Wolfram Hinzen on Dennett and the Naturalization of Meaning.

In his interesting (2007) book ‘An Essay on Names and Truth’ Wolfram Hinzen tried to construct an internalist theory of meaning. His book contains excellent critiques of traditional attempts to deal with meaning such as Russell’s theory of descriptions, and points to various weaknesses in philosophers attempts at referentialist semantics. Hinzen’s position is interesting and nuanced, even if his answer to the traditional question of where meaning begins is shrouded in mystery. However some of his criticisms of philosophers who hold alternative philosophical views amount to nothing more than strawman. In this short blog-post I will discuss Hinzen’s critique of Dennett’s attempt to naturalise meaning, and show that Hinzen is wildly misrepresenting Dennett’s views. I will then proceed to compare Dennett’s actual position with Hinzen’s views on meaning.

Hinzen’s internalist account of concepts has been hailed as nothing short of a Copernican Revolution in philosophy by Cedric Boeckx. It is certainly true that Hinzen’s views on concepts do run against the externalist approach favoured by most philosophers of language. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Hinzen’s views are not dominant it is a bit of a stretch to label them as revolutionary. Hinzen’s views on the nature of concepts are basically just a combination of the views of Fodor and Chomsky on concepts. The way he brings the ideas together is novel and interesting but not the stuff of some wild paradigm shift.

Hinzen argues that concepts are atoms without internal structure, and that these atoms can be combined in novel ways using the syntactic operation merge. Now a basic concept that cannot be analysed further is obviously one that cannot be explained in any other terms than itself. Thus the meaning of the concept CAT is simply cat; there can be no further constituents to the concept. While thinking of concepts as atoms with no internal structure is extremely counter intuitive there are some good (but not overwhelming arguments for the position).

Traditionally when philosophers wanted to cash out what concepts were they attempted to do so interms of definitions, the idea being that each concept could be explicated in terms of its unique definition. Of course not all concepts can be definitions you need some basic concepts to define the others in terms of. A solution to this problem was to argue that some concepts are primitives and that all other concepts are defined in terms of these concepts. Thus on the empiricist side of things people like Hume argued that our primitive concepts could be cashed out in terms of sensory ideas, and more complex concepts could be constructed using these sensory primitives. On the rationalist side of things, people like Sue Carey argued that we have innate basic concepts like causation, agency, object etc and all other concepts can be derived from this basic list of inventories.

Fodor, of course, had serious difficulties with this solution he argues that concepts cannot in principle be cashed out interms of definitions. Firstly concepts compose but definitions do not, therefore concepts cannot be definitions. Secondly, despite years of searching concepts don’t seem amenable to definitions (except in a trivial sense). Based on facts like the preceding ones Fodor argues that concepts cannot be cashed out interms of definitions.

Another route to explicating the internal structure of concepts is to argue that concepts can be cashed out in terms of their inferential role. Famous exponents of this view are Bob Brandom and Paul Boghossian. Fodor argues that the view that concepts can be cashed out interms of inferential roles is not coherent. To make this argument he notes that inferential role semantics is typically married to pragmatism about concepts.

Fodor’s argument against Inferential Role Semantics as sketched in his LOT 2 is pretty simple. The argument is as follows:

  • Inferential Role Semantics claims that we can explain what a concept means by showing the inferential role it plays in our language.
  • But Inferential Role Semantics is circular. We can see this by looking at it in relation to the concept AND; if we try to define AND in terms of its inferential role we need to presuppose a precise meaning of AND to do so. Therefore our supposed inferential role definition of AND is circular.
  • Inferential Role Semantics theorists claim that Fodor’s argument against Informational Role Semantics doesn’t work because it gives primacy to ‘Knowing-that’ over ‘knowing-how’.
  • But Information Role Semanticists do the opposite. They in effect conjoin Inferential role semantics with Pragmatism.
  • According to Fodor this won’t work, Pragmatism does not distinguish between the ideas of fitting and guiding behaviour. Whereas Inferential Role Semantics wants to explain the meaning of concepts like AND in knowing that terms. The two programmes are incompatible.

