Linguaform Philosophy of Mind Part 2


In my last blog I summarised three arguments which are typically used by philosophers to argue that having a language is necessary for thinking. In this blog I will criticise the first of these arguments and show that it does not work and hence are not conclusive evidence that language is necessary for thought. The three arguments were: (1) We do not have sufficient evidence to justify attributing an ontology to a child who has not mastered the syntax of quantification, (2) If we attribute thought on the basis of reliably discriminating aspects of their environment then we will end up attributing thought to thermometers etc. (3) When we attribute beliefs to non-linguistic creatures they end up behaving in an anomalous manner in relation to referentially opaque sentences. Each of these arguments require a detailed critique so I will give each argument its own blog.


Argument 1: An Experimental Reply:

In their 1990 paper ‘‘Ontological categories guide young children’s inductions of word meaning’’[1]  Soja, Carey, and Spelke tested whether the ontological distinction between objects and non-solid substances conditions the projection of word meanings prior to the child’s mastery of count/mass syntax. Quine denied that children make any ontological commitments prior to learning the syntax of quantification which helps them master the count/mass noun distinction. Here Quine is making an empirical claim that prior to grasping the count/mass distinction, an agent like Mother, a property like Red, and a non-solid substance like Water are on a par. According to Quine, it is only when a child has mastered the apparatus of divided reference through grasping the syntax of quantification that the child can distinguish these substances. Soja et al. set out to test these empirical claims of Quine’s. Before outlining their experiment I will outline Quine’s views on language acquisition.

                                             QUINE’S POSITION


Quine claims that when young children mouth words such as ‘Mama’, ‘Water’, or ‘Red’, we are in no position to state that they are using the words as terms which refer to the same things which we refer to by the sounds.

For though we may fully satisfy ourselves that the child has learned the trick of using the utterances ‘mama’, and ‘water’ strictly in the appropriate presences, or as a means of inducing the appropriate presences, we still have no right to construe these utterances in the child’s mouth as terms, at first, for things or substances. (1969, 7)


According to Quine, from our own mature perspective, we have come to view the child’s mother as a body which revisits the child from time to time, and water as a scattered object. However, from a behavioural perspective, we have little justification for imputing this ontology onto the child.  After making this negative point about our lack of justification for imputing our mature ontology onto the child, he then goes on to make a positive point about the nature of the child’s ontology.

But the mother, red, and water are for the infant all of a type: each is just a history of sporadic encounter, a scattered portion of what goes on. His first learning of the three words is uniformly a matter of learning how much what goes on about him counts as the mother, or as red, or as water. It is not for the child to say in the first case ‘Hello mama again’, in the second case ‘Hello another red thing’ and in the third place ‘Hello more water’. They are all on a par: Hello more mama, more red, and more water. (ibid., 7)


Here Quine is clearly claiming that young children who use words, such as ‘Mama’, ‘Red’ and ‘Water’ are not distinguishing them in terms of being respectively Objects, Properties, and Non-solid substances. His reason for arguing so is that we have no positive behavioural evidence to support the claim that children make such distinctions, and in the absence of such positive evidence, there is little reason to impute such a rich ontology to young children. Quine’s claim is that we should only attribute to children the ability to distinguish between Objects, Substances and Properties when we have behavioural evidence which supports us making this distinction.

Progressively, however, the child is seen to evolve a pattern of verbal behaviour that finally comes to copy ours too closely for there to be any sense in questioning the general sameness of conceptual scheme. For perspective on our own objectifying apparatus we may consider what steps of development make the difference between ‘mama’-babbling infant who cannot be said to be using terms for objects, and the older child who can. It is only when the child has got on to the full and proper use of individuative terms like ‘apple’ that he can properly be said to have taken to using terms, and speaking of objects. Words like ‘apple’ are not words like ‘mama’ or ‘water’ or ‘red’ are terms whose ontological involvement runs deep. To learn ‘apple’ it is not enough to have learned how much of what goes on around you counts as apple; we must learn how much counts as an apple, and how much as another. Such terms possess built in modes of individuation.  (ibid., 8)


Now Quine acknowledges that the child may learn ‘apple’ in the same way that he learns ‘mama’ or ‘red’ but he goes on to say that the child will never master ‘apple’ in its individuative use until he gets on with the scheme of enduring physical objects. And in order to get on with the scheme of enduring physical objects, the child will need to master the apparatus of identity, difference etc.  Quine claims that to be able to tell if the child has got the trick of individuation down, we need the following:

