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On Clear and Confused Ideas
Written by one of today™s most creative and innovative philosophers,
Ruth Garrett Millikan, On Clear and Confused Ideas examines our most
basic kind of empirical concepts: how they are acquired, how they func-
tion, and how they have been misrepresented in the traditional philo-
sophical and psychological literature. Millikan assumes that human cog-
nition is an outgrowth of primitive forms of mentality and that it has
“functions” in the biological sense. In addition to her novel thesis on
the internal nature of empirical concepts, of particular interest are her
discussions of the nature of abilities as different from dispositions, her
detailed analysis of the psychological act of reidentifying substances, her
discussion of the interdependence of language and thought, and her cri-
tique of the language of thought for mental representation.
Millikan argues that the central job of cognition is the exceedingly
difficult task of reidentifying individuals, properties, kinds, and so forth,
through diverse media and under diverse conditions. A cognitive system
must attend to the integrity of its own mental semantics, which requires
that it correctly reidentify sources of incoming information.
In a radical departure from current philosophical and psychological
theories of concepts, this book provides the first in-depth discussion on
the psychological act of reidentification. It will be of interest to a broad
range of students of philosophy and psychology.

Ruth Garrett Millikan is Professor of Philosophy at the University of
Connecticut. She is the author of Language Thought and Other Biological
Categories and White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.
cambridge studies in philosophy
General editor ernest sosa (Brown University)
Advisory editors:
jonathan dancy (University of Reading)
john haldane (University of St. Andrews)
gilbert harman (Princeton University)
frank jackson (Australian National University)
william g. lycan (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
sydney shoemaker (Cornell University)
judith j. thomson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

lynne rudder baker Explaining Attitudes
robert a. wilson Cartesian Psychology and Physical Minds
barry maund Colours
michael devitt Coming to Our Senses
michael zimmerman The Concept of Moral Obligation
michael stocker with elizabeth hegeman Valuing Emotions
sydney shoemaker The First-Person Perspective and Other Essays
norton nelkin Consciousness and the Origins of Thought
mark lance and john o™leary hawthorne The Grammar of Meaning
d.m. armstrong A World of States of Affairs
pierre jacob What Minds Can Do
andre gallois The World Without, the Mind Within
fred feldman Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert
laurence bonjour In Defense of Pure Reason
david lewis Papers in Philosophical Logic
wayne davis Implicature
david cockburn Other Times
david lewis Papers on Metaphysics and Epistemology
raymond martin Self-Concern
annette barnes Seeing Through Self-Deception
michael bratman Faces of Intention
amie thomasson Fiction and Metaphysics
david lewis Papers on Ethics and Social Philosophy
fred dretske Perception, Knowledge and Belief
lynne rudder baker Persons and Bodies
john greco Putting Skeptics in Their Place
On Clear and Confused Ideas

An Essay about Substance Concepts

ruth garret t m illikan
University of Connecticut
°µ¬©¤   ° ®¤© ¦  µ®©© ¦ ©¤§
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The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK
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477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia
Ruiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, Spain
Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa

© Ruth Garrett Millikan 2004

First published in printed format 2000

ISBN 0-511-03546-2 eBook (Adobe Reader)
ISBN 0-521-62386-3 hardback
ISBN 0-521-62553-X paperback

Preface page xi

Chapter 1: Introducing Substance Concepts 1
§1.1 One Special Kind of Concept 1
§1.2 What Are “Substances”? 2
§1.3 Knowledge of Substances 3
§1.4 Why We Need Substance Concepts 5
§1.5 The Ability to Reidentify Substances 5
§1.6 Fallibility of Substance Reidentification 7
§1.7 Fixing the Extensions of Substance Concepts: Abilities 8
§1.8 Substance Templates 9
§1.9 Conceptions of Substances 10
§1.10 Identifying Through Language 13
§1.11 Epistemology and the Act of Reidentifying 14

