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The practical ability to reidentify a substance is typically composed of a
variety of different ways of identifying it.These multiple means are used
conjointly and alternatively for identifying the substance, each being
employed whenever possible under the given circumstances, and given
the thinker™s particular current relation to the substance. None of these

4 Determinables are not specific properties like red or square, but rather disjunctions of con-
trary properties like colored (equals red or blue or green or . . . ), and shaped (equals square
or triangular or circular or . . . ).

ways defines the extension of the concept, nor are the means of identi-
fying that one person employs likely to be exactly the same as another
person™s. What should we understand, then, by the notion “same con-
cept?” What will it mean to say that two persons share a concept?
Concepts are abilities, and there is an ambiguity in the notion “same
ability” from which an ambiguity in the notion “same concept” results.
Let us suppose, for example, that you tie your shoes by looping one lace
into a bow, encircling it with the other, and pulling through, while I tie
my shoes by looping each lace separately, then tying them together.The
results that we get will be exactly the same, but do we exercise the same
ability? Sometimes what counts as “the same ability” is what accom-
plishes the same:We share the ability to tie our shoes. Other times what
counts as “the same ability” is what accomplishes the same by the same
means: We do not exercise exactly the same abilities in tying our shoes.
Similarly, consider a child and an organic chemist. Each has an ability to
identify sugar and collect knowledge about it. Does it follow that there
is a concept that they both have, hence that they have “the same con-
cept?” In one sense they do, for each has the ability, one more fallibly,
the other less fallibly, to identify sugar, and each knows some kinds of
information that might be collected about sugar. But in another sense
they do not have “the same concept.” The chemist has much more so-
phisticated and reliable means at her disposal for identifying sugar and
knows to ask much more sophisticated questions about sugar than the
child. Similarly, we could ask, did Helen Keller have many of the same
concepts as you and I, or did she have largely different ones? She had a
perfectly normal and very large English vocabulary, which she em-
ployed in a perfectly normal way so far as reference and extension are
concerned, but her means of identifying the substances she was receiv-
ing information about was largely different from yours and mine. She
received most of her information through touch and vibration alone.5
Having understood what the problem is, we can solve it by intro-
ducing a technical distinction. I will say that the child has “the same
concept” as the chemist, namely, “the concept of sugar,” but that she has
a very different “conception” of sugar than does the chemist. Similarly,
Helen Keller had very many of the same concepts as you and I, but
quite different conceptions of their objects. This fits with the ordinary
way of speaking according to which people having very different infor-
mation or beliefs about a thing have “different conceptions” of it, given

5 I will discuss using language to identify substances in Chapter 6.

that having information about a substance presupposes a grasp of its as-
sociated property invariances, moreover, that information one has about
a substance is often used to help identify it. The “conception” one has
of a substance, then, will be the ways one has of identifying that sub-
stance plus the disposition to project certain kinds of invariances rather
than others over one™s experiences with it.6
Having introduced this technical distinction, we should notice not
merely the points in which it agrees with common or traditional usages
of the terms “concept” and “conception,” but also where there are
points of friction. Suppose you were to assume, as it was traditional to
assume for kinds and stuffs, that a person™s conception of a substance de-
termines the extension of their thought, which in turn determines the
extension of their term for the substance. Assume also that different
conceptions, for kinds and stuffs, determine different extensions across
possible worlds, and that extension across possible worlds is what the
thought of such a substance is fundamentally about, hence what one™s
term for it “means.” That is, assume, putting things in Kripke™s (1972)
terms, that terms for substances are nonrigid designators. Then the dis-
tinction between concept and conception would disappear. For each
substance kind or stuff that might be thought of or meant, there would
correspond but one possible conception. There would no longer be an
equivocation in speaking of “the same concept.” For example, if two
people each had “a concept of cats,” they would necessarily have both
“the same concept” and also “the same conception” in our defined
senses. For each extension across possible worlds that might be con-
ceived of or meant, there would correspond but one possible concep-
tion. Similarly, for each univocal word in a language for a substance
kind or stuff there would correspond just one conception.
I am opposing this tradition.There is no such thing as either as “the”
conception of a substance nor as “the” conception that corresponds to
a public language term for a substance. Different people competently
speaking the same language may have quite different “ indeed, nonover-
lapping “ conceptions corresponding to the same substance term, and a
single person may have quite different conceptions corresponding to
the same substance at different times. This divergence from a more tra-
ditional position results in some necessary friction over terminology,
however. What I am calling a “conception” is in many ways much like
what tradition has called a “concept.” But then tradition speaks of

