# Do we cause words to mean things, or do words cause us to mean things?

This question occurred to me while reviewing a skeptical argument from Kripke regarding semantics:

Suppose that I’ve never dealt with numbers larger than 57. (Given our finite nature and the infinitude of the natural number series, there will always in fact be such a number.)!!! I’m asked to perform the computation '68+57', and I arrive at the answer ‘125’, which I take to be right. However, a “bizarre skeptic” (Kripke 1982: 8) questions my certainty. She suggests that in the past I used ‘plus’ and ‘+’ to mean a different function, which she calls “quaddition”. Quaddition yields the same result as addition if the numbers are lower than 57, and 5 otherwise, so the correct result of the aforementioned computation is ‘5’, not ‘125’. I should answer ‘5’ if I intend to use ‘plus’ in the same way in which I have been using it in the past, or so the sceptic suggests.

As we’ll see, the search for a fact fails, and the sceptic concludes that “the entire idea of meaning vanishes into thin air” (Kripke 1982: 22).

Sec. 4 of the article goes over a dispositionalist approach to the problem:

The most widely discussed attempt at a straight solution to the sceptical challenge is reductive dispositionalism. According to a simple version of reductive dispositionalism, the fact that Jones has the concept of addition rather than of quaddition is to be identified with (or is constituted by) his disposition to produce the result of adding (and not quadding) the numbers x and y in response to arithmetical queries of the form ‘x + y = what?’, and the fact that he means cat by ‘cat’ is to be identified with (or is constituted by) his disposition to apply ‘cat’ to cats. (See Horwich 1998, 2010, 2012 for a systematic development of dispositionalism; an answer to Kripke’s challenge is articulated in Horwich 2015.)

A rough-and-(un)ready gloss of this, on my end, is something sloganish like, "The meaning of a term 'X' is a disposition, in users of 'X,' to refer to X upon consciousness of their (or an interlocutor's) transcription/vocalization/semiosis of 'X'." The disposition is the intension, and the reference is the extension; but so the disposition is ours more than the word's, so to say. But might we construe the tendency of certain words to cause us (when we recognize the words) to refer to certain other things, as the intension? So "cats" means cats (on average, in English), because (for the linguistic demographic that covers those qualifiers) people who perceive the word "cats," in this perception, are caused to refer, even if sometimes only (further) in Mentalese (perhaps), to cats?

I admit I am asking this question in an (un)fairly tortuous way: my target conclusion, so to say, is the idea that no word, as such, refers to anything whatsoever (I thus recapitulate much of the skeptical argument with which we started), but that reference is a case-by-case function from our capacity to semiotically cover things; the only stable intensionality is in a causal regularity associated with something like the nominal "baptism" Kripke also speaks of, and then further facts by virtue of which the regularity is (willfully) sustained over time.

This would not be too out of line with at least English use of the word "reference" itself: consider e.g. "I wasn't talking about Sam but was referring to Dean." Here, whatever wording is in dispute is not that which does the referring; I am the one who refers, through the wording to be sure, but not, then, because the wording itself carries some "referentiality" in its own essential character.

!!!This claim is (I think) inessential to the argument, and false anyway: anyone who uses the transfinite numbers uses a number larger than every finite number, and for those who accept things like Fregean anti-zero or von Neumann V, there is use of a number larger than all other numbers whatsoever, even the relatively transfinite ones. For those who desire to avoid the alephs and the omegas, though, there are still algebraic facts like A + B = B + A, for all A, B ∈ ℕ, such that, if we refer to these facts, we might be styled as referring to all natural numbers, hence all that are as large as we please.

