You are on page 1of 22

Philosophical Investigations 21:4 October 1998

ISSN 0190-0536

Wittgenstein, Semantics and Connectionism

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater, University of Hong Kong
and University of Western Australia
We only say of a human being and what is like one that it thinks.
So says Wittgenstein (PI 360)1 in response to the suggestion that
machines could think. This claim, he holds, is not an a priori one; it
is a platitude, a proposition of grammar and serves merely as a
reminder of our linguistic practices.2 We draw upon several related
arguments of Wittgensteins, in this paper, to show that a prominent
modern conception of a human as a being that thinks by processing
internal symbols is fraught with difficulties. Exposure and removal of
the assumptions which nourish this conception, enables us to construct a better account of what a human being is like.

I. The Symbolic Paradigm

In the late twentieth century, the characterization of the mind as a
computational device has become commonplace. The dominant version of this conception permits attractive construals of certain human
mental abilities. Language acquisition, for example, can be regarded
as a process in which heard sounds are tentatively matched to resident meanings, the hypothesized matchings then being subject to
test by experience. Reasoning can be construed as the derivation of
sentences (conclusions) from a set of assumptions or beliefs in accordance with rules which take representations of those assumptions and
beliefs as input. Remembering can be construed as a search procedure in which representations are retrieved from a store. This way of
1. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953). This work
will subsequently be referred to as PI.
2. A sympathetic account of Wittgensteins position on the status of such propositions is given in G. P. Baker and P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein, Rules, Grammar and
Necessity: Volume 2 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), chap. VI.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148,


Philosophical Investigations

conceiving the mind and its operations is what we shall call the
Symbolic Paradigm in Cognitive Science.3
It is clear, even from this brief sketch, that the Symbolic Paradigm
carries in its train certain commitments in the philosophy of language. The key notion is that of a mental representation. There are
stored meanings, and there are mental sentences which represent
states of affairs. Thus Ray Jackendoff, in defending a computational
theory, writes: . . . meanings are mentally represented . . . meanings
must be finitely representable and stored in a brain,4 and Jerry
Fodor, a prominent champion of the Symbolic Paradigm, contends
that we could not account for the fact that we think new thoughts
(productivity), and that there are systematic relations between the
thoughts we are able to think (systematicity) unless we treat
thoughts as composed of sentential representations which are
variously manipulated in the process of thinking.5
One can easily see what makes the traditional view and the modern computer implementation of it seem plausible. For clearly there
is a world of difference between a human being asserting Tinas
father is a bus driver and a parrots uttering exactly the same sentence. Since externally things may be much the same, the difference,
so it must seem, is internal, something going on inside the human
being, but not inside the parrot internally we humans perform an
act of meaning. How is that to be construed? Well, it seems there
must be a mental counterpart to the overt sentence, and this
connects to the world by representing it in some sort of way. By

3. For a useful introductory discussion of the Symbolic Paradigm, see W. Bechtel

and A. Abrahamsen, Connectionism and the Mind: An Introduction to Parallel Processing in
Networks (Blackwell: Oxford, 1991), chap. 1. In recent years, cognitive science has
spawned a number of alternatives to the Symbolic Paradigm. These include
Connectionism, Artificial Life and the Robotic Paradigm.
4. Ray Jackendoff, Consciousness and the Computational Mind (Cambridge MA: MIT
Press, 1987), 126.8.
5. See, for example, Jerry Fodor, Fodors Guide to Mental Representation, Mind
94 (1985): 76100; Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn, Connectionism and Cognitive
Architecture: A Critical Analysis, Cognition 28 (1988): 371. The use made by Fodor
of the concept of representation is ably criticized by Hid Ishiguro, On
Representations, European Journal of Philosophy 2 (1994): 109124. In his The Elm
and the Expert: Mentalese and its Semantics (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994), Fodor
has moved a considerable distance from his original views on the language of
thought, though he is still keen to salvage (as he puts it) the mental representation
story (Lecture 4). See, for instance, Bechtel and Abrahamsen (note 3) for an alternative explanation of productivity and systematicity.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


contrast, the parrot does not have any mental representation of any
part of the world in mind when it makes its utterance.
If meaning involves, in some way, mental sentences related, somehow, to the world, then it is rather natural to posit a tight
connection between meaning and truth. In a widely accepted view,
the meaning of a sentence is identified with its truth conditions.
Here, the notion of truth plays a pivotal role in the explanation of
meaning. The origin of such an account is a formal theory of truth,
due to Tarski, in which one structured entity, a sentence, is said to
be true when it stands in a certain relation (that of being satisfied by)
to another structured entity, an ordering of objects and sets of
ordered n-tuples of objects. Tarski regarded this truth theory as capturing (and making more precise) the traditional conception of truth
in which a sentence is said to correspond to an ordered arrangement
of objects in the world sometimes called a fact, sometimes a state
of affairs.6
We have, then, within the Symbolic Paradigm, a conception of
the mind as a processor of representations, and associated views on
meaning and truth. This whole web of ideas becomes fragile if any
part of it is dislodged. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with
Wittgensteins later writings will know that the constellation of
views sketched above was anathema to him. He vigorously
inveighed against the idea that meanings are objects (or any mental
state, process or relation) and ferociously rejected the notion that
thinking is the activity of doing calculations upon mental sentences.7
Clearly, Wittgensteins arguments, if they are sound, sweep away the
foundations on which the Symbolic Paradigm rests.8
Connectionism may be roughly characterized as a computational
theory, but one which, by contrast with the Symbolic Paradigm,
regards the mind not as a calculating device which manipulates data
structures but as more like a sensory-motor processor which is taught
to behave in certain specific ways only through engagement with the
6. For a criticism of Tarski on this score, see Donald Davidson, The Folly of
Trying to Define Truth, unpublished manuscript.
7. See, for example, L. Wittgenstein, Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), 605612.
The ferocity of Wittgensteins attack is quite likely attributable to a vehement antiscientism that we (the authors) do not share.
8. The point has been noted, briefly, by other writers, see, for instance, Philosophy
and Cognitive Science by James H. Fetzer (New York: Paragon House, 1991), 75.
Fetzer traces his own ideas back to Peirce, but the relevant ones clearly bear a striking likeness to those of Wittgenstein, as Fetzer acknowledges.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

