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  • A Copy of a Book Is Not a Token of a Type
  • David Socher (bio)

Masons butter their bricks, gardeners deadhead their roses, and who am I to quibble over terms? However, philosophers routinely speak of tokens and types, as if, so it seems to me, they are bringing a greater measure of precision to the table. Here I shall quibble. I shall try to lead the reader to realize that those philosophers are neither being especially precise nor are they following Charles S. Peirce; instead, they are merely lending a false air of scientific respectability to the matter at hand. (Although these are broad strokes and I here tip my hand to a larger purpose, in what remains I'll stick to my title proposition.)

In hearing or seeing a word, we hear sound, or see ink or chalk (or perhaps a hand gesture.) The sound or ink is said to be a "word-token," and the word itself that the speaker or writer thereby used is called a "word-type." Word-types are the things comprising our vocabulary, and their tokens are physical events or objects. Such is the reigning conception of the ontology of words, in analytic Anglo-American philosophy, for a hundred years. However, if David Kaplan1 carries the day, the time has come for a title bout and a new champ. And if he succeeds, then what follows may become mostly of antiquarian interest, a side trip down memory lane. I don't here join battle for or against the traditional account. A second issue I decline to engage concerns a little-noticed baby step or side-shuffle: commonly logicians speak of "tokens" and "types" for any linguistic expression of any length, apparently unaware they are extending the scope of a pair of terms introduced to only apply to words. (On the face of it, a linguistic expression as such doesn't really have a use on par with the use of a word.) A third issue [End Page 23] I decline to discuss is the propriety of that dubious contemporary giant step where brain processes are said to come in tokens and types. Perhaps this is a mere barbarism.

So what is my main issue? It is this: Given, pace Kaplan, that we accept the traditional conception that words come in token and type, we ought not casually say the same of books, as, for example, Hornsby does in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: "Following Peirce it can be said, for example, that there are three tokens of the word 'the' (that type) in the previous sentence, and that the actual book you're now reading is a token of the type Oxford Companion to Philosophy."2

I now present some facts of speech, writing, and publishing to help dissipate the temptation to speak of the copies of a publication as tokens of a type.

The purpose of print

Print mimics speech and handwriting. One can only receive words through a physical medium.3 In listening to talk and in reading handwritten letters, one gets the speaker or writer's words through the physical medium he or she directly produced. Not so in reading print: there, the printed words stand in for the author's physical words, or for a narrator's or character's words; or they present words of an abstract thing such as an amendment, advertisement, or contract, or of a concrete thing like a street sign or loudspeaker. In any case, whether or not an item is published, it is within such an item that the words are used—that is, that the types are invoked.

When I signal a waiter for the check I produce a token, when an infant uses his only word to call out "mama," he produces a token; when in his second inaugural Lincoln admonished the nation to pursue reconstruction, "with malice towards none, with charity to all," he produced eight word tokens to invoke seven word types, twice invoking the word type "with." These two ways of counting words apply equally to Lincoln's phrase, his pronouncement of it, any publication or duplication of it, as well as any particular copies of such...


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