Philosophy of Language Archives

More Generally: Philosophy (498)
More Specifically: Conditionals (1) Pragmatics (2) Semantic Externalism (2) Truth (2)

August 20, 2017

George Berkeley and the Power of Words

Today the OUP Author Blog features a post by me highlighting one of the main lines of argument from my book, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World. The title is, "George Berkeley and the Power of Words."
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January 12, 2017

Berkeley and Hobbes

From a certain point of view (or perhaps several points of view), one might think that no two early modern philosophers are more opposed than Berkeley and Hobbes. True, both are empiricists, and the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists is often treated as the 'main event' of early modern philosophy. However, a comparison between Berkeley and Hobbes might well be regarded as a vivid and compelling illustration of the failings of the traditional rationalist-empiricist narrative. Note, for starters, that the ontologies of Berkeley and Hobbes are disjoint: Hobbes believes only in material substances, Berkeley believes only in spiritual (immaterial) substances....
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November 15, 2016

Language and Structure Available for Pre-Order!

I am most pleased to announce that Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World is now available for pre-order through Amazon UK or direct from Oxford University Press! It has not yet appeared on the US Amazon site. UK release is scheduled for March; US release for May. In addition to the information available on the Amazon and OUP sites, a detailed abstract can be found here.
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January 8, 2016

Language and Structure to be Published by OUP

I am most pleased to announce that I today received a contract from Oxford University Press for my monograph, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World. I've agreed to deliver the final version by mid-October (at the latest), so I am hopeful that the book will appear sometime in 2017. A detailed abstract is available here.
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November 21, 2015

"Counteressential Conditionals" in Thought

My paper "Counteressential Conditionals" has just been accepted (conditional on further revisions) by Thought. This is a revised and expanded version of a paper that I will be presenting at the Central APA in Chicago on March 3. The journal's self-archiving policy does not permit me to post the final version, so you'll have to wait on that, but the short version that will be presented at the APA is available here. This is a more or less straight metaphysics paper (my first!), but it fits in with my work in philosophy of religion/philosophical theology. These kind of conditionals play...
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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...
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March 25, 2015

"Matter, God, and Nonsense: Berkeley's Polemic Against the Freethinkers in the Three Dialogues"

I have posted a new draft to my writings page, "Matter, God, and Nonsense: Berkeley's Polemic Against the Freethinkers in the Three Dialogues". The final version of the paper is expected to appear in Berkeley's Three Dialogues: New Essays, ed. Stefan Storrie (Oxford University Press). In the meantime, comments are welcome.
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July 25, 2014

Regarding All Those Possible Arnaulds

One of the main topics of the Leibniz-Arnauld correspondence is the question how, on Leibniz's theory, it can be true that Arnauld might have had children and been a physician rather than being a celibate theologian (see Arnauld's letter of May 13, 1686). One of the curious things that happens in this discussion is that both Leibniz and Arnauld start talking about the many Adams and many Judases and many Arnaulds in the various possible worlds, with Leibniz insisting that none of them is identical to the actual Adam/Judas/Arnauld. In that May 13 letter, Arnauld even speaks of 'several mes',...
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April 29, 2014

A Supreme Court Paradox!

In the current version of the Supreme Court decision Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness up at Cornell's Legal Information Institute, footnote 1 reads "Justice Scalia joins this opinion except as to footnotes 1-3." This is not quite a Liar Paradox, but close. Whether the view attributed to Scalia is consistent depends on some interpretive questions: does Scalia merely refrain from affirming the content of footnotes 1-3, or does he actively reject them? Does he reject each of the footnotes individually, or only the conjunction of them? If he actively rejects each of footnotes 1-3 individually, then which part...
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February 21, 2014

Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World (Doctoral Dissertation)

The final draft of my doctoral dissertation, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World is now complete, and available here. The defense is scheduled for March 21.
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January 9, 2014

Conee on the Ontological Argument

According to Leibniz, any answer to the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' must bottom out in "a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop" (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to 'carry the reason for its existence within itself?' What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl...
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September 9, 2013

"Berkeley's Meta-Ontology: Bodies, Forces, and the Semantics of 'Exists'"

I've posted a new draft to my (recently reorganized) writings page, "Berkeley's Meta-Ontology: Bodies, Forces, and the Semantics of 'Exists'." This paper defends, in a relatively short space, some of the central conclusions which I defend at much greater length in my dissertation, Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World. Here is the abstract of the paper: To the great puzzlement of his readers, Berkeley begins by arguing that nothing exists other than minds and ideas, but concludes by claiming to have defended the existence of bodies. How can Berkeley's idealism amount to such a defense? I introduce resources from...
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February 23, 2013

Berkeley, Analogy, Matter, and God

On May 15, 1709 William King, archbishop of Dublin, preached a famous sermon (it was really more of a lecture in philosophical theology with a Scripture quotation at the beginning, but this was not too unusual in the Anglican Communion at the time) entitled "Divine Predestination and Fore-knowledg, consistent with the Freedom of Man's Will." The sermon was published shortly thereafter in both Dublin and London and is therefore now available on Google books. (I have written about King before.) King considers three atheistic arguments: the argument from the inconsistency of divine foreknowledge with human freedom, the argument from the...
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October 4, 2012

A Linguistic Argument for Immaterialism

I think Berkeley would endorse the following argument: The rules governing a bit of language cannot tell agents to perform or refrain from actions in certain circumstances unless the agents can recognize the obtaining or not obtaining of those circumstances prior to the introduction of that bit of language. A word refers to an object only if the rules governing that word tell the agent to behave differently with respect to the use of that word depending on whether that object is present. (E.g. a necessary condition of 'rabbit' referring to rabbits is that the rules governing 'rabbit' specify that...
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July 3, 2012

The Port-Royalists on Judgment and Other Mental Operations

Locke famously defines judgment, knowledge, etc., in terms of the joining or separating of ideas. It is quite probable that Locke's source for this is the Port-Royal Logic. There are two well-known problems with this view. First, according to this view in order to think that Peter is not living I must mentally separate the idea of Peter from the idea of living, but if I do that then its not clear how this judgment, that Peter is not living, can be a unit which can be, for instance, embedded in complex sentences. Locke makes matters worse by talking about...
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February 1, 2012

Would Berkeley Endorse the Deflationary Theory of Truth?

In several place, most notably Alciphron 7, Berkeley seems to think that the meanings of many, if not all, terms are given by the rules for correctly applying them. He doesn't seem to mean the conditions under which they are true. Rather, he seems to mean the rules actual speakers apply in deciding to use the word. We're not talking about mere disquotation; we have to give conditions that speakers can actually use when deciding whether to utter sentences. So, to use one of Berkeley's favorite examples, the meaning of the symbol 'i' in algebra is given by the formula...
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January 11, 2012

Berkeley and Motivational Internalism

Motivational internalism is a view about moral language or evaluative language in general and its relation to motivation. According to motivational internalism, if someone says 'x is good' but is not in the least motivated to pursue x, then that person is either insincere or not a competent user of the language. This is not supposed to be a fact about human psychology (that all humans pursue the good), but rather a claim about how the word 'good' works: something good is something which is to be pursued, so if you call something 'good' without taking it to be something...
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July 6, 2010

Implicature and the Interpretation of Foreign Language Texts

I've just read Grice's "Logic and Conversation" (ch. 2 in Studies in the Way of Words) for (I'll admit) the first time. Something that struck me while reading it, which Grice does not explicitly recognize, is that his model helps to explain a phenomenon that causes a lot of trouble when one tries to interpret texts (or speech) in a language in which one is not fully fluent. Grice's basic model works like this: sometimes a speaker says something which, taken in its perfectly straightforward sense, seems quite odd. The oddness (at least in the cases in which Grice is...
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June 14, 2010

Locke on the Arbitrariness of Ideas of Mixed Modes and Substances

In Locke's discussion of names of mixed modes and names of substances in EHU 3.5-6, he seems to suggest that the ideas of mixed modes are in some way more arbitrary than the ideas of substances. Some commentators, such as Nicholas Jolley (Locke: His Philosophical Thought, 155-161), have found this claim problematic for, according to Locke, ideas of substances are 'the workmanship of the understanding'; they are not given to us by nature. I think, however, that considerations from book two are sufficient to answer this worry. Locke defines mixed modes as "such Combinations of simple Ideas, as are not...
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May 22, 2010

"In Defense of Ignorant Assertions"

I have posted a new draft to my workbench, "In Defense of Ignorant Assertions." This very short (~7 pages) paper argues, against Timothy Williamson and Keith DeRose, that knowledge is not a norm on assertion, and provides an alternative explanation for the "modified Moore's Paradox" ('p, but I don't know that p'). Check it out, and come back here to let me know what you think in the comments.
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November 2, 2009

Does 'The Desk is Black' Express a Proposition?

According to standard versions of subjunctive phenomenalism, such as the version developed by C. I. Lewis, sentences purporting to be about physical objects can be analyzed into long conjunctions of subjunctive conditionals having to do only with sense data and voluntary actions. It's very difficult to actually state these conditionals, but they are supposed to say things like 'if I'm in such and such a condition, and I do X, I will experience Y'. Alva Noë is not a phenomenalist, but he expresses some similar ideas about the nature of perception. Specifically, Noë argues that perception does not involve the...
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October 25, 2009

Speaking Loosely

Philosophers often use such phrases as 'strictly speaking' or 'in metaphysical rigor' before saying things that might sound outrageous. For instance, many philosophers have denied the existence of entities which everyone 'knows' to exist, such as chairs, or minds, or numbers. The philosopher will almost always prefix such a denial with this sort of modifier. The opposite of speaking strictly is speaking loosely. In early modern philosophy, the 'strict and philosophical' mode of speech was often contrasted with the 'loose and popular' mode. Other philosophers might use the modifier 'strictly and literally.' What is the point of making these qualifications?...
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September 18, 2009

Quote of the Day: A Source in Descartes for Berkeley's Visual Language Theory?

We must take care not to assume - as our philosophers [i.e. the scholastics] commonly do - that in order to have sensory awareness the soul must contemplate certain images [i.e. the species] transmitted by objects to the brain; or at any rate we must conceive the nature of these images in an entirely different manner from that of the philosophers. For since their conception of the images is confined to the requirement that they should resemble the objects they represent, the philosophers cannot possibly show us how the images can be formed by the objects, or how they can...
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September 8, 2009

Quotes of the Day: Berkeley and 'Functional Role Semantics'

The second approach [to intentionality on the computational model of cognition] is known as functionalism (actually, "functional role semantics" in discussions of meaning) in philosophy, and as procedural semantics in cognitive psychology and computer science. Functionalism says that what gives internal symbols (and external symbols too) their meanings is how they function ... This picture can be bolstered by a consideration of what happens when one first learns Newtonian mechanics. In my own case, I heard a large number of unfamiliar terms more or less all at once: "mass", "force", "energy", and the like. I never was told definitions of...
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June 30, 2009

"The Homonymy of Predicative Being"

I have just posted to my workbench a paper entitled "The Homonymy of Predicative Being." Here is the abstract: Aristotle famously claimed that "being is said in many ways." This has traditionally been understood as a claim about existence. However, the interpretation of Aristotle's theory of being under this assumption has proven problematic. In this paper, I argue for an alternative reading which identifies the core uses of 'being' as copula uses with primary substances as subjects. Comments and criticisms are welcome below....
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May 14, 2009

A Semantic Argument for Phenomenalism

I believe an argument similar to the following can be attributed to Berkeley, but I have too much real work to do to go find the texts to justify it right now. (Which is why we have blogs, where we don't have to adequately justify our assertions!) The meaning of a word is exhausted by the correct conditions of its application. Any speaker S on any given occasion determines whether to utter a given word based entirely on S's subjective state (i.e. factors internal to S). Speakers consistently and non-accidentally use 'plain language' correctly (i.e. 'common sense' is correct). Therefore,...
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January 23, 2009

How Putnam Defeats Descartes' Demon

A little while back, I wrote a post describing Cartesian demon skepticism as a form of 'adversarial epistemology'. The idea is that Descartes' thought experiment can be conceived of as a game with two players: the meditator and the demon. The meditator selects a process for forming beliefs from perceptual experiences, and the demon knows what process the meditator has selected, and controls all of the perceptual experiences. If the meditator ends up with mostly true beliefs, she wins. Otherwise, the demon wins. Now, I mentioned at the bottom of that post that this way of framing the problem is helpful...
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January 9, 2009

