Locke-ing onto Content
Jackson (Frank)
Source: Walsh - Naturalism, Evolution and the Mind
Paper - Abstract

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Philosophers Index Abstract

  1. Locke says that language is a system of voluntary signs. The paper is concerned with the implications of this for teleological theories of content, and for a dispute over the sense in which properties determine reference.
  2. I argue that the Lockean point leads to serious problems for certain versions of teleological theories of content, and, more briefly, that it favors causal descriptivism over causal theories of reference proper.

Editor’s Abstract1
  1. Jackson cites Locke to the effect that '...language ... rests on voluntary, if largely implicit, agreements to use words and sentences to stand for how we take things to be.' Jackson contends that this Lockean point raises a significant problem for precisely the sort of teleological account of semantics that Ruth Garrett Millikan endorses. Teleological theories of content typically rely on history. Jackson, citing David Papineau, gives a rough sketch: '...the belief that P is the state selected to co-vary with P, and the desire that P is the state selected to bring about P' (p. 130). But, one does not need to know the history of a particular intentional state in order to know its content. When we communicate the contents of our beliefs to one another, we communicate something about the way we take the world to be; we typically do not communicate the historical determinants of the state. We exploit what Jackson calls the 'folk' or 'functional' roles of our beliefs. There are two aspects to intentional content: current functional role, which is easily accessible and selectional history which isn't. Jackson argues that 'Locke's point tells us that the way we acquired language and its evident utility depend upon the contents of very many of our beliefs and desires being pretty much common knowledge; but if content is given by selectional history, these contents will be very far from common knowledge' (p. 131).
  2. The teleosemanticist can choose either of two options.
    1. The first is to acknowledge that intentional states have two kinds of content, functional role (informational) content and selectional content.
    2. The second is to propose that specification of a state's history and its current functional role are merely two ways of latching onto the same intentional content.
    Jackson does not recommend the former. It makes teleosemantics a much less interesting theory. Teleosemantics is, after all, proffered as an account of the content of intentional states. The second option is more congenial to the teleosemanticist. It holds that intentional content is selectional content and that in turn is for the most part also consonant with current functional role. So to understand what the selectional content of an intentional state is, you only need to look at its current role. In much the same way, functional anatomists latch onto the function of an anatomical trait by studying its current functional role and this procedure is justified even if function is determined by selectional history.
  3. But even this strategy has its disadvantages. Jackson points out that '[t]o meet Locke's point, teleologists must hold that it is common knowledge that the folk roles pick out the contents of intentional states.' (p. 134). We should expect, then, that teleological theories of content provide a satisfactory answer to the question why current functional roles are such reliable guides to intentional states. The proposal from some advocates of teleosemantics (Jackson cites Papineau) is that the folk roles reference-fix on contents in just the way that the macro-properties of natural kinds2, say of water, reference-fix on, but do not determine, those kinds. But if folk-roles are such a good way to fix on selectional roles, it is obscure why it is that selectional role and not folk role is the real determinant of content. Why is it not the case that contents just happen to have been selected in virtue of the folk roles they play? After all, what is important to us is the utility of the current roles of our thoughts. If the current role of a thought and its selected role should peel apart, why should we suppose that content is fixed wholly by its historical role? Observance of Locke's point strongly suggests that what fixes intentional content is current folk role and not selectional role.
  4. Jackson generalizes his claim about the significance of Locke's point. It tends to favour causal descriptivist views of reference over causal theories of reference. Causal descriptivists, like causal theorists, hold that the reference of a term is that entity which has certain requisite causal properties. They also hold that what makes it the case that a term attaches to its referent is that users of the term have in mind certain properties that distinguish the referent. These may be the very causal properties that causal theorists appeal to. Applying the name 'Sydney' to Sydney '... requires associating properties with Sydney, including the ones the namers were attaching to the name 'Sydney' instead of the name 'Melbourne'. There is no way of knowing which thing Sydney is independently of knowing its properties.' (p. 139). Applying a name to a term as part of a shared language involves undertaking an agreement to use the name to pick out the bearer of such and such a set of properties and that involves being able to distinguish that object from others.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from "Walsh (Denis) - Naturalism, Evolution and Mind: Editor's Introduction".


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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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