refer to with
Let's take a closer look at III.2.3. (gold passage)
Putnam's elm & beech thought example.
The objection was as follows: If words signify ideas, then how can statements such as 'dogs bark' be about actual (extra-mental) dogs?
Solution: the aboutness relationship is established by the ideas. Ideas have intentionality and thus words have intentionality (aboutness).**
** See Walter Ott's
Locke's Philosophy of Language
; ch.7
According to Ott, for Locke it is the mental representations (ideas) that mediate the word/world connection. Locke does not claim that words are about ideas. What he aims to argue is that words inherit their intentionality from mental states.**
For those familiar with Putnam's Twin Earth thought example: Ott's Locke would precisely deny that Oscar and Twin Oscar have the same idea of water.
** See Walter Ott's
Locke's Philosophy of Language
; ch.7
According to Locke, do we need language to access our own thoughts? Discuss!
Problem with the passage?
A Lockean Idea could be both: A mental action, or mental objects (representations).
Either way, Lockean ideas are subjective. They vary from one individual to another and aren't shared between individuals.
Why? They are (somehow) constructed from experiences and those are subjective.
Book III.iii.15:
A nominal essence is an abstract idea that we make when we identify similar qualities shared by objects.**
** See SEP entry 'Locke on real essence"
A real essence is what makes something what it is . In the case of physical substances, it is the underlying physical cause of the object’s observable qualities. **
We don't have ideas of real essences. Our words signify the nominal essences!
If nominal essence matches the real essence, then we have scientific knowledge.
Example gold:
The nominal essence of gold is the abstract idea that
constitutes our definition
of 'gold', i.e. yellowish, heavy, malleable metal that can be dissolved in Aqua Regia, but not in sulfuric acid, etc. According to Locke, the nominal essence contains the
properties that give meaning to the name ‘gold’
and allow us to know what gold is
wherever we find it
. **
**See SEP entry
... keep this in mind and compare with Frege's notion of sense (
Nominal essences are created by human choice. Not God, not nature!!!
I would not here be thought to forget, much less to deny, that Nature in the Production of Things, makes several of them alike: there is nothing more obvious, especially in the Races of Animals, and all Things propagated by Seed. But yet, I think, we may say, the sorting of them under Names, is the
Workmanship of the Understanding
, taking occasion from the similitude it observes amongst them, to make abstract general Ideas, and set them up in the mind, with Names annexed to them, as Patterns, or Forms, (for in that sence the word Form has a very proper signification,) to which, as particular Things existing are found to agree, so they come to be of that Species, have that Denomination, or are put into that Classis.
Book III.iii.13.
Nature provides similarities, which the understanding must discover. Our definitions are
to nature.
For Malebranche, God's archetypes do two things:
a) tell us how to recognize xs in the world
b) causes the observable qualities and propeties of xs
For Locke, there is potential for the two to aspects a) & b) to break apart. The real nature/essence of a thing may not be how we understand/conceptualize it.
On Malebranche's picture, how would we ever get the general definitions wrong?
We are trying to figure out whether according to Locke's account of how ideas are formed it is likely that speaker and hearer would happen to hold within their own breast the
According to Locke, God doesn't just hand us the same idea
Does nature force the same ideas on our understanding? No.
Human classifications based on observed similarities are not equal to the groupings that occur naturally
Are we all identically wired so that we must form the same nominal essences? No.
Many similarity relationships present themselves; we can pick and choose
We aren't exposed to the same particulars
According to Locke, we can't communicate with an interlocutor about a particular using a proper name denoting that particular, provided that the interlocutor has not encountered that particular.
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