PHL471: Some Thoughts on Millikan's Varieties of Meaning
Some Thoughts on Millikan's Varieties of Meaning
- Millikan argues that we have many and potentially conflicting
purposes, and that there is no clear line dividing them into the
special volitional actions of our whole person and some part of
- Note that this also means that Millikan is arguing there is
no clear division between, say, the kind of special volitional
actions we might call the exercise of free will or at least some
kind of autonomy, versus, say, our "biological" purposes like an
eye blink or digestion. This is a radical and fascinating claim.
- She considers several examples of behaviors. Some include:
- Conditioning for eye-blinks
- Facial expression of (basic) emotions
- Greeting rituals
- Preference for sweet foods
- Becoming aware of your breath
- But each of these presents a conundrum
- Is the eye-blink conditioning something we "repress"? No.
And being aware of it may not change our behavior.
- Are the facial expressions any less or more meaningful
if we don't know we are doing them?
- Do we really know the purpose of all of our culturally0
- The preference for sweet foods has a good evolutionary
explanation. One can know or not know this and find the
- The role of breath does not change when we become aware
of it, does it?
- Human's, we might still argue, have language and complex internal
representations. Doesn't this give them special kinds of purposes?
Millikan says no.
- The purposeful devices enabling language must be
general (just as the purpose of a camera is not to take
any particular picture); so the purposes involved in our
best explanations are not going to be primarily the
contents we concern ourselves with.
- Being aware of a purpose does not change the purpose!
Some Observations on Chapters 3 and 4
- Here, Millikan endorses a controversial idea, and one
that is indepedent of the view we saw in "Biosemantics": she
endorses the claim that there are memes.
- Evolution has produced new types of evolution, and
this includes memes.
- Memes are patterns of behavior (and this includes ideas).
Given that we can learn patters of behavior (and ideas), but
that we have limited time and capacity, it is reasonable to
conclude that memes can be "in competition" for our attention
and support (we support them when we adopt and transmit them).
- In this way, meme's are like genes: they are structures
that get transmitted and multiply (more people adopt the idea
for memes, more organisms of this kind are born for genes).
Competition can mean even that they fall to a kind of natural
- Millikan says the purpose of the meme is whatever causes it
to be reproduced (important: note that this can be something we do
- There is a challenge lurking here: Millikan allows that some
memes may have purposes which are not our own. I imagine astology
memes might be an example. But then, what purpose could such
things have but to be reproduced? And why doesn't the explanation
of all memes fall to this single purpose? Presumably we will need
to say of some memes that we reproduce them because they are
useful; and of others that we reproduce them because they exploit
or trick us. How will we draw this line?
- One way to draw this line is to identify devices in
humans that transmit memes or support the transmission of memes,
for specific kinds of purposes. Cooperation mechanisms might
be an example.
- Examples might include devices that in order to facilitate
coordination cause some conformity, and this is partly accomplished
through sharing common memes. Millikan makes three very interesting
- Contrary to much game-theory poisoned philosophy,
Millikan asserts that most cooperation is not mysterious
and not something that overcomes competition. Rather,
cooperation is usually a benefit to all cooperators. (To
see an idea of what she means, you can look at some notes
on the prisoner's dilemma
- Millikan claims we use belief-desire psychology after
the fact, and not to make predictions as Dennett claims.
Rather we predict people mostly on the basis of patterns
we see in behavior.
- Also, we predict behavior based on patterns of
- It is a plausible hypothesis then that one mechanism
transmitting memes is a mechanism that encourages social
conformity (which is really sharing common memes). Meme
transmission may often then happen in ways that have nothing
to do with utility or reason or sophisticated cognitive
- Memes can thus have a general purpose which covers some but
not all instances: they serve to coordinate activity between
- Millikan ends by distinguishing a more fine grained notion
for meaning than for representation. The latter refers primarily
to "satisfaction condidtions" -- something like a (potential)
state of affairs..