Chapter 2: Substances: The Ontology 15
§2.1 Real Kinds 15
§2.2 Kinds of Real Kinds 18
§2.3 Individuals as Substances 23
§2.4 Kinds of Betterness and Worseness in Substances 24
§2.5 Ontological Relativity (Of a NonQuinean Sort) 26
§2.6 Substance Templates and Hierarchy among Substances 28

Chapter 3: Classifying, Identifying, and the Function of
Substance Concepts 33
§3.1 Orientation 33
§3.2 The Functions of Classifying 34

§3.3 The Functions of Reidentifying 38
§3.4 Understanding Extensions as Classes versus as
Substances 39
§3.5 Descriptionism in the Psychological Literature 42
§3.6 How Then Are the Extensions of Substance
Concepts Determined? 48

Chapter 4: The Nature of Abilities:
How Is Extension Determined? 51
§4.1 Abilities Are Not Dispositions of
the Most Common Sort 51
§4.2 Having an Ability to versus Being Able To 54
§4.3 Ways to Improve Abilities 55
§4.4 An Ability Is Not Just Succeeding
Whenever One Would Try 57
§4.5 Distinguishing Abilities by Means or Ends 59
§4.6 Abilities Are Not Dispositions
but Do Imply Dispositions 61
§4.7 What Determines the Content of an Ability? 62
§4.8 The Extensions of Substance Concepts 64

Chapter 5: More Mama, More Milk and More Mouse:
The Structure and Development of
Substance Concepts 69
§5.1 Early Words for Substances 69
§5.2 Initial Irrelevance of Some Fundamental
Ontological Differences 70
§5.3 The Structure Common to All Substance Concepts 73
§5.4 Conceptual Development Begins with
Perceptual Tracking 76
§5.5 Conceptual Tracking Using Perceptual Skills 77
§5.6 Conceptual Tracking Using Inference 80
§5.7 Developing Substance Templates 82

Chapter 6: Substance Concepts Through Language:
Knowing the Meanings of Words 84
§6.1 Perceiving the World Through Language 84
§6.2 Tracking Through Words: Concepts
Entirely Through Language 88
§6.3 Focusing Reference and Knowing
the Meanings of Words 91

Chapter 7: How We Make Our Ideas Clear:
Epistemology for Empirical Concepts 95
§7.1 The Complaint Against Externalism 95
§7.2 Sidestepping Holism in the Epistemology of Concepts 98
§7.3 Separating off the Epistemology of Concepts 101
§7.4 Remaining Interdependencies among Concepts 105

Chapter 8: Content and Vehicle in Perception 109
§8.1 Introduction 109
§8.2 The Passive Picture Theory of Perception 110
§8.3 Internalizing, Externalizing, and
the Demands for Consistency and Completeness 113
§8.4 Internalizing and Externalizing Temporal Relations 115
§8.5 Internalizing and Externalizing Constancy 116
§8.6 Importing Completeness 118

Chapter 9: Sames Versus Sameness in Conceptual Contents
and Vehicles 123
§9.1 Sames, Differents, Same, and Different 123
§9.2 Moves Involving Same and Different 124
§9.3 Same/Different Moves in the Literature 126
§9.4 Same and Different in the Fregean Tradition 129
§9.5 Repeating Is Not Reidentifying 133

Chapter 10: Grasping Sameness 136
§10.1 Introduction: Images of Identity 136
§10.2 Locating the Sameness Markers in Thought 140
§10.3 Substance Concepts and Acts of Reidentifying 144

Chapter 11: In Search of Strawsonian Modes of Presentation 147
§11.1 The Plan 147
§11.2 Naive Strawson-model Modes of Presentation 147
§11.3 Strawson-model Modes of Presentation as Ways of
Recognizing 150
§11.4 Evans™ “Dynamic Fregean Thoughts” 152
§11.5 Modes of Presentation as Ways of Tracking 155

Chapter 12: Rejecting Identity Judgments and Fregean
Modes 159
§12.1 Introduction 159
§12.2 Does it Actually Matter How Sameness Is Marked? 160