6 In Millikan (1984), I rather confusingly called these conceptions “intensions.”

“THE concept cat,” not of “A concept cat” and I claim there is no such
thing as “THE concept cat” if what is meant is a conception. I reserve
the term “concept” then for what we do have only one of per person
per substance, and only one of per word for a substance, namely, for
abilities to recognize substances and to know something of their poten-
tial for inductive use. Or, since these abilities are what lend thoughts of
substances their referential content, their representational values, as
mentioned earlier, we also can think of substance concepts as corre-
sponding to mental representations of substances, say, to mental words
for substances but qua meaningful.
But this is not quite right either. Indeed, it does not take into ac-
count a phenomenon to which I am most anxious to draw attention in
this book, namely conceptual confusions and, more generally, the possi-
bility of redundancy, equivocation and emptiness in substance concepts.
Substance concepts do not always correspond one-to-one to substances.
This complication is closely connected with the question what happens
to Fregean senses and their kin given this view of substance concepts.
The answer will be that they have to be pretty much trashed (Chapters
11 and 12).


The claim that having a substance concept involves an ability to recog-
nize that substance contrasts sharply with the more classical view that
substance concepts correspond to descriptions or sets of properties un-
derstood by the thinker uniquely to distinguish the substance. Accord-
ing to the classical view, to distinguish a substance in the way needed to
conceive of it, you must merely have its distinguishing properties in
mind “ you must think of them and intend them to distinguish the sub-
stance and that is the end of it. According to the view I am defending,
you need instead to distinguish when natural information7 about that
substance is what is arriving at your sensory surfaces. This is an entirely
different matter. It certainly is not obvious, for example, how knowing
that Benjamin Franklin was uniquely the inventor of bifocals could help

7 I use the term “natural information” to mean natural informationC as defined in Appen-
dix B. There Dretske™s, Fodor™s and Gibson™s notions of natural information are discussed
and compared to informationC. As a first approximation, the reader can interpret the nat-
ural information referred to in the body of this book as something that is, anyway, akin to
Dretske™s or Gibson™s natural information, even though that reading will take one only
halfway in the end.

you to distinguish when natural information about Benjamin Franklin
is arriving at your sensory surfaces, or how knowing that molybdenum
is the element with atomic number 42 will help the nonchemist to do
so. For each of us, a very large percent of the substances we can think
about are substances that we do not have any capacity to identify, as it
were, in the flesh.
I will argue that human language is merely another medium, such as
light, through which natural information is conveyed. It is just one
more form of structured information-carrying ambient energy that
one™s senses may intercept. Thus the capacity to identify when the lan-
guage one hears concerns a certain substance constitutes an ability to
identify the substance. The substance is encountered “in the flesh”
through language just as surely as by seeing or hearing it (Chapter 6).


Clearly what I am proposing is a form of “meaning externalism.” In
Chapter 7 I will discuss the epistemology of substance concepts. I will
answer the question that has been urgently raised for meaning external-
ists concerning how it is possible for us to know whether our would-
be substance concepts are of real substances, and how we know they are
not redundant or equivocal.
The second part of this book (Chapters 8“14) mainly concerns the
nature of the act of identifying a substance, asking what an ability to re-
identify really is. Results are compared with the language of thought
tradition and the neo-Fregean tradition. The question of what deter-
mines reference is then explored more carefully. Chapter 15 places the
whole project in the context of Darwinian evolution. But I think it will
not help to introduce the themes of these later chapters here. Why a
study of the act of identifying should be of such crucial importance in
explaining conception must unfold in its own time. Enough of the gen-
eral picture has been sketched, I believe, to begin filling in.

Substances:The Ontology1


Substances are those things about which you can learn from one en-
counter something of what to expect on other encounters, where this
is no accident but the result of a real connection.There is a reason why
the same or similar properties characterize what is encountered.We can
begin with examples of substances that are kinds. I will call these sub-
stances “real kinds,” contrasting this, as is traditional, with “nominal
Most of the various definitions currently offered of “natural kinds”
capture real kinds of one sort or another. Sometimes, however, the term
“natural kind” is used to refer merely to a class determined by a “pro-
jectable” property, that is, one that might figure in natural laws.Then “is
green” and “is at 32° Fahrenheit” denote “natural kinds,” predicates pro-
jectable over certain classes of subjects. What I am calling real kinds, on
the other hand, must figure as subjects over which a variety of predi-
cates are projectable. They are things that have properties, rather than
merely being properties.2 That is why Aristotle called them “secondary
substances,” putting them in the same broad ontological class as individ-
uals, which he called “primary substances.” True, unlike the Aristotelian

