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)


The Mod Squad: A Group Blog for Modern Philosophy

Inspired by my desire to read more blog posts in history of modern philosophy, I recently started a group blog, “The Mod Squad“.  I posted on my facebook page to see if people wanted to participate, and I got a decent number of people expressing interest in possibly becoming contributors.

Anyone who regularly reads my blog would probably be interested in what is/will be going on over there, so I’m letting people know about it now.

Most of the things I will be posting over there are things I would have posted over here anyway.  I am unlikely to double-post, just because built in forking of commenting/discussion threads seems silly, but I am pretty likely to post links in one direction or the other.

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”


2012 Margaret Wilson Conference

I’m not sure I can really express how much I like this conference.

Four years ago, Gideon Yaffe e-mailed me the submission information for the Margaret Wilson conference, saying “You might think about submitting a paper for this.  You’d meet a lot of good people.”

I wound up submitting my paper “The Structure and Content of Belief in Hume’s Treatise“, and it was accepted.  That wound up being my first conference presentation in philosophy.  The 2008 Margaret Wilson conference was held at Cornell, in Ithaca, and Gideon was right that I’d meet a lot of good people.  I also got a lot of good/helpful feedback on my paper.

Which was really useful, because around a year later, the work in that paper had evolved to become the core of my dissertation proposal.

Two years later, at the 2010 Margaret Wilson conference at UC Boulder, I wound up presenting work from one of the later chapters of the dissertation, again meeting a number of awesome folks, and again getting a lot of good feedback on my work.

The conference is held in memory of Margaret Dauler Wilson, an extremely influential figure in scholarship of early modern philosophy.  Here is a brief description from the Princeton Philosophy department website.

I am very excited to participate again this year, at the 2012 conference in Dartmouth.  I’ll be presenting some work on the relationship between Malebranche’s and Hume’s views on belief (and in particular, their commitments regarding doxastic voluntarism).

If you are a graduate student working in early modern, you should definitely consider submitting to this conference.

Early Moderns and "Thinking Around"

I am taking a brief break from grading to make a few notes about something I’ve become increasingly interested in recently, which I’ve been labeling for myself as “thinking around” (to be contrasted with “thinking about”).

I’m going to start with two examples, one from Hume and one from Berkeley.

On my reading of Hume, there is a sort of mental activity one can engage in towards that which is strictly and literally inconceivable.  This activity is supposition.  In one part of my dissertation, I attempt to show that Hume can embrace this form of mental engagement without abandoning his commitment to analyze all mental activity (of the understanding) in terms of conception (i.e. ideas).  At any rate, there are a few passages which are naturally read as Hume allowing that some things can be supposed which cannot be conceived.  This type of mental engagement, I argue, allows a response to a Reidian objection which charges Hume as unable to account for reductio ad absurdum reasoning.  So, while you cannot, on my reading of Hume, think of or about an even prime greater than 2, for example, you can think around such a prime, allowing you to reason your way to its non-existence.

Berkeley, like Hume, has a view of conception bound up with what ideas one possesses.  Consequently, Berkeley deploys arguments about the nature of ideas to show that certain things are inconceivable.  But, as is somewhat explicit in the third Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous, and fully explicit in Alciphron VII, Berkeley introduces a way to defend the meaningfulness of discourse in which meaningful terms to not signify ideas (rejecting a straightforward Lockeanism about language), with something I’ll call “notions” (though I don’t know if Berkeley consistently uses the “idea”/”notion” terminology to track this distinction).  Having a notion of something does not require having an idea of it.  Thus, even though I cannot have an idea of immaterial susbtance, I still have a way to engage with propositions about immaterial substances (whether we are speaking of me or god).  This too is a sort of thinking around, as I understand it.

Resources which allow a philosopher to permit our thinking around something which we cannot (on their view) properly think about or of are important elements of their views for two reasons.  First, they can give us important insights about other aspects of their views.  For instance, noting that Berkeley must appeal to some such resource in the third dialogue, to explain how we can believe in immaterial substance helps us exclude some (seemingly natural) interpretations of the first dialogue arguments against material substance.  While it might appear that Berkeley is offering a straightforward inconceivability argument against belief in material substance there, it is clear from his own later admission that we cannot strictly conceive of immaterial substance that the dialogue one argument must be more complicated than it at first seemed.

Second, however, they are important for allowing us to see how powerful objections to those philosophers wind up being.  Take Hume, who embraces the view that we cannot conceive of anything which is impossible.  Given that various philosophers have appeared to sincerely defend views which, for Hume, turn out to be impossible, there is the objection that Hume cannot be right, because we could not then make sense of such apparently sincere defenses.  A natural sort of reply is to invoke some sort of verbal confusion underlying the dispute.  But that line of reply is not always satisfying, and does not always do a good job of addressing the behavior of his opponents.  On the other hand, Hume’s resource of supposition-without-conception permits him a more robust way to understand his opponents as engaging with these impossible views (apart from merely “mistakenly defending that the sentences which express those impossibilities actually express truths”).

