Russell on the semantics and pragmatics of indexicals

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  • RUSSELL ON THE SEMANTICS AND PRAGMATICS OF INDEXICALS

    LAWRENCE ROBERTS

    Russell says a great deal about indexicals over many years of writing. Much of what he has to say is epistemic in nature, concern- ing the sorts of beliefs and experiences associated with indexicals. However, much of it is also semantic, concerning the relation be- tween indexical terms and their denotata, and pragmatic, con- cerning the circumstances of the particular uses of indexicals which affect their denotation. In this paper I propose to discuss mainly the semantic and pragmatic aspects of his discussion, especially as these appear in two relatively late works of his, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, and Human Knowledge. These later treatments of indexicals by Russell are generally ignored in recent literature on indexicals, where references are made instead to his early papers on denoting and on acquaintance and logical atomism, and his theory of descriptions is taken to be explanatory of indexicals. 1 There are serious problems about how to relate Russell's doctrine of indexicals to his doctrine of proper names and descriptions: Russell says apparently inconsistent things about these doctrines. But before the relation of these doctrines can be sorted out, Russell's doctrine of indexicals must be clarified. This clarification is at- tempted in the present paper. 2 My discussion is not intended as a merely historical exercise: one fundamental point in Russell's theory is, in my opinion, both correct and generally ignored in recent discussions of indexicals.

    I. Ego-centricity In An Inquiry tnto Meaning and Truth, Russell (1940: 134)

    introduces indexical terms by describing them as terms whose de- notation is relative to the speaker, and by a list of samples of them. After a brief discussion of the ways in which indexicals differ from ordinary proper names and descriptions, he concludes that index-

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    icals are neither ordinary proper names nor descriptions, though they involve a general predicate, "object of attention" (1940: 138). He reasons that something in addition to this general predicate is needed "in order to secure the temporary uniqueness of 'this' " (1940: 138). This further determinative factor, on Russell's view, is a relation of the user of the indexical term to the designatum 3 of the term. Since the basis of this relation is the speaker of the term, Russell calls indexicals "ego-centric." In the present section of the paper, I will discuss the use of the speaker as the basis for the relation that determines the designatum, and in the next section I will discuss the precise nature of this relation between the speaker and the designatum.

    Because Russell's doctrine that indexicals are ego-centric is similar to Reichenbach's doctrine that they are token-reflexive, I propose to discuss Reichenbach's treatment of indexicals, and in particular, a problem in it that casts light on a parallel problem in Russell's view. Reichenbach (1947: 257,284) holds that most descriptions that designate an individual are formed by reference to another individual within the description, e.g., 'Napoleon's mother.' In the case of indexicals, Reichenbach (1947: 284) sug- gests that they designate an individual on the basis of a reference to themselves: indexicals "refer to the corresponding token used in an individual act of speech" and thus may be "called token-reflexive words." Note that Reichenbach picks as the basis of the relation that determines the designatum the token used in the act of speech rather than the act of speech that uses the token. The former is the shape or sounds that constitute the word as a particular physical object, and the latter is the act of using the word to make a speech act of reference or designation. These two aspects of the use of a token usually go together, so that in speaking or writing a person usually both produces certain sounds or marks, and uses those sounds or marks to designate something. However, these aspects can occur separately, and the possibility of this separation renders token-reflexivity an insufficiently lbrecise basis for the determina- tion of indexical designation. For instance, suppose that a tourist in the U.S.A. who knows no English uses a card on which is printed

    1. How much does this cost?

    Each time he uses the card by showing the card and a piece of merchandise to a salesperson in a store, he is making a different particular speech act of designation even though the token is exactly

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    the same. Since the token is the same in each case, mere token- reflexivity will not account for the difference in designation; rather, the basis of the relation to the designatum must be the particular use of the term. Reichenbach's doctrine of token-reflexivity ought to be replaced by a doctrine of particular-use-reflexivity.4

    Parallel to the problem in Reichenbach's doctrine of token- reflexivity is a problem in Russell's doctrine of ego-centricity. Suppose that a speaker asserts the following while making aprop- riate gestures:

    2. The depth of the fish tank ranges from here to here.

    In this use of (2), the term 'here' will have a different designatum for each of its uses, despite the fact that the same speaker at the same spatial location makes the two designations. Of course, there is a difference in the temporal location of the speaker in relation to the two uses of 'here.' Nevertheless, in this use of (2), more than a relation to the speaker, or even to the speaker at particular space- time location, is needed to account for the difference in the two designations of 'here': it is the speaker as making a particular speech act of designating that is fundamental to the identification of the des~matum. This difference in particular speech acts of designation provides the basis for the determination of the designatum in the present case because different gestures accompany each particular act of designation and indicate the different designata. This argu- ment based on the use of (2) shows that ego~entricity does not provide a sufficiently precise basis for determining the designatum. Next I will argue that ego-centricity might be totally absent in some cases of indexical designation. For instance, suppose that the follow- ing is printed on a sign that is posted on a lawn:

    3. Keep off the grass.

    When people read this sign, acts of designation are made by means of 'the grass' and the understood subject of the verb, even though the ego who made the sign (or who posted it or who authorized its being posted) is not present. Thus the determination for (3) of the context relevant to the designatum of 'the grass' (and that of the understood subject) cannot depend on the speaker and his space-time location, sifice no speaker is present. Rather, file basis for determining the designaturn of 'the grass' (and that of the understood subject) is the particular act of designation made by means of the use of the terms.

