09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning

I am continuing my series of posts on the Meaning course I am auditing co-taught by Devitt and Neale (previous posts here, here, and here).

One thing that I, and others, have been pressing Devitt on is his treatment of semantic types. As he has admitted in class, he is primarily concerned with token sentences as a way of evaluating  the thoughts that those tokens are taken to be representitive of (confirming his commitment to P-semantics). This is what leads him to say that something is a meaning if and only if it plays a semantic role, which means that it can be used to explain bevaior and as a guide to reality.

When it was pointed out that this seems to indicate that sentence types, or for that matter word types,  don’t have any meaning Devitt appealed to the distinction between physical types and semantic types. This wasn’t a suprise since he had said the same thing to me after he read Kripke, Devitt, Bach. By physical type Devit means the physical structure that all tokens of ‘Aristotle’ share. The physical type ‘Aristotle’ is ambiguous for him. There is a distinct semantic type for each thing named Aristotle (which is a collection of all the tokens that are causally related to the particular object that they name), though only on physical type (at this point Neale asked if utterances and sentences could belong to the same physical type or not, to which Devitt said ‘I haven’t thought a lot about types!’).

He then offered the following tentative definition of the meaning of types

A property of a physical expression type is a meaning if and only if that property, together with the context, determines a meaning for all of its tokens

The second occurence of meaning here is supposed to be the P-semantic one, the one he defined in Comming. He says ‘ a meaning for all its tokens’ because he thinks that tokens can have more than one meaning. According to this definition, then, for the physical type ‘Aristotle’ to have a meaning is for it to have a property which determines a meaning for all of its tokens.

But this is itself ambiguous. It could mean

1. The property of the physical type determines a single meaning that all of the tokens share (though there may be other meanings that all the tokens share)

2. The property of the physical type determines a meaning for each token that may vary from token to token.

If 1 is the case then it will turn out that every token of ‘Aristotle’ will have the property of picking out Aristotle the philosopher no matter who the token actually refers to. This in effect means that every name token refers to every bearer of the name…wierd!

If 2 is the case then there must be some property that the name type has that acts as a function that when applied to a name token, in a given context, will give us the refferent of that name. What could such a property be? The natural candidate is something like NDT (being the theory that a name N is semantically equivelent to the description ‘the bearer of “N”‘). Who the bearer of “N” is will be determined by the causal relation that some object has to the thought that is being expressed by the sentence in which the token occurs. So it looks like Devitt should endorse frigidity as an L-semantic theory…though I somehow doubt that he would agree. When I brought this up in class, he said ‘perhaps names are a bad example…’

The Tri-State Cog Blog

I have just become a contributor to The Tri-State Cog Blog, which

is a group weblog about cognitive science, intended to foster a community of cognitive science researchers based in the Northeastern USA. We post content on a wide range of issues in all areas of cognitive science. We particularly welcome content pertaining to cognitive science research in the Tri-State area, such as:
-Information about upcoming talks and conferences in the area

-Discussion of the views and research of cognitive scientists in the area

Sounds cool, no? So if you are a cogsci researcher in the NorthEastern USA, or plan to be, then check it out!

Metaethics and Cognitive Science

There has been some discussion over at Brains about what the ideal cognitive science program would look like which got me to thinking. I am writing my dissertation in metaethics and I have always thought that my project was a cogsci project. I don’t mean merely that my metaethical theory is informed by research in cognitive science. I mean that metaethical theorizing is itself part of cognitive science, or at least should be.

 Now I am not trying to critisize Eric for not including metaethics in his ideal program, though I don’t know if I share his idea that mathematics is essential for study in cognitive science and that philosophy can be ‘picked up’ later, but I guess I am more just curious about what people think. Is metaethics a part of cognitive science?

God, Reason, and Morality

The previous post brings up a question which I have thought about a lot: Can God act immorally?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is ‘yes’…and in fact I think we have clear examples of God’s immorality in the Bible (I am thinking in particular about Job). How is this possible?

Here is an argument

1. Causing unnecessary suffering is wrong

2. God causes unnecessary suffering (e.g. Job)

3. Therefore God (sometimes) acts immorally

What is wrong witht his arguement? I have heard some poeple say that it is a mistake to apply morality to God as He is not the right kind of object for moral evaluation, but why? He is rational, and so can see that ceratin actions are contradictory (or can’t be universalized, or whatever) and so should be bound by morality just like all other rational agents.

09/05 Devitt II

So I wanted to finish up talking about Devitt’s view about the methodology of naturalized semantics.

Given that the semantic task cannot be solely to investigate our intuitions about meanings, we then need a way to identify what the semantic task is. Devitt’s answer is that we need to begin by asking what the purpose of meaning attributions are. From this he extracts two key tasks that a semantic theory should explain. The first is how thoughts come to have meanings which allow them to be appealed to in an explanation of behavoir. The second is to explain the property of thoughts that allows them to be a guide to reality for the person. This he calls ‘playing a semantic role’. The semantic task is then to identify which properties of thoughts (if any) allow them to play a semantic role. As you might know already, Devitt’s answer is going to be that in some cases the property is a causal/historical one, in other cases it will be inferential/conceptual connections.

In an earlier post I distinguished two kinds of semantic tasks. The semantic role that Devitt is here talking about is what I call P-semantics. Strictly speaking Devitt cannot say that sentence types have meaning, as sentence types do not play the semantic role that he has identified. According to Devitt the sentence type is there merely to give us a clue to the speaker’s meaning, or to the meaning of the thought. The sentence meaning is determined by the conventions of the language in question.  I will have to wait and see how serious Devitt is about claiming that sentence types do not really have any meaning at all.


Devitt discussed this issue in class two weeks later. I report and comment on it here.