Category Archives: Linguistic Meaning

The Qua-Problem and Meaning Scepticism

My latest (and basically first) peer-reviewed publication, “The Qua-Problem and Meaning Scepticism”, is out in Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations here:

For those who don’t have access via their institutions, an archive copy of the article is available for download from  NOVA: The University of Newcastle Research Online .

Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.

Meaning and Marriage


I pitched the following to The Conversation some time ago, was rejected, and since then I’ve been trying to work out what to do with it. In light of their publication of Kevin Donnelly’s piece arguing against marriage equality, I thought it was time to publish it here as it addresses many of his arguments.

‘We can’t have same-sex marriage, because that’s just not what “marriage” really means.’

This has been a theme of some comments at The Conversation, whenever marriage equality is mentioned. (Update: it actually the entire theme of a recent article published there) On a different scale, but with similar intent, some governments have legislated to define marriage in a certain way – examples include the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 here in Australia and the Defence of Marriage Act (Sept. 21, 1996) in the USA. I would argue that in both cases, appealing to the real meaning of a word is problematic.

Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how or why particular words seem to have particular meanings. The idea that words should be used in some ways (and not others) is intuitively appealing. But on closer inspection, the idea that particular words mean, or refer to, particular things is sometimes quite tricky. In the case of marriage, it turns out to be particularly unhelpful.

In arguing that we should not enact same-sex marriage legislation because of the real meaning of marriage, the following question must be answered: Why do certain words mean certain things? There are, unsurprisingly, a number of theories. At the more radical end of the spectrum, Saul Kripke argued that there was no such thing as meaning anything by any word. I’m not going to go quite that far, not least because I think Kripke was wrong. It’s worth looking at how we might respond to scepticism about the existence of meaning as it highlights some of the difficulties in using the supposed ‘real’ meaning of marriage to justify denying same-sex couples the right to use that word.

So what is on the table in terms of backing up meaning?

‘Just look at the definition of the word’, some might say. Well, the definition of a word is what it is in virtue of the meaning of the word. If we can’t agree on the meaning, we won’t agree on the definition. On top of that, words are defined in terms of other words – words that we can also disagree about. So while we might start off arguing about the definition of ‘marriage’, we quickly move to disagreements over the meaning of ‘man’. Then we might quibble over the meaning of ‘male’. Every time you use a definition, I can claim that your interpretation of some word in that definition is flawed. If I were willing to extend my scepticism about the meanings of words far enough, there is no limit to how far this argument could go. What we need is an account of meaning that does not rely on our interpretations of other words.

We might look at the history of how a word has been used. So marriage would mean what it meant in the past, and should be used in accordance with how it has been used in the past. This might be tempting for those on the conservative side of this discussion. But if you acknowledge the fact that meanings change, you have to justify why the meaning of marriage should not change in this case. Also, how do you decide which bits of history to privilege? Do we include the history of other some cultures and not others?

Letting history go, some might appeal to the aggregate or majority view of how a whole group of people use a word right now, in the present. This might seem helpful, especially if the majority thinks as you do. But it is problematic nonetheless. If one person can be wrong about what a word means and how it should be applied, then it’s at least possible for a whole community to be similarly mistaken. A group of people thinking that something is true, and that thing actually being true are not necessarily the same thing. I’m not saying that it isn’t either, just that now you need an account of truth as well – we’ll leave that conversation for another day.

This brings us to what might be seen as a more metaphysically loaded theory. Why does marriage mean one man and one woman? Because the correct meaning of that word is ordained by God. This is an appealing solution for some people. However, I think there are two main problems.

The first is that not everyone believes in God, and if they don’t they are not going to accept this argument. Worse, about something like marriage, there is disagreement between different kinds of theists. Let me be very clear, this isn’t about atheists versus believers. Nor is it just about same-sex marriage. If two people both believe themselves to be Christians and they have a disagreement of the form: ‘It’s not really marriage if it wasn’t solemnised by a priest’ or ‘It’s not really marriage if the woman doesn’t submit to the man’, then deciding on what grounds we pick one view over the other is going to be complicated. Going down the road of arguing about which one of these people are ‘real’ Christians is unlikely to lead anywhere constructive. All that has happened is that an additional can of worms has been opened and people of other faiths (or no faith) are no closer to being convinced.