- Millikan redefines natural signs,
natural information, and intentional
- Some distinctions: natural signs cannot be false,
but intentional signs can be. Also, some intentional
signs depend upon (and when true, are) natural signs, but not
- Dretske's theory of natural information is untenable,
since he argues that they depend upon a probability of 1
in a correlation, but then his examples are frequently of
statistical relationships (which are not of probability 1).
- Also, clearly there can be information about particulars,
but not laws about particulars (e.g., information about George
- Millikan introduces two notions:
These are in contrast to Dretske's notion of
information, which she renames "context free natural
- Local natural information
- Locally recurrent natural signs
- Context free natural information aims to be a
natural correlation in the world (perhaps of probability
1) between As and Bs. Then As are context free signs of
- Millikan replaces this with the notion that As
are signs of Bs if there was some reliable connection
in the past that we found we could learn from. (Note:
she changes the game from conceptual analysis -- what
is a sign? -- to theory construction -- what makes for
a reliable sign?)
- These signs are local because they are learned and
used only in local contexts. They are recurrent because
the relationship that allows them to indicate or represent
can occur several/many times.
- Millikan goes on to argue (C4) that these signs
can be compositional/productive, and they can be "embedded."
- Natural signs are states of affairs that represent
states of affairs. (This is no small move -- there is great
controversy in philosophy about "states of affairs" and "facts."
They are common-sensical until you start thinking hard about
what they might be. Still, the notion seems not particular
dangerous for Millikan, since she need only specify enough of
a SOA to describe how it reliably is correlated (locally) with
some other SOA.)
- Since SOAs can change in terms of various magnitudes, she
argues that similar/kinds of SOAs can carry diverse information.
Also, when we see the relationship of a natural sign in other
contexts, we are seeing different cases of productive use of the
sign -- it is being used for different cases (different times,
places, objects). (Look at the gas gauge example: we can understand
them in different cars, so they productively mean "amount of gas
in this car.")
- Embedding is when the information can be taken to refer to
more and more SOAs. The geese flying south means the geese are
flying south, but also that winter is coming.
Chapters 6 and 7
- Teleofunctions will not explain what representations are, not
how they connect up with the world, but they will explain the normative
nature of representations.
- Millikan attributes the idea that teleofunctions migth
explain more to a confusion in Brentano's work. Understand that
many philosophers took Brentano's notion of the "intentional
inexistent" and made many conundrums of it. Where is the Santa?
Is there a possible Santa I represent? A Santa image? What is
this inexistent Santa object? Etc.
- On Millikan's account, a false representation is one that
fails to represent. They are "representations" in the sense that
they are tokens in the device which has the function to represent,
but they fail to do so.
- "To represent" is ambiguous: it means (1) there is a thing
and it is being represented, but also (2) one is trying to
represent something. On (1), there is an object, on (2) there
may not be. Some philosophers talk about intentional inexistence
and seem to treat (2) like (1) and wonder about the fictional
things that are "represented."
- Think of teleosemantics as something we add to some
theory of representation to explain its normative aspect.
- There is a potential confusion here. A shorthand gloss of
Millikan's view is that the teleofunction of a representation is
to represent something. But now suppose that our theory of
representation is a causal one (to which we add some
teleofunctional account). Teleofunctions describe goals, or
effects, of devices. A representation cannot have as its function
to have a causal relationship of such and such a kind -- it has to
exist first as a representation before it can have any
teleofunction, so how could it's teleofunction be to aim for it
being a certain kind of thing! It's like saying the goal of
every baby is to be born.
- But then how should we clarify this role for
teleosemantics? Millikan attempts it by floating three
- Whatever representations are on your
theory (Millikan calls this "basic representations"),
it could be that the teleofunction of the devices
that produce representations is to make
representations of that kind.
- There may be a device that makes representations into
the kind of thing you take to be basic. Functionalism
might be such a view: something acts as a representation
because the right kind of relationship gets set up with
other internal states.
- There are devices which when fulfilling their
teleofunction (Millikan says, "acting normally" and here
"normal" is used as explained in "Biosemantics") use basic
representations. Something is a representation of the
right kind when it is produced by or used by (that is, is
necessary for the teleofunction of) that device.
