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istotle) I call “substances.” Paradigmatic substances, in my sense, are in-
dividuals (Mama, The Empire State Building), stuffs (gold, milk), and
natural kinds (mouse, geode). The core of the theory is not, however,
about grasp of the use of words for substances (although I will get to
that). Rather, the core belongs to the general theory of cognition, in ex-
actly the same way that theories of perception do. Substance concepts
are primarily things we use to think with rather than to talk with. A
reasonable comparison might be between the proposal I will make here
and David Marr™s first level of analysis in his theory of vision. I attempt
something like a “task analysis” for substance concepts, a description of
what their job or function is, why we need to have them. Marr claimed

(rightly or wrongly) that the task of vision is to construct representa-
tions of three dimensional objects starting from retinal images. I will
claim that the task of substance concepts is to enable us to reidentify
substances through diverse media and under diverse conditions, and to
enable us over time to accumulate practical skills and theoretical knowl-
edge about these substances and to use what we have learned.
There is another tradition that treats a theory of concepts as part of
a theory of cognition by taking a concept to be a mental word. If one
takes it that what makes a mental feature, or a brain feature, into a men-
tal word is its function, then this usage of “concept” is not incompatible
with my usage here. Indeed, during the first part of this book I will rely
rather heavily on the image of a substance concept as corresponding to
something like a mental word (while plotting subsequently to demolish
much that has usually accompanied this vision). But if a substance con-
cept is thought of as a mental word, it must constantly be borne in
mind that the category “mental word for a substance,” like the category
“tool for scraping paint,” is a function category. My claims will concern
the function that defines this category. If a mental word for a substance
is to serve a certain function, the cognitive systems that use it must have
certain abilities. It is onto these abilities that I will turn the spotlight, of-
ten speaking of a substance concept simply as being an ability.
In this chapter I will roughly sketch the general sort of ability I take
a substance concept to be. In later chapters I will fill in details, but some
rough understanding of the whole project is needed first.


From the standpoint of an organism that wishes to learn, the most im-
mediately useful and accessible subjects of knowledge are things that re-
tain their properties, hence potentials for use, over numerous encounters
with them.This makes it possible for the organism to store away knowl-
edge or know-how concerning the thing as observed or experienced
on earlier occasions for use on later occasions, the knowledge retaining
its validity over time. These accessible subjects for knowledge are the
things I am calling “substances.” Substances are, by definition, what can
afford this sort of opportunity to a learner, and where this affordance is
no accident, but is supported by an ontological ground of real connec-
tion. The category of substances is widely extensive, there being many
kinds of items about which it is possible to learn from one encounter
something about what to expect on other encounters. I will discuss the

ontology of substances in Chapter 2.1 Here I illustrate with just a few
paradigmatic examples.
I can discover on one temporal or spatial encounter with cats that
cats eat fish and the knowledge will remain good on other encounters
with cats. That is, I can discover from the cat over here eating fish that
the cat over there will probably also eat fish, or from a cat now eating
fish that a cat encountered later will eat fish. I also can discover numer-
ous other anatomical, physiological, and behavioral facts about cats that
will carry over. There is the entire subject of cat physiology and behav-
ior studied by those attending veterinary schools. I can learn how to
hold a frightened cat on one or a few occasions, and this may hold
good for a lifetime of cat ownership.
Similarly, I can discover that Xavier knows Greek on one encounter
and this will remain good on other encounters with Xavier. Or I can
discover that he has blue eyes, that he is tall, that he likes lobster, and
that he can easily be persuaded to have a drink, and these will, or are
likely to, carry over as well. I can discover that ice is slippery and this
will remain good when I encounter ice again, either over there with
the next step I take, or next winter. I can learn how to avoid slipping
on ice, and this will carry over from one encounter with ice to the
next. And for any determinate kind or stuff, there is a vast array of
questions, such as “what is its chemistry?,” “what is its melting point?,”
“what is its specific gravity?,” or “what is its tensile strength?” that can
sensibly be asked about it and answered, once and for all, on the basis,
often, of one careful observation. For these reasons, catkind, Xavier, and
ice are each “substances.” Besides stuffs, real kinds, and individuals, the
category substances may include certain event types (here™s breakfast
again), cultural artifacts, musical compositions, and many other things
such as McDonald™s and the Elm Street bus, but I will ignore these
others in this introductory chapter.


