Saturday, February 19, 2011

External Conditions on Meaningfulness

Here's a quick argument against views according to which there are conditions external to the present individual that must be met in order for the individual's present thoughts to qualify as meaningful. (One such view is that language and thought are irreducibly social; another would be historical/'teleological' views according to which evolutionary history and natural 'function' are essential for meaningful thought.)

(1) I can know just by introspection that I have meaningful thoughts. (Cf. Descartes)

(2) If the true theory of mental representation entails that there are external conditions X on meaningful thought, then -- by inferential closure -- if I know this fact, and I know that I have meaningful thoughts, then I'm in a position to know that X obtains.

(3) I can't know just by introspection that some external condition X obtains. This remains so even if I have background knowledge (derived through a priori reflection, say) of the true theory of mental representation.

Therefore, the true theory of mental representation does not place any external conditions on meaningful thought. Isolated Swampman (an intrinsic duplicate of me, but who can only just now popped into existence, and hence my historical and social relations) has meaningful thoughts just as I do.

I'm guessing this kind of objection must have been raised before. Anyone know of a convincing response?


  1. I'm not sure that the argument has been put exactly that way before, but there are definitely arguments along very similar lines that have been discussed extensively. I associate this line of reasoning most strongly with Michael McKinsey. See the section "Externalism and Self Knowledge" in the SEP. The relevant paragraph is the one that starts "Another type of incompatibility argument (McKinsey (1991), Brown (1995), Boghossian (1998)) aims to show that externalism leads to some implausible conclusions about what can be known a priori."

    It will also give you an idea of some of the responses that have been made. I'm not sure how attractive you'll find them--if you start out with pretty Cartesian intuitions about self-knowledge, I suspect that none of the responses will seem fully adequate.

  2. Thanks for the pointer! (Link here for others who are interested.)

    I don't think this is necessarily a huge problem for the general semantic externalist view that what mental content we have depends on external factors. (The McLaughlin and Tye response described in the SEP sounds right to me.) But it seems a huge problem for the stronger view that whether we have mental content at all depends on external conditions. I guess they'd have to deny the transmission of epistemic warrant asserted in my premise (2), but that seems very hard to deny. I'll have to check out the Davies paper sometime.

  3. I am worried about your premise (2), because the assumption that one could know a priori that mental representation is only possible if certain external conditions are met seems to be the source of the problem.

    What I mean is, since your worry isn't framed in terms of Swampman being in a position to erroneously conclude that his thoughts are meaningful (after all, ex hypothesi, swampman does not have any meaningful thoughts, which prevents him from incorrectly possessing the thought that his thoughts are meaningful).

    But if the worry is about how Jones could know a priori that external conditions are conformable to the presence of meaningful thoughts; it seems like the crucial step in the argument requires that the thesis in question (e.g. that mental representation is irreducibly social) be knowable a priori. But it is no part of the view that mental representation is irreducibly social that the truth of the theory can be established a priori. So, Jones can't rule out that Jones is in a demon-world or alone in the universe or what have you until Jones has acquired knowledge of this view about mental representation. Your premise (2) suggests that such knowledge would be attainable a priori, but that seems to be a substantive claim separate from the thesis itself.

  4. the middle paragraph should have ended with:
    "[...] meaningful), it must be framed in terms of how Jones can know a priori that Jones isn't in a swampman scenario (or the like)."

  5. True, I assume that fundamental philosophical truths, being non-contingent, are a priori (if knowable at all). But this is independently plausible. What empirical facts could be thought necessary to ground (knowledge of) this externalist view of mental representation?

  6. I had been taking for granted that some truths are necessary and a posteriori. I should also note that I don't have a stance on the strong thesis we've been discussing. I think a defender of the thesis, though, might suggest that one needs to observe the relevant social practices (or relevant facts about the natural kinds on the teleological story, etc.) in order to see how they play an ineliminable role in the explanation of how mental states can have content.