actual world. We shall argue that the Connectionist alternative to

the Symbolic Paradigm is not vulnerable to the Wittgensteinian
attack and that this immunity is gained by the adoption of radically
different foundations in the theories of truth, meaning and mind.
We shall consider these seriatim.

II. Truth
There are two points to be made straight away about Wittgensteins
notion of truth: first that it is not Tarskian, and second that it is not a
correspondence theory as traditionally conceived. Indeed, in as
much as anything like correspondence is involved, this is a matter
of the resemblance between one situation and another in the world
not a relation between words and some situation in the world.
What one must remember is what Wittgenstein had to say about
standard objects. The standard meter in Paris was one of his examples. By an act of decision, this object was determined to serve as the
paradigm of meterhood, and we could imagine samples of colour
being kept, hermetically sealed, in Paris the standard sepia, for
example. This sample is an instrument of the language used in
ascriptions of colour.10 The use of other predicative terms likewise
depends on there being samples which serve as standards.11
But if the application of predicates rests on the prior acceptance of
standard samples, then recognising of some other object that it is a
meter long or that it is true that it is a meter long is recognising
that there is a relation between this object and the relevant paradigm

9. See, for instance, P. Smolensky, On the Proper Treatment of Connectionism,

Behavioural and Brain Sciences 11 (1988): 174; A. Clark, Microcognition: Philosophy,
Cognitive Science and Parallel Distributed Processing (Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press,
1989); S. Hanson and D. J. Burr, What Connectionist Models Learn: Learning and
Representation in Connectionist Networks, Behavioural and Brain Sciences 13 (1990):
47189; A. Clark, Associative Engines: Connectionism, Concepts and Representational
Change (Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press, 1993); Tim van Gelder, What Might
Cognition be if not Computation?, The Journal of Philosophy 92 (1995): 345381.
10. L. Wittgenstein, PI, 50. There is a useful discussion of this section in R. J.
Fogelin, Wittgenstein 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1987), 127f.
11. A. Flew, ed. Essays in Conceptual Analysis (London: Macmillan, 1956), chap. 1;
see also R. Bambrough, Moral Skepticism and Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1979), chap. 2 and I. Copi, Symbolic Logic 4th ed. (New York:
Macmillan, 1973), 110.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater



a relation akin to resemblance. What is true is then the objective situation, in the sense that the situation is true to type, i.e. to the typical
situation, and the continuity of the sense of the term true with that
in true hyacinth, true conservative, for example, becomes evident.
Moreover, it is not the sentence used, It is a meter long which is
then, primarily, what is assessed as true, although no doubt by
metonymy it may be called true. The sentence is the medium by the
use of which truth, i.e. the closeness to the paradigm, is expressed.
Wittgensteins point about paradigms is even provable, using the
refined logic of predicates as set out in Hilberts epsilon calculus.13
For even in the predicate calculus it can be proven that:
(Ex)((Ey)Py . Px)

and in the epsilon calculus the instantiation is available to that thing

which is P if anything is:
(Ey)Py . PexPx.

Copi (see note 11 above) illustrates the process of instantiation in the

case of Aristedes, sometimes called the just. We have
If anyone is just, Aristedes is,

and contrariwise
If Aristedes is corruptible, everyone is.

It immediately follows that such paradigm objects are what hold the
concept fast in all possible worlds, and all human minds.14 Thus if
someone does not recognise that paradigms of justice are just, then
they do not have the concept of justice and can make no proper
judgements which employ it. And this goes for all concepts, since
the predicate calculus thesis is a quite general thesis.15 Having the
12. This is not to say that recognising the appropriate resemblances is always easy.
For a discussion of some of the difficulties about extending the use of colour words
from the initial examples see M. Dummett, Origins of Analytical Philosophy (London:
Duckworth, 1993), 9091.
13. B. H. Slater, The Epsilon Calculus and its Applications, Grazer Philosophische
Studien 41 (1992), 175205.
14. B. H. Slater, Descriptive Opacity, Philosophical Studies 66 (1992), 167181.
15. Further arguments for this general thesis, within cognitive science and developmental psychology, are to be found in discussions of what are sometimes called
prototypes. See, for instance, Hubert Dreyfus, From Micro-Worlds to Knowledge
Representation in J. Haugeland (ed.) Mind Design (Cambridge MA, M.I.T. Press,
1988), p.185, and Eleanor Rosch, Human Categorization in N. Warren (ed.),
Advances in Cross Cultural Psychology Vol 1 (London, Academic Press, 1977), p.30.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

