Noam Chomsky – Language and the Rest of the World – lecture transcript part three


Now lets consider an easy answer to the problems that arise on the meaning side. Following point by point the proceeding ridiculous account of the sound side of language. I made up the other one, but the one I am going through now is real, unfortunately. We all recognise that the word book has a meaning, just as it has a sound. The entity book whatever it is has an internal semantic representation that incorporates all information about its meaning thats determined by the language, just as the internal phonetic representation incorporates all languagage determined information about sound. And we know exactly what the word book or its semantic representation picks out in the world.

Namely books, just as the phonetic representation picks out the sound or the sounds of the word book. So we can therefor set up a relation that is a counterpart of p denote lets call it Semantic(denote). S(denote) holds that relation between the internal semantic representation of the expression book and books. You understand that I am talking about books not tables because your word book S denotes the same things as mine and the child accquires the S denotation relation by virtue of causal properties of the world that relate external phenomena to mind internal entities. Lets call them concepts. Those who are concerned about the status of the external objects that are S denoted don’t have to have any qualms. These are some indescribable construction based on whatever physics tell us about the world. And we can forward further inquiries into the physics department or maybe the sociologist department. Again, if we wanna make it even more hopeless.

There are not any problems about the existence of books. Those are the things that are on bookshelves and tables. It is true that if you and I both took Darwins Decent of men out of the library there is a question about wether one book was taken or two. But we can settle this any way we like. And if someone is concerned that books are simultaneously abstract and concrete and have a host of other odd properties when you look closely. We can answer robustly that thats just what books are. These are problems of metaphysics and not semantics or cognitive science. Well, it should be clear that something is gone badly wrong. We are back to theft rather than honest toil. For one thing, referring is something that people do, not words. It was stressed 50 years ago by Oxford Philosopher Peter Strauss. And known before of course.

And like other human actions refering is a highly intricate action. It is specific to circumstances. It has normative aspects. The act of refering succeeds or fails in ways that depends on a wide variety of conditions. The act need not even involve terms that have some circumstance independent relation to the referential intention. F.e. I can refer to india without using any word or having any thought that has any independent connection to india. Whatever india is.

If such fundamental properties of refering – the act – are omitted from consideration, one may be studying something but its not the problem of intentionality or aboutness. Well, a fair response that could be given is that exactly in other cases we have to idealize if we hope to gain some grasp of reality. We have to abstract the way of a wealthier of complexity to focus on the properties of core notions. In this case s(denote) or p(denote). And thats a reasonable response. But its a promissory note. As in other cases it has to be justified by showing how the idealization yield some insight and explanatory power. And doesn’t merly reformulate the original dilemmas in missleading ways. That does not seem an easy task in the present case to put it rather mildly. In fact, I think it really is theft rather than honest toil in both cases. The case thats never even discussed – the sensory motor side – and the case thats pretty standard – the analog on the semantic side.

Well, how can we approach the problem of whats happening when we think or talk about the world. Its possible, and my view, likely that the study of sound provides some useful clues to that. In that inquiry there isn’t any reference like relation between an element of phonetic representation and a mind external entity. Rather the speaker/hearer employes the systems of language use to access the phonetic representation – the internal object – so as to produce and interpret organism external events. Perhaps something similar is true on the meaning side.

So, Smith uses an expression to refer when his attention is focused on some parts of the world which he views from the complex perspectives that are provided by internalists sematics very much as in the ways of sound. Features of the internal items in Smith’s internal language provide information thats used by other cognitive faculties constraining the ways that Smith uses it to talk about the world, think about the world differently from other worlds. Smith succseeds in communicating with Jones to the extend that Jones attends to related parts of the world and has appropriately related perspectives and understanding of circumstances and background.

Similarly Jones’s ability to perceive what Smith is uttering depends on his ability to map the noises that he hears to his own internal language. And this are all matters of more or less and not yes or no. That is the point of view that I personal regarded as reasonable since I have began thinking seriously about these topics about 50 years ago. At that time influenced by Oxford Ordinary language philosophy and the later Wittgenstein. But as I later learned the approach has traditional antecessor. There is an important 18th century critique of the theory of ideas based on the observation that the phrase “he has an idea” should not be understood on the model of he “has a diamond”. Invoking a reference like relation between the term idea and some extra mental entity.

Lets putting aside for the moment wether thats even a proper step in the case of diamond. I think its not. Rather the phrase he has an idea – 18th century commentators pointed out – The phrase he has an idea means something like he thinks. The phrase, what Gilbert Ryle called – a systematically misleading expression – in an influental contribution to 20th century ordinary language philosophy. Actually resurrecting traditional critique. And the same conclusion holds for believe, thought, desire and other terms of so called folk psychology as expressed in its english language version. Which is far from universal and in fact either idiosyncratic. The basic insights generalized to the whole vocabulary and even more dramatically to more complex expressions constructed from lexical items. If this is anything like correct most of the work thats going on in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and theoretical cognitive sciences is just off on totaly the wrong track. It is my opinion for years. The roots of these insights are far deeper, in fact they extend well beyond missleading analogic interpretation of surface form as in the case just mentioned. The 18th century case just mentioned by Ryle.

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