3 The Demise of Definitions, Part I: The Linguist’sTale

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3 The Demise of Definitions, Part I: The Linguist’s


Certain matters would appear to get carried certain distances whether one wishes them to or not, unfortunately. —David Markham, Wittgenstein’s Mistress


I want to consider the question whether concepts are definitions. And let’s, just for the novelty, start with some propositions that are clearly true:

1. You can’t utter the expression ‘brown cow’ without uttering the word ‘brown’.

2. You can utter the word ‘bachelor’ without uttering the word ‘unmarried’.

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The asymmetry between 1 and 2 will be granted even by those who believe that the “semantic representation” of ‘bachelor’ (its representation, as linguists say, “at the semantic level”) is a complex object which contains, inter alia, thesemantic representation of ‘unmarried’.

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Now for something that’s a little less obvious:

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3. You can’t entertain the M(ental) R(epresentation) BROWN COW without entertaining the MR BROWN.

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4. You can‘t entertain the M(ental) R(epresentation) BACHELOR without entertaining the MR UNMARRIED.

I’m going to take it for granted that 3 is true. I have my reasons; they’ll emerge in Chapter 5. Suffice it, for now, that anybody who thinks that 3 and the like are false will certainly think that 4 and the like are false; and that 4 and the likeare indeed false is the main conclusion this chapter aims at. I pause, however, to remark that 3 is meant to betendentious. It claims not just what everyone admits, viz. that anything that satisfies BROWN COW inter alia satisfiesBROWN, viz. that brow cows are ipso facto brown.

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Proposition 3 says, moreover, that to think the content brown cow is, inter alia, to think the concept BROWN, and that would be false if the mental representation that expresses brown cow is atomic; like, for example, BROWNCOW.

What about 4? Here again there is a way of reading what’s being claimed that makes it merely truistic: viz. by not distinguishing concept identity from content identity. It’s not, I suppose, unreasonable (for the present illustrativepurposes, I don’t care whether it’s true) to claim that the content bachelor and the content unmarried man are one and thesame. For example, if concepts express properties, then it‘s not unreasonable to suppose that BACHELOR andUNMARRIED MAN express the same property. If so, and if one doesn’t distinguish between content identity andconcept identity, then of course it follows that you can’t think BACHELOR without thinking UNMARRIED (unlessyou can think UNMARRIED MAN without thinking UNMARRIED. Which let’s just concede that you can’t).1

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However, since we are distinguishing content identity from concept identity, we’re not going to read 4 that way. Remember that RTM is in force, and RTM says that to each tokening of a mental state with the contentso-and-so therecorresponds a tokening of a mental representation with the content so-and-so. In saying this, RTM explicitly means toleave open the possibility that different (that is, type distinct) mental representations might correspond to the samecontent; hence the analogy between mental representations and modes of presentation that I stressed in Chapter 2. Inthe present case, the concession that being a bachelor and being an unmarried man are the same thing is meant toleave open the question whether BACHELOR and UNMARRIED MAN are the same concept.

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RTM also says that (infinitely many, but not all) mental representations have constituent structure; in particular that there are both complex

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mental representations and primitive mental representations, and that the former have the latter as proper parts. We are now in a position to make expository hay out of this assumption; we can rephrase the claim that is currently beforethe house as:

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5. The M(ental) R(epresentation) UNMARRIED, which is a constituent of the MR UNMARRIED MAN, islikewise a constituent of the MR BACHELOR.

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Here’s a standard view: the concept BACHELOR is expressed by the word “bachelor”, and the word “bachelor” is definable; it means the same as the phrase “unmarried man”. In the usual case, the mental representation thatcorresponds to a concept that corresponds to a definable word is complex: in particular, the mental representation thatcorresponds to a definable word usually has the same constituent structure as the mental representation thatcorresponds to its definition.Jean-marc pizano


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