concept of justice thus involves operating with respect to certain

things in the world; one could not be born with the concept inside
ones head, prior to any intellectual contact with the world.
But while this formal matter, about all concepts, is provable, the
content of any individual concept is up to us. Only human consensus can determine what facts there are concerning a concept. Thus
paradigms are nominated not by a supernatural being, but by us and
then shared judgements about family resemblances determine what
are properly accounted the facts. Closeness to the paradigm will
determine a positive application of the concept, but beyond that disputes may occur, and borderline cases appear. If anything is settled
regarding the concept, therefore, this is an anthropological matter;
we need to attend to the social/cultural situations in which concepts
are acquired.16 There is thus nothing syntactic in the brain which
already has a semantic relation with the world, since that semantics is
not given prior to any consensus arrived at communally. As
Wittgenstein stressed, community of response, agreement in judgments (PI 242) is the final court of appeal.
But the locus of truth is at the semantic level, with only
metonymy associating the truth with its conventional verbal expression. So, quite generally, the primary locution regarding
propositional truth, as Arthur Prior showed, is not the Tarskian,
predicative expression
p is true,

e.g. Snow is white is true,

but the operator expression
It is true that p,

e.g. It is true that snow is white, and this shift to a non-metalinguistic expression is the prime move which takes us away from
the symbolic account, involving the presumed uniform language of
thought Mentalese.17 Prior writes:
16. The importance of the cultural dimension is stressed by R. McDonough,
Linguistic Creativity, in Linguistics and Philosophy: The Controversial Interface, ed. R.
Harr and R. Harris (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1993), 125162.
17. Although it is the Tarskian account which has come to be regarded as traditional, it is interesting to note that Ramsey, in his classic essay Facts and
Propositions published five years before Tarski treats It is true that as an operator expression (see, for example, Foundations, ed. D. H. Mellor (London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1978) p.44).
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


The truth and falsehood with which Tarski is concerned are genuine properties of genuine objects, namely sentences. The truth
and falsehood with which we have been concerned here might be
described as properties not of sentences but of propositions; but
this means that they are only quasi-properties of quasi-objects, and
it might be less misleading to say that we have not been concerned
with the adjectives true and false at all but rather with the
adverbs truly and falsely. The basic form which Tarski defines is
The sentence S is a true one; the form which we define is not
this, but rather X says truly (thinks correctly, fears with justification) that p.

Prior then draws attention to important differences between (A) If

anyone says that snow is white, then he says so truly if and only if
snow is white, and (B) The sentence Snow is white is true if and
only if snow is white. He continues:
In the first place, there are quotation-marks in (B) but not in (A).
These in fact belong to Tarskis informal exposition rather than his
rigorous theory; but it is essential to his theory that in sentences of
his type (B) the sentence which is used in the second clause should
be mentioned (by name however the name be formed) in the
first. In (A), on the other hand, the sentence Snow is white,
which is used more than once, is not mentioned at all (it nowhere
goes into quotation-marks, or is spelt, or given a Gdel number,
or named or designated in any way). (B) is about the sentence
Snow is white, (A) is from beginning to end not about this but
about snow.18

The truth is that snow is white; the justification for saying this is that
snow is or resembles paradigmatically white things. But the justification of a claim must be distinguished from its meaning. It is true
that snow is white means no more than that snow is white,19 and
snows being white entails nothing about language.

18. A. Prior, Objects of Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp.9899.
19. Wittgensteins espousal of this deflationary view predates Ramseys. For example, in the Notebooks 191416, p.9, entry for 6.10.14., he writes p is true, says
nothing else but p and it is clear that he is here not using the quotation marks as a
device for quoting sentences. In the Philosophical Grammar, where he repeats the
deflationary formula, he insists that the sign p is a propositional sign, not the name
of the shape of a particular ink mark. He says In the end one can say that the quotation marks in the sentence p is true are simply superfluous (Philosophical
Grammar, p.124; see also PI 136). Paul Horwich relates this view of truth to
Wittgensteins views on meaning in Meaning, Use and Truth, Mind 104 (1995),
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

III. Meaning
Paul Horwich (see note 19) has argued that minimalism with respect
to truth is just what is required for a defence of the claim (made by
Wittgenstein at PI 43 and elsewhere) that the meaning of a word is
its use in the language. An understanding of Priors non-metalinguistic operator expression allows us to see the link. The metalinguistic form p is true is syntactic a meaningful sentence is
returned if we substitute for p a sentence of any language, although
the meaning of that operand is not given. But a legitimate substitution instance of the non-meta-linguistic form It is true that p
incorporates the meaning of whichever sentence substitutes for p,
since it is not that sentence but what it means which is being spoken
about. However, the sense in which it is spoken about must be
clarified, since the operator It is true that is not a predicate which is
completed with a name to yield a whole sentence. Instead it is completed by a sentence to yield a further sentence. And sentences are not
names, for they do not designate their meanings, but express them.
Hence truth as characterized by the operator expression is not a
property, with the result that there is nothing that it is a property of;
it has no bearers.20 What is going on in Priors expression, in contrast with Tarskis meta-linguistic, predicative expression, therefore is
just the process of expressing the meaning of p simply by using
p appropriately. So we come to see that it is purely the appropriate
using of words which not only gives them their meaning, but is, i.e.
entirely constitutes their meaning.
In fact it was J. L. Austin who formulated most clearly this point
about meaning.21 Meaning ones words is a speech act which is rudimentary in the sense that meaning what one says which is just
performing a locutionary act is a prerequisite for giving ones words
an illocutionary force or producing a perlocutionary effect. Meaning
20. See Dorothy Grover, A Prosentential Theory of Truth (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1992), 2224, 132133, 175178; Susan Haack, Philosophy of Logics
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 127134.
21. J. L. Austin, How to do things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1952), 92f. Fodor thinks of the meaning of mentalese symbols as being given by their
causal origins, but this is to ignore the social choices involved in making cows mean
cows, etc. We are trained, in English speaking countries, to make the conventional
associations which give English words their meanings. But no such training could be
involved with symbols of Mentalese, since, as is made plain in the text, there is nothing we can do with such words.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


