The Metaphysics of Reference by Fodor

A) Introduction to The Metaphysics of Reference

In this post, I will summarise Fodor’s paper The Metaphysics of Reference and raise some questions. The central question is: can we construct a naturalised, causal theory of reference?

Only matter has causal powers; thought has causal powers; therefore only matter can think – the Physicalist Thesis (“PT”)

Some mental states are about things (they refer) – Intentionality (“I”)

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Motivation: Fodor wants to square PT and I in answering the Central Question. So how can atoms or their constructs be about something? – ‘make science out of content’

Plan: make Six Assumptions (A); set out Three Objections (B) to the possibility of the project; provide prima facie answers to the Three Objections; be satisfied that the project can be completed; do so by triangulation (C) using the Six Assumptions; posit in consequence (D) Eleven Articles which are, allegedly, explanatory and plausible.

Major Background Items: there is a Language of Thought (“LOT”) called mentalese. It shares some properties with public languages viz. productivity and systematicity but is not itself a public language. LOT is a species of the Representational Theory of Mind (“RTM”), which holds that tokens of mental states are tokens of relations between thinkers and their mental representations.

RTM is (at least a species of) Computational Theory of Mind (“CTM”). LOT is not (need not be) a natural language; it is though, productive and systematic. It may be like a programming language.

The Six Assumptions

1. Language meaning determined by thought meaning, when the language expresses the thought
2. Reference is compositional: the reference of wholes is composed of reference of the parts
3. Referentialism is true: reference alone determines content (of concepts, thoughts)
4. There are only two kinds of reference: to individuals and to properties
5. Causal Theory of Reference (“CTR”) is true: the later uses of a name refer to the original object so named via a causal chain from that original naming
6. A theory of perceptual representations will provide a theory of reference that squares PT + I

Assumption 3 represents Fodor’s opposition to Inferential Role Semantics (“IRS”). It also expresses Fodor’s atomism about concepts, and so is related to his nativism about concepts (I think). Assumption 5 is Kripke. A CTR formulation: ‘A’ means A iff. all and only A’s cause ‘A’s. All actual horses cause tokenings of the symbol `horse’; nothing else does.

B) The Three Objections To The Project Claim That The Central Question Cannot Be Answered

B1. Normativity Problem

Statement of problem: Content includes referential content and the latter unavoidably involves conventions and norms, etc.; this suggests that CTR can only be shown to be true if all intentionality is shown to be capable of naturalisation.

Correctness criteria for reference/content set by convention; reference/content cannot reduce to causation because causation is not right or wrong, it just is.

Response: position is committed to LOT thesis; this is a system of representations; it also does not have correctness criteria. You don’t use thoughts, you have them. So Fodor does not need norms.

Q1: Can’t representations be wrong? (Maybe not, if they are merely demonstrative.)

B2. Disjunction Problem

Statement of problem: CTR says that everything a thought refers to is something that caused that thought. If a thing X caused your thought, then a (thing X or thing Y) did.

Example: Under poor visual conditions, you think you see a cow when it is really a cat. To what do you refer when you think/speak about the animal? A cat? A cow? A cow-or-cat?

Response: if you didn’t have CAT but you did have COW, you could still have referred to the cat as a cow by using COW. Therefore you didn’t use COW-OR-CAT.

B3. Link Selection Problem

This is the most important objection, because Fodor’s response to it is in fact the Main Project.

Statement of problem: Under CTR, there is a causal chain of events ending in your referential thought. Which link do we select as the most significant one, the one doing the work? Which event is causing your thought? All events are caused by the big bang, in a sense – but we aren’t all thinking about that, all the time. Response:

C) The Main Project of The Metaphysics of Reference

The project will be conducted using triangulation, an idea due to Davidson.

Radical Interpretation

Preamble: Radical Interpretation (“RI”): someone starting from scratch and observing only behaviour and utterances could eventually translate fully a previously completely unknown language

P1: Languages can be learned

P2: Languages can be learned only if RI

Conclude: RI

How would RI work in practice​? A snake emerges. Adam – to be translated – says “gavagai!”. I say “snake!” Therefore I know that: “gavagai” means “snake”. (Incidental worry: snake or snake parts or animal or moving thing or sudden appearance of something…)


Triangulation is the fix to the ‘which link?’ problem. There are a large number of events between the snake and me and between the big bang and the snake. Which one are we talking about?

p. 209: “a causal chain that runs from the perceptual horizon to my utterance would intersect a causal chain that runs from the perceptual horizon to Adam’s utterance, and […] it would do so at the snake.”

