Speech Utterance and the Potential Skepticism of Derivative Content

[This is my first blog post and I don’t expect it to be on par with an academic paper, but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting.]

We normally assume that our speech utterances have some meaning (in this case derivative content) encoded into them, but some philosophers such as Georges Rey find this assumption to be doubtful. Rey argues against what he calls Standard Linguistic Entities (SLE), which are derivative contents encoded into our speech utterances. There are at least three arguments worth mentioning. The first argument is that two words can seem to have different meaning, but their acoustic properties are virtually indistinguishable. An example one could use is “Lock” and Locke”, but the former refers to an artifact, whereas the latter refers to a person.* Both terms, however, share the same acoustic properties. The second argument is that sentences have syntactic structures of noun and verb phrases, but we can’t find those structures by observing acoustic properties of our verbal utterance. The third argument is that by examining the spatiotemporal region of my utterance, I cannot find any causal structure that individuates my utterance in terms of SLE.

I think Rey provides some interesting arguments, but if SLE does not exist at all then I wonder whether or not any derivative content exists at all. We take for granted that a sign post, a written paper, or a picture has meaning, but do they literally possess something like a SLE? One could say that any artifact possess a derivative content insofar as we intend to give an artifact its meaning and take some appropriate measures to do it. So, all things being equal, if we intend to give an artifact (or medium) some meaning and take appropriate measures to do it, then it has derivative content.  However, if this is the case, then our speech utterance should have meaning too, since when we utter sentences we intend to give them meaning. However, if what Rey argues for is correct, then our speech utterances cannot have any meaning whatsoever even if we intend to give them meaning and attempt to realize that intention.

I’m not arguing that Rey’s position commits him to the denial of derivative content in general. Instead, if Rey’s position is correct, it seems that someone who is a realist of derivative content has to do more than just say that derivative contents are realized in an artifact or a medium by virtue of one’s intention and effort. A realist of derivative content has to come up with some kind of account as to how an artifact derives meaning from its user. I don’t pretend to offer a realist account, since I am personally unsure if derivative contents do exist (which may sound incoherent since I am writing this blog post). I do, however, think that I can provide an account alternative to realism of derivative content.

While I am a realist about non-derivative intentionality, I do think that perhaps its possible to have an intentional stance account of derivative intentionality. Daniel Dennett came up with what is known as an intentional stance. According to this account, propositional attitudes really do not exist in a strict sense, but we attribute them to a certain pattern that from which we can make successful predictions. I propose a slightly different account called derivative intentional stance. Under this account, derivative intentionality does not exist in a strict sense, but we can attribute some meaning to a certain pattern created by an agent (including oneself) who intends to use it as a message to any interpreter. This intentional stance presuppose that there are other minds as its background knowledge, but instead of understanding behavior we try to understand the pattern that is created by an agent with an intention to send us a message.

So, for example, we may come across an acoustic pattern emitted by an agent through verbal utterance and attribute derivative meaning unto it. This attribution does not mean that the meaning derives from the interpreter, but rather the interpreter attributes meaning to a pattern as if it has a meaning that derives from an agent who created that pattern. So, SLE may not exist, but I attribute SLE unto the acoustic patterns created by a speaker as if it really exists as a derivative content.

One possible objection against this account is that there are cases when I just see a pattern and attribute some meaning to it without the presence of the original creator of that pattern. A common example might be a sound recorder that emits an acoustic pattern that I attribute some meaning to. One reply against this objection is that as long as one believes that the pattern is created by an agent one can simply attribute meaning to that pattern.

I’m not going to give further arguments for this account, but later on I might try to give a more robust explanation and argument for it in a later post. I hope this is at least a decent first post for a philosophy blog.

*This is my personal example

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