some words is using them with the appropriate sense and reference,
which is indeed something someone is automatically taken to be
doing if they are uttered in some communal arena. There are further
dimensions of use involved in illocutionary force, and even perlocutionary effect: but it is only the locutionary act which properly
constitutes meaning. Notice that, since meaning ones words is an
act, it is thereby immediately not an object. Indeed the noun meaning is a gerund. Ones inscriptions and coups de bouche are objects,
but it is the appropriate use we make of those objects that constitutes
the meaning of them.
What, therefore, distinguishes the aforementioned parrot from a
human speaker is not its lacking internal words, but rather its
inability to complete the full locutionary act, i.e. to make proper use
of its words as opposed to merely uttering sounds. It does not use its
words in customary ways, does not rely on public instruments such
as dictionaries to justify its usages, does not use its words relevantly
in connection with public objects, particularly paradigms. And this is
where the key argument against Mentalese arises. For, if there were
some objects installed in the parrots head which accompanied all its
words or phrases, then, as Wittgenstein observed, these
Doppelgngers would need to be used appropriately if they are to
have any semantic significance. And the point is not just that, unlike
with overt inscriptions and coups de bouche, any use we make of them
cannot be publicly checked, so the standard private language argument eliminates them. For, in a proper sense, such private objects
cannot be deployed or put to use, since they are not instruments or
tools: we cannot do things with such words.
One can imagine someone might say:
But symbols in a language of thought are used, in exactly the way
that symbols in a computer are used. They are used by the computational processes and programs which manipulate those
symbols. Symbols in the head are not instruments or tools used
by whole human agents, but then we dont want them to be.
Words, that is public ones, are syntactic objects in need of an
interpretation, but, as Wittgenstein said, interpretation has to stop
somewhere, otherwise we fall foul of an infinite regress.
Mentalese is the point where interpretation stops. Thats why it
explains how public words are used meaningfully by whole agents.
There are just causal processes inside the agents brain which are
organised, as in a computer, to preserve semantic relations. That is
just another version of the standard demand that all homunculi be
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

But symbols in a computer are not used, any more than a gate uses
a latch to hold itself shut if it blows shut. The symbols in a computer
are maybe used by a programmer, via some software which calculates with them. But that is derived intentionality, and so use of the
word calculates with the software is metonymic.
More importantly, there isnt a pre-existing semantics for a is F,
for instance, which is there prior to the human, public use of such a
sentence, and which would therefore cause the behaviour. For the
meaning of a word is a matter of convention: if one sees how is F is
used that might determine a set of objects, but there isnt that set of
objects, delimited somehow by proxy in our brains, before the public
use. For, for one thing, that use is a communal use, and so not a
matter of one brain and there may be arguments. That there is no
pre-set meaning is just the force of Wittgensteins anti-Platonism in
this area. Maybe something in the environment, at each application
of is a game, has prompted the decision one way or another, but
there need be nothing in anyones brain which does this, since every
application of every word is arbitrary. Semantics is not compositional: there is no given mapping from a is a game to a and some
property of being a game or a and some set of all games since
there is nothing before our agreed use which settles how we are to
use is a game, and so what its meaning is. You might as well ask
what the name of a baby is before you make your choice of a name
for it.

IV. Thought
We can see now how the parrots impotence relates to the Cartesian
inner theatre. That ghostly stage is supposedly peopled by mental
words, perhaps redolent with images. But there is nothing which
could put these items in touch with the real world of social linguistic
intercourse. This is just what makes the theatre seemingly inner.
The mental words Tinas father is a bus driver may seem to dance
in that order on the Cartesian stage; some images may join in the
play. But there is a great difference between this and an agents actually thinking that Tinas father is a bus driver. The latter kind of
thought is not at all Cartesian, since it requires the thinker to be
located in certain ways to Tinas father and also have the concept
of a bus driver, i.e. be able to identify correctly standard and central
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


cases of such things. Thinking is an activity in which we engage and

which engages with action.
A parade of inner words, then, is not sufficient for thinking; but is
it even necessary? A distinguished tradition, of which Plato is an early
representative, regards thinking as inner dialogue. Thinking is equated
with the having of thoughts where the latter are conceived of as
entities having a linguistic structure. But this conception is rooted in
a confusion of two senses of the word thought. A thought, in one
sense of the word, is simply an act of speech from which the sound
has been abstracted a theoretical entity created by ignoring a
certain feature of the speech act.22 Thoughts thus conceived clearly
are quasi-linguistic creatures. It is a serious mistake, however, to
assimilate thoughts in this sense with elements or constituents of
There is no disputing that sometimes, instead of saying something
out loud, we keep to ourselves, i.e. think, what we could have
made available to an audience. From this, it is all too easy to infer
that thinking generally is just unvoiced speech. To make this inference, however, is to assimilate the logical grammar of I was thinking
that p, but then I came right out and said it to I was hiding my key,
but then I took it out of my pocket and gave it to her. The similarity of grammar may encourage us, that is to say, to regard thoughts as
objects which are hidden, rather like sentences written in invisible
ink. And so, the story continues, just as sentences represent how
things are, so too do thoughts; and just as our spoken words may
stand for things, so too may the constituents of our thoughts.
But what we have to do, as before, is to refuse to construe I was
thinking that p as a mention form such as I was disposed to utter
p The alternative construal is a use form such as I had a
thought expressible thus: p. The latter analysis, which simply makes
thoughts what are expressed by the use of sentences, allows scope for
us to say that thinking often underlies the disposition to speak, without committing ourselves to the view that thinking, in general, is
just silent saying, or that it is approximately replicated by speech, or
indeed that thinking has anything like a linguistic structure.
Thinking that p is not thinking p.
When we report the products of our thinking or of someone elses,
we perforce use language to do so. The thinking is undoubtedly
22. J. L. Austins so-called phonetic act is the result of abstracting from a speech
act everything except the sound, see op. cit., 9296.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