• Yes, you are correct, there is no such thing as meaning. Jul 16, 2022 at 23:09
• I might have misspoken to some extent: I don't want to deny meaning altogether so much as situate it, as a function, in us/our consciousness more than the different symbols we use to convey our conscious states to each other. So as I said, "Cats refers to cats," is less true than, "I refer to cats by using the word cats." There's still reference, though. Jul 16, 2022 at 23:19
• This isn't an argument against meaning; it is an argument against a behaviorist approach to meaning. Jul 16, 2022 at 23:37
• @DavidGudeman, I'm not sure what you're getting at? The SEP article itself frames the argument as just about meaning in general, no behaviorist qualifier at issue as such. I mean, behaviorism is an implicit issue, here, to be sure, but I don't get the point of mentioning this implication in a way that is contrarianist towards the SEP article? Jul 16, 2022 at 23:47
• Kripke famously rejected to assign meaning of function symbols (such as +) based on past usage, rules/algos, individual/community-wide dispositions, nonreductive Gestalt experiences, or Platonisim, though he didn't question the well-definedness of math functions. A major issue in most above descriptive proposals is their lack of normativity account. A simpler example is our idiosyncratic perceptions of cats are always not exactly the same then how can we share and agree with the same intersubjective term called "cat" logically exactly? Indeed large cardinals falled on Godel meaningfully... Jul 17, 2022 at 2:20

The Davidsonian View: the notions of mental content and linguistic meaning are explanatorily interdependent; neither takes explanatory priority over the other (Davidson 1984, 2001).

This seems most inline with how language and phenomenological experience should be described, however...

Do we cause words to mean things, or do words cause us to mean things?

Both. Communication is bidirectional. When we detect a word, we experience an association, generally unintentionally. However, when we intend to create an association in someone else, we select a word that we believe the hearer will detect and experience the association we desire. Consider coining a neologism. Certainly we cause the word to mean something. But, more often than not, we take the language community's lead and let the word cause us to mean things. In fact, according to WP, Kripke differentiated meaning to describe each situation:

Kripke also drew the distinction between speaker's meaning and semantic meaning, elaborating on the work of ordinary language philosophers Paul Grice and Keith Donnellan. The speaker's meaning is what the speaker intends to refer to by saying something; the semantic meaning is what the words uttered by the speaker mean according to the language.

So, speaker's meaning might overlap with semantic meaning when possessed with the intention to cause another to have an association. If so, the hearer must also have adequate semantic meaning so that the speaker's meaning results in the outcome of the intention of the speaker. If the speaker, however, elects to deviate from semantic meaning by agrammatical constructions, idiosyncratic diction, or poor articulation of utterance, then the deviation from the semantic meaning makes it difficult for the message to be decoded. A clever hearer might successfully speculate as to the speaker's meaning, but often times, the hearer simply restates her understanding and asks for clarification, and the two parties play the language game cooperatively to facilitate aligning the speaker's meaning with the semantic meaning. Alternatively, a hearer may have the idiosyncratic speaker's meaning, and when decoding the message of the speaker, who may have excellent semantic meaning, arrive at the wrong experience or association. Again, the parties can play the language game cooperatively to hash out the difference. This is why in practice, indeterminacy of translation doesn't happen, even when the two speakers are speaking across distinct languages where either agent doesn't have a mastery of the other's semantic meaning. Something as simple as ostensive definition can be used to arrive at mutual understanding. This is the essence of shared or collective intentionality.

The disposition is the intension, and the reference is the extension; but so the disposition is ours more than the word's, so to say. But might we construe the tendency of certain words to cause us (when we recognize the words) to refer to certain other things, as the intension?

It seems you're asking after how semantic meaning is established since the language game presumes a natural language which has a normative basis for use. This is a very large and ongoing project and is related to Metcalf's law in a pre-telecommunications sense. It's the reason why dialects assemble armies and navies in the first place to declare themselves languages and vie to be the lingua franca. Both intensions and extensions are learned by dispositions originally since intuition excels at determining dispositions, but as a speaker is brought into the language community, context can be used to extend the word hoard of intensions and extensions available, and eventually, as Jakobson identified, we move beyond referential and emotive use and develop meta-linguistic words. In the extreme, this manifests as socially enforced language prescriptivism. In fact, some people play the language game to establish and enforce in-group/out-group communities.

If one, therefore uses Kripke's dichotomy between the speaker's meaning (linguists call this an idiolect) and the semantic meaning (which is determined by a descriptivist's description of a grammar and diction), the use of disposition is replaced with propositions. Thus, someone who uses the plus sign for addition does in the context of shared intentionality because she is keeping her idiolect aligned with the practices of the mathematical language community, the community then usually democratically establishes a consensus regarding the use, and the more often an idiolect aligns with the normativity of established practice, the more stable the intensions and extensions involved. Consider for instance that the existence of the proto-IndoEuropean language relies on similarities of vocabulary and diction. And which words are the most stable? The one's used by children in everyday speech.