“In short, pragmatists have a choice between analyses of rule-following that are too weak and analyses of rule-following that are circular. This is, I think, a bona fide dilemma; there is no way out. The long and short is that you can’t hold both that its definition-in-use has a privileged role in a semantics for ‘and’ and also that grasping ‘and’ requires no more than reasoning in a way that accords with its definition-in-use. Rule-according reasoning isn’t sufficient for rule-following reasoning. I repeat for emphasis: You aren’t following R unless R is the intentional object of one of your mental states.” ( Jerry Fodor ‘LOT2 p. 38)

“In particular, the definition-in-use story about concept individuation wants certain Gentzen style rules of inference to be constitutive of AND. But, according to concept pragmatists, what’s required for AND possession is just being reliably disposed to make valid conjunctive inferences; which rules you follow in making the inferences (indeed, whether there are any rules you follow in making them) isn’t relevant to whether you have a grasp of AND. (ibid p. 39)


  • Fodor concludes that Informational Role Semantics and pragmatism cannot be conjoined. One of them must be given up. He argues that Informational Role Semantics is false because as we have seen above it is circular even in its attempts to define simple concepts like AND. Whereas because he thinks that pragmatists cannot account for the compositionality of concepts that is a non-starter as-well.

Based on the above considerations Fodor argues that basic concepts cannot be explicated in terms of either definitions, or definitions-in-use. So Fodor concludes that basic concepts cannot be explicated further in terms of definitions; instead he argues they are atoms which don’t break down.

Hinzen doesn’t deal with the weakness of inferential role semantics instead he works on critiquing attempts to explicate concepts interms of definition, and he critiques attempts to explicate concepts interms of a relation of reference to a mind independent world. On the area of definitions he raised Fodor’s point that concepts like KILL cannot be explicated interms of the internal structure CAUSE TO DIE, because KILL and CAUSE TO DIE behave differently in syntactic constructions. Hinzen shows various different ways that KILL and CAUSE TO DIE behave both semantically and syntactically and draws the following conclusion:

This is evidence that a word like kill is not only syntactically but also semantically simple- it is an atom-contrary to a phrase like cause to die, which does exhibit syntactic and semantic structure” (Wolfram Hinzen ‘An Essay on Names and Truth’ p. 75)

After establishing to his mind that atomic concepts have no internal structure Hinzen points out that this will leave us with serious difficulties in explicating what atomic concepts actually are:

So, what is the essence of an atom? Clearly, the content of any concept C is essential to it, whatever notion of content or meaning one has (e.g. a referential or use theoretic one): concepts are semantically individuated. This is simply to say that without meaning house, the concept of a house, whatever it is, would not be the concept it is. I take it as undeniable that, again, whatever one’s notion of meaning, one will concede that our concept of a house means house and not horse, say, chair or Piccadilly.” (ibid p. 77)

Hinzen fully admits that this is a circular definition but he argues that there is no other non-circular way of explicating what the essence of our atomic concepts are. He even goes as far as to argue that if atomic concepts are to be analysed in terms of anything other than themselves then that analysis will belong to the relational explication of the concept not its intrinsic aspects. He then proceeds to analyse attempts to explain meaning relationally and show where these accounts go badly wrong. These attempts to explain meaning in terms of a word-world relation are badly wrong according to Hinzen. His criticism referential semantics is largely derived from Chomsky’s criticisms of attempts to cash out meaning in terms of reference (See Chomsky 1986, Chomsky 2000).

These Chomskian arguments centre on concepts like LONDON, BOOK, BANK etc which have curious and sometimes contradictory properties which suggest that they cannot be explicated in terms of referring to mind independent entities. Chomsky has famously argued that if we use a term in language, the use of the term does not automatically commit us to the ontological existence of the entity supposedly referred to by the term. So if we take terms like: ‘flaw’, ‘the average man’, ‘unicorn’, it does not follow that because these terms exist in our language that they refer to mind independent entities. He correctly stresses that we should not read off our ontology from our ordinary way of speaking. In another context Chomsky mentions how our ordinary concepts reflect intricate and surprising constraints on how we can interpret the world. These constraints will to a certain extent determine how we use our concepts to refer. Chomsky labels these constraints an I-variant of Frege’s telescope, implying that it is through the lens of these constraints that we can refer to entities in the world. So, for example, if we take the word ‘London’, this word has various different properties some of which are contradictory:

We can regard London with or without regard to its population: from one point of view, it is the same city if its people desert it; from another, we can say that London came to have a harsher feel to it through the Thatcher years, a comment on how people act and live. Referring to London, we can be talking about a location or area, people who sometimes live there, the air above it (but not too high), buildings, institutions, etc., in various combinations ( as in London is so unhappy, ugly and polluted that it should be destroyed and rebuilt 100 miles away, still being the same city). Such terms a London are used to talk about the actual world, but neither are or are believed to be things-in-the world with the properties of the intricate modes of reference that a city name encapsulates. ( Chomsky ‘New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind’ p. 37)

So terms such as ‘London’ are used to talk about the actual world but, according to Chomsky, people do not think that there are things in the world with the properties of the intricate modes of reference that a city name encapsulates.

