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

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Language and thought: Introducing representation

1.5 Some useful terminology and a convention

It will be useful to end this section by establishing a simple convention and introducing some terminology.

The convention has already been at work in this chapter, but has yet to be made explicit. It is a convention for marking the difference between using a word and mentioning it. Italy has a capital city, and the English language contains a word for that city, but the word and the city are distinct entities. When we are talking about the word rather than what the word is about, we are mentioning that word. When we want to talk about the city itself, we are very likely to use the word and not merely mention it. In oral language, this distinction between using a word and mentioning it is not explicitly marked. Spoken aloud, the first and third sentences below are indistinguishable, as are the second and fourth. In writing, however, there is a helpful convention of surrounding a word with inverted commas whenever it is being mentioned rather than used. Thus:

  • ‘Rome’ has four letters. (correct)

  • ‘Rome’ is the capital city of Italy. (incorrect)

  • Rome has four letters. (incorrect)

  • Rome is the capital city of Italy. (correct)

The convention of marking the distinction in this way will be adopted throughout this book, and it is used by the authors of the associated readings.

The terminology to be introduced concerns the use of ‘subject’, ‘attitude’ and ‘content’ in discussing mental states. The last of these has appeared already. What a mental state is about (its content) can be distinguished from both the person whose mental state it is (the subject or alternatively the agent) and the kind of mental state it is (the attitude). The distinctions are easily conveyed through examples of mental states:

Same subject; different attitude; different content

John believes that there are some biscuits in the biscuit tin.

John hopes that he can watch television undisturbed.

Different subject; same attitude; different content

John believes that there are some biscuits left in the biscuit tin.

Mary believes that she can watch television undisturbed.

Different subject; different attitude; same content

John believes that there are some biscuits left in the biscuit tin.

Mary hopes that there are some biscuits left in the biscuit tin.

This terminology assumes that every mental state involves three elements: a subject, an attitude and a content.

Contents are often expressed in the so-called ‘that-clause’ (underlined) of sentences used to attribute mental states: ‘So-and-so thinks (or hopes, intends, imagines, expects, decides, etc.) that such-and-such.’ This is true of the six examples above. When a content can be expressed in a that-clause, it is said to be a propositional content or, for short, a proposition. Propositional contents are capable of being true or false. But sometimes a content is not, on the surface at least, propositional. Being in love, for example, is a mental state, but one loves a thing, a person usually, rather than a propositional content. Someone can be correctly said to love someone or something, but it sounds peculiar to talk of loving that such-and-such, where the such-and-such is capable of being true or false. Contents of attitudes like ‘love’ are called objectual. Other mental attitudes relate a subject to a content of either kind. Someone can desire a person or a thing, but they can also desire that something be the case.

Differences between the attitudes will not be a large part of our discussion, but it is worth being aware that there are differences. The attitudes are traditionally classified as cognitive (e.g. believing or thinking), affective (e.g. being upset), or conative (e.g. intending, desiring or deciding). All three kinds involve representing, but in slightly different ways. The differences between them turn on the function of the attitude. Very crudely, we might say that the function of believing that p is to represent the world as it is, and the function of intending that p is to represent the world as it will become through one's own intervention.

Finally, though I will often talk of ‘speakers’ and ‘hearers’, the philosophical point being made always generalises to cover modes of linguistic communication other than oral. In particular, it applies to both sign language and written language.

AA308_3

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus