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Review of  Varieties of Meaning

Reviewer: Bernadine W. Raiskums
Book Title: Varieties of Meaning
Book Author: Ruth Garrett Millikan
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 16.1854

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Date: Sat, 11 Jun 2005 11:28:23 -0800
From: Bernadine Raiskums
Subject: Varieties of Meaning

AUTHOR: Millikan, Ruth Garrett
TITLE: Varieties of Meaning
SUBTITLE: The 2002 Jean Nicod Lectures
YEAR: 2004

Bernadine W. Raiskums, Union Institute and University


This book comprises the subject matter of Ruth Garrett Millikan's 2002
Jean Nicod Lectures on three different kinds of meaning -- to have in
mind, to intend, and to signify -- and their relation to each other in
terms of purposefulness and functionality, essentiality and explicity,
intentionality or unintentionality, natural truthfulness and falseness.

The lecture material is presented in nineteen chapters in four parts
preceded by a series forward and a preface. Part I, Purposes and Cross-
Purposes, includes two chapters that discuss 'meaning' as
people's 'purposes' and 'cross-purposes' expressed in their behaviors,
body parts, artifacts, and the signs they use. Part II, Natural Signs and
Intentional Signs, includes five chapters that recognize and describe
previously unacknowledged 'locally recurrent' natural signs, along with
('context free') natural signs, varieties of intentional signs, and ways
in which representations themselves are represented. Part III, Outer
Intentional Signs, includes five chapters that concern perception and
interpretation continuities between the ways local natural signs and
public language, or outer intentional signs, are read. Finally, Part IV,
Inner Intentional Signs, includes seven chapters that discuss perception
and thought as inner intentional signs or 'inner representations'.

Millikan's conceptualization of the complex relationships among varieties
of meaning is presented in a rather convoluted writing style, which may
tend to slow the reader's grasping of these relationships. However, her
insertions of questions for the reader's consideration help lead the
reader into the conceptualizations. Further, her use of common scenarios
and stories, often involving animals and their ways of making meaning,
rather delightfully illustrate the concepts that she presents.


PART I: Purposes and Cross-Purposes

Chapter 1: Purposes and Cross-purposes of Humans. Millikan's opening
scenario involves a person's conscious attempt to not blink, which seems
at cross-purposes with the biological blink reflex. The subsequent
questions encourage the reader to consider the meaning or purposes, and
motives or intent, of conscious and reflexive behaviors. Millikan follows
up by relating a conscious intention, e.g., not to blink, with a purpose
of the whole person; and by relating a biological reflex, e.g., the eye-
blink, with a lower-level 'subpersonal' purpose. She then announces that
her objective in this chapter is to persuade the reader that no
interesting theoretical line can be drawn between these two kinds of
purposes. She illustrates how all levels of purpose -- those of learned
behaviors and unlearned behaviors -- appear to be 'natural purposes' in
that they have their origins in adaptation by some form of natural
selection in spite of the fact that the behaviors are sometimes at cross-
purposes. In order to see what this chapter has to do with the title of
the book, the reader might need to revisit the preface in which the author
relates purposes to varieties of meaning.

Chapter 2: Purposes and Cross-purposes of Memes. Opening with a discussion
of natural selection and evolution, Millikan goes on to state that her
objective in this chapter is to discuss selection and replication of
reproduced cultural artifacts (such as language systems). Millikan credits
Richard Dawkins (1976) with having invented the term "memes" to stand for
items that are reproduced by imitation rather than by genetics. She
asserts that the social coordination purpose of a meme accounts for its
continuing to be reproduced while other memes die out. Millikan agrees
with Dawkins that just as conditioned behaviors and rationally selected
purposes can cross with the genes that enabled them, so can natural
purposes of memes emerge and cross with those at lower levels or with
other psychological purposes.

PART II: Natural Signs and Intentional Signs

Chapter 3: Local Natural Signs and Information. Millikan begins this
chapter by defining a natural sign as something from which you can learn
something else by tracking in thought a connection that exists in nature
based upon prior knowledge or experience. She contrasts local natural
signs with her proposed description of a 'locally recurrent' natural sign.
(In the subsequent chapter, she alerts the reader that she will, then on,
use the term "local natural sign" to stand for "locally recurrent natural
sign".) Through illustration, she leads the reader to reflect on what
things count as natural signs and their meanings in everyday life and to
recognize that high correlation is not enough to make one thing mean
another; what it means must correspond to its actual cause or a
probability of one. She clarifies that no causal connection is necessary
between a locally recurrent sign and the 'affair' or 'world affair' that
it signifies. In order to see what this chapter has to do with the title
of the book, the reader might need to revisit the preface in which the
author relates signs to varieties of meaning.

Chapter 4: Productivity and Embedding in Natural Signs. In this chapter,
Millikan applies to natural signs two features that are well known to
characterize intentional signs, but are not generally recognized to
characterize natural signs. She describes these two features as
productivity and embedding. She follows by explaining two kinds of
embedding that occur in natural language. She first illustrates simpler
cases in which linguistic signs involve 'defining descriptions' to
represent things not directly, but by intentionally representing
properties that are natural signs of these things. She next illustrates
the more complex kind of embedding in which linguistic signs intentionally
represent other representations as representations, and the represented
representations, if they are intentional representations, may or may not
be signs of anything real. Millikan here posits that linguistic signs of
this latter kind are what produce the phenomenon of intensionality (with
an 's'), which is to be the subject of chapter 7.

Chapter 5: Teleosemantic Theories. Millikan states that in this chapter
she will explore the relations of locally recurrent signs and local
natural information to intentional signs. She describes and contrasts
teleological theories, which theorize content of mental representation;
intentionality, which is understood as the property of 'ofnesss'
or 'aboutness' and is not explained by a teleological theory; natural
signs which represent facts about things and cannot be false; and
teleosemantic theories, which theorize only how representations can be
false or mistaken (representing nothing). Upon this discussion, Millikan
attempts to diffuse the confusion that she asserts passed through
Chisholm's (1967) interpretation of Franz Brentano's writings on
intentionality in which he included both the concept of teleology and the
concept that is now considered separately as 'teleosemantics'. She
explains why 'teleosemantics' must piggyback on a naturalist theory of the
content of mental representation; e.g. natural signs, in order to address
not only false representation, but also to address intentional

Chapter 6: Intentionality. In this chapter, Millikan examines Dretske's
proposal that natural signs, because their function is to carry natural
information, are intentional representations. She argues that intentional
signs need no probability of one nor even a particularly high probability,
and that the producers of intentional representation do not have as their
purpose to produce natural sign but simply produce natural signs when they
perform their functions in their normal way and produce only true
intentional signs when they perform their functions by accident. Millikan
next posits that 'cooperative' intentional signs are produced by systems
designed to make natural signs for use by cooperating interpreting
systems, and from this point forward uses the term "intentional sign" to
mean cooperative intentional sign unless indicated otherwise. She here
provides three figures to illustrate her theories of intentional
representation by producers for consumers, i.e., descriptive
representations, directive representations, and what she calls "pushmi-
pullyus" which both describe and direct.

Chapter 7: Intensionality. Millikan discusses phenomena that give rise to
linguistic contexts that are 'intensional' by describing only differences
in purposes and differences in semantic mapping functions that map either
natural or intentional signs onto the extensional affairs that they
signify. She describes Sellars's 'means rubric' and Davidson's assumption
that beliefs, wishes, intentions, and so forth are mental representations
that can, in some sense, play the same roles as linguistic
representations. Both Sellars and Davidson, Millikan asserts, suggest that
representation of a representation is done by holding up another
representation that is similar to it in relevant ways. Then she argues
that which ways are relevant is generally determined pragmatically rather
than grammatically and that this results in intensionality. She also
defends the view that modal contexts, which are best analyzed as
containing representations of representations, are intensional contexts.
However she argues against descriptions of causes, natural explanations
and natural purposes as creating intensional contexts.

PART III: Outer Intentional Signs

Chapter 8: Linguistic Signs Emerge from Natural Signs. Millikan begins
Part III on outer intentional signs by comparing the evolution of
conventional language signs from natural signs to the discussion in the
first chapter of evolution of higher-level purposes from lower-level
purposes. She explains her views that ontogenetic ritualization is more
responsible than imitative learning for acquisition of communicative
signals and that when such signals become intentional signs, they do not
necessarily lose their natural-sign character. She revisits the two ways
described in the second chapter in which words and sentences can acquire
proper functions or purposes, emphasizing that these different origins of
purpose sometimes cause linguistic tokens to conflict in purpose. Finally,
she argues that conventional signs used for their conventional purposes
usually are read in exactly the same way that natural signs are read.

Chapter 9: Direct Perception through Language. Building on her argument
that perception is a way of translating natural signs into intentional
signs, in this chapter Millikan argues that understanding language is
simply another form of sensory perception of the world. She defends her
argument by explaining why, in routine cases, perception of the world
through the medium of language can sensibly called "direct perception"
rather than "indirect perception". She reconceives use of these phrases in
terms of translation rather than inference. She follows with an argument
that coming to believe something by being told it is so, in the typical
case, is a translative psychological processing formation of a direct
perceptual belief equivalent to that of coming to believe something by
seeing it.