I’m sure that similar sorts of resources crop up in the views of other philosophers, but I don’t want to just start casting around randomly. If anyone has suggestions of places to look (especially in terms of early modern figures other than the “canonical” British empiricists), please let me know.

Monday Mill Blogging (#006)

Monday Mill blogging makes its triumphant return to Tuesdays, apparently.

Today’s post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 3.

§ 3.  General Names and Singular Names


Section §3 is largely focused on the distinction between general and singular names.  Mill’s infamous doctrine about singular names won’t be put forward until two sections later, but there are some interesting elements to this discussion nonetheless.  The section opens:

All names are names of something, real or imaginary; but all things have not names appropriated to them individually. For some individual objects we require, and consequently have, separate distinguishing names; there is a name for every person, and for every remarkable place. Other objects, of which we have not occasion to speak so frequently, we do not designate by a name of their own; but when the necessity arises for naming them, we do so by putting together several words, each of which, by itself, might be and is used for an indefinite number of other objects; as when I say, this stone: “this” and “stone” being, each of them, names that may be used of many other objects besides the particular one meant, though the only object of which they can both be used at the given moment, consistently with their signification, may be the one of which I wish to speak. (p. 27)

First off, I am not sure, but it sounds like Mill might be going in for a quasi-Meinongian view, given that opening claim.  There might be a way to cash it out that doesn’t involve quantifying over non-real entities, but it seems like Mill is suggesting that, while not every object has a proper name, every name has a proper object.  This sort of commitment is relevant to evaluating, for instance, what we can take Mill as having to say, if anything, about Frege’s puzzle and/or other puzzles for the Millian view of proper names.  For instance, if Mill is positively committed to imaginary objects as being denoted by meaningful terms, this provides him with something of a response to at least one problem arising from “empty” names.  Actually, it might be apt to call it a “presponse”, since it looks like Mill recognized that not all meaningful names correspond to real objects, and offered a view about those cases antecedent to a specific challenge being issued.

So, Mill thinks that putting together general names into complexes can supply us (perhaps only incidentally and temporarily) with names for objects that don’t have their own proper name.  This is a pretty plausible thesis, I’d say.  However, this is not the only purpose for general names.  Mill suggests that if all general names were for is to allow ad hoc construction of names for objects that don’t have their own proper names, they “could only be ranked among contrivances for economizing the use of language”.  There is a parallel here between Mill and Locke on the role of general terms/names.  Both recognize that a language where every objects possesses only a proper name would be unmanageable, and accept some sort of argument from the practical necessities of language in favor of general terms.

As noted, Mill does not think this is the only role of general terms:

But it is evident that this is not their sole function.  It is by their means that we are enabled to assert general propositions; to affirm or deny any predicate of an indefinite number of things at once. The distinction therefore, between general names, and individual or singular names is fundamental; and may be considered the first grand division of names. (p. 27)

Mill then defines a general name as a name that is capable of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of each of an indefinite number of things.  Individual or Singular names, then, are capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing only.  Mill’s example of a general name is “Man” and his example of a singular name is “John”.  Mill is not concerned about the fact that lots of people are named “John”, because he thinks that “John” in “John Lennon” has a different sense than “John” in “John Fitzgerald Kennedy”.  Here is the interesting part.  In defending this claim, we get a preview of Mill’s famous claim about proper names:

For, though there are many persons who bear that name, it is not conferred upon them to indicate any qualities, or anything which belongs to them in common; and cannot be said to be affirmed of them in any sense at all, consequently, not in the same sense. (p. 28)

I am not sure how to make sense of this claim made here, that “John” cannot be affirmed of people named “John” at all, and the earlier claim that “a singular name is a name which is only capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing.”  The definition seems to suggest that singular names are affirmed of individuals, while the latter remark seems to suggest that (some) singular names are not affirmable at all.  Now, Mill goes on to say that “The king who succeeded William the Conquerer” is a singular name, and presumably that can be affirmed, so some singular names would still be affirmable.  However, Mill’s point that the propriety of calling someone “John” does not depend on their antecedently possessing some feature that is designated by “John” seems right.  Intuitively, the dependence goes in the other direction, the quality of “going by the name ‘John'” is had in virtue of being called “John”.  Mill’s reason for taking “The king who succeeded William the Conquerer” to be singular is this: “that there cannot be more than one person of whom it can be truly affirmed, is implied in the meaning of the words.”  In other words, there is a sort of semantic guarantee of the term applying to at most one object, and this suffices for it to be singular.

