Monday Mill Blogging (#007)

2012 is off to a good start, with Monday Mill Blogging actually occurring on a Monday!

Today’s post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 4.

§ 4.  Concrete and Abstract Names


For Mill, the distinction between concrete names and abstract names is done based on whether the object or objects named by the term are objects or attributes.  So “John” is a concrete name, because John is an object.  “Whiteness” is an abstract name, because whiteness is an attribute.  “White” and “old” however, are concrete names.  This is because “white” names white things.  Mill blames Locke for the tendency to label “white” and “old” as abstract names:

A practice, however, has grown up in more modern times, which, if not introduced by Locke, has gained currency chiefly from his example, of applying the expression “abstract name” to all names which are the result of abstraction or generalization, and consequently to all general names, instead of confining it to the names of attributes.[…] A more wanton alteration in the meaning of a word is rarely to be met with; for the expression general name, the exact equivalent of which exists in all languages I am acquainted with, was already available for the purpose to which abstract has been misappropriated, while the misappropriation leaves an important class of words, the names of attributes, without any compact distinctive appellation. (p. 29)

So, using talk of affirmation (extrapolating from Mill’s use in §3), we can say that a name is concrete if it can be truly affirmed of objects, and it is abstract if it can be truly affirmed of attributes.  It is singular if it can only be truly affirmed of only one object (at a time) and general if it can, in a single sense, be affirmed of several objects at once.  Mill briefly discusses whether abstract terms can be singular or general, observing that colour seems to be a good example of a general abstract term, before noting that whiteness would also potentially seem to be a general abstract term (because of the different varieties of whiteness).  Ultimately, Mill decides that this is not an especially interesting question, and (essentially) stipulates that “singular” and “general” only apply to concrete terms.

Mill goes on to consider an objection against his decision to class white as a concrete term and not as an abstract term.

It may be objected to our definition of an abstract name, that not only the names which we have called abstract, but adjectives, which we have placed in the concrete class, are names of attributes; that white, for example, is as much the name of the colour as whiteness is. But (as before remarked) a word ought to be considered as the name of that which we intend to be understood by it when we put it to its principal use, that is, when we employ it in predication.  When we say snow is white, milk is white, linen is white, we do not mean it to be understood that that snow, or linen, or milk, is a color. We mean that they are things having the colour.  The reverse is the case with the word whiteness; what we affirm to be whiteness is not snow, but the colour of snow. Whiteness, therefore, is the name of the colour exclusively, white is a name of all things whatever having the colour; a name, not of the quality whiteness, but of every white object.  It is true, this name was given to all those various objects on account of the quality; and we may therefore say, without impropriety, that the quality forms part of its signification; but a name can only be said to stand for, or to be a name of, the things of which it can be predicated. (p. 30)

Recall that Mill has pointed out that some languages permit constructions analogous to “round moves”, while English requires us to say something more like “Round things move”.  I take it this is what Mill has in mind when he indicates that he has before remarked that terms are names of the things they can be affirmed of, since in discussing that case, he decided to treat the constructions like “round moves” (in the languages which permit such constructions) as mere abbreviations of something more like “round things move”.

Most interesting, however, about this discussion here, is that Mill puts forward in two slightly different forms, a methodological principle for investigating word meanings (or, alternately, we might conceive it as a straightforward constraint on one’s accounts of the meanings of words).  The principle takes predication to be the primary use of words.  This is not especially shocking.  While much recent work has been done on erotetic logic, logic for imperatives, etc., I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that Mill’s conception of logic gave a special primacy to predication.  What is interesting, though, is that Mill, in a sense, takes predication to be methodologically prior to naming.  There is another sense, as we can see from the structure of the work, in which naming is prior.  This is because predication is something we do with names, and so, as components of predications, they wind up being more basic.  But in terms of our investigation, Mill takes predications as our starting point, and uses observations about predication to draw conclusions about the denotations of terms.

Mill closes the section by noting that there is an important (semantic) relationship between the term “white” and the attribute whiteness, which is the topic of the next section (“Connotative and Non-connotative names”).  This is where we will get Mill’s actual statement of the doctrine that has come to be known as “Millianism” about proper names.

Just to forewarn: There is a lot going on in the next section of the text.  We get an account of denotation and connotation, the famous “Dartmouth” passage, additional discussion of terms that straddle the singular/general divide, remarks on incomplete definite descriptions, some discussion of the work done by context in fixing meaning, an awesome explanation of his view in terms of Ali Baba and the Forty Theives, and discussion of the elephant people from Gulliver’s Travels.  So it will either get tackled in a string of posts, or in one absurdly lengthy post.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §5, “Connotative and Non-Connotative Names”


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