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ceive it doing is done at the time you perceive it. But if you hear John
talking about Xavier, you do not usually hear about Xavier™s spatial re-
lation to you, nor is it automatic to know what temporal relation the
Xavier-doings that John relates bear to you. There are intermediate
cases, however, between ordinary perception and gathering information
through language. For example, when watching television, the spatial
relation of perceiver to perceived is not given either, nor, unless the pro-
gram is live, is the temporal relation, yet one perceives that the news-
caster frowns or smiles just as immediately as one would in his presence.
So this alone is not a reason to distinguish perception sharply from
learning about the world through language.
The second feature that distinguishes perception is its near infallibil-
ity. It is remarkably difficult to deceive people about what they are ac-
tually seeing or hearing. This is why “seeing is believing.” On the other
hand, given a modern understanding of the mechanisms of perception
and a substantial technology it is possible to manage materially to fool
the human ear and eye. False appearances can be arranged in the labo-
ratory. And false appearances are now easily arranged using modern
communications media. Though generally overlooked in this connec-
tion, the latter offer much the most common current illustration of the
persistence of perceptual illusion. After seeing her daddy on television,
the small daughter of a friend asked him, “Daddy, how did you get in

1 Gareth Evans may have had a view similar to the one I present below, though his notion
of “information” was different. See Appendix A and Appendix B.

there?” But I mainly have in mind more radical cases such as dubbed
films and cartoons.
In a similar way, persistent illusions are easily arranged through lan-
guage and they are abundant. That is, sentences are often false, and even
when you know they are false, they continue to present the same false
appearances. They do not shift and appear to say something different. In
water, oars look bent and the reflections of the trees show them moving
in ripples.We are not, however, tempted to believe that our oars are bent
or that the trees are moving in ripples. Similarly, “I™m dying” uttered by
a laughing eight-year-old does not tempt us to believe that someone is
dying (Gendler 1998). But the appearance is as much of someone dying
as the appearance in the rippling water is of rippling trees. Perhaps you
will say, but it doesn™t sound as if the laughing eight-year-old is dying.
True, those aren™t the sounds an eight-year-old would make if she were
really dying. It also isn™t the look a tree would have if it were really rip-
pling.Trees don™t flex that way. Still, the persistent illusion is that the trees
are flexing that way and that the eight-year-old is dying. In sum, hearing
sentences may be quite a lot like watching the media, or like watching
reflections, which in turn is quite a lot like watching the original.
Think of the matter this way. There are many ways to recognize, for
example, rain. There is a way that rain feels when it falls on you, and a
way that it looks out the window. There is a way that it sounds falling
on the rooftop, “retetetetetet,” and a way that it sounds falling on the
ground, “shshshshsh.” And falling on English speakers, here is another
way it can sound: “Hey, guys, it™s raining!”2 Nor should you object that
it is not rain you hear in the last case but rather “a sentence.” Or a
sound? Is it then a sound that you hear rather than rain on the roof? Is
it a TV screen that you see rather than Bill Clinton? A pattern of am-
bient light rather than the TV screen? Best of all, perhaps all you see is
a visual impression? Which ones of these things are the real or direct
objects of perception?
You can, if you like, hear or see any of these things. What you see
when you look depends, first, on where you focus your eyes; it depends,
second, on where you focus your mind, your attention. True, philo-
sophical tradition, and the psychological tradition following after, has
resolutely held that for each of the physical senses there is just one layer
of the world that it perceives directly; all other layers are known only
through inference. This premise I am denying. There is no single

