A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Further Thoughts on Concepts and Meaning of Common Nouns

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on January 17, 2008

Continuing from the previous post, I will use Putnam’s analysis from his 1970 paper ‘Is Semantic Possible?’, to give some comments about how acknowledging that plural forms of common nouns (like ‘lemons’) have meaning but singular forms (simply ‘lemon’) don’t, helps us avoid difficulties that different theories about meaning related to traditional views of concepts encounter when they put attention on the singular form (‘lemon’).

Putnam starts with the ‘traditional view’, where

the meaning of lemon, is given by specifying a conjuction of properties. For each of those properties, the stataement ‘lemons have the property P’ is analytic truth; and if P1, P2, …, Pn are all the properties in the conjunction, then ‘anything with all the properties P1, …, Pn is a lemon’ is likewise an analytic truth.

However as he notes, this is simply wrong, as if we for example take defining characteristics of lemons to be yellow color, tart taste, etc…, it is easy to imagine for example a lemon which is blue, or which doesn’t have tart taste. So, obviously what is said to be meaning of ‘lemon’ in that quote, can’t be the meaning of ‘lemon’. If it was, it would be impossible for us to imagine blue lemon, same as it is impossible for us to imagine square circle.

The next step Putnam sees as possible for ‘perfecting’ the traditional view, we see that the problem is somewhat solved when we start to think in terms of lemons, and not lemon. In the second try, we get that ‘lemon’ means – something

that belongs to the natural kind whose normal members have yellow peel, tart taste, etc..

So, instead of requiring that the meaning of ‘lemon’ is related to some defining features, we now turn our attention to the multitude, and to ‘normal features’ of this multitude. But, as Putnam points, the color of lemons might change because of some new gas in the Earth’s atmosphere which reacts with lemons’ pigment. We won’t say then that lemons ceased to exist (as there would be no such thing as ‘natural kind whose normal members have yellow peel, tart taste, etc…’).

It seems to me that both the need for ‘natural kind’ and ‘normal members’ speech is still connected to the thinking that what we are after when talking about meaning of common nouns is something related to the singular term – ‘lemon’ in this case. Talk about ‘natural kind’ is serving as a glue for ‘abnormal’ lemons, as surely we want what we mean by ‘lemon’ to cover them – any of those abnormal lemons is a lemon also. The other phrase ‘normal members’ on another side twists again the move that we made towards the multiplicity, and sees individual members as important. Those are, in my opinion, the reasons this stub at meaning of ‘lemon’ are still unsuccessful and get into problems.

Putnam further analyzes this move which might get the traditional view out of difficulties:

X is a lemon = df X belongs to a natural kind whose normal members …. (as before) or X belongs to a natural kind whose normal members used to … (as before) or X belongs to a natural kind whose normal members where formerly believed to, or are now incorrectly believed to… (as before)

While Putnam says that this definition which tries to address the issues of the previous is slightly crazy, I think that it is again move in the right direction. Putting aside that it still has the problems of the previous definition, it brings forward (well, at least points into direction of) one important thing – the act of baptizing is a conscious act in which we give a name to something of which we think – to something that appears as target to our intentional acts.

So, talking about meaning of ‘lemons’, it is important that people first notice that there is a phenomenon of some multitude in the world. And this simply by recognizing similarity – there is multitude of things in the world, that are similar somehow. Related to this, we can point to the moments in that definition that are still problematic:

1. Properties talk shouldn’t be essential – I don’t need to be able to recognize colors, or shapes for one lemon to remind me of another.
2. I don’t need to know what ‘natural kind’ is, to mean something by ‘lemons’. After all, it is fully meaningful to ask if lemons are natural kind. If what I meant by ‘lemons’ is tightly related to them being natural kind, the answer would be obvious to me.
3. Talk of normal members is not required too. That it so happens that there is phenomenon of some multitude of things, which happen to be similar in some way, is a normal situation which will motivate us to invent new common noun to use for those things. But that doesn’t imply anything about ‘normal members of a natural kind’, nor that I can find that this first gestalt similarity isn’t product of some “deeper” similarity which would uncover that there are abnormal lemons possible.
4. Because it is the multitude and the similarity which is important, we don’t have problems with the ‘vagueness of concepts’. The similarity might be continuous in the world – A might be similar to B, C similar to B, but less similar to A, D similar to C, but less similar to B and even more to A, etc… There is no objective way in which the common noun will cover the similarity just from A to C, and not to D. People might agree to use the common noun for C, and not for D, but you won’t find that in the meaning of the common noun. Related to this, this view where the meaning is related to similarity of a multitude, also doesn’t have problem with typicality effects.


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