Young Philosophers Talk Series

I recently gave two talks for the Young Philosophers Series at SUNY Fredonia (or, more accurately, the “Philosophers who have been credentialed in the last six years or are about to be credentialed” Series).  One talk is intended to be an introductory talk presupposing no background, the other is a research oriented talk.  Here are the talks I gave:

Intro Talk: “Why Look to the Past: Historical Philosophy and the Virtue of Being Wrong”

Research Talk: “Adam Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased”

Having Views is Overrated

In this post, I am going to advocate for the position that having (first-order) philosophical views is overrated.  I am going to take for granted that philosophical inquiry involves the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

There is a model of inquiry, which I think I remember being articulated by Robert Stalnaker, where we start with a figurative sack full of all the possibilities there are, and proceed by trying to empty the sack down to the single possibility that is actually the case.  This model is often described in terms of “locating” oneself in the space of possibilities, and progress in inquiry, on this model, is understood in terms of culling one’s options or ruling out possibilities.

Thinking about inquiry this way tends to suggest that our focus should be on the set of currently live options, and our strategy should be to seek out direct reasons to further narrow that set.  If the set includes rival possibilities A through Z, we should seek out a reason to exclude A from the set, or a reason to exclude B from the set, etc. and once we exclude A from the set, we are done with A: our focus will be on possibilities B through Z.  After all, if we were proceeding correctly in our attempts to winnow down possibilities, A is false.  Why waste our time thinking further about it?

I think that everything I am about to say is, strictly speaking, compatible with this model of inquiry itself.  That is, I don’t think that what I say will require us to jettison this model.  But, what I am going to say is not compatible with the “live option” focus that I just outlined as “suggested” by the model.  This is because I think the best chances for solid philosophical progress will involve rigorous focus on possibilities that are outside the live option set, as well as those within it.

One of the nicest side-effects of specializing in historical philosophy is the requirement that one spend a great deal of one’s time seeking out charitable and/or sympathetic readings of views that one would ordinarily be tempted to dismiss out of hand.  For me, this side-effect has so far been manifested most with respect to interpreting David Hume’s account of cognition and John Locke’s philosophy of language.  These are a pair of views that are routinely dismissed in contemporary discussions of those topics.  So, it is natural to ask why this would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Now, I want to be clear: it is definitely not that I harbor the secret hope that, for example, Hume’s theory of mind is actually correct.  This isn’t about thinking we removed possibilities from the sack prematurely.  Rather, it is that, more valuable than simply knowing that an option is to be culled is acquiring an understanding of why it is to be culled.  What is it that we need from a theory of X, that the culled theory can’t give us?  What features of the culled theory are preventing it from meeting that need?  What amendments or revisions to the theory would be sufficient to meet that need?

Now, David Hume’s theory of cognition is notorious for the sparsity of its resources.  The ambitions of Hume’s theory outstrip those resources to such a degree that it is entirely reasonable, prior to detailed investigation, to judge that Hume’s theory will obviously fall far short of its aims.  But, far from being a reason to dismiss Hume’s theory, this mismatch between ambitions and resources is precisely what makes Hume’s theory a promising target for inquiry. Or, at least, that is part of what I am hoping to argue in this post.

One way in which parsimony can be a theoretical virtue is this: simpler systems/theories are easier to investigate.  For example, if one proposes that all the variety of chemical interactions we observe can be explained by appeal to a single feature of the chemicals in question, which can take any of 3 values, it is far easier for us to exhaust the possibilities covered by such a theory than one which invokes 100 features, each of which can take any of 40 values.  Now antecedently, the former of those theories is far less likely to be right, but it is also far easier to learn about.  We will encounter problems with that theory far sooner, and we will be able to design experiments that could show the theory to be wrong more easily.

For example, Hume’s theory (from the Treatise) treats perceptual experience and cognition as being mental occurrences that are fundamentally of the same kind, and differing only with respect to their degree of “force and vivacity”.  This is a serious constraint on how Hume can attempt to account for the differing features of perceptual experience and cognition.  Which means we should be able to identify potential challenges for his view more easily, and find out which aspects of cognition that we’d like to have an account of Hume’s account is unable to satisfy.