The most widely discussed attempt at a straight solution to the sceptical challenge is reductive dispositionalism. According to a simple version of reductive dispositionalism, the fact that Jones has the concept of addition rather than of quaddition is to be identified with (or is constituted by) his disposition to produce the result of adding (and not quadding) the numbers x and y in response to arithmetical queries of the form ‘x + y = what?’, and the fact that he means cat by ‘cat’ is to be identified with (or is constituted by) his disposition to apply ‘cat’ to cats. (See Horwich 1998, 2010, 2012 for a systematic development of dispositionalism; an answer to Kripke’s challenge is articulated in Horwich 2015.)

This seems silly and overthought to me. This whole notion that there's some underdetermination that requires overcoming skeptical challenges to claims that the possibility of confusion of addition and quaddition is egg-headedness. Intuitively, shared intentionality simply fosters some unspoken rules. You may have heard of them. They're called Gricean maxims:

In simple terms, the maxim of manner is to be clear. Whereas the previous maxims are primarily concerned with what is said, the maxims of manner are concerned with how what is said is said.
...
Submaxims:
Avoid obscurity of expression — i.e., avoid language that is difficult to understand.

Thus, the dispositions we observe of intensions and extensions, dispositions that are established by the language community sometimes over hundreds of years, stabilize because people, with shared intentionality in mind, avoid obscurity of expression. So, to even challenge someone who is using the plus sign with the claim that they're actually doing quaddition is to accuse someone of obscurity of expression and would be bizarre! While occurrences of obscurity occur for a variety of reasons including cant, deception, and creativity, on the whole avoiding obscurity is one of the maxims which are just articulations of dispositions in natural language use.

But finally, let's deal with the notion that indeterminacy of meaning means no meaning exists. In trials, struggles often take place where two lawyers attempt to claim that their language usage is the correct interpretation of a witness's use. In this way, a defense witness has an advocate who attempts to show that the testimony (the speaker's meaning) is aligned with the semantic meaning, where as the prosecutor has an eye for trying to align the speaker's meaning with a different semantic meaning, a skeptical interpretation. Would a judge ever think because there's a disagreement, and that there is an underdetermination of sorts involved since the judge doesn't have access to the defense witness's conscious thoughts or memories, that no meaning exists when the witness utters things? Of course not! There are rules to a language game, but language games are played with goals. People are trying to accomplish goals, and so it becomes possible to look at the frame, at the character of the witness, so on. In the language of the scientific epistemologist, the meaning of utterances is not evaluated in an egg-head vaccuum, in snippets of conversation, but as a whole. This is confirmation holism.

A witness claims she was doing addition. The prosecutor accuses her of doing quaddition. The witness objects because she's never heard of it. The prosecutor rhetorically accuses her of lying. The witness claims she's an accountant and has ethical precepts not to do quaddition since it's not part of GAAP. The prosecutor says it's possible, but the witness replies that her work can be inspected and she's never engaged in such outlandish arithmetic algorithms. The prosecutor asks her if she's made mistakes before and gotten outlandish arithmetic answers. The witness concedes it has happened on occasion. The prosecutor asks if her client would benefit if she did quaddition. The witness concedes the profits would indeed be higher...

And at the end, after considering the defeasibility of reason, sticking to case-based reasoning, minding stare decisis, and allowing his intuition to mull over all testimony, all exhibits, all arguments, and applying his experience and worldview, the judge decides, himself never having heard of quaddition, that the prosecutor is reaching. :D btw, The judges conclusion then establishes fact on behalf of society, at least until appeal.

But to conclude that neither addition or quaddition are meaningful? That would be a non-sequitur.

• This is an incredibly good answer, one of the best I've ever received to a question on this site, no less. Thank you so much! Jul 17, 2022 at 20:16
• Glad I could help connect some dots. I suspect it's just a matter of my nose spending more time in the philosophy of language.
– J D
Jul 18, 2022 at 14:18

Do we cause words to mean things, or do words cause us to mean things?

