More On Twin Earth and Change Of Meaning

In the post Phenomenology of Names and Twin Earth, I said that if one accepts the position that common nouns are based on awareness of multitude of things (real or assumed) which share some similarity, the consequence is that in the Twin Earth scenario, Oscar and Toscar mean same thing by “water” before they figure out that water is H2O, and that twater is XYZ. That is, because the similarity on which their words are grounded are shared across both water and twater.

In the comments of that post, I compared two scenarios to back up that claim:

Scenario 1:
1 – Martin sees a bunch of elm trees. He becomes aware of the gestalt similarity of this multitude and names those “trees”
2 – Later, on some other place, Martin sees beech trees and says – “Ah, there are more trees here”

Scenario 2:
1′ – Martin sees bunch of elm trees. He becomes aware of the gestalt similarity of this multitude and names those “trees”
1a’ – Martin further puts attention to the form of their leafs, branches, roots and so on. He gets more knowledge of the extension that he is acquainted with (and which he calls “trees”).
2′ – Later, on some other place, Martin sees beech trees. But in this case he notices the difference between beech trees, and what he called “trees”. So he says – “Ah, there are those things here that are similar to the trees, but those are not trees”.

If you find the second scenario sounds wrong to you, just change the word “trees” with the word “elms”. Nothing substantial changes, by changing the word that is used.
Both scenarios seem normal to me, but in the first scenario word “tree” ends up meaning tree, while in the second scenario “tree” ends up meaning elm. However everything is same in both scenarios, so there has to be some change of meanings which corresponds with the additional knowledge that Martin gained in second scenario in step 1a’.

Richard in the comments said that if the additional knowledge changes the meanings of the words, then communication is not possible. One can point here to two things:

That it is a fact that this kind of differences of meaning appear in the conceptual development. Frank C. Keil in his book Concepts, Kinds and Cognitive Development does different tests of the development of different concepts in kids.
One example is where he asks children if some kind of transformation would change certain thing (animal, mineral, artifact) from one type to another. Here is an example of the story about tiger/lion “transformation”:

The doctors took a big tiger that looked like this. They used special fur bleach to take away its stripes, and they sewed on a huge mane so that it ended up looking like this. Was this animal after the operation a tiger or a lion?

The question was asked to children of different age, and the results were as in the following graph:

The X axis represents the kids’ grades K (5 to 6 year olds), 2 (7-8 year olds) and 4 (9 to 10 year olds). The Y axis represents the answers that were given, where 1 = judgment that transformation changed kind type, 2 = judgment indicating indecision on that issue and 3 = judgment that operation did not change kind type.

So, it seems that there is some change of what kids mean by “tiger” or “lion” through their development and I think that the graph goes nicely with the idea that first kids become aware of multitude of things that show gestalt perceptual similarity, and that only later they become aware of other kind of similarities that hold between certain multitudes. (This is surely a oversimplification, but I think it could be analyzed in more details if needed).

But what to do with objections like Fodor’s from Thought and Language, when talking about possibility that children and adults might mean different things by the words, he says (citation also taken from Keil’s book):

They must misunderstand each other essentially; and, insofar as they appear to communicate, he appearances must be misleading. Nothing less than this is entailed by the view that word meanings evolve.

I want to point here, that as long as the two meanings (in the sense of awareness of some similarity) are grounded on the same extension, the communication might go without bigger problems, as in both cases it is finally the extension that one is aware of (i.e. the multiplicity). So to say, as long the things that show the gestalt perceptual similarity which is ground for the usage of the common noun of certain person (e.g. “tree” in the example) are the same things which show some other kind of similarity that is ground for the usage of the same word for another person, those two persons will agree in lot of cases on the use of the noun. For example Martin-scenario1(after 1) and Martin-scenario2 (after 1a’), would not have lot of problems of communication until such things as 2/2′ happens.

19 thoughts on “More On Twin Earth and Change Of Meaning

  1. I find the all-or-nothing approach to meaning that is implicit in Fodor’s objection to be suspect. Why not say that the child’s use of a word approximates the adult’s use, or that the child satisfies some criteria, but not others, for the proper (i.e., the adult) use of the word? At any rate, the conclusion that adults and children are not communicating is absurd, and amounts to a reductio of Fodor’s position.

  2. Hi N.N., I think you have it precisely backwards…it is a reductio of the idea that the meaning changes.

    Hi Tanisije, sorry for the delay in responding…I have been quite busy…and doig a lot of traveling!!

    Anyways, as for your post, you gere seem to be (again) confusing what the person means with what the words means. I do not deny, nobody would, that the child may mean different things when they say ‘tiger’ or whatever, but the issue is whether the word, that is the symbal ‘tiger’ changes its meaning, and the point that I have been making, and that Fodor makes, is that that is seriously misguided, as it has these extremely counter-intuitive results.

    Finally (and I was going to say this in the other post, but may as well say it here)…if, as you say, it is the extension that grounds the reference of the term and gaurantees succesful communication, then your view is really just the normal causal theory of reference…

  3. Richard and N.N, thanks for the comments

    Richard, I would say that the word has meaning *only* in context of being used to mean something, and that it keeps its meaning because of the logic of communication which is that we want to use the word to mean what others mean by it.
    Surely through history what is meant by the word might change, so how can we speak of some objective meaning of the word which is separated from what it is used to mean? Was the first,or the second meaning its “objective meaning”?

    I guess, I should’ve been more precise re grounding the meaning in the extension. My position is that it is grounded in *awareness* of certain extension which shows certain similarities. But one can be aware of the extension as having one kinds of similarities, while other being aware of other kind of similarities of this extension. And because of that, while both persons will agree that the *original extension* is what the word is grounded in, or that the word can be used to pick out the individuals from the original extension, they might be disagreeing if some other entities are or not picked out by the word. I tried to point to this kind of case whit Martin and Martin’, and how they can disagree if the beech trees are or not “trees”, while all along agreeing that the entities from original extension are “trees”.

    If I said that it “guarantees” successful communications, I take that back. It would just provide successful communication given that complications doesn’t appear like in case with Martin and Martin’.

  4. Richard, on further thought I acknowledge that what is the issue here is not if different people can mean different things by the same word, but it is more specific. I wrote a new post about that.

  5. Yes, I agree with what you say about meaning…it is generally a Gricean sort of picture, which I am very fond of, but this story still lets there be some ‘objective’ meaning that is fairly stable through time…but meanings do not change, on this kind of view which we both seem to accept, when I, a particular user, find out some new info about something (like water)…it is a much slower and gradual process…meaning must be relatively stable in order to allow for communication, that is the point, and it is that point which your kind of view seems to run afoul.

    I don’t really know what you mean by “*awareness* of certain extension” if you don’t mean that I an perceptually related to the thing (or related to some other state that is ultimately related to the original perceptual state) and if you mean that then your view is simply the usual causal theory of reference (but hey! Nothing wrong with that!! :) )

  6. Let me try to explain connected to my motivation and background…

    When I say that the meaning is grounded in becoming aware of certain multitude (I guess I should stick with this word instead of extension in this case) that has some similarity, it is true that I think of being perceptually related to that multitude of things (or some historical connection).
    However while in the case of proper names the reference of the name doesn’t go beyond that individual object to which I’m acquainted, i.e. it refers only to that to which I’m perceptually acquainted, in case of natural-kind/artifacts/nominal-kind terms the name (usually) refers not just to the multitude that was motivation for the term, but also to other instances. So to say, I may ground my word “rabbits” after I see two rabbits, but usually I won’t mean “those two things I sow”, but also when I see third thing, I will say “hey, another rabbit!”.

    Now, I think that in some (all?) causal view of reference, the meaning of those terms (at least natural-kind terms), is grounded in the person being causally related to things which share some kind of essence. So, it is that presence of essence which makes it possible that when I see two rabbits and give name “rabbits” to them, that the term will refer to the natural-kind rabbits, and not just to the two rabbits that I saw.

    The difference here is that I don’t think there is a need for such causal relation to some essence, especially because I claim that it has to be something of which we are aware of and which we *decide* to baptize. Something like… “aha! there is that phenomenon, let me (or us) give a name to it, so we can talk about it, without pointing/description”. So, because we don’t have access (awareness) of any such thing as essence, to me the question appears – what is this thing(phenomenon) of which we are aware of in case of common nouns? As I already admit that we become aware of individual objects, the addendum is that we can become aware of multitude of those objects showing some kind of similarity. Again this kind of view explains why while the term is based on awareness of just several individual objects, can also mean “any such things”, so will not refer just to just the things seen.

    However, the consequence of this view is that the meaning of the term can change in specific cases, like the one I presented with Martin. It doesn’t seem to me that this creates problems with normal communication though, because in normal cases the similarities (i.e. further knowledge) will be added to the existing similarities, so that even the meaning changes it ends up referring to same extension. (So to say lions look same, and the further knowledge, will not replace this first perceptual similarity, just add to it)

  7. But nothing that you have said is in conflict with the causal theory of reference. Kripke doesn’t think that we have to be aware of the essence. Rather, we do what you say and then we learn that (say) water is H20 and so, since identity is necessary water is necessarily H20…so I still don’t see why you thinkyou have a different view…and I also don’t see why you think that this kind of view means that the meaning of words will change…

  8. Let me put it in this way… The issue is in virtue of what the term refers not just to the instances of which baptizer got aware (e.g. perceptually), but also to other instances as well?
    I think that it is because the baptizer becomes aware that there is multitude which has some similarity. However in this case the term depends what similarity the baptizer became aware of, so the term might have different meanings even if based on awareness of same instances.
    Becoming aware of bunch of elms, depending on what kind of similarities one notices, the word baptizer chooses might refer to trees or to elms.