Even if we accepted that a particular God does exist, and that They do have a particular idea of what a word means, we have to be certain that we have correctly interpreted Their meaning. Some might argue that God puts the correct concept directly into our brains, thereby bypassing the problem of interpreting His meaning. But if this were the case, how could we ever make mistakes in how we used this word? I imagine that even very devout people occasionally make mistakes when using words like marriage. If this is true, then it counts as evidence against God putting the concept of marriage into our minds in some direct way. And if that’s true, we are interpreting His word, allowing room for potential error. Humans are finite and fallible. And while an omnipotent being (by definition) could surely imprint a word on our brains so thoroughly and perfectly that we never use it in error, I do not see any evidence that this actually happens.

In light of these difficulties, legislating to protect the real meaning of marriage is difficult. Some might claim that we cannot change how the word marriage is applied in real life, because that new application is supposedly out of line with the real meaning. But this can only be rationally defended to the extent that the account of what constitutes meaning actually works – otherwise your argument is a house built on sand. Clearly, I don’t have all (or any) of the answers. But I would encourage people, whether they are people of faith or not, to think carefully about what philosophical baggage they might need to unpack whenever they talk about the ‘real’ meaning of a word.

photo credit: torbakhopper celebrate good times!!! marriage equality : castro rally, san francisco (2013) via photopin (license)

Submissions Wanted for Upcoming Philosophers’ Carnival

Philosophers’ Carnival #173 will be happening soon. And unless there’s been some change of plans, it will be happening here! (And if not here, then somewhere). So, if you have some philosophical content on a blog that you would like to be included, please go here and use the submission form – soon!

Please be aware that I’m happy to consider contributions from across the breadth of philosophical disciplines, practices and traditions. That said, I’ve got a soft spot for all things science-fiction, so if your post has some SF-meets-philosophy action going on, I’d be especially thrilled.

172nd Philosophers’ Carnival

The next Philosophers’ Carnival is on at  It features an interesting selection of articles across a wide range of areas – mainly analytic, but with plenty of ‘non-Western’ and a little bit of continental as well.

I haven’t read them  all yet (still catching up on last month), but I do like the first two – the Leveling Argument and Playing Outside Your Wheelhouse.

My note on a feature of some conspiracy theories snuck in as well. I’m pretty excited to be involved in the Philosophers’ Carnival again and am looking forward to hosting the March installment.

Pure Causal Reference vs Kripke’s Sceptic

A lot of my PhD was dedicated to arguing in favor of a causal-hybrid solution to Kripke’s (1982) meaning-scepticism.

For those unfamiliar with this particular brand of scepticsm, it is basically the idea that there is no such thing as meaning a particular thing (or indeed anything) by any word. Kripke has his own ideas on what is going on when we communicate, but not everyone accepts them. Actually, declaring that there was no such thing as meaning, rather that we simply behave in accordance with what the rest of our linguistic community accepts, has produced quite a reaction over the years. This largely consists in trying to prove Kripke wrong – a position that I have myself adopted. For a good overview of what has been written on this topic, I would recommend

Just a few days ago (and months after I’d submitted my thesis) I came across a paper by Richard B. Miller, where he argues that Devitt’s hybrid-causal theory doesn’t work as a theory of reference, but that a purely causal account does. This is based upon an argument from Sterelny (1983), (which I haven’t read yet, so  my thoughts on it are very preliminary and subject to revision). This isn’t a complete treatment of Miller’s ideas, rather I’m just making a start on how they might be applied in the context of taking a fresh look at causal theories of reference

Consider the grouping of a  term such as tigers or kangaroos. In very simple terms, a causal theory of reference works by a speaker baptizing a sample of a kind, that they have perceptual (and hence causal) contact with, with a particular name. This word is passed on to other speakers through their causal contact with the original baptizer and the reference grounds in that kind when other speakers use it in virtue of the causal chain that leads back to the original baptizer and the sample of that kind. A word like ‘tiger’ refers to tigers and not aardvarks because there are tigers in that causal chain, but no aardvarks. The theory functions in a similar way for proper names.  As a theory of meaning, we would use it in a comparable way.

There is a problem with this theory though. Devitt and Sterelny describe it as “the problem of discovering in virtue of what a term is grounded in the cause of a perceptual experience qua-one-kind and not qua-another” (1987, 254).  This is usually known as the ‘qua problem’. In the case of a name, we might have baptized an individual with a particular name, but our perceptual, and hence casual, contact with them has not been with all of that individual throughout all of time. In time, our contact with this individual is finite for any particular grounding. We are only with them for particular times and we only have perceptual contact with the parts of them we can see. In the case of an individual, we might ask why the reference of the name grounds in the whole individual for their entire life, rather than just a particular time-slice or unattached part of them.

