Language and thought: Introducing representation
Language and thought: Introducing representation

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

1.2 Representation and language

Consider some of the many different things we can do with language: express ourselves in metaphor, issue commands, ask questions, fill in crosswords, write shopping lists and diary entries, repeat nursery rhymes by rote, solve logical or arithmetical problems, make promises, tell stories, sign our names, etc. Impressive though it is, this variety in the uses of language is a potential distraction from our main interest, which is in the use of language to represent. It will therefore help if we abstract away from this diversity by focusing on a paradigmatic use of language: the use of words, spoken or written, to transfer knowledge. An utterance of ‘The German economy is bouncing back’ would ordinarily have this purpose.

One reason for focusing in this way is that a significant proportion of what we know comes to us via language. Sharing our thoughts about the world by talking and writing to one another allows us to pool our cognitive resources. Our task will be to come to understand how this pooling process takes place. That is, we will attempt to answer, at least in broad outline, a question posed by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704):

Locke's question

How is it that ‘the thoughts of men's minds [can] be conveyed from one to another’ (Locke [1706] 1997, III.1.2)?

Locke's description of linguistic communication makes it sound like a kind of telepathy, and perhaps that is a useful comparison. By using language we are able to ‘read each other's minds’ quite effortlessly. Effortless it may be, but linguistic communication is a magnificent human accomplishment, every bit as peculiar as telepathy but more interesting because it actually occurs. What is it about producing a particular sound or pattern of ink that allows one person, the speaker or writer, to share information about the world with another, the hearer or reader?

An intuitive way of describing what happens when ‘the thoughts of men's minds’ are ‘conveyed from one to another’ is that the speaker invites his or her audience to accept that the world is as it is represented to be by the speaker's utterance, and the audience takes up this offer. This way of putting it can be elaborated into a simple theory intended to answer Locke's question:

The simple theory of communication

The successful communication of knowledge about the world is possible because speakers are able to produce utterances with a specific meaning, and recognition of that meaning by an audience enables them to appreciate what the speaker intends to communicate.

The key phrase is ‘specific meaning’ of an utterance. This is roughly equivalent to ‘how the utterance represents the world as being’, whatever that involves.

Saying what it involves is precisely what we must do if we wish to save this simple theory from the charge that it is hopelessly empty. For compare the simple theory with the theory parodied by the seventeenth-century French playwright Molière in The Imaginary Invalid. In this play, a doctor offers a spurious account of what gives opium its power to induce sleep in those who ingest it: it has this power, he says, because of its virtus dormitiva, i.e. its ‘soporific virtues, the tendency of which is to lull the senses to sleep’ (Molière [1673] 1879?, 73–4). The point of the parody is that the doctor has merely introduced a fancy-sounding name for the thing that needs to be explained, without having advanced us towards a genuine explanation. His putative explanation comes to this: opium induces sleep because it has the power to induce sleep. The simple theory of communication as it stands is little better than the doctor's theory. Like Molière, we can ask whether a term like ‘meaning’ as it figures in the simple theory (or ‘represents’ insofar as it plays the same role) is any more than a name for what we are trying to explain. Before we can sign up to the simple theory, we need to know how it differs from the following satirised version of it:

The empty theory of communication

The successful communication of knowledge about the world is possible because speakers are able to produce utterances with communicative powers, and audiences are induced by these powers to appreciate what the speaker intends to communicate.

Of course, if we supplement the simple theory with a substantial, plausible and independent theory of what meaning is – a theory that amounts to more than the claim that meaning is what makes communication possible – all will be well. That is our task in this course, which considers attempts to develop a theory of the meaning of utterances, thereby rescuing the simple theory from the charge that it is empty as an explanation of how ‘the thoughts of men's minds [can] be conveyed from one to another’.

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