2 Thank you, Crawford Elder.

“given” layer of perception (again, see MacLennan 1998, quoted in Sec-
tion 5.5).This, of course, was argued strongly in the broad tradition that
includes both Wilfrid Sellars and Willard Quine, so it should not be an
unfamiliar idea. Perception, many have held, is “theory laden.” Percep-
tual judgments do not arise through inference, but neither is the con-
tent of a perceptual judgment an epistemological given. I would argue
that the Sellars/Quine tradition was mistaken in the reasons they gave
for this conclusion. Their view was that applying a concept is making a
transition from stimulation or sensation into thought, and that the con-
tent of the thought produced is defined by the network of inference
dispositions (nowadays, the “cognitive role”) in which the concept is
enmeshed. I am proposing a different theory about the content of a
concept and about how its extension is determined. But the conclusion
is the same. The substances referred to in perceptual judgments are not
epistemological givens but are discovered through a process of fallible
construction, fallible learning. They are distal objects, and there is no
necessary restriction on their level of distality.
According to the contemporary motor theory of speech perception
(Liberman & Mattingly 1985, 1989; Mattingly & Studdart-Kennedy
1991), phonemes are not sounds, not acoustic phenomena, but gestures
made by the vocal tract. That is, what you hear as the same phoneme
again is not acoustically the same, but is the same movement or same
posture aimed at by the vocal tract. Furthermore, the processing of
speech sounds, when these are perceived as speech, is through different
channels than the processing of other sounds. Thus, the end organs of
perception, the ears, determine more than one mode of perception. My
further suggestion is that when one is listening to speech in order to
gain information, the ears hear not just through the acoustics to the
speech gestures, but through the speech gestures to the world.What the
young child perceives in the presence of speech is not sounds, nor
phoneme strings, nor words but, in the first instance, the world. (If a bat
can hear that something is square, so can I. It™s only fair.)
The child comes into the world without any knowledge of how
minds work, without any knowledge of what goes on inside people
when they speak (indeed, we ourselves seem to be a bit short on such
knowledge). The child does not develop concepts, for example, of be-
liefs and desires, until several years after the onset of speech. It is clear,
then, that children cannot possibly understand language in the way
Grice (1957) described, by understanding that the speaker intends them
to believe . . . and so forth.3 But it is also true that the young child has

very little phonological awareness. Indeed, contrary to much public
opinion, the difficulty of becoming aware of structure at the phonolog-
ical level is probably the most common first cause of dyslexia (I. Y.
Liberman et al. 1984; Lundberg et al. 1988; Morais et al. 1979). Clearly
the child has no concepts of phonemes and cannot understand speech
by drawing inferences from the patterns of phonemes it hears.
It is also true that children learn very few words by ostentation.They
learn them by hearing complete sentences containing them (e.g., Gleit-
man 1990; Grimshaw 1994; Pinker 1994a). For the young child, lan-
guage serves simply as another medium of perception, a medium
through which to perceive the world “ exactly as the child perceives
the world through its eyes without knowing anything about light, and
through its sense of touch and smell without knowing anything about
physical forces or chemicals. How can that be, you may say, since
Mama™s words are right here while the dog she talks about is way over
there? Well, how do you perceive yourself in the mirror? What™s funny
about language, I have said, is that it does not show your own relation
to the things you perceive through it.


But there really is no need to exhaust this point here. In the present
context, the part that really matters is that believing what one hears said
is a way of picking up information about substances, and that it is by
learning a language that a child becomes able to pick up information in
this way.4 It sounds a bit queer to speak of learning a word for a sub-
stance as learning a way to identify that substance. But just as the rela-
tion of one part of the pattern on the TV screen to another part can
manifest the relation of one part of Bill Clinton to another, the relation
of a word to other words in a sentence can manifest the configuration
of a substance in relation to other substances and properties in the
world. The semantics of natural languages is productive; alterations per-
formed upon sentences correspond systematically to alterations in what
the sentences represent, just as in the case of pictures, though the map-
ping functions involved are, of course, far more abstract. So if learning
what a substance looks like can be learning how to identify it, similarly,

3 For a critique of Grice, see Millikan (1984, Chapter 3).
4 “Information,” in this passage, means informationC as defined in Appendix B.

learning a word for a substance can be learning a way to identify it. In
both cases, what one learns is to recognize or understand manifestations
of the substance as manifestations of it; one learns how to translate in-
formation arriving in one more kind of package at one's sensory sur-
faces into beliefs.
Learning a language is, in part, just learning more ways to pick up
information through the senses and put it away in the right boxes. A
difference, of course, is that this way of picking up information is much
more fallible than in the case of ordinary perception. But no human
ability is infallible. Furthermore, just as substances are sometimes look-
alikes in the flesh (twin brothers), many substances are sound-alikes in
words (John(Doe) and John(Roe)). But substances are tracked through the
medium of words not merely by means of the same words manifesting
the same substances. Like more direct manifestations of substances,
words and sentences occur in context, allowing methods of tracking to
be used that are analogous to more ordinary tracking, in that they rely
in large part on expected spatial, temporal, and causal relations (cf., tra-
jectory) rather than the persistence of properties. How do I recognize
that as John™s elbow poking out over there behind the lamp? Well, I saw
John head that way with a book just a moment ago. Some of these re-
lations are natural, as the natural relation between a speaker™s experience
plus the context of his speech to the subject of the information he is
trying to convey. One will usually know which “John” a speaker is talk-
ing about in a way analogous to the way one knows whose elbow that
is. Other relations between word and referent are governed more
closely by convention, as in the interpretation of certain anaphoric pro-
nouns and certain indexicals.
Recognizing a linguistic reference to a substance is just another way
of reidentifying the substance itself. It is identifying it through one
more medium of manifestation.Think of this medium as like an instru-
ment that aids perception. Like a camera, a radio, a cat scan, or a mi-
croscope, another person who talks to me picks up information-bearing
patterns from his environment, focuses them, translates them into a new
medium and beams them at me. Or think of living in a language com-
munity as like being inundated in one more sea of ambient energy. Like
the surrounding light, surrounding people transmit the structure of the
environment to me in ways that, barring certain interferences, I can be-
come tuned to interpret.
It is even possible, indeed it is common, to have a substance concept
entirely through the medium of language. It is possible to have it, that is,

