Which, if any, semantic properties would the utterances of a community of language users have, even if we assumed that the language users had no internal semantic states? My answer will come in multiple posts. Note that by ‘semantic properties’ I mean things like reference, truth, aboutness, and usability-in-an-inference. I will ultimately argue, with a couple of caveats, that their expressions would have a full suite of semantic properties.
In this, the first post in the series, I summarize, defend, and clarify the Standard View of the relationship between the semantic properties of internal states and public linguistic expressions. I’d be interested in comments, as these are ideas I’m slowly developing, and injections of criticism at this early juncture would be most welcome.
The Standard View
Since the welcome demise of behaviorism and interpretivism, the Standard View of the relationship between language and thought is that the meaning of public linguistic expressions is parasitic on the content of representational states in the mind of the speaker (e.g., Searle, Churchlands, Fodor; Robert Brandom is a notable contemporary exception). That is, the semantic properties of public linguistic expressions are inherited from the semantic properties of the internal vehicles of content. If a public linguistic expression were not generated, in the right way, by internal vehicles with semantic properties, that statement would be no more intrinsically meaningful than the shape ‘Snow is white’ that was accidentally carved into the sand by an ant looking for food.
Note that the Standard View isn’t necessarily internalist. It is a theory of how one vehicle relates to another, and how their corresponding contents relate to one another. It does not imply that the contents of those internal vehicles are fixed solely by events in the brain.
Let’s consider four possible arguments for the Standard View. One silly argument would be that for any system with meaningful states, those meanings must derive from some other meaningful states. This argument invites a regress, but it is something like what the interpretivists hold. Thankfully, the focus in philosophy of mind has shifted to providing an account of semantic properties that doesn’t advert to other semantic properties. This is the essential project of naturalizing cognition, or trying to “bake a mental cake using only physical yeast and flour” (Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information, xi).
It could be argued that the meaning of linguistic expressions is derivative because they are public. That is, the first argument is really an abortive attempt to claim that publicly observable items, if meaningful, must derive their meaning from some other unobserved source of intrinsic semantic properties. This argument, as stated, is just another straw man. Nobody wants to make the incredible claim that the vehicles that carry semantic contents cannot be directly observable (for instance, this would make the vehicles depend on technology we use to extend our observation base). Perhaps this argument could be construed as a poorly articulated version of the following (third) argument for the Standard View.
A third, and more interesting, argument for the Standard View is that the semantic properties of all representational states derive from the semantic properties of conscious states. Perhaps conscious contents are the only type of nonderived content (as argued by Uriah Kriegel in The Primacy of Narrow Content). From this perspective, since internal brain states are the vehicle of consciousness, the Standard View seems reasonable: the intrinsic contents of conscious states percolate forth into certain public expressions. I will have more to say about this view in a later post.
The fourth, mainstream, argument for the Standard View is that it is the best psychological theory of the relationship between the semantic properties of thoughts and linguistic expressions. That is, the Standard View is a (contingently) true theory of how we happen to operate. There are multiple lines of evidence which can be marshaled, of which I’ll mention two. For one, we can express our thoughts more or less accurately. We often say things like “I said X, but Y would more accurately reflect my thinking”. We also often disambiguate what we say by clarifying our thoughts (e.g., “When I said I went to the bank I meant the bank of the river”). Second, neuropsychological patients show quite specific patterns of semantic deficits (e.g., the inability to comprehend or generate claims about animals). Conversely, someone with paralyzed vocal chords could still have the intention of speaking, a semantically rich mental life that they unfortunately can’t express (and if they knew sign language or could write they would be able to do so).
I take the fourth suite of arguments to be fairly compelling, so people are right to endorse the Standard View. But note that the Standard View, then, can’t be that it is necessary that public linguistic expressions have semantic properties in virtue of the semantic properties of internal states. Rather, this is a contingent fact about human communications systems. This fact of contingency will become much more important in future posts.