Monday Mill Blogging (#008)

Another Monday, another Mill blogging!  2012 is actually off to a pretty good start for Monday Mill Blogging.

Today’s post is the first that will cover book 1, chapter 2, section 5.

§ 5.  Connotative and Non-Connotative Names


We saw that §4 closed by foreshadowing the connotative/non-connotative distinction.  This is labeled the “third great division of names” by Mill, (following the General/Singular division and the Concrete/Abstract division).  We are also informed that “[t]his is one of the most important distinctions which we shall have occasion to point out, and one of those which go deepest into the nature of language” (p. 31).  The distinction amounts to this:

A non-connotative term is one which signifies a subject only, or an attribute only. A connotative term is one which denotes a subject, and implies an attribute.  By a subject is here meant anything which possesses attributes. Thus John, or London, or England, are names which signify a subject only.  Whiteness, length, virtue, signify an attribute only. None of these names, therefore, are connotative. (p. 31)

It is easy enough to see that these are supposed to be instances of Mill applying the definition he has stated, though, if you didn’t know what Mill meant by “signifies a subject only”or “attribute only” to begin with, it is unclear that the examples will be as helpful as Mill might have hoped.  The subsequent discussion is a bit more helpful:

But white, long, virtuous, are connotative. The word white, denotes all white things, as snow, paper, the foam of the sea, &c., and implies, or in the language of the schoolmen, connotes, the attribute whiteness.  The word white is not predicated of the attribute, but of the subjects, snow, &c.; but when we predicate it of them, we convey the meaning that the attribute whiteness belongs to them. (p. 31)

So, a word like “white” is said to be connotative, because it denotes all sorts of things, and also does this other thing (“implying” or “connoting”) of the attribute whiteness.  In his next example, concerning the term “virtuous” and the things which “virtuous” names, Mill gives us what appear to be the most helpful remarks on what it means for a term to connote an attribute:  “The [“virtuous”] is a name applied to all of them in consequence of an attribute which they are supposed to possess in common, the attribute which has received the name of virtue” (p. 31).

This “in consequence of” condition seems to be helpful in getting us onto Mill’s conception of this division of language.  Some terms, like “virtue” denote attributes, some terms like “Socrates” denote subjects.  And that is all they do (at least, as far as we are presently concerned).  Other terms, like “virtuous”, denote subjects and connote an attribute.  Socrates is denoted both by “Socrates” and by “virtuous”, but the latter fact is dependent on his relationship to virtue.  Of course, this means that Mill would deny any such story for the term “Socrates”.  We might then be tempted to say that the term “Socrates” denotes Socrates, but not as a consequence of Socrates standing in some relation to an attribute.

This is, however, at best, a misleading way to phrase the position, and might make the view seem silly.  Of course there are facts about our usage of the term “Socrates”, and those facts will be part of a story as to why “Socrates” names Socrates and not some other person, and that story may well involve the possession of certain attribute by Socrates.  Whenever the term (or a relevant predecessor term) began to be used, the story about how “Socrates” came to be a name of Socrates will ultimately involve facts about Socrates, such as him having been in a certain place at a certain time, or him being the intended subject of discussion on certain occasions, or the like.  And these will of course involve attributes, the possession of which by Socrates ensures that “Socrates” denotes Socrates.  However, it seems clear that this should not be how we understand Mill’s position.  Note that the phrasing I just described omitted a key element of Mill’s phrasing.  Mill says “applied to all of them in consequence of an attribute which they are supposed to possess in common” (emphasis mine).  The copy of Mill’s Logic that I have indicates that the phrase I’ve got in bold was omitted in earlier editions of the work.  I won’t speculate on whether the addition was motivated to avoid the reading suggested above, but with the additional qualification in there, it would not be enough for there to simply be an attribute in virtue of which Socrates is denoted by “Socrates”; rather, it would have to be that the term denotes Socrates in virtue of there being a particular attribute we suppose him to have.

I think this is a central and important point about Mill’s view.  Mill is not committed to denying that some facts about Socrates play a role in explaining why he is denoted by the term “Socrates”; rather, he has the weaker commitment that there is no attribute which, in virtue of our supposing Socrates to possess it, explains his being denoted by “Socrates”.

Mill’s stance is that concrete general names are all connotative.  He indicates that having a body (with a certain sort of shape), possessing animal life, and possessing rationality are the attributes connoted by the term “man” or “human”.  He then offers a case based on Gulliver’s Travels, indicating that rationality and animality are insufficient, because we would not call the elephant shaped (but rational) Houyhnhnms men or humans.

We then get a handful of terminology, and some clarification on how these terms interact with Mill’s view.

The term “man”…


…signifies each attribute (corporeality, animal life, rationality, our distinctive shape) and each subject which possesses those attributes.


…directly signifies each subject possessing corporeality, animal life….
…indirectly signifies the attributes (corporeality, animal life…)


…denotes each subject possessing corporeality, animal life…
connotes the attributes (corporeality, animal life…)


…can be predicated only of the subjects.


Additionally, a connotative term is called denominative, because the subject is/subjects are denominated by the connoted attribute(s).  So for Mill, the proper use of “denominate” is as something done by attributes to subjects.

Mill then remarks briefly on connotative abstract terms, giving, as his example, “fault”, which denotes various qualities, and connotes hurtfulness/badness/undesirability (of those qualities).  I find Mill’s discussion of a specific example here somewhat perplexing, and not in the sort of way where presenting my confusion will serve to help enlighten me about it, so I’ll just leave it at the point here, that the category we might label abstract general terms (terms which denote many qualities) wind up connotative for Mill.

Ok, and that is all I am covering of this section today.  We’re a little past one fifth of the way into the section, and the next paragraph opens the issue of concrete, individual names, which I’m going to leave off until next time.  So, next week, look forward to the distinction between proper names and a class of names that correspond (roughly) to definite descriptions, including some interesting remarks on incomplete descriptions and context, as well as the very exciting analogy from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

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


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