It is is not a matter of logic, of course, but rather of the makeup of the
world, that I can learn from one observation what color Xavier™s eyes
are or, say, how the water spider propels itself. It is not a matter of logic
that these things will not vary from meeting to meeting. And indeed,

1 The ontology is discussed with a different emphasis in Millikan (1984), Chapters 16 and

the discovery on one meeting that cat is black does not carry over; next
time I meet cat it may be striped or white. Nor does the discovery that
Xavier is talking or asleep carry over; next time he may be quiet or
awake. Nor does discovering that ice is cubical or thin carry over, and
so forth. Although substances are, as such, items about which enduring
knowledge can be acquired from one or a few encounters, only certain
types of knowledge are available for each substance or broad category of
Furthermore, most of the knowledge that carries over about ordinary
substances is not certain knowledge, but merely probable knowledge.
Some cats don™t like fish, perhaps, and a stroke could erase Xavier™s
Greek. But compare: No knowledge whatever carries over about non-
substance kinds, such as the red square or the two-inch malleable object, or
the opaque liquid.There is nothing to be learned about any of these kinds
except what applies to one or another of the parts of these complexes
taken separately, that is, except what can be learned separately about
red, about square, about malleability, liquidity, and so forth.
Classically, simple induction is described as a movement from knowl-
edge about certain instances of a kind to conclusions about other in-
stances of the same kind. Forced into this ill-fitting mold, learning what
the properties of a substance are would be viewed as running inductions
over instances of the second order kind meetings with substance S: meet-
ings with Xavier, meetings with ice, meetings with cat, and so forth. If
we then made the usual assumption that running inductions over mem-
bers of a kind involves having concepts of the various instances of the
kind on the basis of which an inference is made, we would get the
strange result that learning that Xavier has blue eyes involves beginning
with concepts of meetings with (or instances of, or time slices of . . . ?)
Xavier. But to have a concept of a meeting with Xavier, presumably
you must first have a concept of Xavier. If having a concept of Xavier
requires knowing how to generalize productively from one meeting
with Xavier to another, as I will argue it does, then a regress results if
you must begin with a prior concept of Xavier in order to do this. I will
discuss the psychological structure of substance concepts in Chapter 5.
At the moment, let me just note that when I speak of “running induc-
tions” over occasions of meeting with various substances, I do not im-
ply that this kind of “induction” can be unpacked in the usual way. Pos-
sibly “generalization” would be a less misleading word. Its usage in
“stimulus generalization,” for example, does not imply that inferences
are involved that start with premises containing concepts of stimula-

tions. On the other hand, the central thesis to be argued in this book
implies that a great many logical/psychological moves that have tradi-
tionally been treated as examples of simple induction, in particular, in-
ductions over the members of real kinds, need not begin with such
concepts either, so it is best, in general, not automatically to shackle the
notion “induction” with its classical analysis.


The next step in articulating the notion of a substance concept is to ask
ourselves why a person, or animal, needs to carry knowledge of the
properties of a substance from one encounter with it to another.Why is
it helpful to learn about a substance and remember what has been
learned? Notice that if all of a substance™s properties were immediately
manifest to one upon every encounter with it, there would be no need
to learn and remember what these properties were. If every cat I en-
countered was in the process of eating a fish, I would not need to re-
member that cats eat fish, and if Xavier was always speaking Greek
when I encountered him, I would not need to remember that he speaks
Greek. Carrying knowledge of substances about is useful only because
most of a substance™s properties are not manifest but hidden from us
most of the time. This is not, in general, because these properties are
“deep” or “theoretical” properties, but because observing a property al-
ways requires that one have a particular perspective on it. To observe
that butter is yellow you must be in the light, to observe that it is greasy
you must touch it, to observe that the sugar is sweet it must be in your
mouth, to observe that the milk is drinkable and filling you must tip the
cup and drink.You do not find out that the cat scratches until you dis-
turb it, or that the fire burns unless you near it. The bright colored de-
sign on the front of the quilt is not seen from the back, and although
Xavier knows Greek he is seldom come upon speaking it. Different
properties and utilities of a substance show themselves on different en-
counters. Were it not for that, there would be no point in collecting
knowledge of a substance over time and remembering it.