    Plausibly, defenders of such views would want to take the position that, absent such empirical evidence, the rival views might very well look appealing (in order to explain why the rival views have enjoyed such prominence among those prone to armchair speculation).

    FWIW, I lean towards the weaker view you described, in which the content of thought is (or can be) impacted by facts that are not introspectively available, but which does not preclude that an individual alone in the world could have meaningful thoughts.

  7. I think the first premise is probably false. Take cases of reference failure.--You hallucinate a red table. You think to yourself, "That red table over there is so beautiful." There is nothing that your thought is about; there is no red table over there. At least since Strawson on descriptions, many of us have been convinced that in these sorts of cases of reference failure, the resultant thoughts are neither true nor false, but rather meaningless. You might put the argument like this:

    (1) For a thought to be meaningful, some proposition must be its content.
    (2) There are no propositions about "that" hallucinatory red table.
    (3) Only a proposition about "that" hallucinatory red table could reasonably serve as content of your thought.
    (4) Therefore, unbeknownst to you, the thinker, your thought "That red table over there is so beautiful" is totally meaningless.

  8. This is (I think) a follow up on Lewis' worry (Hi Lewis). I think that our horse-thoughts are thoughts that could only be grasped in worlds where there are horses (barring cases of super experts who can pick them out in some other way). I think that our unicorn-thoughts are thoughts that can only be grasped in worlds where the term "unicorn" picks out nothing. We know apriori that the thoughts we have can be grasped only in worlds similar to our in these respects (i.e., in worlds where, like ours, a term is empty/non-empty), but we cannot know apriori for any particular case whether it's externally dependent & world involving (e.g., horse) or externally dependent and not world involving (e.g., unicorn).

    So, the external dependence that we can know apriori is one that's common to the unicorn and horse case. We know apriori that our thoughts will be grasped by those in externally similiar situations to our actual situation (whatever that happens to be like). The external dependence that we cannot know apriori is the sort of dependence that determines whether a given case is more like the unicorn case (e.g., fairies, God) or more like the horse case (e.g., dogs).

  9. Clayton - that sounds ok to me, and not incompatible with anything I'm wanting to say here. (See also my first comment.)

    Jack - The thought you describe isn't completely lacking in meaning the way that, say, an ordinary physical object is. It is, at least, a genuine thought. (We can even say how things would need to be for a thought of that form to be true. Primary intensions and all that.)

    But even if you're right about demonstrative thoughts, that's no threat to premise (1) because we can clearly have thoughts of other kinds (viz. purely descriptive thoughts) that face no such objection.

    Lewis - I suspect you're right that this is what a defender of the view would say. That does seem pretty wild to me though. (Note that standard Kripkean cases give no support for the kinds of 'strong necessities' required here. It's the same problem faced by a posteriori metaethical naturalism.)

  10. Clayton: Hi!

    Richard: I think you and I might differ somewhat substantively on the lessons we draw from Kripke's Naming and Necessity as well as on what has been shown by the work done in 2d semantics (based on a perusal of the links you included).

    It seems to me that the position needed to resolve the specific worry you offered is simply this: Some things are conceivable without being possible, and specifically, that such solipsist thought-experiments produce examples of this category of conceivable impossibility. I gather you take this position not to be freely available to the proponent of the view that meaning is irreducibly social or irreducibly linked to historical/teleological facts about natural kinds, but I am less clear on why you regard it as unavailable.

  11. Lewis: sure, that's a possible response (and hence 'available' in that weak sense). I just think it's a very unattractive response. Here's why:

    As a general rule, conceivability entails possibility. There are some exceptions, in case of terms whose primary and secondary intensions diverge. But the concept of "meaningful thought" does not have this feature. (It's more like "watery stuff" than "water".) So there's no basis, aside from wishful thinking from theorists who wish to preserve their theory, for considering it an exception to the rule that conceivability entails possibility.

    Of course, if one is inclined to dismiss all sorts of conceivability and 'open question' arguments out of hand, then one is unlikely to be impressed by this objection either. But I (naturally) think that'd be a mistake.


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