§12.3 Formal Systems as Models for Thought 161
§12.4 Negative Identity Judgments 168
§12.5 The First Fregean Assumption 168
§12.6 The Second Fregean Assumption 169
§12.7 Rejecting Identity Judgments 171
§12.8 Rejecting Modes of Presentation 173

Chapter 13: Knowing What I™m Thinking Of 177
§13.1 Introduction 177
§13.2 Isolating the Problem 178
§13.3 Evans on Knowing What One Is Thinking Of 179
§13.4 Differing with Evans on Knowing
What One Is Thinking Of 182
§13.5 Having an Ability versus Knowing How to Acquire It 185
§13.6 The Ability to Reidentify, or Being Able to
Reidentify? 188
§13.7 Mistaking What I™m Thinking Of 190

Chapter 14: How Extensions of New Substance Concepts
are Fixed: How Substance Concepts
Acquire Intentionality 193
§14.1 What Determines the Extensions of New
Substance Concepts? 193
§14.2 Intentional Representation 195
§14.3 Conceptual and Nonconceptual
Intentional Representations 199
§14.4 The Intentionality of Mental Terms for Substances 201

Chapter 15: Cognitive Luck: Substance Concepts
in an Evolutionary Frame 203

Appendix A: Contrast with Evans on
Information-Based Thoughts 213

Appendix B: What Has Natural Information to Do
with Intentional Representation? 217

References 239

Index 247


When my mother was three, her father came home one evening with-
out his beard and she insisted he was Uncle Albert, my grandfather™s
younger and beardless brother. She thought he was, as usual, being a ter-
rible tease, and she cried when he didn™t admit his real identity. Only
when he pulled out her daddy™s silver pocket watch with its distinctive
and beloved pop-up cover was she willing to be corrected. But just
who was it that she had been thinking was being so mean, this man (her
daddy) or Uncle Albert? This is what I mean by a confused idea.
I have an old letter from Yale™s alumni association inquiring whether
I, Mrs. Donald P. Shankweiler, knew of the whereabouts of their “alum-
nus” Ruth Garrett Millikan. This seemed a sensible question, I suppose,
as according to their records we lived at the same address. Since I lived
with myself, perhaps I knew where I was? By not owning up I evaded
solicitations from Yale™s alumni fund for a good many years.
More often, confusions about the identities of things are disruptive
rather than amusing. It is fortunate that we generally manage recogni-
tion tasks so well, and our ability to do so deserves careful study. I will
argue in this book that the most central job of cognition is the exceed-
ingly difficult task of reidentifying individuals, properties, kinds, and so
forth, through diverse media and under diverse conditions.
Traditionally, failure to manage this task well has been assimilated to
making false judgments or having false beliefs “ in the Fregean tradi-
tion, judgments or beliefs employing different modes of presentation:
judging that this man is Uncle Albert; assuming that Mrs. Donald P.
Shankweiler is not Ruth Garrett Millikan. On the contrary, I will argue,
this sort of failure causes confusion in concepts, which is something
quite different, and at the limit causes inability to think at all. It results