I have not mentioned revisions or amendments to the text, though the Liberty Fund edition of the text I am using has ample detail about changes to the text between the manuscript and different editions.  I do want to make mention of an interesting revision to the passage I’ve just been discussing.  The earlier text had, as the example definite description, “The present King of England” and in the explanation of it qualifying as singular, he said, “never can be more than one person at a time of whom it can be truly affirmed”.  This revision is interesting to me because I think Mill would still want to count “The present king of England” as a singular name, but it seems that it is a messy example to use, since it can, at different times, be affirmed truly of different people.  I suppose one could say that it is being used in different senses at different times, but then to explicate this, one would have to suggest that the word “present” undergoes a continual change of sense.  While this might, ultimately, be the best thing to say about it on Mill’s view, it would make things much messier to lay all this out when trying to explain the division than to treat of the quirkiness of the example later, when more of the machinery is in place.

Back to the main text: Mill observes that even an incomplete definite description, such as “the king”, can, in the right context, count as an individual name.  Like the point about “the present king of England”, this looks to open the door to all sorts of complications, at least if one tries to reconcile the official definitions of singular and general names with a willingness to allow context to dictate the singular/general nature of a name.

The last two things Mill does in this section are: a) complain about use of the word “class” to define “general name” and b) distinguish between collective singular names and general names.

On (a):  Mill says that it is common for people to define general names by saying general names are names of classes.  “But this, though a convenient mode of expression for some purposes, is objectionable as a definition, since it explains the clearer of the two things by the more obscure.”  Mill goes on to propose that the definition be reversed, seemingly insensitive to the fact that this would rule out unnamed classes.  I don’t know if that is a major issue, but it seemed worth observing.

On (b): Here Mill is essentially telling us that general names are predicated distributively, collective names predicated jointly.  “The 76th regiment of foot in the British army” is a collective singular name for a group of soldiers.  There is only one group (at a given time) of whom you can properly affirm that name, and you can’t affirm it of each of the individual members.  “Regiment” is Mill’s example of a collective general name, since it can be affirmed of a lot of different groups in the same sense.  Mill suggests that it is “general with respect to all individual regiments, of each of which separately it can be affirmed: collective with respect to the individual soldiers of whom any regiment is composed.”  This last line suggests that collectivity is type-relative.  This is good, because it means we don’t have to decide all questions of collectivity in our basic semantics.  “Mt. Everest” can be non-collective with respect to the category mountain, but still turn out to be collective with respect to the category particles of matter.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §4, “Concrete and Abstract Names”


Monday Mill Blogging (#005)

Monday Mill blogging on a Thursday? Why not.

Today’s post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 2.  All this focus on naming is making me want to take some time to re-read part III of Carnap’s “Meaning and Necessity”.  But for now I am sticking with the Mill.

§ 2.  Words Which are Not Names, but Parts of Names


Mill ended §1 by indicating the need to outline a taxonomy of names.  But before he will give us his taxonomy of names, he feels it is necessary to discuss words that are not properly considered names, but which are parts of names.  Mill shares the conventional wisdom of which words those are:

Among such are reckoned particles, as of, to, truly, often; the inflected cases of nouns substantive, as me, him, John’s; and even adjectives, as large, heavy.  These words do not express things of which anything can be affirmed or denied.  We cannot say, Heavy fell, or A heavy fell; Truly, or A truly, was asserted; Of, or An of, was in the room. Unless, indeed, we are speaking we are speaking of the mere words themselves, as when we say, Truly is an English word, or, Heavy is an adjective. (p. 25)

Mill’s view here seems to be that words, in addition to their customary uses, can be used to denote “the mere letters and syllables of which [they are] composed”, and in that usage, words like “of” and “heavy” are names.

Ultimately, Mill is going to remove adjectives from this list, and treat them as names.  He explains his reasoning as related to the fact that it is a mere grammatical accident of English that we cannot say “A heavy fell”.  Mill marshalls some cross-linguistic evidence from Greek and Latin in support of this point, and then reaffirms that adverbs and particles can’t ever denote terms in a proposition (except when being used as names for the words themselves).

Mill then puts the views he has just been outlining in scholastic terms.  What he is calling names are what the scholastics called Categoremic terms, the words that are not names, but only parts of names, are the scholastics’ Syncategoremic terms.  Rather than have a third class for compound terms (“A court of justice”), Mill treats these as many-word names, and classes them as Categoremic.