- Millikan's approach is the third alternative.
- We observed last time that you can understand Millikan
in terms of the Wright Schema. This schema is an analysis
in a very general form of how we might reduce teleofunctions.
It goes like this.
The teleofunction of structure S is to do f if and
Here we generally should read S and f as types. Also, I described
S as a structure; I consider this more conservative but Millikan will
also allow that memes have teleofunctions. The heavy
lifting is done by the second clause. We can interpret Millikan as
saying that the structure is there because it was selected to do f.
- S does f
- S exists because it does f
- I mentioned the systematist view. My work on this includes the
following paper: Ontology and Teleofunctions,
which I include only for those who may be interested.
Our interest in these chapters concerns primarily just a few facts.
Some thoughts on Part IV
- Millikan proposes three ways in which representations
can be used by a system in terms of how they relate to the
- Direct: the representation is
local natural information that is taken
to describe something about the world.
- Directive: the representation is
local natural information that is used
in part to motivate an action which in
turn may cause some change in the world;
and it is this change which is actually
- Pushmi-Pullyu (hereafter "PP"): these are a mix of
descriptive and directive.
- Millikan argues that we can easily explain the strange
features of intensionality with the claim that representations
be in a context where "grammar alone does not tell what likeness
- Thus, an intensional context may include that "Jones believes
Malcolm X is tall" but we cannot conclude that "Jones believes
that Malcolm Little was tall" even though MalcolmX = MalcolmLittle.
She appears to be saying that the problem is that in the first
sentence grammar does not tell us whether "Malcolm X" means "the
person referred to by me as 'Malcolm x'" or "That man I'm pointing
at now" or "The person Jones believes is called Malcolm X and which
she believes has no other name" and so on. This is a rather simplistic
and bold move to do away with a great many philosophical problems.
It is fruitful to think of Millikan as in these chapters primarily aiming
to speculate about how representational devices, and so representations,
evolved. Since she sees PP representations as common to all representing
organisms, she in part sees this as the task of explaining what distinguishes
some of the abilities of humans from nonhuman organisms, partly in terms of
the evolution of PPs.
- One striking feature of human representations, according to Millikan,
is that we have pure descriptive, and pure directive, representations.
- Recall that PPs both describe and direct at the same time. The
beaver tail slap describes both danger and directs flight. She speculates
that it is possible that all nonhuman representations are PPs.
- Many (most?) internal representations are PPs. Examples include
representations used by our bodies for various homeostatic balancing acts.
Reflexes and some emotional behaviors are directed by PPs.
- Millikan argues that PPs can
- be abstract, contrary
to the traditional idea that primitive signs are all concrete. But it
all really turns on how the device that "consumes" the relevant PP is
using it; if it needs and can find abstract information in the
PP, then that PP is abstract.
- refer to distal (distant) affairs
- refer to future or past affairs
- Presumably PPs evolved to be articulate and combinatorial so
that they could direct more and more complex and useful behaviors.
- Some of these combinatorial parts may come to play a role that
is largely descriptive -- one way perhaps that we evolved descriptive
- There are two aspects of the PP: identification of affordances
(opportunities for action) and identification of the relation of self
to that affordance. There is evidence in the separate motor and descriptive
visual tracks that vertebrate vision is hardwired for two such aspects
- We can see highly repititious and ineffectual behavior in
the "pure PP" animal because it does not represent the success
conditions (or, really, the purpose) of its own PP-directed actions.
Examples include the Sphex wasp, etc.
- Note that there is a difference between representing things in
order to complete some task, and representing what it is to have
completed that task. The latter is not present in most animals and so
they can exhibit very repititiuos behavior even when it is unsuccessful.
- Millikan argues that the first step in separating description from
directive is to represent the goal state of a PP. Millikan hypotheses
that a common representational system evolved in animals to represent
by current (for pushmi) and future (pullyu) information
- Millikan has a suggestion for what separates us from other animals:
we will collect (remember) information for which we have no specific