Why would this work? Because I am assuming that my reactions to events parallel Adam’s. (Principle of charity issues here…?) I have information about my reactions which is quite detailed. But empirically it seems that there is a lot of tricky to handle ambiguity here. (How often do we get the wrong end of the stick even between native speakers…? But to invert Wittgenstein, something can only be counted wrong if there is something that counts as it being right…)

In fact, Davidson’s position, and Fodor’s, is that this has to work because otherwise we can’t learn languages. (St Augustine says we can learn terms this way – ostensively – and Wittgenstein (the slabs, `bring me a red flower’, says we can’t.) So Fodor’s position has intuitive appeal since it just looks empirically convincing that I know what a duck is because once someone pointed at one and said “duck”. Or twice. I triangulated between separate occurrences and eliminated the possibilities that they meant green-blue (the colour of the duck) or `animal’.

Further Questions

Q2: Davidson vs. Wittgenstein. Which way?

Certainly, this makes language essentially social, but Fodor thinks he (“patently”) can’t have that because it is incompatible with CTM.

Q3: Why not? How bad is this for Fodor? Cf. Article 2.

Iteration is a key part of triangulation, with the significant power of repeated negative feedback for calibration.

Fodor differs from Davidson in that Fodor allows the interpreter to be counterfactual. We don’t need an actual interpreter to fix meanings. The referent of term X is considered by what someone saying X would be referring to under certain circumstances.

How To Construct The Triangulation Diagram for The Metaphysics of Reference

1) Draw a line representing the causal chain from the token of Adam’s representation through all the events in its causal chain to Adam’s perceptual horizon.

(One of the helpful uses of RTM is to substitute representation for utterance here – this eliminates the risk that utterance linkages with manifold beliefs entails holism.)

2) Assume a counterfactual Adam2 located three feet to the right with the appropriate parallax shift.

3) Draw another line to the token of Adam2’s representation which is what the causal chain would have been.

4) Solve for the referent of both tokens.

All of the counterfactual Adam’s must have been able to token the same representation and make the same utterance.

Fodor thinks that his modification of Davidson’s proposal allows him to contend that people think in a private language and this is a strength of his account because he thinks they do.

In sum, this triangulation of causal chains is the correct account of the metaphysics of reference for Fodor.

D) The Eleven Articles of The Metaphysics of Reference

1. Reference is ontologically prior to truth
2. Reference is not social
3. Allowing semantic properties to mental representations does not threaten a homuncular regress
4. The content of expressions in public languages is not metaphysically prior to the content of propositional attitudes
5. The content/reference of a mental representation is not related to its inferential role
6. The content of concepts is not determined by the possessor’s behavioural capacities
7. Cognitive development does not come in stages
8. What you can think about is not limited by your public language but by your mentalese
9. Demonstration does not presuppose conceptualisation
10. Picture is consistent with FINSTs, Pylyshyn’s Fingers of Instantiation
11. English may not have semantics, because the semantics may happen at the level of mentalese

Q3: Wasn’t (5) assumed? Isn’t it a restatement of the assumed falsity of IRS?

Q4: Isn’t (7) in conflict with a lot of empirical psychology? (Maxi and the false belief tests etc.)

Q5: On (8), do we think that (possibly apocryphal) tribes discovered by anthropologists with no numbers larger than three have the concept of `ten’? Specifically? Can they distinguish it from `11’ and from `many’? Do they have a different mentalese to us? (That way out is available to Fodor.)

See Also:

Millikan on Are There Mental Indexicals And Demonstratives: Summary

The Structure And Content Of Truth For Davidson

O’Shaughnessy on The Anatomy of Consciousness: Summary

‘Both A Black Raven And A Red Herring Confirm The Claim That All Ravens Are Black.’

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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