June 15, 2015

Understanding Sentences: Port-Royal, Locke, and Berkeley

According to the Port-Royal Logic, "words are distinct and articulated sounds that people have made into signs to indicate what takes place in the mind" (Buroker 74). Similarly, according to Locke, the use of language requires that one ``be able to use [articulate] Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within his own Mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men's Minds be conveyed from one to another" (EHU 3.1.2). Passages like these support Berkeley's interpretation of his predecessors as holding that, in the proper use of words, the speaker "design[s] them for marks of ideas in his own, which he would have them raise in the mind of the hearer" (PHK, Intro 20). This in turn implies that "significant names, every time they are used, excite in the understanding the ideas they are made to stand for" (PHK, Intro 19). In other words, Berkeley understands his opponents to hold that "communication of ideas," which his opponents take to be "the chief and only end of language" (PHK, Intro 20), requires that the hearer ends up having the same mental state as the speaker.

One problem with this, to which Berkeley does not call attention in his critique, is what happens when one hears and understands a sentence. Although this is disputed by Walter Ott, the standard view, which I take to be well-supported by the texts, is that for both the Port-Royalists and Locke, the mental proposition (i.e., the mental state signified by a complete sentence) carries assertive force. In the mental propositions signified by simple declarative sentences that aren't negated, the subject idea and the predicate idea are joined by an act of affirmation. To have the mental state signified by 'Melampus is an animal' (Berkeley's example in the Manuscript Introduction) just is to believe (occurrently) that Melampus is an animal. But this apparently implies that one cannot understand that sentence without believing it, and that's absurd.

In a recent paper, Jennifer Smalligan Marušić proposes an interesting and plausible solution to this problem (see ppp. 273-277). Marušić's suggestion is that, when communication succeeds, the hearer may form an idea of the speaker's mental state, rather than having that mental state herself. Since the Port-Royalists explicitly distinguish between the act of affirming and the idea of that act, and say that you can have one without the other (Buroker 79), this allows us to understand sentences without affirming them. Since Locke also has ideas of reflection, it seems that he can make a similar move.

A nice feature of this approach, which Marušić does not mention, is that it helps to reconcile the Port-Royalists' claim that "for an uttered or written sound to signify is nothing other than to prompt an idea connected to this sound in the mind by striking our ears or eyes" (Buroker 66) with their claim that the verb signifies the act of affirmation, and not the idea of that act. On this reading, the verb signifies the speaker's act of affirmation by prompting the idea of that act in the hearer. What it doesn't signify is that the speaker has (occurrently) an idea of affirmation.

If this is right, then the Port-Royalists may not hold quite the view of language Berkeley has in mind in his critique in the Introduction to the Principles. I don't think, though, that this has far-reaching consequences for Berkeley's critique. For one thing, Berkeley is arguing against the very existence of the mental states (abstract ideas) the words are thought to signify; to say that only speakers need to have these ideas, while hearers may have only ideas of ideas is not a way of escape. Furthermore, the attribution of the view that understanding involves ideas of speakers' mental states to the Port-Royalists is better supported than its attribution to Locke. Now, I do think we need to take very seriously all the things that Berkeley says indicating the breadth of his targets (using phrases like 'received opinion', 'common opinion of the philosophers', etc.). I also think it's pretty likely that Berkeley had read the Port-Royal Logic, simply on grounds that the book was extremely widely read in the period. However, we don't have evidence that Berkeley gave to Port-Royal the kind of sustained attention we know he gave to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke. So the Port-Royal Logic's direct impact on Berkeley's conception of the 'received opinion' was probably modest at best. (The Logic's indirect impact, via Locke, was enormous.)

In sum, if our project is understanding Port-Royal or Locke on their own terms, Berkeley's presentation may be misleading, because he may well be wrong to think that understanding involves simulating what goes on in the mind of the speaker, rather than just conceiving of what goes on in the mind of the speaker. On the other hand, from Berkeley's own perspective, this is an irrelevant, hair-splitting distinction. Since abstract ideas are impossible, and we can't conceive of impossibilities, we can't have ideas of abstract ideas. So regardless of which interpretation we take, Locke and Port-Royal have both speakers and hearers doing things that are (according to Berkeley) impossible.

Let me conclude with some controversial assertions about the relationship between Locke's Essay and the Port-Royal Logic. (After all, what are blogs for?) Much of Locke's Essay can be read as an empiricist, radical Protestant rewrite of the (Cartesian, Catholic) Port-Royal Logic. (Compare, for instance, the subtle differences in the two works' accounts of faith and the practical upshots derived from them - Buroker 260-272; EHU 4.18-19.) But Locke does not always seem to be aware of the ways in which his own anti-Cartesian polemics undermine the Port-Royal theory of mind and language. This fact is responsible for many of Locke's well-known inconsistencies and unclarities, as for instance on the topic of whether (and in what sense) all ideas are images.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at June 15, 2015 1:04 PM
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Comments

Thanks for stopping by, Elisa. I did see your post, and I did find it interesting! The Wordpress software over at Mod Squad added a link to it automatically, but I didn't think to add a link over here; I should have.

Like most analytically-trained philosophers, my schooling included no non-Western philosophy at all. I always find these kinds of parallels and connections fascinating, although, as you can imagine, the Sanskrit technical jargon and my unfamiliarity with the names of the philosophers and schools is a real hindrance to understanding. I really appreciate your efforts in making this material accessible!

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at July 11, 2015 11:50 AM

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