Quote of the Day: A Summary of Berkeley's Mature Doctrine of Signs

Although the details are sketchy, Berkeley's basic point is clear: A sign may be significant not because it marks an idea, or even because it can be traced to something with which we are immediately acquainted, but because it is a working part of a system of signs that makes a genuine difference to our lives - to our thoughts, actions, and emotions. (Kenneth P. Winkler, "Berkeley and the Doctrine of Signs" in Winkler, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Berkeley, p. 151) This is Winkler's summary of Berkeley's mature "doctrine of signs" as developed in Alciphron 7. By the way,...
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January 5, 2009

The Problem of Analyticity

The new quarter has begun, and I have just finished reading Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". One of Quine's chief purposes here is to argue that the difference between 'analytic' and 'synthetic' truths is one of degree, and not of kind, so that there is no neat division between the two. I want discuss this difficulty here, although I shall treat it slightly differently than Quine does. Anyone who has been exposed to post-Kantian philosophy is familiar with the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic. For instance, 'no bachelor is married' is an analytic truth...
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December 4, 2008

The Reason for Berkeley's Anti-Abstractionism

In my post, Does Philosophy 'Trickle Down', I noted that "Berkeley thinks he has discovered two philosophical doctrines which are indeed 'the Chief Causes of Error and Difficulty in the Sciences' and also 'the Grounds of Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion.' These are the epistemic/linguistic doctrine of abstraction, and the metaphysical doctrine of corporeal substance." In this post I want to examine how the doctrine of abstract ideas is supposed, according to Berkeley, to lead to "Error and Difficulty in the Sciences ... [and] ... Scepticism, Atheism, and Irreligion."...
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June 5, 2008

Representative Realism, Phenomenalism, and "Physical-Talk"

When I wrote a while back about the idealist strategy, I said that the second step was to "argue that our physical statements - both ordinary statements about physical objects and statements about the discipline of physics - are best construed as talking about perception." What I want to do here is to unpack this statement. First, let's examine what the argument is supposed to do and then we'll look at the argument as it appears in a brief section of Berkeley's Three Dialogues. This piece of the argument is a reductio against representative realism...
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March 15, 2008

Berkeley's Theory of Reference and the Critique of Matter

George Berkeley is well known for his critique of matter. By "matter" he means Locke's "material substratum." At the end of the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous he actually does acknowledge that one might use the word "matter" simply to mean "the stuff of the physical world" (that's not a direct quote) and he doesn't object to this, so he actually isn't opposed to the way the word was used in your physics or chemistry classes, but only to the way it was used in early modern metaphysics. The critique of matter is tied up in the critique of...
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October 26, 2007

"The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley"

My paper "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley" is now available on my writings page. An earlier version of this paper served as my undergraduate honors thesis, and a somewhat reduced version of it has been accepted for publication by Religious Studies. I haven't heard anything about what issue it will appear in. This paper discusses Berkeley's theory that our sense perceptions (especially visual perceptions) form a language by which God communicates with us, and asks how we are to interpret this language. In particular, it argues...
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October 9, 2007

"Dionysius" on God-Talk

A collection of writings have come down to us under the name "Dionysius the Aereopagite" (after Acts 17:34) which effectively form the foundation of the tradition of Christian mysticism. Most scholars today believe the writer lived in Syria, c. 500 AD. The general consensus is that he couldn't have written earlier than this because he seems to have been influenced by 5th century Neo-Platonists. All this by way of background; I don't have any particular opinion as to when the writer lived or by whom he was influenced. The principle work of "Dionysius" is only a few pages long and...
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July 5, 2007

Paper #2: For Real This Time

Before I left last week, I sent in to Religious Studies the final draft of my paper "The Semantics of Sense Perception in Berkeley," which they have accepted for publication. The paper discusses the meaning of the "universal language of the Author of Nature" Berkeley argues for in the Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision and elsewhere. Essentially, the question I try to begin to answer is "if sense perception is a language by which God speaks to us, then what is he saying?" (I say "begin" because I have not developed a detailed semantic theory, but only offered...
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