in corruption of the inner representational system, which comes to rep-
resent equivocally, or redundantly, or to represent nothing at all.
The very first duty of any cognitive system is to see to the integrity
of its own mental semantics. This involves correctly recognizing same-
ness of content in various natural signs encountered by the sensory sys-
tems, these sources of incoming information being what determines
conceptual content for basic empirical concepts. For animals with any
sophistication, it also involves the continuing development of new em-
pirical concepts, and the enrichment and sharpening, by training and
tuning, of those already possessed, to attain greater variety and accuracy
in methods of reidentification.
This book concerns only one kind of empirical concepts, but these
are the most fundamental. Echoing Aristotle, I call them concepts of
“substances.” The book is about what substance concepts are, what their
function is, how they perform it, what ontological structures support
them, how they are acquired, how their extensions are determined, how
they are connected with words for substances, what epistemological con-
siderations confirm their adequacy, and how they have been misunder-
stood in the philosophical and psychological traditions. Having a sub-
stance concept is having a certain kind of ability “ in part, an ability to
reidentify a substance correctly “ and the nature of abilities themselves is
a fundamental but neglected subject requiring attention. If it™s not an act
of judgment, what it is to reidentify a thing also needs to be addressed.
Reidentifying is not analogous to uttering a mental identity sentence
containing two descriptions or terms referring to the same. Indeed, care-
ful examination of this act undermines the notion that there even exist
modes of presentation in thought. So an understanding must be recon-
structed of the phenomena that have made it seem that there were.
The whole discussion will be placed in an evolutionary frame, where
human cognition is assumed to be an outgrowth of more primitive
forms of mentality, and assumed to have “functions.” That is, the mech-
anisms responsible for our capacities for cognition are assumed to be bi-
ological adaptations, evolved through a process of natural selection.1
Very many of the claims and arguments of this book can stand apart
from this assumption, but not all.
This naturalist perspective has a methodological implication that
should be kept constantly in mind. If we are dealing with biological

1 This framework for the study of human cognition is defended in Millikan (1984, 1993a
Chapter 2 and in press b) as well as in Chapter 15 and Appendix B.

phenomena, then we are working in an area where the natural divisions
are divisions only de facto and are often irremediably vague. These di-
visions do not apply across possible worlds; they are not determined by
necessary and/or sufficient conditions. If you were to propose to pair a
set of dog chromosomes with a set of coyote chromosomes and then
swap every other gene, you would not find any biologist prepared to
debate what species concept to apply to the (in this case, really possible)
resulting pups. Biological theories begin with normal cases, or paradigm
cases of central phenomena, and work out from there only when
needed to systematize further existing phenomena. Similarly, I will be
concerned to describe substance concepts as they normally function,
how their extensions are normally determined, the sorts of ontological
structures to which they paradigmatically correspond, and so forth. But
I will show no interest, for example, in what a person might be “cred-
ited with” referring to, or thinking of, or having a concept of, and so
forth, in possible-worlds cases, or even in queer actual cases. Such ques-
tions rest, I believe, on false assumptions about the kind of phenomena
that reference and conception are and tend to be philosophically de-
structive. The thesis and argument of this book itself are, of course, cal-
culated to support this opinion.
Help from friends with the contents of individual chapters is ac-
knowledged in footnotes. Some parts of Chapters 1 through 6 and
Chapter 12 are revised from “A common structure for concepts of in-
dividuals, stuffs, and basic kinds: More mama, more milk and more
mouse” (Millikan 1998a) and “With enemies like this I don™t need
friends: Author™s response” (Millikan 1998b), in Behavioral and Brain Sci-
ences, reprinted with the kind permission of Cambridge University
Press. Some portions of other chapters have also been taken from ear-
lier papers “ in a few cases, also the chapter titles. These sources are ac-
knowledged in footnotes. My main debt of gratitude, however, is for the
warmhearted personal support I have consistently received from my
colleagues at the University of Connecticut, recently also from the
higher administration at Connecticut, always from my department
chairman, and from graduate students both at home and abroad. To tell
it truthfully, I have been quite thoroughly coddled and spoiled. At best,
this book may match some small portion of that debt.

Introducing Substance Concepts


One use of the word “concept” equates a concept with whatever it is
one has to learn in order to use a certain word correctly. So we can
talk of the concept or and the concept of and the concepts hurrah, the,
because, necessarily, ouch, good, true, two, exists, is “ and so forth. We can
talk that way, but then we should remember Wittgenstein™s warning:
“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a
screwdriver, a glue pot, nails and screws “ The functions of words are
as diverse as the functions of these objects” (1953, Section §11). Given
this broad usage of “concept,” there will be little or nothing in com-
mon about any two of these various concepts. We mustn™t expect a
theory of how the tape measure works to double as a theory of how
the glue works.
In this book, I propose a thesis about the nature of one and only one
kind of concept, namely, concepts of what (with a respectful nod to Ar-

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