Learning which challenges Hume’s account can’t meet will help us identify the minimal set of resources needed to render his account adequate.  Now, I’ve been writing as though the conditions of adequacy are somehow a given, or something we can take as granted.  But the point remains even if we defer settling that question as well.  What we learn is simply conditional:  If a theory of X needs to account for Y, then it needs to have such-and-such resources. Or, put another way: we learn claims about the consistency or inconsistency of different theses, rather than first order claims about topic X.

I think that learning such things can ground our interest in investigating theories, independent of our attitude towards their truth.  Investigation of Hume’s theory is instrumentally valuable for our ultimate goal of determining the correct theory of cognition.  It can teach us about the range of theories of cognition in relation to particular tasks that one might set out for a theory of cognition.

It is, of course, incidental that Hume is a historical figure.  Contemporary theories that one regards likely to be false can play this same role.  I have never found cognitivism about intention to be an appealing view, but it has a very nice relationship between its ambitions (to explain the norms of practical rationality) and it resources (to draw only on the norms of theoretical rationality).  To me, this means that we should expect to learn a great deal from investigating the view, irrespective of our attitude towards its truth.  In fact, the more skeptical one is about the view, the more they should expect investigations of the view to be informative about what work is really being done by the postulation of intention as a distinctively practical attitude.

Perhaps a briefer way to make my point is this:  One need not have first-order views to discover/produce philosophical positions worth investigating. Neither does one need to have first-order views in order to evaluate the success of those philosophical positions relative to specific aims.  For much of what needs to be done in the course of philosophical inquiry, then, one has no need for first-order views.

There is an interesting question about whether we can do as good of a job defending views that we don’t accept, but I will leave that for another post (to lay my cards on the table, though, I actually suspect that having first order views is, if anything, a hindrance to our capacity for sympathetic interpretation of the alternative positions).

“Hello”, “Ouch”, and “Snow is white”

I like the following three sentences as illustrating the sorts of different things we ideally want a complete philosophy of language to capture:

1) “Snow is white”

2) “Ouch!”

3) “Hello”

Sentence (1) is the sort of sentence that has received the most attention from philosophers.  To get a satisfactory account of that sentence, we’ll want something that not only assigns the sentence truth conditions, but which explains why the sentence has the truth conditions that it does.  Sentences (2) and (3) don’t have truth conditions, and yet, they are unquestionably part of language.  Even though sentence (2) and sentence (1) differ in terms of whether or not they have truth conditions, they seem to share a different feature: they can be used insincerely.  A complete account of language would ideally assign something we could call “sincerity conditions” to those sentences, and also explain why the sentences have the sincerity conditions they do.

What I find appealing in the family of approaches to linguistic theorizing labeled “expressivism” is that, in assigning mental states to sentences, they make something like sincerity conditions the foundation of their philosophy of language.  This is an interesting project because the resulting account is structured in a way that enables us to explain the truth-conditions of sentence (1) in terms of its sincerity conditions.  Sentence (1) expresses the belief that snow is white (and thus, to sincerely utter sentence (1), you need to believe that snow is white), and the belief in question has truth conditions.  Those truth-conditions are inherited by the sentence.  Sentence (2) expresses that one is in pain (and thus, to sincerely utter sentence (2), you need to be in pain).  Since being in pain does not have truth-conditions, there are no truth-conditions for the sentence to inherit.  We now have a nicely packaged explanation of truth-conditions in terms of sincerity conditions, and the account unifies sentences like (1) with sentences like (2) under the umbrella of a single approach to semantic theorizing.

Of course, sentence (3) does not seem amenable to this treatment, as it cannot be used insincerely.  It is true that if I say “hello” in a happy tone, I might lead you to believe I am pleased to see you, even in a case where I am not pleased to see you, and thus mislead you, but that does not make my “hello” insincere.  Why can’t I be insincere in saying “hello”?  It seems like this is because there is no distinctive mental state expressed by “Hello”.  While “ouch” is a display of pain, and “Snow is white” is a display of belief, “hello” is not a display.  Rather, in saying “hello”, I greet you.  So, this throws a wrench in the view that served to unify (1) and (2) so well.  Because that view can’t address (3).