while lacking any ability to recognize the substance in the flesh. For
most of us, that is how we have a concept of Aristotle, of molybdenum
and, say, of African dormice. “ There, I just handed you a concept of
African dormice, in case you had none before. Now you can think of
them nights if you like, wondering what they are like “ on the as-
sumption, of course, that you gathered from their name what sorts of
questions you might reasonably ask about them (animal questions, not
vegetable or mineral or social artifact questions). In many cases there is
not much more to having a substance concept than having a word. To
have a word is to have a handle on tracking a substance via manifesta-
tions of it produced in a particular language community. For the person
who remembers faces easily, one look at a new person may be enough
to implant the ability to recognize that person again, thus enabling a
concept of them. For the person who remembers words easily, one
hearing of a new substance through a word for it may be enough to
implant the ability to recognize the substance again through that word,
thus enabling a concept of it. Simply grasping the phonemic structure
of a language and the rudiments of how to parse it enables one to help
oneself to an embryo concept of every substance named in that lan-
guage. It enables one conceptually to track these substances and easily
to discover under what sorts of substance templates they fall. That, I
suppose, is why it is possible for small children to learn a new word
every hour (Section 5.1).
The basic phenomenon here is the same as that underlying Putnam™s
theory of the “Division of Linguistic Labor” (1975) and Burge™s claim
that constitution of the very content of one™s thought sometimes passes
through the word usages of a surrounding language community (1979,
1982, 1986). But the explanation I am proposing of this phenomenon is
quite different. The image created by both Putnam and Burge is that
when I have a concept through language I take out a loan that the ex-
perts are prepared to pay up. There are experts out there who “really”
have the concept while the rest of us really don™t. But even if we soften
this just to the claim that some people out there have (or had “ con-
sider our concept of Socrates) the concept in a way that was different
from ours because focused without reliance on public language, still the
image is wrong. My claim is that having a concept grounded only
through language is no different than having a concept grounded only
through, say, vision. Such a concept is in no way secondary.True, others
must help me to have such a concept, just as a television may have to
help me if I am to see Bill Clinton. But just as I really do see Bill Clin-

ton on television, having a concept through language is really having a
concept. It is really thinking of something.


Words serve in huge numbers as seed crystals around which fuller con-
ceptions of substances are then quickly formed. That is why there can
be such differences between the concepts available in cultures not his-
torically related, and why poor Helen Keller was, as she later described
it, pretty much unable to think until Sullivan taught her some language.
Gelman and Coley (1991) are surely right that “a word can serve to
stake out a new category, which then must be explored in more depth”
(p. 184; see also Gopnik & Meltzoff 1993). Words also are handles to
hang onto, helping to stabilize concepts so as gradually to eliminate
equivocation in thought, granted that those who speak to us have un-
equivocal concepts themselves.
Acquiring adequate substance concepts involves learning to focus
one™s thought, such that all of the incoming information scattered over
time about each substance is put into one slot, and the right constancies
projected for it. Learning to do this is what Perner called “focusing ref-
erence” (Section 4.8). Learning words for substances is in part a matter
of focusing reference. Substances are tracked through words and also in
other ways. If information about a substance arrives through language
and the substance is tracked through a word, but the information culled
in this way is put under a concept used also to track a different sub-
stance using other means, there will be equivocation in the resulting
concept. We say in such cases that the person “does not know the
meaning of the word,” or thinks that the word means something differ-
ent than it really does. A perfectly parallel case would be mixing a per-
son known to you only through phone calls with a different person
known from glimpses at the beach. One could just as well say, using the
same sense of “meaning,” that they did not know the meaning of the
voice over the phone.
In Chapter 1, I suggested that preschoolers who take tigers to be
“kitties” may be confused, not about the meaning of the word “kitty,”
but about how to identify housecats. From our present perspective,
however, thinking tigers are “kitties,” that is, putting tiger information
away in the same slot as information gotten from observing housecats
and from hearing about “kitties,” is being confused about tigers as well