    What does the causal view say? In virtue of what does the name “trees” refer not just to the instances which are causally related to the baptizer, but also to other trees?

  9. Yes that is the issue. All causal theories need to say something about this issue, it is extremely important…Kripke doesn’t really address it, Devitt thinks that the perceptual state that one is in has the biological function of representing a natural kind and it is that function that determines that the reference is to the kind, I think that it is the intention of the baptizer that does the trick; they think ‘aha! I’ll call that stuff over there ‘water” and it just so happens to turn out that the stuff over there called water is a natural kind, so I am partly in agreement with your view. The main difference is this ‘awareness of similarities’ stuff. I don’t think that that view works, because it makes the meanings of words way to fluid, They are chaning all of the time according to you and that is just (empirically) not the way things work.

    Also, how do you get to say what you do about water and elms and not say the same thing about proper names? Why does ‘Richard’ refer to me and not to all the people who look like me? You don’t seem to have a principled answer to that. But notice that I do, and Devitt does. Devitt will say that the perceptual state that the name is causally linked to is not one that has the biological function of representing a natural kind, and I will say that the difference lies in the intention of the baptizer (they intend to name that THING, not that STUFF)…but what can you say? The person becomes aware of some similarities, two arms, two legs, two eyes, etc…and says “aha! There is another one of those Richards”

  10. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the explanation of Devitt’s and your view, I will think about those different approaches.

    Can you point to a case where my view would go against “how the things work”? I don’t think with your general statement that it makes communication impossible. It does make communication problematic in specific cases, but I would say that if we check it empirically that is exactly what we will find. But if you can describe some intuitively obvious example which goes against this view, I will have to accept.

    As for the proper names, I don’t have any problem, because it is the common nouns that are grounded in awareness of *multitude* (so more than one thing) showing some similarity. The proper names are based on awareness of single individual. (i.e single individual appears as a intentional content of some intentional act, we become conscious of it, and decide to call him X). I think that this is not new, but as you say it is causal theory, just instead of causality, put in terms of intentionality. But the causal theorist can agree, as far as the intentionality is explained through causal relations.

  11. No problem. :)

    I will try to think of a common sense case and get back to you…

    But, I still think that you are missing the point of my last critisism…people are a *multitude* right? They show similarity, right? So how can you distinguish between awareness of a multitude and awareness of a single individual, as you need to?

  12. Hi Richard,

    No, I don’t think that we become aware of people as multitude (I wouldn’t agree that even they are multitude). We become aware of people as individual things. I talked in a previous post that individual objects are usually more salient than their parts, and that we usually become aware of individual objects as wholes.

  13. In that case then when we become asware of the rabbit we do so as an individual object, not as a multitude…or in other words, you need a coherent, principled way to distinguish between becomming aware of a multitude and becomming aware of an individual and so far you haven’t given one. Salience doesn’t help you because whatever you say about one can be said about the other.

  14. I’m not sure what the problem is.
    I take it that it is obvious that I can be aware of a pair of rabbits in front of me *as* multitude, while being aware of each of them as individual rabbits. In fact awareness of pair of rabbits is awareness of both of them as individuals at same time.

  15. The problem is that whatever you say here you will have to say about becomming aware of people…unless you have some reason to differentiate them, which you have not given.

  16. If I understand the objection right…

    The simplest case is the case where we have two rabbits in front of us. In such case we can be aware of both rabbits as individuals, and also be aware of the similarity.

    Of course, there are more complex cases, like when we see one of the things, it disappears and then we see the other. One thing we can say is that we can be aware that some things are somewhere even if we don’t see them. Some experiments show that we are aware of this at least as early as 4-5 months. So, depending on situation we will take it that it is the same thing, or another. If we take it that is the same thing, the issue of similarity doesn’t appear, to have similarity one needs to be aware of two things.

    Also, when we become aware of multitude which shows some similarity, that doesn’t mean that we are also not aware of them as different. That is to be aware that something is similar to something else, isn’t negating the possibility of awareness that both things are different.

  17. you say

    The simplest case is the case where we have two rabbits in front of us. In such case we can be aware of both rabbits as individuals, and also be aware of the similarity.

    my objection is to ask you how you distinguish that from teh following

    The simplest case is the case where we have two PEOPLE in front of us. In such case we can be aware of both PEOPLE as individuals, and also be aware of the similarity.

    My point is that you have not given any reason to think that the second is any different than the first, but you need to since you depend on this in generating the theory.

  18. If I’m aware of an individual through seeing, it will appear somehow to me. It won’t be just some general notion “individual”, but will be concrete individual which looks somehow, acts somehow, etc… That the individuals are somehow is required of course for there to be recognition later, or possibility for similarity with another individual.

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