Sunday, 8 December 2019

Against Inherently Representational Anything

Soames, in his fascinating recent work Rethinking Language, Mind, and Meaning, begins by posing a problem for the study of meaning and language as developed by philosophers and logicians in the Twentieth Century.

For propositions to play the theoretical roles assigned to them - such as being the primary bearers of truth, being the objects of propositional attitudes like belief and desire, being the contents of mental and perceptual states, and being the meanings of some sentences - they, Soames says, must be inherently representational. That is, they must impose conditions on the world off their own bat, so to speak. 

But, argues Soames, the sorts of things that traditionally play the proposition role in modern theories do not seem to be inherently representational. Soames provides 'reasons to believe that no set-theoretic construction of objects, properties, world-states or other denizens of Plato’s heaven, could ever be inherently representational bearers of truth conditions in this sense' (Rethinking, Ch. 2).

This leads Soames to his new theory of propositions, on which they are cognitive acts of a certain kind. ('Suppose, however, we start at the other end, taking it as an uncontested certainty that agents represent things as being certain ways when they think of them as being those ways' (Rethinking, Ch. 2).) For example, the proposition that snow is white, on Soames's theory, is the act of predicating whiteness of snow. These cognitive acts, according to Soames, are inherently representational, which means that they could be able to play the role of propositions. 

(Soames says that, at bottom, it is language users that represent things as being certain ways, and they do this by performing cognitive acts, which acts may derivatively be said to represent. But although, in this way, they represent in a derivative sense, they do so inherently - and that is the crucial point for Soames, that makes cognitive acts fit to play the role of propositions.)

I am very heartened to see Soames realising that his earlier, broadly Russellian conception of propositions won't do and looking for an alternative. But his cognitive acts seem a bit mysterious to me. In this note I won't try to refute Soames's new theory of propositions, but let me say something briefly about what worries me. It's not so much that I think that there's no such thing as the cognitive act of predicating whiteness of snow, but I don't feel like this is the sort of thing that is fit to play the sort of basic explanatory role that Soames wants it to play. It feels too much like a black box containing important workings for that. Treated as something basic, it feels occult or magical. (Wittgenstein in the Investigations seems very concerned to avoid positing mental goings-on that are meant to play this kind of foundational role in explaining representation. This has influenced me and I think there's something right about Wittgenstein's conviction that this is not the way forward.)

There is another conception of propositions, on which they are sentences (of a certain kind) in use (or a certain kind of use). For instance, in the Tractatus Wittgenstein said that a proposition is a propositional sign in a projective relation to the world. (In a recent paper I sketch an account of propositions that treats them similarly.)

(Of course, it is nice to be able to say what two synonymous sentences in different languages have in common, and often it is said that they 'express the same proposition'. On the present approach, they may be said to have the same use, the same meaning. But ultimately it is not just the use or the meaning that represents - it is a sign in use, a sign with meaning, that does this. The "proposition" or "statement" or whatever you call it that two different sentences express is an abstraction from the particular propositions that are alike in meaning.)

It seems to me that this fundamental logical move of treating propositions not as things by themselves, as it were, but a certain kind of thing in a certain kind of context is very important, and constitutes the right way to avoid the twin pitfalls of having propositions be things that don't themselves represent, and of having them be explanatorily basic cognitive acts. 

Admittedly, sentences in use can't just be slotted in to all the roles Soames delineates without further ado. For instance, we probably don't want to say that if you believe something - perhaps without even representing it to yourself linguistically - the thing you believe is a sentence in a particular use. Soames's theory may have an advantage over my approach here in having this one kind of thing - propositions - playing all of these roles (although I doubt it, since Soames's theory has predictions which sound like category-mistakes, such as that one may 'perform a proposition', propositions being acts according to this theory). But I think that ultimately such a theory with one single sort of thing playing all these diverse roles will not be attractive overall, and that we may have to refine the picture somewhat of how these things like sentence meaning and the objects of belief relate to each other. I am focusing for now on linguistic meaning.

Sentences in use, you might say are 'inherently representational': but the whole idea of inherence doesn't really fit here. The whole point is that sentences are not inherently representational, but used in certain ways, they are. If you want to treat the sentence-in-use as a sort of thing by itself, then this is a kind of abstraction. Such a logical construction may be useful, but the resulting entity is not explanatorily basic: underneath, you have the sentence and you have all the stuff about how it is used. And so, at the base level, you don't have anything inherently representational.

This approach fits naturally with the ideas of representing and of a representation. Fundamentally, a representation itself is just a concrete thing - like a drawing or a sentence. And it represents not inherently, but by being used in a certain way. People represent things as being certain ways by putting representations to use.

This approach also furnishes a kind of explanation of the feeling of occultness or suspiciousness in theories which posit inherently representational entities in their explanatory base: they feel unsatisfactory because they hide the contextual rabbit in the hat of some posited object. If we are forced to treat this object as basic, we can never see under the hat.

References

Haze, Tristan Grøtvedt (2018). Propositions, Meaning, and Names. Philosophical Forum 49 (3):335-362.

Soames, Scott (2015). Rethinking Language, Mind, and Meaning. Princeton University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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