So, if we want to preserve the nice explanation we had of sentences (1) and (2), we would need to embed them within a further account, which captures “hello” as well as “ouch” and “snow is white”.  Such an account (in order to preserve the structure of the explanation already on the table), would need to assign something to sentences such that, from those assignments, we could reconstruct the sincerity conditions of (1) and (2).

Now, the obvious account of what goes on with (3) is that it is used to greet someone.  So a natural theory is that competent speakers know that “hello” is used to greet someone.  Can we embed the expressivist account of “ouch” into this framework?  We’d have to say that competent speakers know that “ouch” is used to display pain.  And for sentence (1), we’d need to say that competent speakers know that (1) is used to display belief that snow is white.  But note that this is only a natural account of (1) if we are trying to preserve the account of (1)’s truth conditions we liked before.  If we were simply to ask what speakers know about (1), it is far more natural to say they know that (1) is used to claim that snow is white.  So, even though we technically can reconstruct the earlier account within this “knowledge of uses” approach, it is unclear that there is good theoretical basis for doing so.

I am left with a sort of uncertainty about how well we can informatively unify our treatments of (1), (2), and (3).  One might say, “ok, but ‘hello’ is sort of an outlier. Why not just give treat things like that as sui generis linguistic behaviors?”  This is where sentences like, “Go to the store” and “Is Thomas at home?” come in.  If we extend our picture in the way necessary to account for “hello”, we don’t need to assign individual mental states to questions and commands.  And this is good because it is hard to see what mental state would be a sincerity condition for commands and questions (though it is not impossible to make the case that such sentences have sincerity conditions).*

That is about enough rambling on this topic for now.  I will probably have some follow-up posts soon.

*For what it is worth, I am inclined to think that commands cannot be insincere, and lean that way for questions, but am less confident about the latter (cases that spring to mind as insincere commands seem, to me, more accurately described as “reluctant commands”.)

Lack of Posting

Apologies for my lack of recent posting.  The end of this past semester was keeping me busy, especially as I have been trying to wrap things up in the Detroit area, in anticipation of my move to Buffalo at the end of this month.  I will get back to my Monday Mill Blogging soon (maybe even tomorrow), and will also get back to posting at The Mod Squad soon as well.

What to Keep in Mind about Refereeing Work

This post is motivated by some of my concerns relating to suggestions about unblinding the referees (as discussed here).  While I agree that there are problems with the current state of the peer review system, I tend to disagree strongly with some proposed resolutions.

During my last year as a graduate student at USC, I was managing editor of the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.  I’ve submitted my own work to journals, and, in addition, I’ve served as a referee for a few different journals.

I learned a number of things from being “behind the scenes” at PPQ.  For instance, I learned how much of a manuscript’s progress through the review system depends on factors extrinsic to the manuscript.  If there are two equally appropriate people to ask to referee a given paper, who differ on their threshold for “reject” vs. “revise and resubmit”, that could make the difference for what happens to your paper.  It isn’t personal. I didn’t have a scorecard for how “easy” different referees were. It was just the luck of the draw.

I also learned that some of the biggest issues for the peer review system come from the fact that it is treated like a volunteer gig.

Why are so many journals so slow about getting decisions on papers?  There are several possible bottleneck points for journals, but the two biggest, in my experience are: 1) getting potential referees to agree to review a paper, and 2) getting referees who have agreed to review a paper to meet deadlines.

While getting bad comments is frustrating, and can often make a rejection feel particularly unfair, I honestly think that such issues would be vastly less important if all manuscripts were issued decisions promptly (sometimes I joke that it would be fine for most journals to simply provide an efficient distribution of injustice).

So, why do we get such bottlenecks in securing referees and in getting feedback from referees?  Here, I think the answer is blindingly obvious: It is hard to get referees, and hard to get them to prioritize refereeing work, because the profession does not treat such work as valuable.  Combine this with the fact that we all have more work to do than we have time to do it, and that refereeing a paper can often be more tedious than it is exciting, and it should not be a mystery why it is hard to get quality refereeing done in a timely manner.

