Thursday, August 10, 2006

Action and meaning

(Just a disclaimer, this is a rough post.) One of the biggest contributions that Berkeley made to philosophy (according to John Perry, and I tend to agree) is that he emphasized the importance of the connection between experiences and action. There needs to be a tight connection between one's perceptions and beliefs in order to explain actoins, intentional or otherwise. Some of the things that play very large roles in the formation of new beliefs and intentions for action are the meanings of words. Suppose that meaning is given by reference relations between words and (other) things a la 'cat' means cats. How could meaning explain action? The meanings would have to have an interface with the agent's mind, but this is lacking since the objects are for the most part non-mental. You get objectivity for free, but you need to bridge the gap for explaining action. I suppose one way to do this is with mental representations, but this seems like it would lead to other problems like regresses or skepticism. Maybe a better response is to say that in grasping a meaning, the agent takes the meaning and puts it into a form that is amenable to mental interactions. She forms representations? (I'm sure there is a literature on this, but I haven't read it.) Next we have to make sure that the representations accurately mirror nature.

To approach this from another direction, if meanings are inferential connections, then it seems like we can explain the links with actions quite easily. Meanings are mental entities of a sort; they are connections among beliefs. This gives us the connection to intentions which makes it easy to see how meaning of this sort could figure into an account of action without needing to invoke representations of external relations. This gives us the action-intention link, but it presents a pickle of a problem: objectivity seems hard to get. I'll need to go back through Brandom's arguments for objectivity in Making It Explicit and write a post or two about it.

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