The John Locke Lectures (Wednesday - Week 2, 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 control their thought by rule-based reasoning 

Minds that speak might make judgments carefully but only in a ‘blind’ or ‘brute’ manner; registering perception or belief that things are thus and so, they might just rationally transition, without knowing why, to believing a further fact supported by things being that way—say, that p. In such an exercise they would not reason their way to believing that p, as in concluding ‘so, p’ or ‘it follows that p’. That would require them also to have beliefs about the linkage between what the premises or perceptions indicate and what the conclusion says. Reasoning is bound to appeal as a way of building up common ground between speaking minds. And, happily, the language that facilitates communication also enables speakers to form the required sorts of linking belief. But while reasoning makes special demands in those ways, it does not fit an intellectualist image. It remains tied to rational transitioning, as the Lewis Carroll’s Tortoise shows; it may operate on a virtual basis, intervening only when normal processing raises red flags; and the linking beliefs it presupposes may be held in a case-by-case, not a general way. Moreover, reasoning must be able to operate at bedrock, when the rules followed cannot be explicated further and must be salient from examples. The problem of how it operates at bedrock involves the rule-following problem associated with Wittgenstein and Kripke. The best story suggests that speaking minds can access bedrock rules insofar as instances exemplify the rules for them: this, in a proleptic way—via dispositions to extrapolate in certain ways from examples—and subject to mutual correction in the event of divergence between the parties.