In treating of these many worded names, Mill also presents a view on non-restrictive relative clauses (though he doesn’t call them that):

Thus, when we say, John Nokes, who was the mayor of the town, died yesterday—by this predication we make but one assertion; whence it appears that “John Nokes, who was the mayor of the town,” is no more than one name.  It is true that in this proposition, besides the assertion that John Nokes died yesterday, there is included another assertion, namely, that John Nokes was mayor of the town. But this last assertion was already made: we did not make it by adding the predicate, “died yesterday.” (p. 27)

I say this is a view, even though it seems a bit cursory in terms of detail, because it, in a sense, helps us figure out what Mill would want to say about the truth or falsity of a sentence of the form, “n, who was G, is H”, when the referent of ‘n’ has the property designated by ‘H’, but not the property designated by ‘G’.  The use of that sentence, it seems, makes the proposition, of the referent of ‘n’, that they have the property designated by ‘H’, so the primary assertion made in uttering the sentence is true.  However, in the subject term of the sentence “there is included another assertion”, the assertion, about the referent of ‘n’, that they possess the property designated by ‘G’, which is false.  It isn’t clear whether this gives us a satisfactory answer about how to classify the sentence “n, who was G, is H”, relative to a circumstance of evaluation, but it does shed some light on how Mill thinks about the relationship between sentences and assertions.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §3, “General and Singular Names”


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”

Monday Mill Blogging (#003)

Chapter 1 of the Logic is titled, “Of the Necessity of Commencing with an Analysis of Language”.

Mill acknowledges that it is common enough to begin a treatise on logic by discussing terms and other matters of language that there isn’t really a need to explain why he is going to start with a discussion of language, but he goes on to discuss it anyway.

Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principle instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly. (p. 19)

This remark from Mill is a very similar thought to one advanced by Tim Williamson in “Must Do Better“:

Philosophers who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about that world, resemble astronomers who refuse to bother about the theory of telescopes, on the grounds that they want to study the stars, not our observation of them. Such an attitude may be good enough for amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors. Those metaphysicians who ignore language in order not to project it onto the world are the very ones most likely to fall into just that fallacy, because the validity of their reasoning depends on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the language in which they reason. (p. 9)

I find the telescope/microscope analogy interesting, and compelling.  Note that neither Mill nor Williamson is embracing the view that questions about language are the primary target of inquiry; rather they both liken the importance of understanding how language works to the importance of knowing how to use your tools.

In the next section of Chapter 1, Mill explains, more or less, the basics of his view of propositions.  We are told that “the answer to every question which it is possible to frame must be contained in a Proposition, or Assertion” and that “whatever can be an object of belief, or even of disbelief, must, when put into words, assume the form of a proposition” (p. 20).

Mill goes on to characterize a proposition as “discourse, in which something is affirmed or denied of something” (p. 21), and analyzes propositions as containing three parts (subject, predicate, and copula).  Throughout this section, Mill seems to be describing what an Early Modern like Locke called “Verbal Propositions”, insofar as they are “formed by putting together two names”, and Mill tells us that propositions “consist of at least two names”.  Similarly, when we were earlier told that the answer to every question is “contained in a proposition”, or that propositions are a certain type of “discourse”, it is clear that Mill is taking propositions to be something linguistic or verbal.  Mill’s propositions diverge, importantly, from at least one major strand of use of the term “proposition” in contemporary philosophy, and this will be important to bear in mind.

Mill ends chapter 1 with an argument in favor of studying names before studying things, by appeal to the fact that language was shaped by many people:

In any enumeration and classification of Things, which does not set out from their names, no varieties of things will of course be comprehended but those recognised by the particular inquirer; and it will still remain to be established, by a subsequent examination of names, that the enumeration has omitted nothing which ought to have been included. But if we begin with names, and use them as our clue to the things, we bring at once before us all the distinctions which have been recognised, not by a single inquirer, but by all inquirers taken together. It doubtless may, and I believe it will be found, that mankind have multiplied the varieties unnecessarily, and have imagined distinctions among things, where there were only distinctions in the manner of naming them. But we are not entitled to assume this in the commencement. We must begin by recognising the distinctions made by ordinary language. If some of these appear, on a close examination, not to be fundamental, the enumeration of the different kinds of realities may be abridged accordingly. But to impose upon the facts in teh first instance the yoke of a theory, while the grounds of the theory are reserved for discussion in a subsequent stage, is not a course which a logician can reasonably adopt. (p. 22)

Here I think we see an interesting commitment on Mill’s part to a sort of qualified attention to ordinary language.  There is something like a very weak presumption that distinctions made by ordinary language are legitimate distinctions, at least to the extent that one has to show cause to disregard them, rather than having to show cause for attending to them.  This, I think, falls far short of a commitment to anything like the subsequent movement of ordinary language philosophy, but it is worthwhile to note that Mill explicitly references ordinary language (and not, say, specifically the technical vocabularies of past scholars).