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Millikan's biosemantics: a biological-teleological account of content.

1. Introduction

The theory that we shall seek to elaborate here puts considerable emphasis on the virtues of Millikan's theory of content, Millikan's motivational theory of desire, Millikan's account of functions, and Millikan's teleological theory of mental content.

2. Millikan's Teleological Theory of Mental Content

Millikan remarks that having a biological function is constituted in having the right kind of evolutionary history of selections, (1) every biologically normal action is the product of a desire, (2) evolutionary explanation can solve the normativity problem regarding content, (3) biological categories must be defined in terms of selected function, (4) the function of being true is constitutive of beliefs and other states with the same kind of (mind-to-world) content (an appeal to the function of being true is the way to account for the essential normativity of meaning), (5) and her approach to mental content shares much with orthodox content-externalism (biological functions should be understood by considering the broader system of which a given organism is a part). (6)

Shea points out that Millikan's theory of content relies heavily on the existence of isomorphisms between a system of representations and the things in the world which they represent. Representations must display productivity to be genuinely intentional, variant structure in the domain of representations is a kind of productivity, mapping functions enter into an explanation of why representations have the content they do, and the existence of a mapping rule is a substantive constraint on the theory of content. As Shea puts it, Millikan's theory of content serves to identify a particular isomorphism between representation types and represented properties. (7)

Rescorla holds that Millikan's teleosemantics isolate naturalistically specifiable facts by virtue of which a state or event has truth-conditions. Honeybee cognition operates at a primitive level that blends information and motivation together inextricably, differing profoundly from human cognition. Rescorla reasons that Millikan's account downplays the cognitive complexity underlying honeybee navigation and communication. Thus, Millikan overextends the folk psychological practice of individuating mental states truth-conditionally, and understates the extent to which simple creatures instantiate something like the division between beliefs and desires. (8) Gregoromichelaki et al. note that Millikan states that the standard Gricean view turns the heavily context-dependent process of language acquisition into a mystery. Millikan examines language and communication on the basis of phenomena studied by evolutionary biology (linguistic understanding is analogous to direct perception). In Millikan's naturalistic perspective, function does not depend upon speaker intentions ("function" becomes a normative notion). (9) Shea explains that Millikan claims that aboutness is a complex relational property of physical particulars. Millikan divides the internal processes involving representations into one that produces representations and a co-operating system that consumes them (representation takes place in a system composed of a producer and a consumer).

On the basis of this discussion, we can say that biological functions can be deployed in the context of the special systems that are representational. what a representation stands for can be found in the conditions in the world that must be in place if the system is to function as designed, the content of a representation is found in the normal conditions for the performance of the function of the mechanism that consumes it, whereas representational systems display a systematic relationship between what is represented and variable features of the representation. Shea reasons that Millikan discerns what constitutes the difference between intentionality and other kinds of natural functions, and relies on the consumer mechanism to fix content (normativity is built into content attribution). (10)

3. The Virtues of Millikan's Theory of Content

Millikan remarks that no satisfactory account of the meaning or representational value of mental states can be provided without taking into account that these states are the result of a Darwinian selection process: representational function should be understood as the result of an evolutionary process through which certain mappings are being selected by virtue of their causal effects on their bearers' reproductive capacity (the normativity inherent to function is in a better position to explain misrepresentation and aspectuality than the causalist account). (11) Kingsbury puts it that, for Millikan, the obtaining of the truth condition of a belief is a normal condition of the belief's performing certain functions. The content of a belief is some part of the normal conditions for the performance of its proper function. The relevant mapping rule explains the evolutionary success of the representational system. The function of a desire is to help cause its own fulfillment, the content of a desire is the state of affairs that comes about when the desire performs its proper function (the bee dance explains how the mapping relation works for desires), whereas the proper function of a desire is to bring about a particular state of affairs. The mechanisms that produce propositional attitudes have proper functions. Millikan stresses that the proper functions of mental states are derived from the functions of the mechanisms that produce them. Things can acquire functions either by being the direct products of selection processes like natural selection, or by being the products of those products. Mental states have content in virtue of performing their functions in a certain kind of way. (12) Martinez writes that, according to Millikan, the bearer of content is the fully propositional thought (concepts have meaning in a derivative sense). The most basic bearers of content are thought-like, as opposed to concept-like. Millikan identifies increasingly complicated mapping functions for increasingly abstract systems of signs, and makes both indexicality and compositionality particular cases of the general productivity afforded by mapping functions (productivity in intentional systems is inherited from natural signs). (13) Griffiths notes that Millikan develops a complex semantic theory using an etiological account of function. "Millikan's main aim is to give an account of intentionality in terms of the proper functions of systems, such as people, which contain and produce representations, and the derivative functions of those representations themselves." (14) Abrams states that Millikan gives a naturalistic account of what it is for a belief to have a particular content, makes content depend on facts which may be causally irrelevant to the existence of the cognitive system, whereas his account of content depends on states in the cognitive system sometimes paralleling aspects of the state of the world. (15)