expressed linguistically, because language is the vehicle for making

manifest, amongst other things, what a person has thought or is thinking. But to conclude that the thinking either the process or the
immediate product is linguistic or sentential is to transfer properties
of the vehicle of expression onto what it is that is being expressed an
unwarranted move.23 One may report what a person is thinking by
using a sentence, but the reporting sentence must not be confused
with what is reported when using that sentence.
V. Propositional Attitudes
The symbolic conception of thinking demands a relational account
of propositional attitudes to have such an attitude is to stand in a
relation to an inner entity, and in most such accounts, propositions
are conceived of as entities having a linguistic structure. The very
term propositional attitudes betrays a commitment to the view that
the relevant attitudes are attitudes to propositions. In his early work,
Wittgenstein rejected the theory that ones having a belief or a
thought is to be understood as a dyadic relation between ones self
and a proposition.24 In his later writings one finds a much more
extended defence of the idea that believing, meaning etc. are not
relational states involving something propositional which is directly
present to the mind.25
In general, it is widely just taken for granted that belief is to be analyzed relationally.26 Why such an analysis should seem so natural is
23. Discussed by Ruth Garrett Millikan, Perceptual Content and Fregean Myth,
Mind 100 (1991): 43959.
24. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1961), 5.5415.5421.
25. The idea has been picked up or rediscovered by a number of recent authors,
including A. N. Prior, Objects of Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971)
and D. Davidson, What is present to the mind?, in The Mind of Donald
Davidson, ed. J. Brandl and W. Gombocz (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989), 318, and
Wittgensteins argument has been made more accessible thanks to several good introductory texts, such as S. Blackburn, Spreading the Word (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1984). Some writers are persuaded that the relational view must be wrong, e.g.
S. Schiffer, Remnants of Meaning (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1987) but despair of
finding any workable alternative. Adverbialist alternatives are offered by other writers, including Wilfrid Sellars and Michael Tye.
26. For example, in the introduction to Propositions and Attitudes, ed. N. Salmon and
S. Soames (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988). A recent sophisticated relational
account, founded explicitly on the Language of Thought hypothesis is Steven E. Bor,
Propositional Attitudes and Formal Ontology, Synthese 98 (1994): 187242.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


easy to see. For a belief must have a believer that accounts for one
of the relata and to individuate beliefs, for example to distinguish
between As belief that Nixon was foolish and Bs belief that Clinton
is wise, it seems that we must advert to the differences between the
sentence in which beliefs are expressed. Hence, so it seems, the other
relatum has a linguistic structure. But let us, as before, look at the
beliefs themselves rather than at the means people use to express their
beliefs. Believing is a state of mind. It has duration; and that independently of the duration of its expression in a sentence, for example (PI
p.191). To believe that p is to have the settled disposition to act as if it
is the case that p, i.e. to have the disposition to engage in acts that
conform to the agents supposition that p is the case. Now the activities associated with a belief will be physically diverse, even if they are
functionally similar in that, with all other factors held constant, the
belief that p will lead different agents to much the same behaviour, or
dispositions to behaviour. But there is nothing linguistic in the disposition to engage in such physically diverse but functionally similar
bouts of behaviour.27 So why should one suppose that there is linguistic structure in the having of a belief? Indeed, while there is believing
that p, there is no believing p.28
Perhaps the most decisive way to undermine the Symbolic
Paradigm is to look at some attitudes classically conceived as propositional and prove that they can have no linguistic propositional
content. We take the following example from a paper by Michael
McKinsey. Consider
[1] Oscar assumes that just one fish got away, and Oscar wishes it
had been the case that he caught it (that very fish).

McKinsey writes:
Now suppose Oscar is right that just one fish got away, at time t,
say. Let us call this fish Bubbles. Then it is clear what proposition
Oscar would be wishing true. It is the proposition that is true at a
possible world w just in case in w, Oscar catches Bubbles at t. But
now suppose that Oscar is wrong. Perhaps what Oscar thought
was a fish on the end of his line was really just an old boot or an
underwater branch. Then it seems quite impossible to specify the
27. For a suggestion as to how our neural pathways are shaped by learning so that
our beliefs are generally reliable indicators of what is the case, see D. Papineau,
Teleology and Mental States, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 65 (1991): 3354;
P. Godfrey-Smith, Signal, Decision, Action, Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991):
28. P. Churchland, Neurophilosophy (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1986), 386399.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations
proposition that Oscar wishes had been the case . . . Thus it is possible to have a particular wish, without there being any
proposition that one is wishing true.29

