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A Puzzle about Communication

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It seems plausible that successfully communicating with our peers requires entertaining the same thoughts as they do. We argue that this view is incompatible with other, independently plausible principles of thought individuation. Our argument is based on a puzzle inspired by the Kripkean story of Peter and Paderewski: having developed several variations of the original story, we conclude that understanding and communication cannot be modeled as a process of thought transfer between speaker and hearer. While we are not the first to reach this conclusion, the significance of our argument lies in the fact that it only relies on widely accepted premises, without depending on any especially controversial theory of mental and linguistic content. We conclude by drawing out the implications of that conclusion: if communication and understanding do not require thought identity, then one important motivation for the postulation of inter-personally shared thoughts is undercut.

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  1. The arguments in this paper represent a (partial) departure from the view defended in Onofri (2018).

  2. Our terminology is based on classic works in this area, most notably Frege (1892, 1918/1956) and Evans (1982). More on this in Sect. 3.

  3. See for instance Frege (1918/1956), Peacocke (1992).

  4. See for instance Fodor (1998), Margolis and Laurence (2007).

  5. For some recent works on the topic, see for instance Soames (2002) and Chalmers (2011).

  6. For a case where the hearer identifies the right referent in a lucky way and therefore does not seem to understand, see Loar (1976).

  7. See Evans (1982, 21–22) on the ‘Fregean model of communication’ and Heck (2002, 6) on the ‘Naïve Model of Communication’. See also: Stalnaker’s (1978) influential account of assertion, Egan (2007) and Torre (2010) on the ‘belief-transfer model of assertion’, Onofri (2018), and Kindermann (2019).

  8. For now, we set aside premise (4) and the transitivity of identity, but we’ll return to this in Sect. 7.

  9. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing up this possible response.

  10. See, for example, Perry’s (1979) discussion of Frege’s (1918) view that first-person thought is unshareable.

  11. Segal (2003) also takes inspiration from Loar (1988) in devising related cases purporting to show that cognitive content is holistic. His case involves no communication between the subjects and also presents other important differences from ours.

  12. A less extravagant version can be obtained if Peter thinks there are two different substances on our planet, with chemical structure H2O and XYZ respectively. He might then think that Petra and her friend unknowingly refer to different substances because of their different causal histories – they are from different parts of the planet and neither of them has interacted with “the other substance”.

  13. For discussion of the distinction, see Fine (2007), Recanati (2016). The present paragraph owes much to Perry’s (1980) discussion of belief retention.

  14. The term ‘transparency’ comes from an influential paper by Boghossian (1994). For a recent survey of the debate, see Wikforss (2015).

  15. For instance, Kaplan (1989) classifies the second-person pronoun as a demonstrative.

  16. The same applies to another possible response to the puzzle, which goes as follows: when we say that Petra expresses the same thought in her two exchanges with Peter (premise (1) of the puzzle), ‘same thought’ expresses a non-transitive relation between her thoughts at different times. It would then be invalid to derive our contradictory conclusion by applying the transitivity of identity, as our argument does. One author who rejects transitivity even in the intrapersonal case is Prosser (2019).

  17. See for example Torre (2010), Ninan (2010), Weber (2013), and the essays in the second part of García-Carpintero & Torre (2016).

  18. See for example Block (1993), Prinz (2002), Schneider (2011), Chalmers (2011), Pagin (forthcoming), Valente (2019).

  19. See e.g. the essays collected in Marques and Wikforss (2020). Whether the psychologists’ notion of a concept is the same as the one we’re concerned with is a controversial matter that need not concern us here.

  20. See for instance Harman (1993), Prinz (2002), Pagin (2020).

  21. Peet (2019) and Pagin (2020) make much of similar arguments using subjects that attach slightly distinct meanings to ‘tall’ and ‘tree’ (respectively) but can still successfully communicate.

  22. For cases where the hearer is lucky and knowledge thus fails to be transmitted, see for instance Loar (1976, p. 357) and Heck (1995, p. 95).

  23. Our appeal to coordination in this section might seem inconsistent with our earlier argument against Cumming’s coordination-based account (Sect. 4). In fact, there is no contradiction. Cumming defines coordination as an equivalence relation among mental symbols, which underlies content identity in successful communication (see Cumming 2013b, pp. 386–87). As Cumming himself notes (ibid.), this is distinct from Fine’s coordination-relation: Fine’s coordination is not transitive, so it is not a form of content identity (see Fine 2007, ch. 4). In Sect. 4, we argued that Cumming’s coordination delivers incorrect results because it is an equivalence relation, so that objection doesn’t apply to Fine’s account. More generally, it remains open to us to endorse any coordination-relation that is not a form of content identity. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pushing us to clarify this.

  24. Consider e.g. ‘Serena believes Ann can learn to play tennis in ten lessons’, said to Ann’s father so that he’ll sign up 6-year old Ann for tennis lessons with Serena, who’s never heard of little Ann, but whose marketing strategy is centered on the promise that 6-year-olds can master tennis that quickly (Recanati, 2012 p. 152; Blumberg & Lederman, 2021). Of course Serena has no singular thought about Ann, who she doesn’t know of. This suggests that Ann’s father and Serena don’t need to share a Thought – namely, the one expressed by the complement clause of the ascription, ‘… Ann can learn to play tennis in ten lessons’ – to make the ascription true.

  25. Influential proposals along these lines were put forward by Crimmins and Perry (1989), Richard (1990), Crimmins (1992). The idea was recently given a more detailed formal treatment by Aloni (2005).

  26. Prosser (2019, p. 480) insists that taking the same-mode-of-presentation relation to be intransitive is compatible with saying that thinkers retain their beliefs across time, and share their beliefs with one another. His argument works mostly by analogy: if we can continue calling personal identity ‘identity’ even when fusion/fission cases show that it is an intransitive relation, then we might as well do the same for thoughts and modes of presentation.


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Andrea Onofri would like to gratefully acknowledge the SEP (Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico) for their financial support (project number UASLP-PTC-646). Matheus Valente acknowledges that work on this paper was supported by the grant #2020/11116-3, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). We thank Manuel García-Carpintero, François Recanati, Michele Palmira, Peter Pagin, Kathrin Glüer, Genoveva Martí and Laura Schroeter for discussion and commentaries.

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Valente, M., Onofri, A. A Puzzle about Communication. Rev.Phil.Psych. 14, 1035–1054 (2023).

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