The John Locke Lectures (Wednesday - Week 3, TT19)

Phillip Pettit

The John Locke Lectures are among the world's most distinguished lecture series in philosophy. This list of past lecturers shows that most of the greatest philosophers of the last half century have been Locke Lecturers. The series began in 1950, funded from the generous bequest of Henry Wilde.

The Faculty acknowledges the generous support of these lectures by Oxford University Press and All Souls College.


Minds That Speak

The theme of the lectures is the constitutive dependence of our characteristic mental capacities on the ability to speak and the social life it makes possible. The claim defended is that speaking ensures that minded subjects have these capacities. The method followed is to explore, counterfactually, how the advent of even a simple, information-sharing language would elicit the capacities in subjects otherwise like us.

Minds that speak, so the argument goes, will more or less inevitably 1. decide about how to judge and what to think; 2. control their thinking by rule-based reasoning; 3. enjoy a special perceptual consciousness; 4. make commitments and form community; 5. constitute persons and selves; 6. assume responsibility for what they do; and, a topic for another occasion, 7. command one another’s respect. Is speech necessary for the capacities it is said to ensure? Perhaps not in the case of the first three, more purely psychological abilities; almost certainly, in the case of the other capacities, which have a social-psychological character.

Philip Pettit is the L.S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University, and Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, Canberra.


Abstract: Minds that speak enjoy a special perceptual consciousness

If I make a judgment that p, as minds that speak can do, I will have a ‘maker’s knowledge’ of what I am doing, and recognize what (and that) I believe. Thus, my belief will be conscious in a perfectly ordinary sense of that term. But if I reason from things I believe, then by our account of the reasoning available to minds that speak, I will also hold those beliefs consciously; in this case, I will have a ‘taker’s knowledge’ of what I believe. So what then of the perceptions I reason from? Do I have a taker’s knowledge of what I perceive? And if I do, does that ensure the presence of a rich form of consciousness? Perception is a process, potentially present in mute as well as speaking creatures, that classifies directly available items by directly available properties; makes and accumulates its classifications as it varies attentional focus; and normally but not invariably triggers belief and action. Even unreasoning subjects, then, may not form perceptual beliefs in a wholly ‘blind’ manner—say, that associated with ‘super blind-sight’—and must count in a suitably contrastive sense as conscious. But perception becomes conscious in a richer sense among subjects who speak like you or me and can reason from perception. It will present a field for us to mine in forming our judgments, that is manifestly defeasible, indefinitely explorable, and directly accessible. Is perceptual consciousness in that richer sense the real thing: does it qualify as phenomenal consciousness, as it is now often put? Perhaps. There are certainly more things to say in favor of that view than are generally recognized.