1 Portions of Section 2.2 were revised from “On swampkinds” in Mind and Language (Mil-
likan 1996), with the kind permission of Blackwell Publishers, and from “Historical Kinds
and the Special Sciences” (Millikan 1999), with kind permission from Kluwer Academic
2 A discussion of the ontological distinction between substances and properties is in Millikan
(1984, Chapters 15“17).

tradition, in modern times concepts of stuffs and real kinds have tradi-
tionally been treated as predicate concepts.That is, to call a thing “gold”
or “mouse” has been taken to involve saying or thinking that it bears a
certain description. One understands something as being gold or a mouse
or a chair or a planet by representing it as having a certain set, or a cer-
tain appropriate sampling, of properties. Or one represents it as having
certain relations to other things, or having a certain kind of inner na-
ture or structure, or a certain origin or cause. But I am going to argue,
on the contrary, that the earliest and most basic concepts that we have
of gold and mouse and so forth are subject concepts.Their abstract struc-
ture is exactly the same as for concepts of individuals like Mama and
Bill Clinton. This is possible because Aristotle™s various “substances”
have an identical ontological structure when considered at a suitably ab-
stract level. That is, surprisingly to us moderns, the Aristotelian term
“substance,” though very abstract is univocal.
Real kinds are not classes defined by one property, nor are they de-
fined by a set of properties. Compare them with natural kinds. “Natural
kinds” are sometimes taken as defined by sets of properties set apart be-
cause they are “correlated” in nature (e.g., Markman 1989). Similarly,
while agreeing with Russell on the term “natural kind,” Hacking ex-
plains that Russell “made a rather charming comparison between nat-
ural kinds and topological neighborhoods, saying that the former may
be thought of as intensional neighborhoods, in which every member is
close to a great many other members according to some notion of
closeness to be explained” (Hacking 1991a, p. 112, referring to Russell
1948). These descriptions don™t capture the sort of real kinds I intend.
Just as, for a realist, a natural law is not merely a perfect correlation be-
tween properties but must correspond to a real ground in nature that is
responsible for the correlation, a real kind is not determined merely by
a correlation of properties but requires a real ground to determine it.
Thus, J. S. Mill said about his “Kinds” (the capitalization is in Mill)
that “a hundred generations have not exhausted the common properties
of animals or plants . . . nor do we suppose them to be exhaustible, but
proceed to new observations and experiments, in the full confidence of
discovering new properties which were by no means implied in those
we previously knew” (from Hacking 1991a, p. 118). Surely we are not
to understand this confidence as grounded in accidental historical con-
vergence. Mill clearly had in mind that it is grounded in nature by a
supporting natural ground of induction. Mill™s “Kinds” are supposed to

be genuinely projectable kinds, not the result of accidental correlations,
accidental heaps of piled up properties. Mill™s “Kinds” are real kinds.
In recent years, a number of psychologists have been interested in the
structure of concepts of “natural kinds” and in the development of chil-
dren™s understanding of these kinds (e.g., Carey 1985; Gelman and Co-
ley 1991; Keil 1989; Markman 1989). Natural kinds are said to be dis-
tinguished in part by the fact that many true generalizations can be
made about them, and that, as such, they provide an indispensable key
to the acquisition of inductive knowledge. For example, according to
Gelman and Coley (1991), people develop natural kind concepts

. . . with the implicit . . . goal of learning as much as possible about the objects
being classified. . . . For example, if we learn that X is a “cat,” we infer that it
has many important properties in common with other cats, including diet, body
temperature, genetic structure, and internal organs. We can even induce previ-
ously unknown properties. For example, if we discover that one cat has a sub-
stance called “cytosine” inside, we may then decide that other cats also contain
this substance. . . . (p. 151)

Gelman and Coley (1991) call this feature “rich inductive potential.”
Clearly a concept having this sort of potential does not emerge by on-
tological accident. If a term is to have genuine “rich inductive poten-
tial,” it had better attach not just to an accidental pattern of correlated
properties, but to properties correlated for a good reason.
Kinds are not real if they yield inductive knowledge by accident.
Consider, for example, the kind that is jade. As Putnam (1975) informs
us, jade is either of two minerals, nephrite or jadeite, which have many
properties in common but not for any univocal reason. Rather, each has
these properties for its own reasons. Similarly, Putnam™s earth water
(H2O) and twinearth water (XYZ) were conceived as having numerous
observable properties in common, but not in common for any univocal
reason. Inductive inferences from samples of nephrite to samples of
jadeite, when the conclusions happen to come out true, are not true for
a reason grounded in a common nature. There is no ontological ground
of induction underlying such inferences. For this reason, jade is not a
real kind. Nor, if Putnam™s twinearth story were true, would generic
water, conceived to be multiply realized either as H2O or XYZ, be a
real kind.
Real kinds are kinds that allow successful inductions to be made from
one or a few members to other members of the kind not by accident,

but because supported by a ground in nature.What we need to clarify is
what various sorts of natural grounds there might be that would hold
the members of a kind together so that one member would be like an-
other by natural necessity. There are, I believe, a number of different
types of reasons for the occurrence in nature of real kinds, these ac-
counting in different ways for success in generalizing over encounters.


