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Articles by | Books written by | edited by | D. H. Mellor

Cover of Mind, Meaning, and Reality

Mind, Meaning, and Reality

D. H. Mellor

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. xiv+231

This book contains fifteen philosophical papers, including a new defence of 'success semantics', preceded by a polemical introduction. The papers are grouped into three parts. Part I is about how the ways we are disposed to act fixes both what we believe and what we use language to mean. Part II is about what there is: the reality of dispositions; what makes beliefs and sentences true; why there is only one universe; and how social groups, and other things with parts, are related to the people and other things that are their parts. Part III is about time: twentieth century developments in its philosophy; why Kant, while wrong about time, was right about tense; why forward time travel is trivial and backward time travel impossible; and what gives time its direction.

Critical Notice by Lisa Leininger in Analysis Reviews 74 (1), January 2014, pp. 148-57.

Other articles are collected in Matters of Metaphysics

Other published articles


Updated 11 September 2019


Frontispiece of Mind, Meaning, and Reality


Illustration (c) Michael Edwards 2011 reproduced by permission of the artist

To my fellow metaphysicians:
Potens tractat; impotens obtractat
(Those who can, do; those who can't, disparage)


In this introduction I use Wittgenstein's 1912 definition of philosophy as 'all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences' to defend metaphysics against its many detractors. I give two well-known examples to show how metaphysics can and sometimes does show what's wrong with a scientific theory, and why its dependence on the empirical and formal sciences, whose foundations are its subject matter, doesn't make it either reducible to or replaceable by them. I argue further that even if the subject matter of metaphysics makes its methods differ from those of the sciences (but no more than their methods differ among themselves), its methodology neither differs from nor is more mysterious than theirs. I conclude by arguing that the practice of metaphysics can and need only be justified by the results of doing it, and not by a 'meta-metaphysics' that it no more needs than most physics needs metaphysics.

Read Introduction

Part I: Mind and Meaning 1 Nothing Like Experience, 10-21
First published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1992-3), 1-16.
I argue in this paper that knowing what an experience is like is being able to recognise and imagine it. Imagining an experience is itself an experience, but a different one, and one we can't imagine, so we don't know what it's like. We can also recognise and imagine (having) things, e.g. paintings, that aren't experiences. So there being something it is like to be (or to have) X, which we can know, is not an effective test for X's being an experience. I conclude that we need no such test, and that experiences are just natural phenomena, to be studied like all others.

2 What Does Subjective Decision Theory Tell Us?, 22-33
First published in Ramsey's Legacy, ed. Hallvard Lillehammer and D. H. Mellor, Oxford: Clarendon Press (2005), 137-148.
In this paper I defend a descriptive reading of subjective decision theory. That theory, pioneered by Ramsey in 'Truth and Probability', says 'that we act in the way we think most likely to realise the objects of our desires'. The theory can be read normatively, as saying how it's rational to act, or descriptively, as saying how we do act. Most decision theorists read it normatively, and say that Ramsey did so too. I argue that they are wrong on both counts. Ramsey read his theory descriptively, as part of a functionalist theory of states of mind, and was right to do so; for only on this reading of it is it defensible.
3 How to Believe a Conditional, 34-46.
First published in Journal of Philosophy 90 (1993), 233-248.
In this paper I develop the view that conditionals express inferential dispositions. I show how the view reconciles David Lewis's 'triviality' results with Ernest Adams' use of conditional credences to measure degrees of acceptance of conditionals. I also show how the causes and effects of inferential dispositions can be used to distinguish the two main types of conditional, thereby vindicating Vic Dudman's reclassification of them. I then use a realist interpretation of these dispositions to deal with apparent counter-examples, and conclude by refuting Adams's thesis.

4 Telling the truth, 47-59.
First published in Ways of Communicating, ed. D. H. Mellor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990), 81-95.
In this written-up public lecture I show how being told the truth is a special case of finding it out by observing a sign, i.e. something correlated with what it's a sign of. I do this by comparing two ways in which Winnie-the-Pooh learns that there's honey: (a) by seeing bees, and (b) by hearing Rabbit tell him there's honey. In (a) the inference from sign to honey is direct, while in (b) it goes via Rabbit's belief that there's honey. I show why this difference matters, why we can only tell the truth by saying what (we believe) we believe, how we detect lies, and why actions often speak louder than words.
5 Successful Semantics, 60-77.
First publication.
In this paper I defend the view that sentences get their meanings from the contents of the beliefs they express, not the other way round. I show first how the contents of contingent beliefs are given by the conditions in which the actions they make desires cause fulfil those desires, and I meet objections to that thesis. I then use the thesis to derive the meanings of sentences from how we use them to tell others what we believe, actions that succeed if our beliefs about how we do so are true. I end by showing how this simplifies Paul Grice's theory of meaning.
Part II: What There Is 6 The Semantics and Ontology of Dispositions, 78-95.
First published in Mind 109 (2000), 757-780. (For a French translation of an earlier version of this paper, see 'Dispositions'.)
In this 2000 paper I develop the semantics and ontology of dispositions. I meet objections to the simple conditionals their ascriptions seem to entail by replacing these with so-called 'reduction sentences' and defend the implications of this. I attack the common but false dichotomy of categorical and dispositional properties and show how dispositions are really related to their bases, if any. Applying all this to two typical cases, I conclude that fragility is not a real property and that, while temperature and its diverse bases are, this does not entail overdetermination.
7 Truthmakers for What?, 96-112
First published in From Truth to Reality: new essays in logic and metaphysics, ed. Heather Dyke, London: Routledge (2009) 272-290.
In this paper I defend a moderate truthmaker theory, not as a theory of truth or meaning but as an essential supplement to both. On this theory only truths that are not complete truth functions of other propositions have non-propositional truthmakers. These truths are either atomic propositions ascribing natural properties or relations to contingent particulars, or molecular propositions, like 'I believe P' and 'probably P', whose truth values don't follow from those of their constituents. I conclude by showing that true generalisations, including statements of laws of nature, need no truthmakers, despite not being entailed by the conjunction of all their instances.

