Monday Mill Blogging (#004)

In this week’s Mill Blogging, we’re actually going to start getting to the meat of some of Mill’s views on language. Today’s post covers Book 1, Chapter 2, section 1.

§ 1.  Names are names of things, not of our ideas


As the chapter opens, Mill approvingly quotes Hobbes on the definition of “name”:

“A name” says Hobbes, “is a word taken at pleasure to serve for a mark which may raise in our mind a thought like to some thought we had before, and which being pronounced to others, may be to them a sign of what thought the speaker had before in his mind.”  This simple definition of a name, as a word (or set of words) serving the double purpose of a mark to recall to ourselves the likeness of a former thought, and a sign to make it known to others, appears unexceptionable. Names, indeed, do much more than this; but whatever else they do, grows out of, and is the result of this. (p. 24). (Mill cites the Hobbes work “Computation and Logic” as the source of this quote)

Mill then goes on to ask whether names are “more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?”  Mill suggests that common usage is on his side in answering that names are names of things, and not names of our ideas of things.  Mill charges Hobbes with taking the contrary opinion, though I don’t think I see it, at least, not from the passage he quotes:

The eminent thinker, just quoted, seems to countenance the latter opinion. “But seeing,” he continues, “names ordered in speech (as is defined) are signs of our conceptions, it is manifest that they are not signs of the things themselves; for that the sound of this word stone should be the sign of a stone, cannot be understood in any sense but this that he that hears it collects that he that pronounces it thinks of a stone.”

Now, I grant that this passage appears to commit Hobbes to the view that the word ‘stone’ is a sign of the conception/idea STONE (to adapt a notational convention from contemporary philosophy of mind).  However, Mill’s question was not whether names were signs of things or signs of our ideas, but whether they were names of things or names of our ideas.  This may seem to be a nit-picky point, but I think it is important to be careful about the various semantic (or quasi-semantic) relations invoked on various theories of language.  Absent something like the assumption that, for any term t and any object o: t names o just in case t is a sign of o, Hobbes’s view about what names are signs of doesn’t (for all that has been said) directly bear on the question of whether terms name things or ideas.

I am taking some time to dwell on this because it seems clear that various approaches to theorizing about language will differ with respect to which semantic relations they take to be central or primary, but often, will propose definitions or accounts of other semantic relations in terms of their favored semantic relation. For instance, someone could adopt the Hobbesian view that ‘stone’ is a sign of STONE, and then analyze the naming relation as obtaining between a term and the object or content of the idea that term is a sign of.

So, without having read “Computation and Logic”, I am inclined to think that Mill has undersold the case that Hobbes is committed to the wrong answer about whether terms name things or ideas.

There is another frustrating/confusing bit in §1, where Mill offers an argument against the view that names are names of ideas:

When I say, “the sun is the cause of day,” I do not mean that my idea of the sun causes or excites in me the idea of day; or in other words, that thinking of the sun makes me think of day.  I mean, that a certain physical fact, which is called the sun’s presence (and which, in the ultimate analysis, resolves itself into sensations, not ideas) causes another physical fact, which is called day.  It seems proper to consider a word as the name of that which we intend to be understood by it when we use it; of that which any fact that we assert of it is to be understood of; that, in short, concerning which, when we employ the word, we intend to give information. Names, therefore, shall always be spoken of in this work as the names of things themselves, and not merely of our ideas of things. (p. 25)

To me, it looks like Mill is offering a conflation of two arguments one of which is abysmal and one of which is spot-on.  The spot-on argument is something like:

1) If the term “sun” is the name of the idea SUN, then when I assertively utter “the sun is the cause of the day”, I am making a claim about SUN.
2) It is not the case that when I assertively utter “the sun is the cause of the day”, I am making a claim about SUN.
3) So, the term “sun” is not the name of the idea SUN.

I’m willing to get on board with that argument.  Note, however, that the wacky stuff about SUN causing DAY plays no role.  Which is for the best, since, there is no reason for the proponent of the view that ‘sun’ names SUN to suggest that ’cause’ names the relation of causing, instead of naming the idea CAUSE.  There is then an open question for the view about the difference between listing three ideas (SUN CAUSE DAY), and actually doing some assertion/predication.

Sometimes when I read this, I think it is supposed to be a slam on Hume, since, on some readings, Hume’s reductive account of causation makes it a relation between ideas, but if that’s what is going on here, it is difficult to see why Mill would include an incidental objection to Hume (which, I should add, is also not entirely charitable), in the midst of giving a general argument against the view that names are names of ideas.

At any rate, the last surprising bit in this passage is the claim that “in the ultimate analysis” the sun “resolves itself into sensations, not ideas”.  I am assuming that, when we get further into the Logic, enough about Mill’s metaphysics will be revealed for me to know what that claim amounts to.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §2, “Words which are not names, but parts of names”

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