Perhaps the best-known real kinds are the sort Putnam called “natural
kinds” in “The Meaning of ˜Meaning™ ” (Putnam 1975). These are
real kinds by virtue of possessing a common inner nature of some sort,
such as an inner molecular structure, from which the more superficial
or easily observable properties of the kind™s instances flow. The inner
structure results by natural necessity in a certain selection of surface
properties, or results in given selections under given conditions. Popular
examples of this sort of kind are the various chemical elements and
compounds. Putnam gave water and aluminum as his examples. Strictly
speaking, these are not kinds but stuffs, but we could treat samples of
these as members of kinds. Certainly water molecules, electrons, pro-
tons, and so forth, form real kinds of this sort. Portions of water have an
inner structure in common that produces different surface properties
given different temperature conditions. Stars, planets, comets, asteroids,
and geodes form real kinds, not because their properties flow always
from exactly the same inner nature, but because they were formed by
the same natural forces in the same sort of circumstances out of mate-
rials similar in relevant ways. Real kinds of these various sorts can be
said to have “essences” in a very traditional sense, essences that are not
nominal but real, discovered through empirical investigation. The onto-
logical ground of induction for such kinds, the reason that the members
have many properties in common, is that they have a few fundamental
properties and/or causes in common that account with natural neces-
sity for the others.
I will call real kinds of this sort “ahistorical” or “eternal” kinds. They
are ahistorical because the location of the members of the kind relative
to one another in historical time and space plays no role in explaining
the likenesses among them. Less well known are historical kinds, kinds
for which historical location does play a role in explaining likeness.
Aristotle thought that the various animal and plant species were ahis-
torical kinds. He thought that the members of each species were alike

because of a common inner nature or form from which various more
superficial properties flowed or would flow if this form was supplied
with the right matter. Modern biologists disagree. The kind Homo sapi-
ens, for example, displays no identity of inner structure, or none that has
relevance, specifically, to being human.Your genes and my genes are not
the same gene types, but are merely taken from the same gene pool. In-
deed, there are almost no genes in the human pool that have no alleles
left at all. Nor should it be thought that the genes that most of us hap-
pen to have in common are what really make us be human, the rest
causing inessential differences. On the contrary, alternate alleles fre-
quently perform essential developmental functions. According to con-
temporary biology, what species an individual organism belongs to de-
pends not on its timeless properties, either superficial or deep, but on its
historical relations to other individuals “ relations essentially embedded
in real space and time. Dogs must be born of other dogs, not merely
like other dogs; sibling species count as two or more for the same rea-
son that identical twins count as two, not one, and so forth. In the case
of sexually reproducing species, species membership is usually deter-
mined in part by reference to interbreeding, and there is some reference
to lineage in all but the most radical cladists™ attempts at defining both
species and higher taxa. What these references to interbreeding and lin-
eage do is effectively to confine each species and higher taxon to a his-
torical location in this world. Indeed, M. T. Ghiselin (1974, 1981) and
David Hull (e.g., 1978) claim that by biologists™ usage, species are not
similarity classes but big, scattered, historical individuals enduring
through time.
From this Hull concludes, “there is no such thing as human nature”
(p. 211), and it does follow, at least, that there is no such thing as a single
set of founding properties, an inner human essence, from which all
other properties characteristic of humans flow. On the other hand,
given any species, there are innumerable traits that most of its members
have in common with one another not by accident but for a very good rea-
son. Hull himself emphasized that species as well as individuals (here he
quotes Eldredge and Gould 1972) “are homeostatic systems. . . . amaz-
ingly well-buffered to resist change and maintain stability in the face of
disturbing influences” (Hull 1978, p. 199, Eldredge and Gould 1972,
p. 114). Stability results from continuity of selection pressures in a niche,
which continually weed out the deleterious mutations that arise, thus
preserving the well adapted status quo. And it results from the necessity
for the various genes in a gene pool to be compatible with one another,

so that throwing chromosomes together randomly from among the

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