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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 11.1 (2004) 95-99
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Delusional Content and the Public Nature of Meaning:
Reply to the Other Contributors
The contribution by professors Bayne and Pacherie (2004) is an earnest attempt to defend a popular model of monothematic delusions against criticisms launched by John Campbell (2001). This model of monothematic delusions holds that such delusions are rational attempts by the sufferer to explain to herself specific kinds of anomalous sensory/affective experiences. Bayne, Pacherie, Campbell, and for that matter Sass, Harper, and Georgaca, write as if semantic meaning accrued to words in a language term by term, as if meaning is "private" to the deluded person, and that she might therefore mean almost anything by her own idiosyncratic use of the public language she otherwise speaks. This is a notorious mistake. As Hilary Putnam famously put it in his classic 1975 paper "The meaning of 'meaning,'" "Cut the pie any way you like, 'meanings' just ain't in the head" (1975, 227). That is, meanings are not ethereal interior mental objects, private to the speaker—they are not private inner episodes that take place in some mental center stage of consciousness. The deluded person does not and cannot succeed in changing the meaning of a term in a public language like English merely by an individual act of imaginative will involving the making of a bizarre assertion—not even if she repeats it a thousand times. The public nature of meaning, if I can coin a phrase for it, is the central theme in the work of the later Wittgenstein. Even before Putnam, Wittgenstein had made the same point in his Philosophical Investigations via a famous footnote in which he writes,
Can I say 'bububu' and mean "If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk"?—it is only in a language that I can mean something by something. This shows clearly that the grammar of 'to mean' is not like that of the expression 'to imagine' and the like."
Wittgenstein argues that the answer to the rhetorical question in the footnote is an emphatic No. To mean something by the use of words in a public language is not equivalent to an act of individual free imagination. The languages we each speak, including the unfortunately deluded among us, are public not private, and insofar as the notion of meaning has an understandable sense, the meaning of a term is fixed by its actual public use, across large time intervals, in many different contexts, by the many millions of speakers of the language in question. It is time that segments of the intellectual map beyond the borders [End Page 95] of philosophy got the news about this, for I think an appreciation of this point would forestall certain objections and argumentative moves that otherwise take up space in the psychological literature.
Bayne and Pacherie (2004) describe Campbell's model of monothematic delusions as proposing that "delusions can be usefully regarded as Wittgensteinian framework propositions" (p. 7). I have discussed this notion in my main paper, although I do not use the terms framework propositions; I stick to Wittgenstein's own words. Wittgenstein called them, literally in the German, propositions that "stand fast for us" (feststehen). This description strikes me as less misleading than calling them framework propositions, for the latter expression suggests that they could in some sense be replaceable by a different framework of framework propositions, something that Wittgenstein in no way ever meant to suggest. Wittgenstein did not think of these propositions as individualized or privately owned—as beliefs that might vary considerably across the population of speakers of the language in which they are expressed. That is why he explicitly wrote that they stand fast for us. Note the plural pronoun. There is something irreducibly collective, something publicly owned, about the epistemology of these propositions. These propositions represent the accumulated certainties that precipitate out of what is commonly shared in human experience over long time intervals. Precisely because what stands fast for us is...