The John Locke Lectures (Wednesday - Week 1, 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 decide how to judge and what to think

Take beliefs and desires to constitute functional states that must be present in any agent, however simple. Acting on such attitudes, agents will do things intentionally. But they may not be able to act intentionally so as to shape their own attitudes: say, for example, to check their beliefs for responsiveness to data. If agents share a common language for reporting on their environment, however, things are bound to be different. Being able to decide what to say, truthfully and carefully, on some issue—being able to decide how to judge—they will be able to decide what to believe. Why? Because otherwise what they say would be no guide to how they are likely to act, and their language would be manifestly dysfunctional. But how do the on-off judgments associated with speech relate to the scalar credences that, by received accounts, constitute functional beliefs? They are consistent with credences insofar as they are stakes-sensitive: you may judge that p, without a credence of 1, provided you treat the non-p possibilities as unworrying or unlikely. Even if credences are behaviorally prior, however, judgments still play important roles. They can elicit credence as needed. They can make the contents of credences more articulate. And they can enable subjects to extend credence to novel (e.g. evaluative) contents; to mimic credence in acts of acceptance, trust and hope; and, of course, to mask credence in deception and self-deception.