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How To Get About

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2024


The ‘Only connect!’ that serves as epigraph to Forster's Howards End tolerates a variety of interpretations; but the very idea of a connection, or a relating of one thing with another, is conceptually deep. One form of connection is when something is about a thing, representing or symbolizing that thing. When we think of someone, or discuss something, we connect to them, or to it.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asks, ‘What makes my image of him into an image of him? […] Isn't my question like this: “What makes this sentence a sentence that has to do with him?”’ Wittgenstein thus notes the ramifications of his question: what makes her name hers? In virtue of what is this thought about them a thought about them? The issue he highlights has been with us since Plato's Cratylus and its history is unified by a presupposition: whatever makes it that (i) a bit of language (like a name or a sentence or any linguistic symbol) is about something is, fundamentally, also what makes it that (ii) a thought (or idea or image) is about a thing. The story of aboutness will be uniform, simplex, or so the presupposition has it.

But the history of the issue has been one of failure: we still don't adequately understand the nature of representation. I will propose and develop a perspective that rejects the presupposition and explains the failure: there is more than one way for a thing to be about something. Representation comes, ultimately, in varieties.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2024

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