Mental Indexicals


I will discuss the views of Millikan on mental indexicals and whether they exist and raise some questions. Indexicals are things that refer by “pointing” to some entity. For example, the word “me” points to myself. More usual indexicals include here and now. Mental Indexicals would be the mental version of an indexical.

Context of Mental Indexicals

Some signs seem to stand for themselves. Example: the `word’ for tongue in American Sign Language is the gesture of pointing to the tongue. But is that a very special case?

Q: Mental Indexicals: Is It Possible For A Sign To Stand For Itself?

Is it not the case that this is not a word at all, but a suggestion that one consider the indicated item? American Sign Language might consist of gestures rather than words. Then of course we would have to consider the possibility that words are also gestures; if so the distinction would collapse.

If I point at the sun, is my action identical with saying the word “sun?” It seems as though I could add emotional overtones to a gesture of pointing. While I could also do that with my voice when saying the word, the two sets of emotional overtones available would not be identical.

Is it coherent at all for something to be a sign if the signified is the sign? We might prefer a definition of the word “sign” that insists that it refers elsewhere.

Does a sign labelled “this is a sign” tell us more than a sign shaped piece of wood? If so, it would be useful to have a specification of what that might be.

Photo by Maria Tyutina on

To be a word requires a certain context. Example: the shape `spinach’ formed randomly in the clouds does not constitute the word `spinach’. Putting a can on a piece of paper with `spinach’ written on it, by contrast, does instantiate a communicative act. So the can of spinach becomes part of the symbol for itself.

Q: Do Items With Multiple Components Cause A Problem Here?

What if the can contains beans? Why does the symbol `spinach’ combined with the can indicate only the can and not the can + paper complex?

The `you’ in `would you please go?’ is anaphoric: it applies to whoever is being addressed in the same way that pointing a finger at the addressee functions in ASL. It is not indexical. It is a `sign for itself’; a part of the environment – the interlocutor – is used to refer to itself.

Q: Why isn’t “You” still an indexical?

Everyone may have their own version of a particular concept because everyone has different experiences. This is recognised by the introduction of the term `unicept’.

There are no indexical or demonstrative thoughts because indexicals and demonstratives involve self-signs and there can be no external objects in the mind.

See Also:

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

What Ontological Conclusions Does Sartre Present In His ‘Pursuit Of Being’ And With What Justification?

David Hume’s Account Of Causation: Summary