Yet a sort of paradox lurks here that, I believe, takes us straight to the
most central problem there is for cognition. The difficulty is that it
won™t help to carry knowledge of a substance about with you unless

you can recognize that substance when you encounter it again as the
one you have knowledge about.Without that you will be unable to ap-
ply whatever knowledge you have. But if different properties of a sub-
stance show themselves on different encounters with it, how is one to
know when one is encountering the same substance again? The very
reason you needed to carry knowledge about in the first place shows up
as a barrier to applying it. Indeed, not only substances but also their
properties reveal themselves quite differently on different occasions of
meeting. The enduring properties of substances are distal not proximal,
and they affect the external senses quite differently under different con-
ditions and when bearing different relations to the perceiver.
This is a problem, moreover, not merely for the application of
knowledge of substances one already has, but for the project of collect-
ing knowledge of substances. How can you collect knowledge of a sub-
stance over time, over a series of encounters, if you cannot recognize
that it is the same substance about which you have learned one thing on
one encounter, another thing on another encounter? Clearly it is essen-
tial to grasp that it is the same thing about which you have these vari-
ous bits of knowledge. Suppose, for example, that you are hungry and
that you know that yogurt is good to eat and that there is yogurt in the
refrigerator.This is of no use unless you also grasp that these two bits of
knowledge are about the same stuff, yogurt. To caricature, if you represent
yogurt to yourself in one way, say, with a mental diamond, as you store
away the knowledge that yogurt is good to eat, but represent it another
way, say, with a mental heart, as you store away the knowledge that it is
in the refrigerator, these bits of information will not help you when you
are hungry.2 Indeed, the idea that you might be collecting information
about a thing without grasping that it was the same thing that any of
these various pieces of information was about is not obviously coher-
ent. Russell™s claim that “it is scarcely conceivable that we can make a
judgment or entertain a supposition without knowing what it is we are
judging or supposing about” (Russell 1912, p. 58) has an intuitive ap-
peal and a plausible application (Chapters 13 and 14).
From this we should conclude, I believe, that a most complex but
crucial skill involved for any organism that has knowledge of substances
must be the ability to reidentify these substances efficiently and with

2 To model the act of reidentifying a substance in thought as using the same mental term
again, as I have playfully done here, is a crude and misleading expedient, to be criticized
at length in Chapter 10.

fair reliability under a variety of conditions. The other side of this coin
is that a fundamental ability involved in all theoretical knowledge of
substances must be the capacity to store away information gathered
about each substance in such a way that it is understood which sub-
stance it concerns. Information about the same must be represented by
what one grasps as a representation of the same.
This capacity is central to the capacity to maintain a coherent, non-
equivocal, nonredundant, inner representational system, which means, I
will try to persuade you, that it is essential for representing something
in thought (i.e., conceptually) at all.That these capacities are specifically
conceptual capacities, not to be confused with judgmental capacities,
will be argued culminating in Chapter 12.


The ideal capacity to identify a substance would allow correct reidenti-
fication under every physically possible condition, regardless of inter-
vening media and the relation of the substance to the perceiver. The
ideal capacity also would be infallible. Obviously, there are no such ca-
pacities. If the cost of never making an error in identifying Xavier or ice
or cats is almost never managing to identify any of them at all, then it
will pay to be less cautious. But if one is to recognize a substance a rea-
sonable proportion of the time when one encounters it, one will need
to become sensitive to a variety of relatively reliable indicators of the
substance, indeed, to as many as possible, so as to recognize the sub-
stance under as many conditions as possible.
Reasonably reliable indicators of substances may come in a variety of
epistemic types. One kind of indicator may be various appearances of
the substance to each of the various senses, under varying conditions, at
varying distances, given varying intervening media, or resulting from
various kinds of probing and testing, with or without the use of special
instruments of observation. That is, one kind of indicator may allow
recognition of the substance directly, without inference. Another kind of
indicator may be possession of various pieces of information about the
presented substance “ that it has these or those objective properties that
indicate it reliably enough. In Chapter 6, I will argue that words also
can be indicators of substances, but that requires a special story.
In the case of familiar substances, typically we collect over time very
numerous means of identification, but all of these are fallible, at least in
principle.There is no such thing as a way of identifying a substance that

works with necessity and that one also can be sure one is actually using
on a given occasion. All methods of identification rest at some point on
the presence of conditions external to the organism, and attempting to
identify the presence of these conditions poses the same problem over
again. Nor is any particular method or methods of identification set
apart as “definitional” of the substance, as an ultimate criterion deter-
mining its extension or determining what its concept is of.The purpose
of a substance concept is not to sustain what Wettstein (1988) aptly calls
“a cognitive fix” on the substance, but the practical one of facilitating
information gathering and use for an organism navigating in a chang-
ing and cluttered environment.
Consider, for example, how many ways you can recognize each of the
various members of your immediate family “ by looks of various body
parts from each of dozens of angles, by characteristic postures, by voice,
by footsteps, by handwriting, by various characteristic activities, by
clothes and other possessions. None of these ways nor any subset defines
for you any family member, and probably all are fallible. There are, for
example, conditions under which you would fail to recognize even your
spouse, conditions under which you would misidentify him, or her and
conditions under which you might mistake another for him or her.The
same is true of your ability to identify squirrels or wood.To be skilled in
identifying a substance no more implies that one never misidentifies it
than skill in walking implies that one never trips. Nor does it imply that
one has in reserve some infallible defining method of identification,
some ultimate method of verification, that determines the extension of
each of one's thoughts of a substance, any more than the ability to walk
implies knowing some special way to walk that could never let one trip.