While endorsing a modified conclusion that there may be a particular wish without its specific content being linguistically expressible,
we cannot agree with McKinsey that the content of Oscars wish is
completely inexpressible when it is an old boot, at the end of his
fishing line. A more realistic theory would be that, in that case the
content is expressible, but not just linguistically.30 The pragmatic
context must also be given. Indeed, use of epsilon terms supports
this result very firmly, since whether the descriptive assumption
There is a fish that got away is true or false, the epsilon term ex(x
is a fish that got away) still functions referringly (see notes 12, 13).
[1] has the form:

where xFx is the fish which got away. But the fish that got away
need not be a fish, any more than Dartmouth need be at the mouth
of the Dart, or The Morning Star be a star. It therefore brings no
definite concept of the object into what is wished for, or assumed
about. The fish that got away, used referringly, functions in a pragmatic context merely to call the pure referent itself to the mind, and
so renders otiose all senses (i.e. representations) of it. The wish is
about that object, whatever it is that we call it, i.e. independent of any
linguistic description. For the epsilon term symbolises de re attitudes
and direct reference.31
29. M. McKinsey, The Internal Basis of Meaning, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72
(1991): 143169, see 161. A similar position is R. J. Nelsons connectionist theory of
reference, in Naming and Reference: The Link of Word to Object (London: Routledge,
30. This example, in other words, supports a recent theory of attitude ascriptions
which proposes that a belief is about an individual if and only if there is an individual which is the source of that belief. See R. Holton, Attitude Ascriptions and
Intermediate Scope, Mind 103 (1994): 123130. An unseen old boot may be the
source of ones belief that one nearly caught a fish, and that belief is then entirely
about that boot. The point relies on Donnellans distinction between reference and
attribution (see Reference and Definite Descriptions, The Philosophical Review 75
(1966), 281304). See also, for instance, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Modalities (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1993) Ch. 14.
31. Some of the consequences of there being de re beliefs are examined in Andrew
Woodfield, Thought and Object (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), viii. In particular he shows that the mind-brain identity thesis is false, and that the mind is the
brain-environmental complex.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


So strong is the grip of the relational account of propositional attitudes that even a reader sympathetic to our objections to that
account may earlier have felt that there was no remotely plausible
alternative to the relational view. But here, with formalised de re
beliefs, we come to recognize the reasonableness of saying that there
may be no difference in brain condition between a person who
believes that p and someone who doesnt. Suppose, for example,
two, more or less identical, twins enter (blindfold) into two otherwise identical white rooms: twin one subsequently believes the first
room is white, twin two that the second room is white. But the difference between them resides entirely in their spatial locations, not
in their brain states, hence there can be no representations in those
brains which represent the different beliefs. Receiving an impression
of ones surroundings is thus not too much like getting a blob of ink
smeared onto one,32 since the surroundings are not absorbed in any
appropriate way. Yet it is more like relating to an ink blot than to a
piece of language,33 because of its non-semantic, linguistically
unstructured nature. And the same goes for connectionist systems.34
Mark Richard writes: For Maggie to think that Odile is tired, she
must have some representations of Odile and of being tired put
together in an appropriate way. In some broad sense of sentence,
she must employ a mental sentence saying that Odile is tired.35 This
is exactly the position we have attempted to repudiate. In order to
think Odile is tired, Maggie must, of course, have the appropriate
words, but her thinking that Odile is tired cannot be split into wordlike parts. Her thinking that Odile is tired is related to an external
object in a certain way. It consists in her taking there to be close
32. This idea is suggested in David Bohm and Basil Hiley, The Undivided Universe:
An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory (London: Routledge, 1993).
33. Two good accounts of connectionist alternatives to sentential mental representation are Tim van Gelder, What is the D in PDP? A Survey of the Concept of
Distribution, in William Ramsey, Stephen Stich and David Rumelhart (eds.),
Philosophy and Connectionist Theory (Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), 3359 and
Terence Horgan and John Tienson, Structured Representations in Connectionist
Systems? in Steven Davis (ed.), Connectionism: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992), 195228.
34. Further objections to the sentence-processing view are marshalled in William
S. Robinson, Computers, Minds and Robots (Philadelphia, Temple University Press,
1994), p.154 ff. The last three chapters of this book constitute an excellent, straightforward sustained but restrained defence of the Connectionist approach.
35. Mark Richard, Propositional Attitudes: An Essay on Thoughts and how we Ascribe
them (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 2.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

enough resemblances between that object and appropriate (further

external object) paradigms for true tiredness to be apparent in it.
Wittgenstein has a pleasing analogy for the disanalogy: a whole
bread roll can be divided into halves, but there is no such thing as
half a knights move in chess; a sentence can be divided into halves,
but one cannot have or understand half a thought.36 Thoughts and
beliefs do not have an anatomy;37 they are not composed of inner
sentences; our having propositional attitudes is not to be construed as
gaining (privileged) access to, and adopting an attitude towards such
symbolic representations.