In effect Hinzen’s project can be read as a sceptical attempt to rid linguistics of semantics and leave it to work primarily with syntax and pragmatics. He takes on board Fodor’s argument against definitions being incapable of demonstrating any internal structure in lexical atoms, and he uses Chomsky’s arguments to show how concepts cannot be explicated interms of word-world relations. He doesn’t develop any arguments against inferential role semantics which is a big oversight given how dominant the school is in contemporary philosophy of language. But we have seen that in his ‘Language of Thought2’ Fodor constructed a compelling argument against inferential role semantics. So let us assume for the present that Fodor’s arguments against definitions, and against Inferential Role Semantics are sufficient to show that human have atomistic concepts with no internal structure.

That leaves it very difficult to cash out what the nature of concepts is. Fodor tried to overcome this problem by developing a causal theory where concepts lock on in a law like manner to aspects of the mind independent world. But of course Hinzen is convinced by Chomsky’s sceptical arguments against the possibility of developing a word-world relation type semantics. Again let us assume that Hinzen is correct to follow Chomsky in his semantic scepticism. We are then lead to a situation where it is pretty much impossible to say what the nature of these atomic concepts are. Hinzen makes the uninformative proposal that we can say that the concept DOG essentially means dog (where the meaning dog cannot be cashed out in terms of a mind independent entity).So while Hinzen has used some pretty strong arguments to critique traditional conceptions of the nature of concepts and the nature of reference; what he has left in place is a mystery instead of an explanation.

Hinzen’s theory amounts to appealing to concepts, the nature of which is unknowable, these concepts despite appearances do not change as we learn more about the environment, and though we can use these concepts for certain purposes how we do so is shrouded in mystery. When all a theorist has to offer is a veil of mystery in place of a theory then a hard sell is necessary. Hinzen’s hard sell involves caricaturing people who hold opposing philosophical views to make his theory look comparatively superior. To put words in Hinzen’s mouth one can imagine him defending his mystery mongering as follows: “Sure my theory may amount to nothing but an appeal to a mystery, but that’s not surprising, we are after all angels not gods, there are bound to be things we cannot understand. Anyway at least my theory is more coherent than its nearest competitor take Dan Dennett’s silly views…”. My view that Hinzen caricatured Dennett as a way of making his own theory look comparatively good is obviously only speculation, but I am hard pressed to think of any other reason he would misrepresent Dennett so badly.

Hinzen critiqued Dennett’s views on the naturalisation of meaning; arguing that they were wildly out of step with what we know about language and how it works. Dennett’s mantra in a nutshell is “don’t expect more determinacy of meaning than reality allows”. Dennett uses frogs as a way of illustrating his point about meaning and its level of determinacy. Frog’s eyes are triggered by moving flies, and when a moving fly is registered frogs will catch them with their tongues and eat them and he argues that there is no fact of the matter as to what the frog intends when he swats at the fly:

“And to the extent that there is nothing in the selective environment that uniquely singles out a particular class of occasions, there is also no fact of the matter about what the frog’s eye report really means.” (Dennett: Intuition Pumps p.257)

“Suppose scientists gather up a small population of frogs from some fly-grabbing species on the brink of extinction, and puts them under protective custody in a new environment-a special frog zoo in which there are no flies, but rather Zoo keepers who periodically arrange to launch little food pellets past the frogs in their care. To the keepers’ delight, the system works; the frogs thrive by zapping their tongues for these pellets, and after a while there is a crowd of descendent frogs who have never seen a fly, only pellets.” (ibid p.258)

Dennett notes that what happens to the frogs in his thought experiment, happens all of the time in evolution. It is a case of exaptation where a particular piece of machinery is selected for a different function. To make the case clearer Dennett supposes that in the new environment, variation in pellet detecting ability meant that certain frogs were more likely to survive than other frogs. He further argues that there was no particular moment when we are justified in saying that this is the point where what the frog’s eye report means changes. He argues that there is no fact of the matter about what a frog’s eye report means, and that it is a mistake to think that there is some determinate meaning encoded in the frog’s brain in terms of some kind of mentalese. The meaning of the black dots on the frog’s retina isn’t determined by some central meaner in the brain, rather it emerges gradually through shifts in environmental conditions. He argues that without the “indeterminate” variation in the triggering conditions of the frog’s eyes, selection for a different function would not be possible (ibid p.257).

