Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Two views on Mind, Concepts and Language

To understand the way in which cognition, the nature of the mind and language relate to each other it is useful to see how two different views on either one of these topics work in comparison to each other.

There is a view on language, concerning the content of proper and common nouns, which claims that their meaning is solely their referent. According to this view, proper nouns have individual objects as referents and common nouns sets of objects. Concepts are similarly understood as just sets of objects. Thus, to know a concept one must know its extension. A view of the mind as causally structured and determined, follows this view. If the mind is an information processing system, it does its processing by taking input and giving output. All these can be understood as the way the mind interprets the environment.

Another view on language claims that the meaning of proper and common nouns is the referent plus a mode of presentation of it. In other terms, the meaning is partly the referent and partly the meaning of a definite description. Concepts are equally defined as having more than just extension; they have, also, an intension. It is difficult to see, however, what an intension is (unlike extensions, intensions are not objects) and, thus, how it relates to the human mind. So there is not an explicitly causal account of the nature of the mind. If the mind is an information processing system it is not clear, neither that it relates causally with the input (environment), nor that the interpretation of the input is a causal function. Two prominent accounts of properties (modal realism and the theory of universals) have been developed to account for intensions. Both, however, leave the processing relations unexplained. This is owed to the fact that there is no causal mind-intension relation; neither for the modal realist view, nor for the view that posits universals.

At this point it is important to note the similarities between both views: the linguistic position they take concerning the meaning of proper and common nouns determines (and is determined by) their view about concepts and about the nature of the mind. Thus, evidence coming from any of these different areas can help getting things clear in the other two. It can be, for instance, that a better view on concepts, and cognition in general, helps us get the story about the mind straight, and also about language. Suppose, for example, that it is shown that the mind works by establishing causal maps of the objects in the environment. Such a view would exclude the possibility of concepts being more than extensions of objects and, with it, the need for something else than referents to determine/constitute meaning.