VI. Logical Problems with the Symbolic Paradigm

The Symbolic Paradigm in Cognitive Science is inspired by the
view that thinking is the manipulation of inner symbolic, i.e. computational, or linguistic representations. It should be clear, by now,
that the manipulation of them produces symbol-configurations
which do not have any active purpose in a social context. Yet it is
only such a context that gives words and other symbols their semantic life. In Wittgensteins terms, the word-configurations are, on
their own, just wallpaper,38 not part of the fabric of human transactions.
But traditional attempts in AI to model the cognitive mind do not
only employ discrete symbolic representations, these representations
are taken to be rich in a logical structure. The world of propositions,
to which the mind historically was thought to have access, was
bound together by logical entailment and deductive equivalence
relations (amongst others), so that having an attitude of belief or
thought towards one proposition necessarily involved having the
same or associated relations with many others within the network.
36. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 39. For a discussion of structure-less propositions, see R. Stalnaker, Propositions, in Issues in the
Philosophy of Language, ed. A. F. MacKay and D. D. Merrill (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1976), 7991.
37. Deep suspicions about the assumption that thoughts have an anatomy are aired
in W. Hart, The Anatomy of Thought, Mind 92 (1983): 264269.
38. L. Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, ed. G.H. von
Wright, R. Rhees, and G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1956), I28. This
is also essentially the conclusion of John Searles Chinese Room thought experiment in chap. 2 of his Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures (Cambridge
MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


When implemented in traditional AI this notion of the calculating

mind has become very prominent. Thus the basic mechanism of
computable programs, which control the behaviour of electronic
machines, involves this conception of human processing. But the
traditional AI fascination with different logics, and the construction
of theorem provers for each one, demonstrates most pointedly how
deep-rooted is the idea that the mind is a logical mechanism,
remorselessly deriving consequences from various suppositions.
The defender of the Symbolic Paradigm will surely ask But does
it not follow, given Churchs Thesis, that no effective calculations
can be performed other than those achievable by Turing Machines,
so computation must have a symbolic architecture? The question is
an indicator of the fundamental assumption within the Symbolic
Paradigm of how the workings of the human brain are to be characterized. The brains machinations are taken to be moves in some logic,
maybe not classical logic but at least some orderly sequence of inferences, according to a formalizable scheme. The fact that humans are
bad at reasoning, in the main, will not be taken to be an objection to
this picture of how the brain must work, since, of course, that picture is derived not from empirical investigation but from a prioristic
philosophical reasoning.39
Now if the operative set of inferences were those of classical logic,
the brain would have to be omniscient, as is well known. Theorists
subscribing to the Symbolic Paradigm therefore commonly attempt
to construct forms of non-monotonic reasoning, which do not
have the infinite and unshakeable consequences of the classical
scheme. The fact that people are, in the main, bad at reasoning,
however, not only means that they are not omniscient, it also means
they cannot be trusted even to proceed according to some nonmonotonic scheme. People get hopelessly mixed up when it comes
39. There is a memorable passage in PI where Wittgenstein criticizes his earlier self
for laying down as a requirement the crystalline purity of logic instead of investigating our actual language use. It might be urged that logic is concerned not with how
we actually do reason but with the ideal of how we ought to reason. Wittgenstein
disputes this: We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a
certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to
walk. We want to walk; so we need friction. Back to the rough ground! ( 107). One
might say Given what the logical connectives mean, the logical principles to which
we ought to subscribe are . . . But if the meanings of the connectives are not a
Platonistic given, then we need to investigate actual language practice to determine
what the connectives actually mean. There is a subtle dynamic (mutually constraining) relationship between the practice and the norms; both are subject to change.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

to ratiocination, and the only chance to formulate this disorder

might seem to be some paraconsistent logic, in which even inconsistent thoughts would be supported.
But the trouble even with a paraconsistent logic is that it is a logic,
i.e. a set of rules and therefore a system which does not reflect the
behaviour of the inferentially unruly. According to the Symbolic
Paradigm, if, in the appropriate logic,
p with q entails r,

then it follows, for the human computer-mind, that

Bap with Baq entails Bar,

where Bap says that a believes that p. But the latter entailment is
defeasible, as is obvious from the fact that two people with a common pair of beliefs may not arrive at identical conclusions. Good
reasoners are logical and their inferential practices conform to rules
which can serve as norms for humanity in general (another example
of the paradigms previously mentioned). But bad reasoners, as a
group, deviate unsystematically from such norms, and their wayward
inferential moves therefore entirely resist neat classification. The
bulk of the population lies between these two extremes, of course,
fumbling along in the main, with occasional falls into pits of madness, but rising up, at times, to heights of clarity. This is not the kind
of behaviour that any self-respecting Turing machine would wish to

VII. The Connectionist Alternative

It would be pretty difficult to construct a tennis-playing robot which
relied upon symbolic calculations, amongst other things. The symbolic technique for getting a robot to play a clean stroke would be to
have its brain resolve several simultaneous equations in analytic three
dimensional geometry: one equation representing the trajectory of
the ball (supplied to it by non-symbolic pattern recognition), the
others representing proposed trajectories of the racket (the result
being fed into some non-symbolic control mechanism). Difficult calculations would be required to determine speed of racket and angle
of racket head, even if they would not be theoretically impossible,
given great computing power. Human players, however, do not per Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