Chapter 10: Tracking the Domains of Conventional Signs. In this chapter,
Millikan targets the contemporary neo-Gricean school of pragmatics by
arguing that just as no intentional representations of retinal images
intervene between physical objects and the seeing of those objects, no
representations of speaker intentions in speaking need intervene between
world affairs spoken of by speakers and hearers' understandings of their
words. After recognizing limitations, she explains how reading a
conventional sign is mainly a matter of tracking its natural domain; i.e.
cognitive systems, and how such tracking occurs by following the focus of
one another's minds during ordinary conversation.

Chapter 11: Varieties of the Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction. Millikan
claims here to address the three different broad and poorly overlapping
criteria that have been used to draw the traditionally troubled
distinction between semantics and pragmatics. She first speaks to the
study of semantics that has been equated by some with the study of truth
or satisfaction conditions as opposed to the study of the 'force' of
linguistic utterances. She next speaks to the tradition that equates the
study of semantics with the study of the meanings and considers language
forms apart from the contexts in which they occur. Finally, Millikan
argues that the line between conventional and nonconventional uses of
language is vague and the semantics-pragmatics distinction is necessarily
vague as well.

Chapter 12: Demonstratives, Indexicals, and a Bit More about Descriptions.
Millikan begins the chapter by referring back to earlier discussions to
weave in her conceptualizations of 'narrow linguistic aspects' of
linguistic signs as parts or aspects of more complete or 'wide linguistic
signs'. She provides examples of where an aspect of context is part of a
wide conventional linguistic sign and there is a filler or variable
entered into the syntax of the narrow linguistic part of the sign that
holds a place open for that aspect of context to fill. She suggests that
the term "indexical" be reserved for lexicalized and grammaticalized
elements of a public language whose job it is to indicate explicitly how
elements of a context are to be positioned within the mappings of wide
conventional signs. She next argues that, when indicated by conventional
forms of demonstration, the referents of demonstratives are reflexive
signs that stand for themselves conventionally. Millikan concludes this
chapter with an argument that the puzzle about definite descriptions is
easily resolved if something not currently observed, but merely known
about, can stand for itself.

PART IV: Inner Intentional Signs

Chapter 13: Inner Pushmi-pullyus. In this chapter, Millikan elaborates on
discussion initiated in chapter 6 about 'pushmi-pullyu' signs, which are
undifferentiated between presenting facts and directing activities
appropriate to those facts; i.e. representing facts and giving directions
or representing goals at once. Asserting that these signs are the most
common intentional signs occurring inside organisms, she examines their
relations to various successors or more sophisticated signs. Millikan
refers to contemporary ecological psychologists' explanations of 'basic
perception' and 'perception-action cycles' to support her use of the
phrase "perception of an affordance". Her discussion addresses variation
of articulation, abstraction, and proximal and distal affairs. Millikan
provides rather ridiculous examples of animal behaviors which demonstrate
the animals' lack of ability to understand the purposes of their behaviors
or to articulate into segments behavior-governing pushmi-pullyu
representations for recombination in order to achieve purposive goals
under changed circumstances.

Chapter 14: Detaching Representations of Objects. Millikan begins this
chapter by comparing the evolution of inner representations to evolution
in general in that as the representations become more articulate, complex
functions are built up from the specialized functions of the articulated
parts. She uses examples to demonstrate and explain the animal's ability
to 'disassemble, tune the parts, and recombine' while grasping its
extended activities as a series of transitions from one objective
situation into the next objective situation affording this or that. She
also uses examples to demonstrate the different ways objects and their
relations to oneself are perceived and argues the need for both egocentric
and allocentric distinction and coordination between representations of
affording objects and affording situations. Finally, she emphasizes that
objective perceptual representations that represent objects apart from
their momentary enabling relations to the acting animal are partial
affordances (pure fact representations) that are not dedicated to any
particular purpose but available for combination in the production of
actions with new purposes.

Chapter 15: Space and Time. In this chapter, Millikan addresses the
epistemic importance of supplementing or extending current perception by
stored knowledge of semifactual representations of the spatial and
temporal layout of currently unperceived parts of the home domain. She
explains mapping representations of territories and patterning
representations of conditional probabilities of ordered occurrences that
characterize the environment. Through examples and references to evidence
of scientific experiments, she demonstrates animals' abilities, which are
not fully explained by classical principles of conditioning, to construct
and store these representations and to later recognize their current
relation to some part of the object, objective situation, or relation to

Chapter 16: Detaching Goal State Representations. Millikan takes the
reader, in this chapter, from the purposes of pushmi-pullyu
representations to identification of goal state representations
and 'confident intentions'. She illustrates how the purpose of goal state
representation is a step beyond predicting the outcome of previously
learned dispositions to follow affordances. The step beyond is in using
representations of future events as a guiding goal to adjust current
activity in order to meet that goal. Millikan clarifies the distinction
between a descriptive pushmi representation of coming events, the
directive pullyu representation that guides one's motions, and a goal-
state representation that is a projected goal of where one will end up as
a result of that motion and that guides the planning and knowing when it
has reached the goal. She posits that unlike the pushmi-pullyu
representations, the two faces of a confident intention are both written
in the same code so that the same aspect of the representation can both
produce action and represent a future state of affairs. In order to see
what this chapter has to do with the title of the book, the reader might
need to revisit the preface in which the author relates representations
and intentions to varieties of meaning.