If this is so, it follows that it cannot be merely one™s disposition to ap-
ply a substance term that determines its referent or extension.The ques-
tion emerges with urgency, then: What does determine the extension?
When my mother stoutly insisted her father was “Uncle Albert,” it
seems clear that the name “Uncle Albert,” for her, did not in fact refer
to her father. She applied “Uncle Albert” incorrectly according to her
own standards, not just the standards of adults. By contrast, in a passage
characteristic of the psychological literature, Lakoff remarks, “It is
known, for example, that two-year-olds have different categories than

adults. Lions and tigers as well as cats are commonly called “kitty” by
two-year-olds . . .” (1987, p. 50). How does Lakoff know that two-year-
olds don™t think that lions and tigers are housecats, for example, house-
cats grown big or giant kitties, just as my mother thought her father was
Uncle Albert? Perhaps with more experience the child will change her
mind, not on the question what “cat” means, but on reliable ways to
recognize kitties. A child who has got only partway toward knowing
how to ride a bicycle has not learned something different from bicycle
riding, but partially learned how to ride a bicycle. Won™t it be the same
for a child who has got only partway toward recognizing Uncle Albert,
or housecats?
The issues here turn, I will claim, on the question what “an ability to
reidentify X” is, other than a disposition to identify X. If having a con-
cept of cats requires having an ability to reidentify cats, and if an ability
were just a disposition, then whatever the child has a disposition to
identify as a cat would have to be part of the extension of her concept.
It is crucial, I will argue, that an ability is not a disposition “ of any kind.
The question what a given ability is an ability to do, even though it may
not accomplish this end under all conditions, is the same as the question
what substance a given substance concept is of (Chapters 4, 13, and 14).


The practical ability to reidentify a substance when encountered, so as
to collect information about it over time and to know when to apply
it, needs to be complemented with another and equally important abil-
ity. Having a concept of a substance requires a grasp of what kinds of
things can be learned about that substance. It requires understanding
from which kinds of experienced practical successes to generalize to
new encounters with the substance, or if the concept is used for gath-
ering information, it requires understanding what sorts of predicates
will remain stable over encounters with the substance, that is, what
some of the meaningful questions are that can be asked about the sub-
stance.3 You can ask how tall Mama is, but not how tall gold is.You can
ask at what temperature gold melts, but not at what temperature chairs
(as such) do “ the latter is a question that can be answered only for cer-
tain individual chairs.There is much that you can find out about the in-
ternal organs of each species of animal but not about the gross internal

3 See Millikan (1984), Chapter 15, p. 252 ff, and Chapters 16 and 17.

parts of gold or mud. Having a concept of a substance does not involve
knowing an essence. Rather, it involves understanding something of
what recognition of the substance might be good for, in the context ei-
ther of developing practical skills or theoretical knowledge.
To have the concept of any individual person, you must know what
kinds of questions can be asked and answered about individual people;
to have the concept of any individual species, you must know some of
the questions that can be asked and answered about species; to have the
concept of any chemical element, you must know some of the ques-
tions that can be asked and answered about chemical elements, and so
forth. The primary interest of groupings like persons, species, and chemical
elements is not that they themselves correspond to substances, but that
they bring with them “substance templates.” Many of the same sorts of
questions can be asked and answered though not, of course, answered
the same way, for all members of each of these groups. They are natural
groups, the members of which display a common set of determinables
rather than, or in addition to, a common set of determinates.4 All chem-
ical elements have, for example, some atomic number or another, some
specific chemical combining properties or others, some electrical con-
ductivity or other.
Physical object seems to be a pure substance template.To be a physical
object in the broadest sense, a thing need have no particular determi-
nate properties at all, but it has to have some mass, some charge, some
position and velocity at each time, some extension, be composed of
some particular material, and so forth. With rare exceptions, however,
categories that bring with them substance templates also bring at least a
bit more. They correspond to substances displaying at least a few com-
mon properties as well as bringing substance templates with them.


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