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Volume 34, 2017

Meaning and Publicity

Patrick Rysiew
Pages 31-43

Meaning, Communication, and the Mental

Thomas Reid (1710–1796) rejected ‘the theory of ideas’ in favor of perceptual direct realism and a fallibilist foundationalism. According to Reid, contact with the common and public extra-mental world is as much a part of our natural psychological and epistemological starting point as whatever special type of relation we have to the contents of our own minds. Like the general perceptual and epistemological views Reid was countering, an individualistic, idea-centered approach to language and communication continues to have a grip on theorists. But Reid’s heterodox counter to the latter is much less well known than his response to the former, even though it marks a complementary and equally clear departure from the views of his contemporaries. Reid holds that while mental phenomena are indeed implicated in language, the meaning of a term is the typically public object to which it directly refers. Further, Reid argues that for linguistic communication to be possible, we must already have some measure of access to others’ intentional states. While we each might enjoy a special kind of access to our thoughts, they are not ‘private’ in any epistemologically troubling sense: the fact that we have language shows that we already have communicative abilities and an epistemological toehold with regard to others’ mental states.

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