Chapter 17: Generating Goal State Representations. This short chapter
responds to natural questions that emerge from the previous one: Where do
representations of projected goal states come from? What is their origin;
what prompts them? Millikan introduces yet another animal story and refers
back to previous stories to illustrate that an animal does not just happen
to perceive and hence act on affordances. She asserts that depending on
its current needs and its current environment, the animal's nervous system
is primed to register certain kinds of inputs more easily. She compares
the process to practical reasoning in that it is a trial and error search
for affordances, and it involves putting together partial knowledge from
prior experiences and representations of possible parts of a complete path
until it envisions and constructs a complete path to the goal.

Chapter 18: Limitations on Nonhuman Thought. Despite the title of this
chapter, Millikan speaks less to limitations on nonhuman thought, which
ties representations and behaviors to things that have proved useful in
historical experiences of the species, and speaks more to the expanded
capabilities of human thought, which she describes as collections and
memories of facts for which neither we nor our ancestors have yet found
any practical uses. She suggests ways in which the representational
capacities of humans may differ in degree and probably in kind from those
of nonhuman animals. By use of stories, she illustrates how animals that
have only practical concerns perceive only similarities among
representations in their world; while humans find importance for
theoretical purposes in the additional recognition of differences among
representations and concepts.

Chapter 19: Conjectures on Human Thought. In this final chapter, Millikan
sketches how distinctively cognitive systems, unlike action-guiding
perceptual systems, articulate representations into subject and predicate
and are also sensitive to an internal negation transformation. She
describes how the ability to recognize contraries of a property, and to
recognize them as being incompatible, is required in order to test one's
abilities to identify subjects of theoretical judgment, and vice versa.
She goes on to describe how language enables learning to identify suitable
subjects for theoretical judgment and the predicate contrary spaces that
complement them. She contends that this development of theoretical
concepts and theoretical knowledge make it possible to represent time as
dated rather than as a mere set of conditional probabilities concerning
temporal relations. She further argues that this representation makes
possible conception, planning, and carrying out of projects that
purposefully change the future in unprecedented ways, rather than merely
repeating past successes; i.e., we can purposefully and knowingly make
what will exist in the future different from what has existed in the past.


That this book comprises the subject matter of Ruth Garrett Millikan's
2002 Jean Nicod Lectures, along with the numerous references to prior
authoritative literature, leaves no doubt in the reader's mind as to the
merit of the material presented. However some of the author's unsupported
assertions; e.g. that animals cannot see themselves in mirrors, appear
questionable. That this fascinating material was originally intended to be
delivered in intellectual lectures may explain why it is presented in a
writing style that makes it difficult for the uninitiated reader to grasp.

Although Millikan often makes clear statements of her objectives for a
chapter or section, her digressions, such as into rather technical
explanations or arguments with other theorists, tend to divert the
reader's attention and detract from accomplishment of those stated
objectives. Although Millikan often makes clear statements purporting to
explain the transition from one idea to another or from one chapter to
another, the statements do not clearly explain those transitions.
Millikan's comments about getting ahead of her story demonstrate that she
recognizes her tendency to refer back to previous chapters and forward to
subsequent chapters, which might have been easier to follow if the index
were more complete. While Millikan more or less summarized her objectives
and theories in the preface, liberally illustrated her points with
delightful animal stories, and provided three figures to depict
intentional representations, a matrix or other graphical representations
might have further facilitated the reader's understanding of the complex
relationships among varieties of meaning that Millikan conceptualized.
Finally, Millikan's uniquely stipulated usage of terminology might have
been easier to track if the book included a glossary of key terms.


Chisholm, R. M. (1967) "Brentano, Franz." In P. Edwards, (ed.). The
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1, 365-368. New York: Collier Macmillan.

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Bernadine W. Raiskums is a Ph.D. candidate pursuing independent studies
through the Union Institute and University. Her interests concern
communication and community. Her doctoral focus is on relationships among
interdisciplinary communication, language, and general semantics across
the sub-fields that comprise the field of adult education. Her
dissertation is a conceptual analysis of the term "critical" in ordinary
language and specifically in the literature of adult education.

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