My words may have meaning, your parrot’s may too.

A recent essay by Stephen Law in Psyche Ideas, entitled My words have meaning, your parrot’s do not. Wittgenstein explains, is forcing me into yet another diatribe in my ongoing love-hate relationship with “philosophy”.

A slogan often associated with the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is ‘meaning is use’. Here’s what Wittgenstein actually says:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

In order to appreciate the philosophical significance of this remark, let’s begin by looking at one of the key things that Wittgenstein is warning us against.

Suppose I say: ‘It’s hot today.’ So does a parrot. Saying the words is a process; for example, it can be done quickly or slowly.

However, unlike the parrot, I don’t just say something: I mean something.

OK. First I would say that the most important “philosophical significance” of W’s remark is not its content but its qualification “though not for all”. Would that philosophers were all so careful!

But by what right does Law say that the parrot’s utterance has no meaning?

And in that sentence, what is the meaning of “meaning”?

Suppose a parrot has been trained to squawk something that sounds vaguely like “It’s hot today” whenever the temperature exceeds 30C and “It’s cold today” when the temperature goes below 15C. Who is to say that the parrot doesn’t have some mental state which corresponds to a sensation of the temperature and prompts the appropriate response?

But even if it doesn’t – or if the parrot is replaced by a thermostat which triggers play of a recording of the appropriate sentence – the words still convey meaning to the listener.

Of course although the thermostat means something to me when it says “It’s hot today”, I think we can safely presume that it doesn’t mean something to itself. So if we interpret “I mean something” as meaning I have the intention of conveying information to another conscious entity, then perhaps when the parrot’s squawks “It’s hot today” it can be said to have no more meaning than when I make the same exclamation to myself when suffering the heat alone. But there is definitely a sense in which I do “mean” something by such an exclamation.

And with regard to the parrot’s capacity for “intent” I would suggest something like the following experiment:

Assuming that parrots are fearful of both cats and snakes but have different ways of responding to them, train a group of parrots to see a human associate the appropriate word with each kind of threat and then separately to copy a human saying the words “cat” and “snake”,  and then observe whether or not a parrot will imitate the human word in order to alert its mate or friend.

It may not work. But I can see no “philosophical” argument why it must be impossible.

Unless, of course, the parrot is dead.

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