How can we ever tell if the child has got the trick of individuation? Only by engaging him in sophisticated discourse of ‘that apple’, ‘not that apple’, ‘an apple’, ‘same apple’, ‘these apples’, ‘another apple’. It is only at this level that a palpable difference emerges between genuinely individuative use and the counterfeits lately imagined. (ibid., 9)


It is at this stage that Quine claims that we are justified in attributing an ontology to the child. Prior to that, attributing an ontology to the child is making an unsupported conjecture which is not justified by the facts.  For Quine, our child learns the adjectives ‘same’, ‘another’, ‘an’, ‘that’, ‘not that’ contextually. First the child gets used to various longer phrases which contain them, and he gradually develops appropriate habits in relation to the component words as common parts and residues of those longer forms. He further speculates that the contextual learning of all of these various different particles goes on simultaneously, so that we gradually adjust them to each other as a coherent pattern of usage is evolved (ibid., 10). So the story of child ontology as Quine tells it is that the child’s words just represent scattered portions of what goes on and do not distinguish between Objects, Properties and Substances.

So Quine’s picture of a child learning language and the ontology which is implicit in this language involves pared down assumptions according to which we attribute to the child no more than is necessary to explain his verbal behaviour. Quine treats the babbling which a child begins to emit at the age of 12 months as a form of operant behaviour which is omitted rather than elicited. He claims that the family of the child will reinforce the child’s verbal behaviour (such reinforcement made possible by the child’s pre-linguistic quality space) in such a manner that the child’s use of observation sentences such as ‘mama’ will reliably distinguish between ‘mama’ portions of the environment, and ‘non-mama’ portions. However, at this stage we cannot credit the child with having an ontology; from the point of view of external verbal behaviour we have no reason to attribute to the child a concept of ‘Mama’ as a name of a spatio-temporal object, as opposed to being a name of a mere mass term like ‘Water’.  It is only when we engage the child in discourse and he can answer the questions using terms such as ‘not that mama’, ‘same mama’, ‘another mama’ etc., that we are justified in attributing to the child a concept of ‘mama’ as an object as opposed to scattered portion of mama environment etc.

                                    TESTING QUINE’S CLAIMS

Soja et al. conducted their experiments to test Quine’s claim (1960, 1969) that young children only develop an ontology after they have grasped the syntax of quantification.  Contrary to Quine, they claimed that young children have a distinction between different ontological categories prior to grasping the syntax of quantification, and that in fact these ontological categories constrain the process of language learning. They distinguished their views from Quine’s in the following way:

According to Quine, then, when children hear a new word, the meaning they assign to it is determined by procedure 0:

Procedure 0: Conclude that the word refers to aspects of the world that share salient properties of the perceptual experience when the word is used. (1991, 182)


Soja et al. proposed a different view of the procedures children use when they learn a new word; their procedure assumed that the child had ontological categories prior to learning the syntax of quantification.

Procedure 1    Step 1: Test to see if the speaker could be talking about a solid object; if yes,

Step 2: Conclude the word refers to individual whole objects of the same type as the referent.

Procedure 2 Step 1: Test to see if the speaker could be talking about a non-solid substance; if yes,

Step 2: Conclude the word refers to portions of substance of the same type as the referent.  (ibid., 183)


Soja et al. proposed an experiment which would decide between these two different proposals about how children learn new words.

One way for Soja et al. to test whether Quine was correct, or whether they were correct, was to test how children generalised when they learned words for different objects. If children could generalize prior to a grasp of the count mass syntax this would be evidence that Quine was wrong. They ensured that the experiment was done on children who are below the age of 2 ½, the age at which children master the syntax of quantification.  They tested how children generalise words to non-solid substances as well as to objects. If Quine is right that children generalise names by using Procedure 0, then children will generalize names based on shape whether the name originally refers to an object or a non-solid substance.


