Toward a linguistic conception of thought

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Toward a linguistic conception of thought

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Title: Toward a linguistic conception of thought
Author: Stenberg, Benjamin J
Abstract: The traditional, and still most common, view of the relationship between language and thought is that language is merely a tool for expressing thoughts. I argue that this view is mistaken and that language is the very thing that makes thought possible in the first place. I mean a number of things by this. I mean that no one can have any thoughts at all without first being a practiced member of a linguistic community. I mean literally that the thoughts themselves are linguistic entities: thoughts are, as it is sometimes put, just 'sentences in the head.' And, furthermore, I mean that thoughts are actually constituted by symbols of the natural language(s) one speaks. I call this view the Linguistic Theory of Thought (LTT), and it is a version of the Representational Theory of Mind. The main goal of my project is to lay the foundation for the LTT: to show that it is at the very least a coherent possibility, and find space for it among its representationalist peers. Having found a general place for the LTT to sit, I proceed to argue that this position is stable. First I develop a theory of meaning, adapting Wilfrid Sellars' view that specifying the meaning of a linguistic type involves classifying that type functionally. By treating meaning as functional classification I can specify the meanings of words without appealing to any supposedly antecedent thoughts. Next I argue that thinking is a matter of social practice. In this part of the project I rely on the philosophical framework provided by Sellars (his 'Psychological Nominalism'), and then modify the Sellarsian framework to support my view that our thoughts themselves are constituted by the symbols of the natural language(s) we speak. Ultimately, my project is both a modernizing of Sellars' view, developing and broadening his arguments in order to critique many of the representationalists that wrote (and continue to write) after him, and the development of a modern representationalist theory of thought that takes seriously the insights of Sellars, Quine, and those who have followed in their footsteps.
Description: Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Washington, 2006.

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