4. Millikan's Teleosemantic Approach to Language Content

Millikan observes that language and thought are characterized by biological norms that concern satisfaction-conditions and function: the mechanisms at work in stabilizing the functions of public language devices are like those at work in biological evolution under natural selection (neither stabilizing functions of language devices, nor biological functions is defined by reference to anyone's intentions for them or anyone's cognition of them as having functions). "Biological purposes are not always achieved. In the biological world, failure in the particular case may even be the rule rather than the exception. The vast majority of individual animals die before reproducing. It would be very surprising if the biological purposes of human thought were invariably achieved." (16) Millikan contends that human cognition is an outgrowth of primitive forms of mentality and has "functions" in the biological sense. The mechanisms responsible for our capacities for cognition are biological adaptations, evolved through a process of natural selection. The subpersonal biological functions of the individuals' inborn concept-tuning mechanisms connect their substance concepts with certain extensions. "According to contemporary biology, what species an individual organism belongs to depends not on its timeless properties, either superficial or deep, but on its historical relations to other individuals - relations essentially embedded in real space and time." (17) Millikan develops an account of proper function based on evolution, and consideration of how organisms use their indicating states. (18) Elder writes that, on Millikan's view, a representation is something that by nature stands between two devices that are fashioned by natural selection or attuned by learning. Beliefs and desires are states that naturally selected devices in the brain assume, by virtue of their design (beliefs and desires are biological products). (19)

Macdonald and Papineau claim that Millikan distinguishes the mechanisms that produce mental representations from those that consume them: the content of any belief-like representation is that circumstance under which a consumer mechanism guided by that belief will achieve its end. Millikan's teleosemantic approach can embrace the idea of "useless" content, derived from selection processes but is not itself selected for, and her notion of an adapted proper function can account for the representational contents of elements in complex representational systems (one kind of proper function is a relational proper function).
   The producing mechanisms will be the sensory and other cerebral
   mechanisms that give rise to cognitive representations. The consumer
   mechanisms will be those that use these representations to
   direct behavior in pursuit of some biological end. Now, biological
   functions are in the first instance always a matter of effects: a
   trait's function is that effect it is supposed to produce. So the
   function of a mental representation will lie in the way it
   contributes to the biological end of the mechanism that consumes
   it. (20)

5. Conclusions

The implications of the developments outlined in the preceding sections of this paper suggest a growing need for a research agenda on Millikan's nonsemantic means of individuating the vehicles of content, Millikan's teleosemantic approach to language content, and Millikan's claim to naturalism.


(1.) Bickhard, Mark H. (2009), "Interactivism: Introduction to the Special Issue," Synthese 166(3): 449-451.

(2.) Schroeder, Tim (2006), "Desire," Philosophy Compass 1: 1-9.

(3.) Pinedo-Garcia, Manuel de, and Jason Noble (2008), "Beyond Persons: Extending the Personal/Subpersonal Distinction to Non-rational Animals and Artificial Agents," Biology and Philosophy 23: 87-100.

(4.) Griffiths, Paul E. (2007), "The Phenomena of Homology," Biology and Philosophy 22(5): 643-658.

(5.) Mameli, Matteo (2006), "Norms for Emotions: Biological Functions and Representational Contents," Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37: 101-121.

(6.) Rupert, Rob (2004), "Challenges to the Hypothesis of Extended Cognition," Journal of Philosophy 101: 389-128.

(7.) Shea, Nicholas (2012), "Millikan's Isomorphism Requirement," in Justine Kingsbury, Dan Ryder, and Kenneth Williford (eds.), Millikan and Her Critics. Malden: Blackwell. Forthcoming

(8.) Rescorla, Michael (2012), "Millikan on Honeybee Navigation and Communication," in Justine Kingsbury, Dan Ryder, and Kenneth Williford (eds.), Millikan and Her Critics. Malden: Blackwell. Forthcoming

(9.) Gregoromichelaki, Eleni, Ruth Kempson, Matthew Purver, Gregory J. Mills, Ronnie Cann, Wilfried Meyer-Viol, and Patrick G. T. Healey (2011), "Incrementality and Intention-recognition in Utterance Processing," Dialogue and Discourse 2(1): 199-233.

(10.) Shea, Nicholas (2006), "Millikan's Contribution to Materialist Philosophy of Mind," Matiere Premiere 1: 127-156.

(11.) Proust, Joelle (2006), "Why Evolution Has to Matter to Cognitive Psychology and to Philosophy of Mind," Biological Theory 1(4): 346-348.

(12.) Kingsbury, Justine (2006), "A Proper Understanding of Millikan," Acta Analytica 21(3): 23-10.

(13.) Martinez, Manolo (2012), "Teleosemantics and Productivity," Philosophical Psychology 25. Forthcoming

(14.) Griffiths, Paul E. (1993), "Functional Analysis and Proper Functions," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44: 413.

(15.) Abrams, Marshall (2005), "Teleosemantics without Natural Selection," Biology and Philosophy 20: 97-116.

(16.) Millikan, Ruth G. (2005), Language: A Biological Model. New York: Oxford University Press, 131. See also Millikan, Ruth G. (2008), "On Meaning, Meaning, and Meaning," Review of Contemporary Philosophy 7: 15-34; Millikan, Ruth G. (2008), "Language Conventions Made Simple," Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 7: 91-111.

(17.) Millikan, Ruth G. (2000), On Clear and Confused Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 19.

(18.) Cole, David (2010), "Natural Meaning for Natural Language," Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 9: 114-133.

(19.) Elder, Crawford L. (2011), Familiar Objects and their Shadows. New York: Cambridge University Press, 13, 90.

(20.) Macdonald, Graham, and David Papineau (2006), in Graham Macdonald and David Papineau (eds.), Teleosemantics: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[c] Mihaela Calinescu



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Title Annotation:Ruth Millikan
Author:Calinescu, Mihaela
Publication:Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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