Twenty-four 2-year-olds from the Greater Boston area were recruited and randomly placed into two groups (informative syntax groups, and neutral syntax groups), with equal numbers of boys and girls in each group. Each testing session began with two familiar trials: one object trial and one substance trial. The stimuli in the familiar object trial were a blue plastic cup, a white Styrofoam cup and cup pieces. The stimuli in the familiar non-solid substance trial were peanut butter and Play-doh. These trials followed the same format as the unfamiliar trials described below.  The two familiar trials were followed by eight unfamiliar trials: four object trials and four substance trials which were intermingled. The subjects were tested on each trial on two separate occasions. Eight novel words were used: ‘blicket’, ‘stad’, ‘mell’, ‘Coodle’, ‘doff’, ‘tanninn’, ‘fitch’, and ‘tulver’ (ibid., 187)


The test involved presenting the child with an unfamiliar object, e.g. a plumbing T-shaped pipe, and giving the child a name for the object, e.g. blicket. In the neutral syntax condition the child is told ‘This is my blicket’. The experimenter then continued to talk about the object using ‘my’ ‘the’ and ‘this’ as determiners. She and the subject then manipulated the object. The object was then placed to the side and two other sets of objects were then presented to the subject.  One set consisted of objects of the same sort as the original but made of a different material, e.g. a plastic T shape; the other set consisted of objects of the same material but a different shape i.e. bits of metal.  The experimenter then said ‘Point to the blicket’


The child was shown an unfamiliar substance, and told ‘This is my stad’. The experimenters referred to the substance using only the determiners ‘my’ ‘the’ and ‘this’. The experimenter and the subject talked about the substance and played with it.  In the presentation of test substances, the subject was shown two substances, the original and the new one, and told ‘Point to the stad’.  The original substance was in the alternative configuration, whereas the new substance was in the configuration used originally with the named substance.  There were four pairs of substances: (1) Dippity-do (a setting gel), and lumpy Nivea (a hand cream mixed with gravel), (2) Coffee (freeze dried) and Orzo (a rice shaped pasta), (3) Sawdust and leather (cut to tiny pieces), (4) Crazy foam and Clay. Of each pair one member was named and the other was used as the alternative to the original in the test presentation. Each member served in both roles across subjects.


This condition differed from the neutral syntax condition only in the determiners and quantifiers used when naming the original stimulus. The experimenter introduced an object trial in the informative syntax condition with ‘This is a blicket’ and used ‘A blicket’ and ‘Another blicket’ in subsequent discussions. Substance trials in the informative syntax condition were introduced with ‘This is stad’ and in subsequent discussion the experimenter continued to omit determiners or use ‘some’ or ‘some more’. This was the only difference between the different informative and uninformative trials. In the familiar word trial subjects differentiated the object and the substance trials as predicted.

                                   WORD LEARNING TRIALS

Subjects differentiated the two types of trials.  Responses were consistent with shape and number on the object trials, and were not consistent with shape and number in the substance trials.

                                     WHAT THE TEST SHOWS

If before the child has grasped the syntax of quantification the child differentiates in the above manner, this shows that the child is not generalizing the word-based perceptual similarity, but is doing so based on the type of object he is presented with. So, for example, if he was generalizing according to an innate perceptual similarity quality space which focuses on shape then why does this not work for substances? The answer is because the child recognises that objects and substances are distinct ontological categories. Soja et al. summed up their results as follows:

In sum, the children chose according to object type when the stimulus was an object and according to substance type when the stimulus was a non-solid substance. There was no effect of the syntactic context: performance was neither facilitated nor hindered by the additional syntactic information.

The data from Experiment 1 show that different inferences about the meaning of a newly heard word are drawn according to the ontological status of its referent. If the word refers to an object, the child’s projection respects shape and number, and ignores texture, color, and substance. If the word refers to a non-solid substance, the child’s projection ignores shape and number, respecting texture, color and substance. (ibid., 192)


From this experiment, Soja, et al. claim to have shown that Quine’s view of how children learn language is incorrect because the experiment shows that, contrary to what Quine claims; children do indeed have a distinction between different ontological categories prior to grasping count/mass syntax. It also shows that these innate ontological categories are what help a child learn a language and not the apparatus of quantification. Soja et al.’s experiment purports to have shown that children learn words according to ontological distinctions which they exhibit knowledge of prior to learning a language.  So their experiment strongly indicates that Quine is wrong on the issue of whether a child needs to master the syntax of quantification in order to have ontological commitments. It should be noted that this experiment was done on a very small sample so it needs to be replicated and done on different samples before it can be considered a conclusive refutation of Quine’s position. Nonetheless the experiment is extremely suggestive and does indicate that Quine is wrong.

In the next blog I will consider argument 2 the thermometer argument and show how it can be handled by adopting the intentional stance. I will consider objections to the intentional stance reply in particular Donald Davidson’s intentional realism. In the third blog I will consider the referential opacity objection.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s