You know how I can tell the profession doesn’t treat refereeing work as valuable?  There are no real incentives to do such work.  Neither do we entice people to do it with rewards, nor do we punish people for failure to do it.  Since one can only referee as much as one is asked to referee, I’d be inclined to favor positive incentives for people who do referee, rather than penalties for people who don’t, but the basic point is just this: If refereeing work really is an invaluable service to the profession, why aren’t we putting any professional value on its performance?

I’d be curious to know whether any university treats this sort of service to the profession as a serious factor in tenure or promotion. Where by “serious” I mean something more than listing it in the official description of tenure factors.  What I mean is: Does it genuinely count in your favor for T&P to be a good professional citizen? Does it genuinely count against you if you are not?

Maybe we can’t unilaterally change the way university administrations value things for Tenure and Promotion.  I don’t want to throw in the towel on that yet, but it isn’t the only option.

Journals (as an extension of the Publishing Houses) are also dropping the ball on this.  What does someone get for putting in the time and effort to do good review work?  Basically: pride in a job well done.  I know that some publishers compensate people who referee book manuscripts.  This seems like good practice, since refereeing book manuscripts is at least an order of magnitude more of a burden than refereeing a journal article.  But, and this is the important thing: refereeing journal articles is still a burden!

Why on earth are we running things in a way where journal editors are put in the position of sending messages that might as well say this:

Dear Very Busy Academic,

I have a bit of time-consuming work that I need someone to do, and I think you have the right knowledge and skill-set to perform it.  While I know we are all very busy with teaching, researching, mentoring students (and if we have any time or energy left over, perhaps some of it should be reserved for a life outside of work), I am hopeful that you recognize how the peer review journal process is held together with duct-tape and dreams, and will voluntarily pitch in to help out.  In thanks when you finish, I will even send you a form e-mail that says “thanks” (what more gratitude could you hope to receive?)

If you don’t have the time, can you recommend a few other people who are more easily motivated to provide valuable services for no compensation?



PS: If you do a good job, you will no doubt become the first person I think of for any similar requests in the future. Yay!


Monday Mill Blogging (#009)

I’ve missed a couple of Mondays, but today: Monday Mill Blogging is back.

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

§ 5.  Connotative and Non-Connotative Names

Let’s just start with a quote:

Proper names are not connotative: they denote the individuals who are called by them; but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as belonging to those individuals. When we name a child by the name Paul, or a dog by the name Caesar, these names are simply marks used to enable those individuals to be made subjects of discourse. It may be said, indeed, that we must have had some reason for giving them those names, rather than any others; and this is true; but the name, once given, is independent of the reason.  A man may have been named John, because that was the name of his father; a town may have been named Dartmouth, because it is situated at the mouth of the Dart. But it is no part of the signification of the word John, that the father of the person so called bore the same name; nor even of the word Dartmouth, to be situated at the mouth of the Dart.  If sand should choke up the mouth of the river, or an earthquake change its course, and remove it to a distance from the town, the name of the town would not necessarily be changed.  That fact, therefore, can form no part of the signification of the word; for otherwise, when the fact confessedly ceased to be true, no one would any longer think of applying the name. Proper names are attached to the objects themselves, and are not dependent on the continuance of any attribute of the object. (p. 33)

Charitably understood, the structure of this passage is this: Mill asserts a view about proper names, considers a possible objection—the objection that the reason for giving one name rather than another imbues the name with that reason as additional significance beyond its denotation—and gives reasons for dismissing that objection (an uncharitable understanding would be one that requires us to reconstruct a compelling argument in favor of Mill’s view of proper names from his response to this objection).

If we distinguish between the reason for assigning a name, and the reason a name applies to an individual, we can frame the point this way:  Mill’s position is that no attribute makes its way in to the application conditions for a name like “John” or “Dartmouth”.  The objection raises a worry based on the fact that there needs to be some reason behind the assignment of names, and Mill’s reply is to argue that, even granting some reason for the assignment of the name, it seems clear that the attributes which ground the assignment do not establish themselves as conditions of application.