8 Too Many Universes, 113-119.
First published in God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science, ed. Neil A. Manson, London: Routledge (2003) 221-8.
This paper is a reply to Martin Rees's 'Other Universes: A Scientific Perspective', which gives a 'fine-tuning' argument for the theory that our universe is but one of many in a 'multiverse'. That argument assumes that our universe's being in a multiverse makes its being fine-tuned for life more probable than it would otherwise be. I argue that as this probability is merely epistemic, not physical, the multiverse hypothesis does not explain the fact of fine-tuning, which therefore gives us no reason to accept it.
9 The Reduction of Society, 120-141.
First published in Philosophy 57 (1982) 51–63.
In this paper I debate the reducibility of social to psychological sciences as a question of fact rather than of method. So read, I reject arguments for it based on principles of micro-reduction or the unity of science, the epistemological priority of people, or the identification of social groups with sets of people. I argue that social groups are related to their members as causal wholes to their parts, and that what makes social sciences reduce in principle to psychology is the trivial definitional restriction of 'social' sciences to group attributes derived from psychological ones. I consider and reject various holist objections to this thesis.
10 Wholes and Parts: The Limits of Composition (2006) pp. 142-150
First published in South African Journal of Philosophy 25 (2006) 138-145.
I note in this paper that different part-whole relations hold between different kinds of entities, and argue that while these relations must share many formal properties, they need not share all of them. Nor, I argue, need all part-whole pairs satisfy every other principle of mereology: in particular, the principle of unrestricted composition, that any two entities have a mereological sum, while true of sets and propositions, is false of things and events.
11 Micro-composition, 151-162
First published inThe Routledge Companion to Metaphysics, ed. Robin Le Poidevin, Peter Simons, Andrew McGonigal and Ross Cameron, Oxford: Routledge (2009) 449-458.
In this paper I attack the widely-held micro-reductionist thesis that, ontologically speaking, all material wholes - material things with material parts -are 'nothing but' their parts. My objections to this thesis include the vagueness of the 'is a part of' predicate, the causal nature of part-whole relations between material things, the failure of most properties of wholes to supervene on the properties and relations of their parts, and the indeterminism of many of the laws linking the two.
Part III: Time 12 Time (2005) pp. 163-181
First published in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy, ed. Frank Jackson and Michael Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2005) 615-635.
This paper is an opinionated survey of twentieth century developments in the philosophy of time driven by Einstein's theories of relativity and McTaggart's distinction between A- and B-series of temporal locations. In it I discus relations between time, space, change and causation, B-series (i.e. tenseless) facts and A-series (tensed) truths, the irreducibility of the latter to B-series truths, and show why agents need A-series beliefs.
13 Transcendental Tense, 182-189
Abridgement of Transcendental Tense I' Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 72 (1998), 29-43.
To remove an overlap with chapter 12, this chapter abridges my contribution to a 1998 symposium with John Lucas. In it I argue that many of Kant's claims about time are credible only as claims about tense, and as such are better explained by the tenseless view of time of my Real Time II.
14 Time Travel, 190-205.
First published in Time, ed. Katinka Ridderbos, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2002) 46-64.
In this written-up public lecture I distinguish time travel from time passing, and show how forward time travel is not only possible but actually occurs. I then show why some alleged cases of backward time travel - e.g. positrons as time-travelling electrons - are no such thing. After rejecting various objections to backward time travel, I advocate the unfashionable one that travellers into the past could do things that would stop them having travelled, which is impossible.
15 The Direction of Time, 206-215
First published in The Routledge Companion to Metaphysics, ed. Robin Le Poidevin, Peter Simons, Andrew McGonigal and Ross Cameron, Oxford: Routledge (2009) 449-58.
I argue in this paper that whatever gives time its direction must be intrinsic, universal, apply at each spacetime point, and lack a spatial counterpart. I then show that these criteria are met neither by the apparent flow of times and events from future to present to past nor by most so-called 'arrows' of time, i.e. temporal processes that always or usually only go one way. I then argue that the direction of causation does meet the criteria and is what distinguishes time from space and gives it its direction.