Words do not mean anything by themselves. If they did, we would not know what they meant, and if we could guess what they mean just by looking at them, then we would be able to learn foreign languages much faster than we do and without ever using dictionaries.

So words don't mean anything. Instead, humans do. We use words to mean things which can only be ideas we have in mind. This is why, when we do not understand what someone just said, we ask them "what do you mean?". Words do not explain themselves, only humans can do that, so we ask humans, not the words.

So we do not cause words to mean anything. Instead, we use them to express or represent ideas in our mind.

This works only when our audience, other humans, speak the same language as we do, in which case they know what we mean when we use a word only because they would use the same word to express the same idea.

What causes this to work just fine is human nature, and in particular the fact that humans have broadly the same cognitive capabilities and live in close-knit communities where people end up speaking broadly the same language.

• That is a good insight: we can talk because we are similar. Many stories have been written about how we might talk with other intelligences. Dolphins and octopus come to mind. Jul 19, 2022 at 1:23
• @ScottRowe Thanks. "other intelligences. Dolphins and octopus come to mind" The fact that there is some level of understanding across species requires either that we share some logical capability perhaps because our neurons are functionally essentially the same, or even that there is only one possible logic. Jul 19, 2022 at 9:42

A rough-and-(un)ready gloss of this, on my end, is something sloganish like, "The meaning of a term 'X' is a disposition, in users of 'X,' to refer to X upon consciousness of their (or an interlocutor's) transcription/vocalization/semiosis of 'X'."

No, that's not right. The disposition is not about an abstraction like what someone refers to. The disposition is about what the person does under different circumstances; for example, that the person performs the calculation of addition when prompted with a query of the form "x + y = what?".

Or, that the person (toddler?) has a tendency to point and says "cat!" when they see a cat. This is a disposition to say a certain word, depending on the circumstances.

The disposition is the intension, and the reference is the extension;

No, the disposition is not itself the intension. It is more a certain pattern of physical actions and reactions to stimuli - a certain input/output behavior.

We may imagine a certain mechanism, hidden among our neural circuits, that causes us to behave in a certain way under certain circumstances. This mechanism is what gives us the disposition.

What is said in the SEP article, is that the fact that we have this certain disposition, is the same as the fact that we assign a certain meaning to the term. This does not mean that the meaning is equal to the disposition, only that the meaning is a result of the disposition.

Let us use a metaphor. If I define the following Python function:

``````def Add(x, y):
return x + y
``````

and then call it like so:

``````print(Add(68, 57))
``````

Then there is no question of returning 5; the result is 125. The meaning of this term "Add" is given by the function definition. The function definition gives the Python interpreter a disposition to return 125 when Add(68, 57) is called. In fact, it gives the Python interpreter a mechanical procedure, a sequence of operations, to follow when Add is called, and it is this mechanical procedure that grants Add its meaning within the interpreter.

(To avoid any confusion: in this metaphor, the Python interpreter is likened with the brain, and the meaning of "Add" to the interpreter is given by its disposition of what to do when it sees the Add function called.)

• I have upvoted this answer, but I do want to quibble with characterizing an event of reference as an abstraction instead of an action. As I understand it, reference is a primitive or sui generis function of the mind, and when proactive (AKA "a priori"), it is something that we can be disposed to engage in. Jul 17, 2022 at 1:21
• @KristianBerry Well, the reductionist view - which is invoked in the phrase "reductive dispositionalism" - is that the brain calculates, and responds to stimuli, like any other physical object. It does not have "reference" as a primitive function, any more than a block of cheese has "reference" as a primitive function. We may be able to identify "reference" as an abstraction of some complicated things the brain is doing, but in the reductionist view it's not primitive. Jul 17, 2022 at 1:32
• Augh, I wasn't paying close enough attention while reading the SEP article, then. I just got hung up on the notion of dispositions more broadly, here. Now on the other hand, though, I do wonder if reference could be construed as an elementary physical process in, say, quantum information theory/panpsychism/what-have-you. Jul 17, 2022 at 1:43