Dennett thinks that the case of frog’s  indeterminacy of meaning is the same as the case with humans. We can interpret human’s behaviour by adopting the intentional stance, just like we can interpret human behaviour interms of the design stance or the physical stance. The intentional stance is particularly useful in helping us interpret human behaviour, but it is still just a stance, for Dennett there is no such thing as intrinsic intentionality.

Hinzen thinks that Dennett’s stance-stance approach when looked at closely commits Dennett to absurd and unacceptable consequences. In his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ Dennett constructed a thought experiment where a person (Oscar) was unknowingly transported to another a planet Twin Earth which is identical to ours in most respects except they have creatures (schmorses) which look and behave the same way as our horses do but have a different internal structure. When for the first time Oscar sees what he thinks is a horse he says ‘Lo a horse’ and the intuition typically being pumped is that in this situation Oscar has said something false, because what he is referring to is actually a schmorse. But Dennett argues that there is another way to think about the issue. He argues that a person’s concept of a horse may actually be more relaxed. That what a person means by horse, involves bare perceptual features such as its shape and general behaviour, (this person may be completely ignorant of the biology). Since the schmorse has the same perceptual features and general behaviour as what Oscar means by horse, when Oscar says ‘Lo a horse’ he is right according to his own lights (though not by the lights of the scientific community). On Dennett’s view since our concepts are more messy and indeterminate than the rigid definitions of natural science concepts, then there may be no fact of the matter of precisely what Oscar means. Based on these facts Hinzen draws the following conclusion about Dennett’s position:

“The implied answer to this rhetorical question is that there is no fact of the matter: there is no more determinacy to be had here anymore than in the case of the frog. As long as a horse is used to denote both horses and schmorses, it can mean both. Depending on the environment we place you in, the meaning of your words shifts, and can mean as many things as it can take up functional roles, which is indefinitely many (schmorses, lorses, whorses, Trojan ones, reincarnations, etc.) If there really is nothing in our concept of a horse, there is nothing from preventing the word from meaning anything. So if it came to be used to refer to horse skins, riders of horses,  or landscapes behind horses, there would be nothing to prevent us from saying  it does not refer to that. It follows that Dennett cannot mean anything other by the word ‘horse’ than what is effectively a phonetic label.” (Hinzen: “An Essay on Names and Truth” p.88)

Here Hinzen is engaging in a gross caricature of Dennett’s views. The views attributed to Dennett are indeed absurd; the only difficulty for Hinzen is that Dennett doesn’t hold anything like those views. Here are Dennett’s actual views on the topic:

“What you mean by the word “horse” (your private mental concept of a horse) is something like one of those equinish beasts that we Earthlings like to ride, an epithet anchored in your mind by all your memories of horse shows and cowboy movies. Let us agree that this memory matrix fixes the kind of thing to which your concept of horse applies… Nothing forces us to suppose that your concept of a horse wasn’t more relaxed in the first place rather like your concept of table. (Try telling the story of Twin Earth with the suggestion that the tables there aren’t really tables, but just looks like tables and are used for tables. It doesn’t work does it?). Horses and schmorses may not be the same biological species, but what if you, like most earthlings have no clear concept of species, and classify by appearance: living thing that looks like Man O War. Horses and schmorses both fall into that kind, so, when you call a Twin Earth beast a horse, you’re right after all. Given what you mean by “horse,” schmorses are horses- a non Earthly kind of horse, but a horse just the same. Non-earthly tables are tables. It is clear that you could have such a relaxed concept of horses and you could have a tighter concept, according to which schmorses are not horses, not being the same earthly species. Both cases are possible. Now, must it be determinate whether our horse concept (prior to your move) meant the species or the wider class? It might be, if you are well read in biology, for instance, but suppose you are not. Then your concept- what “horse” actually means to you- would suffer the same indeterminacy as the frog’s concept of fly (or was it all along the concept small airborne food item?)” (Dennett ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ p. 411)

Above we see Dennett arguing that Oscar’s concept of horse centres on perceptual features of the creature, and on functional roles that the creature plays in society; he also argues that the concept is anchored to our entire memories of sightings and behaviours of the creature. But Hinzen somehow ignores all of these claims of Dennett and manages to interpret Dennett as believing that Oscar’s concept of ‘Horse’ is non-existent and all ‘Horse’ amounts to is a phonetic label. This interpretation of Dennett is beyond the pale interms of inaccuracy, Dennett clearly isn’t arguing that Horse is just a phonetic label, he is saying that it expresses a concept which may not have the precise features of the scientific concept of horse.