The solution that Devitt and Sterelny (1987) explore, and that Devitt sticks with into his later work such as Realism and Truth (1997), is to introduce  descriptive element. In other words, the baptizer needs to have some idea – some mental content- about the thing that they are naming. For example, you need to have an idea that you are naming a whole individual, despite the limitations of your causal contact with them.

This causes a problem for using a causal theory of reference to solve Kripke’s meaning scepticism as this mental content is not immune from sceptical attack. I hope to publish something about how I’d solve this issue soon, but in the interim, pp 134-136 of A sceptical guide to meaning and rules, by Martin Kusch (2006) gives a good run down on on why this is such a problem. Miller has a different way of dealing with the qua-problem, and I’m wondering what this might mean for dealing with Kripke’s challenge.

Miller’s approach is not to solve the qua-problem using mental content to specify how a word refers. Rather he avoids it by advocating a purely causal relation between a word and its referent.

According to Miller, Sterelny (1983) argues that an additional requirement should be added to the grounding of reference –  the grounder of the name (the speaker) must have acquired the capacity to reliably recognize  the kind referred to. Miller formulates it as follows:

The speaker S can use his perceptual contact with x to ground ‘N’ on the kind Q if x qua Q causes S to acquire a reliable ability to discriminate Qs.

This ‘tightening up’, as Miller puts it, of the causal relation, solves the issue. Individuals – in this case individual kangaroos – have the causal powers that they do in virtue of the classes to which they belong. My preliminary reading of this is that the class is not of time-slices of kangaroos or un-detached kangaroo parts. Miller states that the disposition a speaker gains is not to think of an individual when confronted with it’s time-slice, so I think I am on the right track, even though I feel the need to think more on it.

In stating that the relevant causal class is the one that gives a speaker a disposition to think ‘kangaroo’ when exposed to kangaroos, Miller appears to moves his argument into difficult territory.

This is because dispositions to think or act a certain way are finite in nature and the extension of ‘+’, for example is (in theory) infinite. Once the numbers get too big, we are no longer relying on what a speaker is disposed to do, rather we are relying on that they would be disposed to do under an idealized situation. In saying we know how an idealized speaker would respond, we are saying that we already know what the right way to react is – and that’s exactly what Kripke claims we cannot know (because there is nothing to know).

The original formulation of this problem related to arithmetic where the ‘infinite extension’ of functions appeared to be an issue. It might not be clear how this applies to kangaroos, but consider that we have had a finite number if times that ‘kangaroo’ has been applied to particular animals in the past – even collectively. Kripke’s sceptic might well ask why we trust a finite causal chain to justify a potentially infinite future usage of that word? They could argue that ‘kangaroo’ refers to tangaroos –  kangaroos up to March1 2015, and then both kangaroos and tigers thereafter.

It would take a while to completely explain why this can’t be, but a summary of my position is that because reference is causal-determinate, ‘kangaroo’ can’t refer to tigers in the future unless the word has some how been causally connected with tigers in the past. The only way the sceptic can try to salvage their position is by claiming that we were wrong about the nature of the categories kangaroo and tiger. You might buy that there is no objective difference between kangaroos and tigers, but I don’t.

It is also not clear how Miller intends to deal with issues of normative value – the notion that there is a way that we ‘ought’ to use a certain word a certain way. This is not unique to his particular causal theory – I believe that even Devitt’s hybrid theory needs some clarification if we are using it for these purposes, but that is a story for another day.

Overall though, as long as it is the causal history that meaning is grounded in, and not the disposition to react a certain way, then Miller’s account does not fall to the same objections are disposition based accounts. If he can overcome the qua-problem, which is what I’m working on testing at the moment, then he adds another important variation to a causal solution to the problem of meaning-scepticism. Given that Kusch’s (2006) main objection to this sort of solution was the qua-problem, I’d say it was worth considering.



Devitt, M. (1997). Realism and truth (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Devitt, M., & Sterelny, K. (1987). Language and reality. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Kusch, M. (2006). A sceptical guide to meaning and rules. Chesham, UK: Acumen Publishing.
Maddy, P. (1984). How the causal theorist follows a rule. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 9(1), 457-477. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.1984.tb00072.x
McGinn, C. (1984). Wittgenstein on meaning. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Publishing.
Miller, R. (1992). A purely causal solution to one of the qua problems. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 70(4), 425-434. doi: 10.1080/00048409212345301
Sterelny, K. (1983). Natural kinds terms. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 100-125.