Referring to the World: Ken's Final Work

Sunday, October 29, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 25, 2021

What Is It

On December 2, 2019, Ken Taylor announced that he finally had “an almost complete draft” of a book he had been writing for years. “I think I'll pour a glass of wine to mark the occasion, before plunging back into the work that is still to be done,” he wrote. Tragically and unexpectedly, he died later that same day. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of some colleagues, his book, Referring to the World: An Opinionated Introduction to the Theory of Reference, has just been published. In this special episode, Josh and Ray discuss Ken’s ideas about reference with USC philosopher Robin Jeshion, who helped bring the book to fruition.

Listening Notes

How can a human brain think about apples, birds, and cars? How can we talk about things like Santa Claus and centaurs when they don’t exist? Inspired by the posthumous publication of former Philosophy Talk host Ken Taylor’s book, Josh and Ray discuss the idea of reference. Josh is amazed by the ability to refer to objects outside of his mind, and he thinks that having thoughts about real and imaginary objects is eerily similar. In contrast, Ray believes that two thought processes exist in order to perceive the world around us and to daydream about nonexistent ideas. 

The philosophers welcome Robin Jeshion, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, to discuss the mystery of reference and Ken’s goal to explain reference in thought. She explains how Ken resisted the idea that we’re always trapped in our own minds and inner representations, and he instead believed that there’s a commonality between how we refer to real and fictional things. Josh questions why Ken was so confident to claim that we can get things right about the world, and Robin points out that we can experience many things directly through perception. Ray asks about the downside of referring solely to inner images, which prompts Robin to describe reference failures, where we sometimes only have a word and no object for a certain concept. 

In the last segment of the show, Ray, Josh, and Robin discuss the importance of language, community, and their shared love of poetry. Robin describes how language gives us enormous power but a greater risk of going wrong, but a commitment to talking about the same entity helps us past miscommunication barriers. Ray asks about Ken’s perspective on slurs, and Robin explains how slurs have the power to make people feel complicit in racism. Josh brings up the possibility for reappropriation and alternate ways of taking back power, even if they leave the minority of the community vulnerable.  


  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:38) → Holly J. McDede learns more about Ken Taylor through the people in his life, including his colleagues and family.  

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:21) → Ian Shoales contemplates the complexity of meanings that comes out of a single word.



Josh Landy  
How can a human brain think about apples, birds and cars?

Ray Briggs  
How can we talk about centaurs, Santa Claus and Shangri La when those things don't even exist?

Comments (14)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, June 13, 2021 -- 1:57 PM

Not what I thought was coming

Not what I thought was coming. Must have misunderstood. Probably. Did his work not encompass norms, and so on? Is that what is meant by a theory of reference? Normativity and reference, while not mutually exclisive, do not seem inclusive, contrariwise. In any case, I will read the book if time and opportunity permit.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, June 14, 2021 -- 6:49 AM

I read Meaning Diminished (MD

I read Meaning Diminished (MD) and will try, as well, to get this one done in time to feedback thoughtfully. Not sure I will get there. The world is starting again in ways that dictate my time whether I refer to it or not.

If I read MD correctly Ken did not hold much hope for determining metaphysics from semantics. This fits well with the recent shows on the Vienna Circle, the diminishing returns of logical empiricism and Montaigne. What do I know is transmuted to the world. Languages are inherently and comparatively different in action and interest in Ken's perspective. This minimal view doesn’t go far enough in my understanding, but I don’t have to measure too much distance. Referring to the World is Ken’s biased measure if the intro and first chapter are on target. Let me read it and see if there is anything more to say. I’m just sorry not to hear him defend it in role of guest between Josh and Ray.

There is a world. There is a brain. Just what the two can say or do to the other is a bit up for grabs. I hope this book will shed some light. Ken had his moments in PT productions where he drew the lines between the arguments. It’s nice to have these two final works where he is in the hot seat.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, July 22, 2021 -- 11:41 AM

Done with the book and

Done with the book and listened to the show just now... so good.

I like Pina Coladas as much as the next person, so I have to clarify it wasn't Jimmy Buffett who was stepping out here, but rather his lady who placed the personal ad in the first place. Desire is the key to that song, not identity. Jimmy Buffett is way too deep for PT to tear down, but I sure hope someone can clarify my clarification because I'm very concerned with Robin's question of stepping out.

It's funny, but this show was very much about Ken and not his book per se. Shows are too short, and Ken was too big to fit it all in.

The footnotes are fascinating. Ken didn't finish this book, and I appreciate Anna-Sara, John, Mark, and Robin leaving it just so. As is, the book is a materialist's dream pass down for further work.

I would instead that Ken had taken up Ruth Millikan's "tracking" and "unicept" ideas in this work as I think that is more instructive to evolution, theory of reference, and biosemantics. Ruth is very much still thinking. It would behoove PT to get her to explain and qualify Ken's ideas of two-factor referentialism, concepts and conceptions, and meaning in general. I would very much like to hear her response to the most extended footnote in the book, which was not Ken's.

We still need to share a pina colada in tribute to Ken's passing; CoVid put a stomper on that gathering. Let's do that still. I will risk a flight to share a coffee or worse in his memory.

