Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Motivating Descriptivism

Here's a quick and dirty argument (inspired by Frank Jackson's seminar last night):

Premise: Signs are no use to us if we don't know (have access to) what they mean.
Conclusion: Reference requires mediating descriptions.



  1. Well, it seems to me that the premise is wrong in at least one sense: we might not know what the sign means, but might suspect it means this or that or several things. That, I'd argue, makes it useful because it encourages us to think; it's likely to suggest things we wouldn't have considered otherwise and (among other uses) could help us arrive at a solution. Of course, what I'm suggesting might hinge on the semantics of "know". If I suspect something, is that just a weak form of knowing it?

    But, signs trigger associations, and therefore they're potentially useful; whether they trigger the intended association is another matter.

    I think this is what poetry does.

  2. Right, 'know' is too strong. But you get the general idea. Signs only trigger associations for those who are already sufficiently familiar with their meanings. Nothing I've typed here would be much use to the illiterate, for example!

  3. Thanks Richard. But, actually, I don't get the general idea of the argument because I don't know what the conclusion means. "Reference requires mediating descriptions"? It's probably clear to most of your readers, but I'm not a philosopher so it's Greek to me.

    Also, I'm not sure I do agree that signs only trigger associations for those who are already sufficiently familiar with their meanings. Perhaps it's more the case that there's some degree of correlation between usefulness and familiarity with the most common meanings of signs. For example, I'm sure a page of text signifies quite a lot to someone illiterate — it's likely to differ greatly from the significance to a literate observer, but it's not necessarily useless.

    As seems so common, dichotomies like "useful or not useful" are often not useful. (Oops.) Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking!

  4. That's interesting: I take you to be pointing out that the signs may still be useful for something other than their intended purpose. So I need to be more specific about the 'use' I had in mind there.

    To translate the Greek: philosophers are interested in how words can be about (or "refer" to) things in the world. A theory of reference aims to explain this. Causal theories of reference seem most popular at present; they might claim, e.g., that 'water' refers to H2O because H2O is the stuff that typically causes us to say 'water'. Note that the explanation directly connects our words with the world, without appealing to our conscious intentions or anything like that. Descriptivist theories of reference, by contrast, introduce a further, mediating step. They suggest that we associate a word like 'water' with a certain qualitative description, and then the reference is fixed by whatever stuff in the world fits this description we have in mind.

    The purpose of my "quick and dirty argument", then, is to highlight why this intermediate step might be thought necessary. It can explain how we know what we're talking about (in some loose sense), and thus how we can fruitfully use signs at all. Direct reference leaves open the possibility that we are radically ignorant of what our own words mean, which leaves it something of a mystery how we can use them at all.

  5. That's pretty condensed, but two things concern me. First, there seems to be an implied premise that knowing the meaning of a singular term (I'm assuming that that's the issue) requires knowing how to pick out its semantic value descriptively. Myself, I cannot see that knowledge of the semantic value of descriptive terms ought to be taken as more explanatorily basic than the meaning of singular terms. And if that's right, there's a regress worry looming.

    Second, I take it that the descriptivist view involves some claim to this effect: reference is a matter of brining some particular under a descriptive profile to single it out. Now, the non-descriptivist might say that while there is some necessary connection between grasping the meaning and associating descriptions, the role played by associated descriptions is not to fix reference. Just think about some of the descriptions some current descriptivist say we have in mind when we use singular terms, perceptual demonstratives, etc... Maybe I cannot think of X without knowing that X is the cause of such and such visual experiences, but that's not because _being the cause of such and such visual experiences_ is what picks X out. Rather, if I wasn't in a position to know the descriptive thing, some other necessary condition on successful reference would not be satisfied.

    That's very opaque, but compare. Some who denies the descriptivist view might say that these two claims are on par:
    (1) Necessarily, if you can refer to X, you have in mind a description of X.
    (2) Necessarily, if you can see X, the lights are on.

    Turn out the lights and you lose the conditions necessary for seeing something. Stipulate that the conditions for knowing that X is the F (for some appropriate description) do not obtain and you have thereby stipulated that you cannot refer to X. However, just as you do not see the light, you do not refer to X by picking X out by description. Something like that.

    Sorry, I'm mildly hungover.

  6. I like your second point. It shows that the argument here for descriptivism is not conclusive. Still, as long as the direct reference theorist lacks an explanation of why successful reference should necessarily coincide with grasping an associated description, their theory is at a disadvantage.

    On the first point, I don't think we're meant to require descriptive terms. Rather, the so-called "associated description" is fundamentally just narrow content. It may be more like a mental image than anything linguistic.


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