form such calculations in the course of a game. We see the

approaching ball and, through practice and training, are able to coordinate our limb movements to produce the return shot. Tennis
practice is not practice in mental algebra. Between the pattern recognition and the activation of the control mechanism, in other words,
there is not a moments thought only an instantaneous reaction. The
tennis player aims to become a dynamical system, and the generation
of this system could be modelled well in connectionist, parallel distributed procedures.
What is distinctive about connectionist structures, however, is that
the account of how we humans acquire and exercise a motor skill,
such as playing a tennis shot, is taken to be extendable to central
cognitive skills, such as reasoning and thinking. The latter are also to
be modelled in a parallel structure, which learns through training and
exposure to the environment (maybe over many generations), the
processing being distributed across many sites or nodes. As in the
tennis example, therefore, the exercise of cognitive skills is not itself
a matter of performing calculations: indeed, what is wanted, in order
to model human cognition, is generally a machine that does not calculate unless, of course, set a particular calculating task. Such a
machines performance is a result of (recent or primordial) training
and habituation, this being a process in which configurations of
weighting, inhibition and excitation reach a stable state after many
readjustment cycles under the stimulus of feedback from an external
environment. The state of equilibrium is in general the machine
equivalent of a belief, i.e. a settled disposition to act or react in a certain way in certain circumstances.40
A machine which emulates cognitive human behaviour must
centrally behave with understanding. Understanding words means
relating them appropriately to their context, and so any machine
with understanding must have a similar engagement with the pragmatic world. And that engagement must be quite multifarious. Just
consider the understanding of language involved in the example of
the shopkeeper given in the very first section of PI. A child (say)
presents the shopkeeper with a slip of paper which reads Five red
apples. The shopkeeper responds to the apples by going to a
drawer labelled with that name. He doesnt need any mental picture
40. Some attempts to build such machines are already under way. See Rodney A.
Brooks and Lynn Andrea Stein, Building Brains for Bodies, M.I.T., AI Memo No.
1439 (August, 1993).
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

of an apple (and may well not have one) so long as he has learned to
respond to apple by checking the labels on his drawers. His
response to red is quite different. Here there is a procedure: look
up that word in a table which matches such words with colour samples; then find the relevant objects (apples) whose colour matches
the sample. In order to comply with five, the shopkeeper says the
series of numbers (which he knows by heart) up to the word five
and, for each number, he takes an apple out of a drawer. The
numerals, that is to say, are the paradigms against which other sets of
things are judged to have this number or that. This ability to number off objects by reciting a series of sounds and accumulating a
collection by adding one new object for each succeeding sound
requires a considerable amount of training. Thus the uses of the
words five, red and apples are quite different from each other:
each word invokes (or is woven into, in the sense of PI 7) a different suite of actions. It would be an insult to the complexity of
human understanding of language, as well as being misleading,
therefore, to say that one understands each word by matching it to
its meaning this general notion of the meaning of a word surrounds the workings of language with a haze which makes clear
vision impossible (PI 5). To disperse this fog, one needs to avoid
talking about the meanings of words and instead look carefully at
how different words are used (PI 1).
Connectionist machines hold out the promise of being able to
develop such varied dispositions, whereas a symbolic system can
involve no such know-how. Take, for one last example, the indexical word mama. In its use this does not refer to a general concept,
but to the specific mother of the user. Its place in the pragmatic content is therefore paradigmatically apparent. Now after some time, the
baby who is learning to speak reaches a relatively stable state in its
use of the word, and the associated neural organization readies the
child for significant new cognitive achievements.41 But there is no
41. See A. Clark and A. Karmiloff-Smith, The Cognizers Innards: A Psychological and Philosophical Perspective on the Development of Thought, Mind and
Language 8 (1993): 487519. William Bechtel, in The Case for Connectionism,
Philosophical Studies 71 (1993): 119154, shows that these phenomena are to be
explained by a systems adapting to the use of external symbols (natural language),
not by its manipulating internal symbols. Indeed, he shows that learning a language
itself promotes productivity and systematicity in our thinking. On this point too, see
Neil Tennant and Florian von Schilcher, Philosophy, Evolution and Human Nature
(London: Routledge, 1984), 204250.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Laurence Goldstein and Hartley Slater


reason to identify this state with having any mental representation of

its mother; indeed, we have argued that if the neural state, or any
part of it, were a representation, it would be idling. It would just
hang in the air (PI 198), itself standing in need of interpretation
(PI 201). The word Mama represents the mother, but that symbol
is external to the brain, and all the childs brain learns to do is use
that symbol appropriately, in an equally external context.

VII. Conclusion
If our case for a social-anthropological conception of the nature of
language has been made out, what are the consequences for
Cognitive Science, and specifically for the debate regarding
Connectionism? It is commonly said, in defence of the older
Symbolic Paradigm, that, given Churchs Thesis, neural networks
cannot be superior to Turing Machines as models of the mind
because they can perform no more calculations than can be achieved
by using a programmed, symbolic architecture. What this comparison presumes, we now see, is that the mind is essentially a calculating
device.42 But it is not: it is a sensory-motor processor which has
been taught to behave in certain specific ways only through engagement with the contingencies of this changing world. As a result, one
would expect it to be somewhat errant, erratic and error-prone, and
neural networks thus provide a more sympathetic model of the difficulties humans experience with being rational and logical. The
processors which have been constructed within the neural network
paradigm, neither have nor acquire a program, and they acquire
their talents entirely by external correction of their responses to contingent stimuli. Certainly such machines can be trained to do
calculations and will naturally extend their abilities beyond the
core of exercises from which they acquired their competence. But
42. Further arguments against the conception of mind as a calculating device are set
out in Ruth Garrett Millikan, White Queen Psychology and other Essays for Alice
(Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1993), esp. chap. 8. In a fascinating study of Turings
little-known work on unorganized machines, Diane Proudfoot and B. Jack
Copeland show that one of Turings own most important but least appreciated
achievements was to provide cognitive science with the conceptual resources for
understanding how the mindbrain could fail to be equivalent to a Turing Machine.
See their Turing, Wittgenstein and the Science of Mind, Australasian Journal of
Philosophy 72 (1994), pp. 497517.
Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998


Philosophical Investigations

calculation is just one of their skills, just as it is just one of ours. The
Symbolic Paradigm ignores the symbiotic relationship between
minds, words and the social word; Connectionism makes the connection.
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Hong Kong
Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong

Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998

Dept. of Philosophy
University of Western Australia
Western Australia 6907