Spring2013.Phil135.Campbell

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This course reviews central issues in theory of meaning, in particular the relation
between meaning and reference to objects. What explains our ability to refer to
objects? Is the ability to think about an object a matter of standing in an appropriate
causal relation to it? And if we take this view, does it help us to understand how
thought might be in the end a biological phenomenon? We will look at basic lines of
thought set out here by Kripke and Putnam, and theorists such as Evans and Dretske
who have built on their ideas. We will also look at the contrasting view of meaning
and reference presented by the later Wittgenstein. We will begin, however, with the
classical views of Frege and Russell. There are five units in the course:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
Sense and Reference
The Causal Theory of Reference
Naturalizing Content
Following a Rule
Acquaintance
There is a basic distinction between a singular term that refers to a particular object,
and a general term that can be used to describe any one of a range of
objects. Examples of singular terms are proper names such as 'Wittgenstein', or
'California'. Examples of general terms are predicates such as '___ is a philosopher',
or '___ is on the coast'. Our focus will be on the question how it can be that singular
terms refer to objects. In the first unit we will look at Frege's argument that there
must be such thing as the sense of a singular term, in virtue of which it refers to
objects. Is the sense of a singular term, as Searle suggests, a family of
descriptions? Or is the situation rather, as Russell suggests, that reference is too
primitive a phenomenon to be explained in terms of descriptions, and has rather to
be explained in terms of our immediate contact with the objects we think about?
In the second unit we will look at theories that develop Russell's idea. They say that
reference is a causal phenomenon: what allows you to think or talk about an object
is that it has had some causal impact on you. These theories reject the idea that
what sets up the connection between a name and an object is a set of
descriptions. They say that what makes the connection between the name and the
object is some causal connection between the object and the use of the name.
These causal theories of reference can be put into the broader context of a view
about what makes it possible for biological organisms in general to represent the
world around them. Meaning and reference are achieved by creatures which are
part of the physical world; but how can a merely physical creature have managed to
get into a position whereby it can think and talk about its surroundings? What
makes the difference between a creature that is capable of meaning and reference
and one that is not? In the third unit we will look at attempts to answer these
questions that generalize the causal theory of reference.
Fixing the reference of a singular term - setting up the connection between the name
and the object - is an element in there being such a thing as gettting it right or wrong
when you say something. But how could merely causal or biological phenomena
have brought it about that there is such a thing as getting it right or wrong when
you speak? And what brings it about that we all use words in sufficiently similar
ways for communication to be possible? Wittgenstein argued that no explanations
can be given of these points. If this is correct, then the fact that there is such a thing
as getting it right or wrong in your use of language cannot be grounded in merely
causal phenomena. And there is no explanation of the possibility of communication.
In the final unit we will look again at Russell's idea that acquaintance with objects is
what makes it possible for us to refer to them. We will review Davidon's idea that
the mistake was to talk about reference at all. And we will look at a recent attempt
by a psychologist to give a scientific account of acquaintance with objects, in line
with the causal theory. Finally, we will see that the force of Russell's idea has to do
with the role of conscious experience in making it possible for us to think about the
objects around us.
By the end you should have some knowledge of the principal problems and theories
in this area, and you should be able to make an independent assessment of them.
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