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    My conclusion is that the basis for a relation to the designatum that identifies the designatum is the particular act of using the indexical to designate something, and that ego-centricity and token- reflexivity, although usually, but not always, associated with partic- ular-use-centricity, provide inadequate bases for determining the designaturn. I consider my view that indexicals are particular-use- centered to be a tidying up of Russell's view and a small alteration in Reichenbach's view rather than a sharp disagreement with them. Russell, on occasion, describes ego-centric words exactly as partic- ular-use-centered: "what they [ego-centric words] indicate is some- thing having a given relation to the particular use of the words" (1948: 92). The change that I recommend in Reichenbach's view from taking the token used in the act of reference as the basis for determining designation to taking the act of designation which uses the token as the basis for determining designation is a change that is small but needed to handle cases like that of (1). However, if we grant that it is the particular use of an indexical that provides the basis for a relation that determines the designation of an index- ical, the question of the nature of this relation still remains. This question is the topic of the next section.

    II. The Determining Relation between the Use of an Indexical and its Designatura

    A. The Causal-Cain View of the Determination of Indexical Designation.

    Since many things other than the designatum are in close relations with the speaker when an indexical term is used, Russell needs to specify the precise nature of the relation of the use of an indexical by a speaker to its designatum. In specifying the nature of this relation, Russell often speaks of the 'object of attention,' but he points out that "something more than this general concept is required in order to secure the t~mporary uniqueness of 'this' " (1940: 138). Though he calls 'object of attention' a general concept and a predicate, his explications of its role in the determination of indexical designation involve perception by the speaker rather than predication. In An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth he attempts to specify the "relation of the user of a word to the object with which the word is concerned" (1940: 138) by means of a causal chain. He introduces this theory by a parallel to a machine that says 'this' and "that': "It says 'this' when the external cause (red light falling on it) first operates upon it, and it says 'that' when the

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    first effect has led to certain further occurrences in the machine" (1940: 139). For humans the relation of indexicals to their desig- nata is similarly explained:

    A minimal causal chain, in this connection, is the shortest possible chain from a stimulus outside the brain to a verbal response. Other causal chains always involve some additional stimulus, causing the stored effect of the previous stimulus to be released and to produce a delayed verbal response. In the case of a minimal causal chain we say '`this is," and in the case of a longer one we say "that was. ''s (1940: 139).

    Thus the connection between a speaker's use of an indexical and its designatum is a perceptual relation which Russell explicates in terms of stimulus-response psychology: the causal chain from the stimulus produces a response (the use of the indexical) which in virtue of being so produced takes the stimulus as its designatum.

    B. Criticism of the Causal Chain View of the Determination of Indexical Designation:

    There are a number of problems in Russell's causal chain view of 'this' and 'that.' First, there is the problem of imprecision: how long is the chain to be for 'this,' and how long for 'that'? Secondly, there is the problem of which item in the causal chain is to be picked out as the designatum of the indexical: since there are inter- mediary causes between the designatum and the saying of 'this,' how do we decide which thing on the causal chain is the designatum? Also, since the causal chain can be extended further back beyond the designatum, how do we know that we are to end the chain at a certain thing as the designatum? Thirdly, the stimulus-response psychology involved in the causal chain view is too simple for obvious facts of in- dexical reference. There is no stimulus that is by itself a sufficient condition for the saying of ` this'; one might be silent despite the pres- ence of the stimulus. Therefore, some intervening factors between the stimulus and the response must play a role in the saying of 'this'; these intervening factors would include the speaker's knowledge, interests, and choices, consideration of which will produce a more com- plicated theory of indexicals. Fourthly, the causal chain view makes the determination of designation an affair that is private to the speaker: the causal chain from a stimulus, through the nerves to the brain, through other nerves to the muscles controlling speech, cannot be observed from the outside without special equipment, and even the speaker is aware of the ends of the chain rather than

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    the chain itself. Since it is difficult if not impossible for the hearer to know what is at the start of causal chains that are inside the speaker's nervous system and produce the words, Russell's view is deficient in accounting for the heater's ability to discern the designata of indexicals used by another person. There are other problems in Russell's causal chain view of the determination of indexical designation, but they can be conveniently considered later with the objections to his later explication of indexicals.

    C. The Center-of-Attention View of the Determination of Index- ical Designation.

    In his later discussion 6 of indexicals in Human Knowledge, Russell removed the stimulus-response psychology of his earlier view, but retained his emphasis on the role of sense perception:

    It is to be observed that 'here' and 'now' depend upon per- ception; in a purely material universe there would be no 'here' and 'now'. Perception is not impartial, but proceeds from a center (1948: 92).

    This center is the speaker: "Whenever the word [~this'] is used, the person using it is attending to something, and the word indicates this something" ((my underlining) 1948: 92). Russell (1948: 92) holds that-ego-centric words indicate something having a certain relation to the particular use of the words. He explicates this rela- ion for 'this' as follows: " 'This' denotes whatever, at the moment when the word is used, occupies the center of attention." Note "that it is not the description (or predicate or property) 'center of the speaker's attention at time TI ' that determines the designation of 'this,' but rather the actual perceptual relation between the speaker and the object occupying the center of his attention that determines the designation. Thus Russell has retained a perceptual explication of the relation between:a speaker's use of an indexical and its designatum, even though he has removed his earlier explica- tion of that perceptual relation by the causal chain doctrine. The result is that his later doctrine uses the speaker's perception to explain the determination of indexical denotation, but offers no explanation of the functioning of the speaker's perception. 7 This omission is reasonable, since in a discussion of linguistic matters one cannot be expected to undertake a discussion of the theory of perception as well.

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    D. Criticism of the Center-of-Attention View of the Determina- tion of Indexical Designation:

    Although Russell's later doctrine of indexicals, in which the perceptual attention of the speaker determines the linguistic desig- nation of the indexical term, is important for its assignment of a major role to perception in the determination of designation and for avoiding the problems of his earlier stimu...