as about housecats.The child has not yet managed to focus on only one
substance. Perhaps the child calls the whole genus Felis by the name
“kitty.” It does not follow that the child means Felis by “kitty.” Rather,
the child™s word “kitty” may hover between referring to felines gener-
ally and housecats specifically. The child may be putting all information
gleaned through language and specific to housecats in the same bin as
information gleaned about tigers and lions at the zoo. The child™s con-
ception of “kitty” will then be equivocal, part of it tracking felines gen-
erally while another part is channeled through the word “kitty,” hence
is bringing in information much of which is wrong for felines gener-
ally. Then the child™s referent is not the same as the referent of the En-
glish word “kitty,” so it is certainly true that child does not yet know the
meaning of “kitty.” But the public word “Felis” is not equivocal, so the
child does not mean Felis by “kitty.” (Suppose, on the other hand, that
a foreigner uses the word “kitchen” to refer to chickens. It is very un-
likely that she will have gathered in any information through language
about kitchens and actually put it in her mental chicken bin, or that she
has any disposition to do so. This is an entirely different case from that
of the child who calls tigers “kitty.”)
Because it is possible for a conception to be channeled completely
through language, it is possible to have a substance concept through
nothing but a word plus a grasp of its substance template and enough
relevant grammar. Many people find this completely unintuitive, and I
sympathize. But my point is that filling out the concept into a more and
more adequate one happens in degrees. There is no special thing that
gets added at some later point that suddenly makes it into a “real con-
cept.” It can be filled out more; it can get better and better. But there is
no magic moment when it has attained some essence required for true
concepthood.There is no magic place to draw the line between merely
knowing a word and also knowing what the word means.
Traditionally it is supposed that learning what a word means is com-
ing to exercise the “same concept” in connection with the word that
adults do. But, I have argued, a concept is an ability, and there is an am-
biguity in the notion “same ability” that shows up also in the notion
“same concept.” Sometimes what counts as the same ability is what ac-
complishes the same; other times it is what accomplishes the same by
the same means. In the terminology I am using, the organic chemist
and the child both have the concept of sugar but they have quite differ-
ent conceptions of it (Section 1.9). Having the same substance concept

as someone else involves being able to reidentify the same substance
they can. Identifying a substance the same way that someone else does,
having the same “conception” of it, is an added frill.5 Assuming that
knowing English requires having the concepts that correspond to En-
glish words, an advantage of talking this way is that then Helen Keller
gets to know English.
What do we mean, then, when we speak of someone as coming to
understand “the meaning of a word”? If the word denotes a substance,
there is a sense in which its meaning is, just, its referring to that sub-
stance. To know what the word means is just to have a concept of the
substance that includes knowing to reidentify it by means of hearing
that word. But of course the child may not be very good at identifying
the substance. The child may make gross mistakes that an adult would
not make. Is there then a richer sense in which a child can come to un-
derstand “what adults mean” by the word? Is there such a thing as
“THE adult conception,” of a substance? Given the numerous and di-
verse methods by which it is possible to learn to identify almost any
substance, it seems that there could not possibly be.
On the other hand, for some (how many?) substances, it may be that
there are core methods by which nearly every adult (the “nearly” is for
Helen Keller) knows to reidentify them. Or there may be certain con-
ditions under which any adult would recognize the substance, or exam-
ples of the substance that any adult would recognize given a chance to
examine them. There also are occasional words that almost everyone
who knows them learns to associate with certain facts about their ref-
erents, such as that Hesperus is seen low on the horizon in the evening,
Phosphorus in the morning, or that Mark Twain was an author. (“Mark
Twain,” after all, was a pen name.) Also, occasionally words are passed
down from generation to generation along with explicit conventional
definitions. For example, every child who is taught the rudiments of
geometry in school is taught that all points on a circle are equidistant
from its center. Then there may be a sense in which the child does not
fully understand “the meaning” of the word for that substance until her
competence at identifying the substance has been filled out to match

5 There is a further complication, for it is possible for a single person to have two separate
concepts of the same substance if they have failed to coidentify these, for example, if they
do not understand that Samuel Clemens is the same man as Mark Twain (see Section

adult standards. The child must have an adult™s conception of the sub-
stance. If this is what is to be meant by “knowing the meaning” then
knowing how to track a substance only by recognizing its name would
not be nearly enough for “knowing the meaning.”
The difficulty is that there seems to be no way to draw clear lines
around “the adult conception” of a substance. For example, do you, in
this sense of “knowing the meaning,” know the meaning of the word
“molybdenum”? “ or “brisket”? “ or “African dormouse”? Perhaps
your intuition is to say that you don™t know what any of these words
mean? I see no way to avoid a merely verbal dispute at this point if we
persist with the question: Who gets to count as really knowing the

How We Make Our Ideas Clear:
Epistemology for Empirical

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