The view that introspectible mental states determine meaning



In his book on Saul Kripke, Arif Ahmed considers the view that an introspectible mental state determines meaning. When you use the word ‘plus’ as it is ordinarily used, there is a something like a feeling associated with ‘plus’ and this association determines that you meant addition and not something else.


Kripke says (i) it is unclear how an introspectible state can tell you what to say when queried about 68 plus 57, say.


Kripke also says (ii) that an introspectible state cannot tell you how to proceed.

If a drawing of a cube comes into your mind whenever you say ‘cube’, the same drawing can be thought of as a drawing of a prism. You might think of it in this way and end up using the word ‘cube’ for all prisms.


Ahmed agrees with point (i) but not point (ii).

Here is an extended quotation from him:


“The supposed possibility of alternative applications does show the following: if introspectible mental states tell you how to apply a word in novel cases then they cannot do so in the way that physical models and tables do. It cannot be the case that one ‘looks something up’ in a mental image and then interprets it to generate an application of the associated word…


But have we any other model of how a mental state of meaning guides behaviour? We do: I have in mind the felt location of sensational states like itches, tickles and pains. I feel a pain in my hand. It feels like a pain; but more than that it feels like a pain in my hand. But what is there about a mere feeling that can so much as tell me where it is: that can so much as guide my attention to one part of space rather than another? Well, it is quite unclear how it does this (that is why I agree with Kripke’s first point); but it is intuitively clear that it does so (that is why I disagree with his second). There is something about the feeling itself that does it. It is quite natural to say that it is a feature of that very sensation itself that guides my attention towards my hand, which therefore can itself be said to enter into the intentional content of the pain. It is equally natural to say that the sensation tells me where to direct my attention (if I want to alleviate the pain). The possibility of alternative uses or interpretations, which seemed so compelling in the ‘cube’ case, just doesn’t get a grip in the case of felt pains. If you feel a pain in your hand then there is ‘no method of projection’ that will justify pointing to your leg instead. Here it seems that we have a sensational state with just the property that Kripke says is impossible: it can tell you ‘in itself’ how to proceed.


If we can say this about felt pains then why can’t we say this about the sensational state supposedly associated with ‘plus’? That state guides you to the right answer: it tells you what to say (if you want to give the right answer). It contains future uses of ‘plus’ in itself in just the way that a pain in the hand contains the location in itself.


I am not saying there is a content-bearing sensational state associated with ‘plus’ but only that Kripke’s argument doesn’t establish its impossibility – though it does generate appropriate puzzlement about its operation.” (Ahmed 2007: 111-112)



Ahmed, A. 2007. Saul Kripke. London: Continuum.