One might be tempted to analogize this to Kripke’s distinction between reference-fixing descriptivism and meaning-giving descriptivism, but I think that might be a bit too quick.  To be sure, I can see why it might be thought a parallel, but it would be hasty to suggest that this is the best way of understanding Mill’s position.

In the next paragraph, Mill mentions the terms “God” (in the mouth of a monotheist) and “The Sun” as instances of connotative terms that might incidentally be indiviudal, but are linguistically general.  Mill points out that we can imagine a situation in which there are many suns, and that “the majority of mankind have believed, and still believe, that there are many gods” (p. 33).  Mill wants to set these aside, as he thinks they are general names which (in some sense) merely happen to name only one entity.  This is introduced to distinguish it from “real instances of individual connotative names”.  His examples include: “The only son of John Stiles”, “the first emperor of Rome”, “the father of Socrates”, “the author of the Illiad”, and “the murderer of Henri Quatre”.  Now, for some of these, color me puzzled about why they are getting a different treatment from “The Sun” or “God”.  For others, it is much easier to see why they linguistically require the uniqueness of the entity they name (in a way above and beyond that required by “the Sun”).

Mill explains that while it is possible that multiple people jointly authored the Illiad, the presence of the word “the” renders the name individual:

For though it is conceivable that more persons than one might have participated in the authorship of the Illiad, or in the murder of Henri Quatre, the employment of the article the implies that, in fact, this was not the case.  What is here done by the word the, is done in other cases by context: thus, “Caesar’s army” is an individual name, if it appears from the context that the army meant is that which Caesar commanded in a particular battle. The still more general expressions “The Roman army,” or “the Christian army,” may be individualized in a similar manner. (p. 34)

This treatment of incomplete descriptions is especially interesting, as it illustrates a sensitivity on Mill’s part to the importance of context.  The story appears to be that there are many different armies to which the name “Roman army” applies, however the use of the term “the” in conjunction with contextual factors, determines which of those specific armies the phrase operates as an individual name of on an occasion of use.

Mill next relates part of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves:

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk on a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning.  The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty. The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike that if I lose sight of them, I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at, from any of the others; I must hterefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know when I see the mark—not indeed any attribute of the house—but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.  Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark.

When we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, so to speak, upon the idea of the object. A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object. Not being attached to the thing itself, it does not, like the chalk, enable us to distinguish the object when we see it: but it enables us to distinguish it when it is spoken of, either in the records of our own experience, or in the discourse of others; to know that what we find asserted in any proposition of which it is the subject, is asserted of the individual thing with which we were previously acquainted. (p. 35)

I think I want to agree with Mill that the chalk mark on the house “does not declare anything about the house.”  It is true that one could devise a language of chalk symbols, in which different chalk marks were used to indicate different qualities.  But note that in such a language, the chalk symbols would be functioning like predicates (with their physical locations determining the subject of the proposition).  But I want to stress something crucial about Mill’s use of the analogy here: if Mill had not so steadfastly insisted that names signify objects rather than ideas, this doctrine of mere denotation would be harder to make sense of.  Note that Mill thinks the term is “connect[ed] in our minds with the idea of the object”.  Since our idea of the object likely includes a variety of attributes we take the object to have, the proponent of the view that terms signify ideas (e.g. Locke) would have no reason to suggest that the name lacks meaning.  It might well be that the meaning is not robustly public (as my idea of Dartmouth may not be the same as your idea of Dartmouth), but the term would signify a somewhat detailed idea.  Because Mill is committed to cashing out the relationship between the term and the object, and because no particular attribution of quality to Dartmouth is inherent in my calling Dartmouth “Dartmouth”, Mill can set aside the various qualities built in to my idea of Dartmouth as linguistically irrelevant.

I might have more to say about this analogy at a later time, but for now, I am going to pause again, and return next Monday (hopefully) to continue working my way through 1.2.5.

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

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.