Hinzen could possibly defend his interpretation of Dennett by saying that his intentional stance position is not robustly real enough, and since the ‘as if’ concepts we attribute Oscar can be changed willy nilly, Dennett really is committed to the strange view that ‘horse’ is nothing other than a meaningless label. But again, this would be too badly misjudge Dennett’s position. The intentional stance approach isn’t an anything goes stance. The stance is constrained by pragmatic constraints and computational constraints. In his ‘Real Patterns’ Dennett makes the following point:

“Gregory Chaitin’s valuable definition of mathematical randomness invokes this idea. A series (of dots or numbers or whatever)  is random if and only if the information required to describe (transmit) the series accurately is incompressible: nothing shorter than the verbatim bit map will preserve the series. The a series is not random-has a pattern-if and only if- there is some more efficient way of describing it…of course, there are bound to be other ways of describing the evident patterns in these frames, and some will be more efficient than others-in the precise sense of being systematically specifiable in fewer bits. Any such description, if an improvement over the bit map, is the description of a real pattern in the data.” (Dennett: ‘Real Patterns’ p. 293).

As the above quote shows very clearly, Dennett is not committed to some arbitrary anything goes position on intentional ascription. He has a precise model of when we are justified in using the intentional stance. There is no textual evidence in Dennett’s position to support Hinzen’s interpretation of him, on any sensible reading of Dennett he doesn’t hold the views that Hinzen ascribes to him.

Aside from his misinterpretation of Dennett’s views Hinzen’s discussion of concepts in terms of negative evidence against dominant approaches to semantics is well argued (aside from the oversight of ignoring inferential role semantics). But his positive conception of concepts is empty and offers no real explanation of what the nature of concepts actually are.

3 thoughts on “Wolfram Hinzen on Dennett and the Naturalization of Meaning.

  1. Joe Mahoney

    Hey David, Nice post. I should read this book. Apparently, this one and the one I’m reading (“Mind Design and Minimal Syntax”) were originally a single ginormous opus; but OUP split it in two. Based on what you’ve written here, it does sound like Hinzen is resorting to parody in characterizing Dennett. The only thing I’d say in Hinzen’s defense is that when a nativist (or any kind of mental realist) hears a claim that there’s no “fact of the matter” viz. some some cognitive state, on the grounds that there’s disagreement between the mental concept and the scientific concept, it’s a trigger, and they’re going to be inclined to think the claim is either false or confused. Simply because they believe there is a fact of the matter (be it syntactic, semantic, lexical, representational, or something else). I myself find Dennett fairly hard to pin down on what he’s really claiming on these topics. He seems often to asseverate very radical things; but then his descriptions (as in the horses/shmorses passage you cite) are far more pedestrian. Though I’m hardly an expert and obviously mileage on these topics varies. I think the passage from real patterns you cite is very effective in making the case against Hinzen’s characterization of Dennett. And yet… I find this sentence of Hinzen’s (on a slightly different frequency) compelling: “If there really is nothing in our concept of a horse, there is nothing from preventing the word from meaning anything.” Seems Dennett is verging on radical ontological relativism here. Which isn’t to say that the “real patterns” argument is empty. I have a deep conviction about Kolmogorov/Chaitin compression as a rich Leibnizian means for thinking about laws in our occamverse (and, by extension, a highly plausible candidate for a universal prior, as in Solomonoff). But the reduction of cognitive significance to something like Chaitin compression strikes me as ultimately unhelpful in terms of moving the explanatory ball upfield.
    [Apologies if this is a little bit stream-of-consciousness; typing while waiting for a build to complete. : D] Anyway, good stuff.

    1. surtymind Post author

      Thanks Joe, I haven’t fully worked out where I stand re-Hinzen; though I do think he is caricaturing Dennett in his book. I just wrote the blog-post to help me clarify my thoughts on the issue. I want to read his ‘Philosophy of Universal Grammar’ closely and then turn to MMD. I would recommend ‘An Essay on Naming and Truth’ working on things like referential dependence etc as a way of working out semantics is laudable. But I still think that from what I have read Hinzen hasn’t really sorted out the nature of concepts and meaning. But I will obviously need to read his work in more detail before coming to any more definite conclusion.

    2. surtymind Post author

      I have read the first chapter of ‘The Philosophy of Universal Grammar’ there is a nice historical introduction in it I can kind of see where he is coming from ( better than in his ‘Essay on Names and Truth’). I will keep you informed. Have you got your copy yet? Was thinking of ordering Collins book? Have you started it?


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