Josh Landy's picture

Josh Landy

Thursday, July 22, 2021 -- 12:50 PM

That's a great idea, Tim—let

That's a great idea, Tim—let's make that post-Covid Piña Colada happen, in Ken's honor! And thanks very much for all these excellent comments...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, July 27, 2021 -- 10:58 PM

With apologies to Rupert

With apologies to Rupert Holmes who penned the Escape (The Piña Colada Song.)

Referring doesn't come without the inevitable risk of error. We may still find truth by honest and humble corrections. Duly corrected.

Daniel's picture


Sunday, June 20, 2021 -- 5:51 PM

The positive ontological

The positive ontological assertion with regards to brains and the world is non-controversial. That the relationship between them is "up for grabs", however, appears much less certain. If the world includes brains, then certainly brains constitute parts of the world, which latter is in turn governed by laws of nature discoverable in the context of the quantitative sciences. A similar issue came up In 1795 when the German anatomist Samuel T. Soemmerring claimed he had discovered a "sensorium commune," said to be a location in the human brain where all sensations flowed together to produce conscious experience. This was where the nerves seemed to concentrate in certain brain cavities, or "ventricles", and terminate in a liquid that filled the cavities, which the anatomist called "brain water" and today is called cerebrospinal fluid. He claimed to have found the location of the soul in the body, upon which the mind and all conscious self-identity depends. The philosopher Kant, quite famous by that time, wrote to Soemmerring that, while admiring his work, he could not accept that he had done what he had claimed, since the soul or mind, he pointed out, can perceive itself only through the inner sense of the combination of all the outer sensations; and to stipulate a place in space for it would therefore be to attempt to make itself an external object of its own sensation, in effect, to "posit itself outside of itself," which would be a contradiction. Could a similar objection be made here, with respect to what might be called a false dichotomy between brains and the world; in contrast to a genuine dichotomy between minds and brains, where the latter are described as constituent parts of the world?

Dwells's picture


Monday, July 5, 2021 -- 5:52 AM

Aha. This is where the

Aha. This is where the discussions of metaphysics and Panpsychism belong.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, July 22, 2021 -- 11:10 AM

This quantitative analysis is

This quantitative analysis is reminiscent of the founding argument of the best-selling book by Oolon Colluphid – Well That About Wraps It Up For God. Logic is good. But, God is great and not so easily dispensed.

Ken does an excellent job dispensing with Kant, however. Kant didn’t have the credence of neuroscience. Neuroscience, in turn, doesn’t have the causal credence without work like Ken’s, for that matter, to posit brains refer to the world.

There is a mystery here in fictive and objectual representations, at least. Mystery doesn’t prevent Oolon Colluphid from counting her credits in these objectual representations. Her place, how much credit she is due, and from whom is certainly up for grabs. This is not to say that idealism is not the answer. Kant had his way with women folk.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, July 17, 2021 -- 3:35 AM

So, please allow me to re

So, please allow me to re-state my inquiry. More directly: Is referring to the world what Ken Taylor had in mind? It may be construed as such, I suppose. But that is mere supposition on my part. What do you take normativity to be? Please help me here. Or, review your understanding of what Professor Taylor intended.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, July 22, 2021 -- 10:24 AM

Ken does mention his work in

Ken does mention his work in progress on normativity while parsing concepts and conceptions. You remember correctly. Here’s his mention.

“I do not mean to dismiss the normative and metaphysical considerations just bruited as entirely without force. Indeed, in a big book in progress,
A Natural History of Normative Consciousness, I try my best to do justice to such considerations and many others. Here, I will just insist, though admittedly without the backing of a comprehensive argument, that it would be a mistake to let them drive us all the way to anti- psychologism.” -page 147

It looks like that work will ever be objectual unless Robin or some protege picks up that weighty baton. He does have much to say about normativity in this book even so.

Daniel's picture


Saturday, July 24, 2021 -- 6:56 PM

Haven't heard the show yet,

Haven't heard the show yet, as it is to be broadcast where I am on the radio at a later date. Ken's work can not be sufficiently estimated and its appreciation can only be in the earliest of stages. As I recall Professor Taylor was fond of the reference of the term "category mistake", where a predicate in one category, say grammar, for instance, is applied to a subject in another, say, mathematics: "geometry is algebra in the genitive case", for example; generating a nonsensical statement which nevertheless sounds initially intelligible. There's a story about a man whose dog never barked save as a response to a single stimulus. Every time the man jingled his keys, the dog let out a bark. Because he'd lived for years with this dog which had barked at nothing else, he arrived at the conclusion, which became a habitual belief, that the jingling of the keys and the dog's bark were in fact identical. By consistent correlation, the man made the category mistake of inferring quantitative identity. How is the denial of the mind's independence from the brain not committing the same error in any inference of their identity with the other?

admin's picture


Monday, July 26, 2021 -- 9:40 AM

Hi Daniel, just wanted to let

Hi Daniel, just wanted to let you know that you can listen to the show anytime right here on this page (upper right corner "Listen")!

Daniel's picture


Monday, July 26, 2021 -- 6:57 PM

Thank you very much for the

Thank you very much for the information. I hope however this does not affect the veracity of my position: My anticipation of the show's contents can't mean they don't yet exist, unless of course the two are the same thing.

hoter's picture


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