How can the human mind think about objects outside itself? How is it possible to talk about things that don’t even exist? This week, we’re thinking about reference—specifically, an “opinionated” theory of reference by our dear departed friend, longtime Philosophy Talk host Ken Taylor.
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.
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.