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The Wordsmith’s Philosopher

USC College’s Scott Soames explores the meanings and logic of language.

The Wordsmith’s Philosopher

At Princeton University, philosophers Scott Soames and Saul Kripke often walked home together.

On the way, they would sometimes stop by the Annex, a fixture on Nassau Street, and duck into its basement bar for dinner and a drink. Rather than talk sports or politics, these men were more likely to ponder the meaning of meaning and whether a paradoxical sentence can be true.

Now the director of the School of Philosophy at USC College, Soames was highly influenced by Kripke — regarded by many as the leading philosopher of his time.

Soames, who specializes in the philosophy of language and the history of analytical philosophy, is perhaps best known for defending and expanding on the “anti-descriptivist revolution” in philosophy led by Kripke and others.

Developed in the early 1970s, the revolution changed the way philosophers think of general terms — such as water, gold, tiger, blue — that stand for abstract categories of kinds of things that occur in nature: substances (water, gold), species (tiger) and color (blue).

In 2005, Soames left Princeton after nearly a quarter century. Soames’ departure, which came after the deaths of philosophers and colleagues David Lewis, Richard Jeffrey and Margaret Wilson, and Kripke’s retirement, was a setback for its philosophy department.

“It’s a serious blow,” Gilbert Harman, Princeton’s philosophy graduate studies director, told the Daily Princetonian after Soames announced his departure.

When Soames arrived at USC, the philosophy program ranked 46th in the nation, according to the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Two years later, it ranks 16th, mostly as a result of recent outstanding hires, including Soames; Jeffrey King and George Wilson from the University of California, Davis; and James Van Cleve from Brown University.

“I’m not at all happy with being 16th,” Soames said inside his office, where a photo of Soames, Kripke and other Princeton philosophers adorned a wall. “I’d like to see us in the top five.”

The former director of philosophy at the College, James Higginbotham, was the catalyst in rebuilding the school. Hired in 2000 from Oxford University, Higginbotham, the Linda MacDonald Hilf Chair in Philosophy, oversaw the faculty’s expansion from 12 to 18.

Higginbotham, also a renowned philosopher of language, was extremely familiar with Soames’ work. When he heard Soames was contemplating leaving Princeton, he began the seduction of the well-known East Coast philosopher.

“I don’t think I want to go,” Soames recalled telling his then-fiancée Martha Dencker. “But I had told [Higginbotham] I would visit, so I had to get on the airplane.”

It was 7 degrees and miserable in Newark when Soames’ plane took off. In Los Angeles, it was 65 and sunny. Higginbotham drove Soames to the Shangri-la Hotel in Santa Monica. Soames took a jog along the beach. He called Dencker.

“You know, there’s a lot to be said for Southern California,” he told Dencker, whom he married in 2004, two days before they moved to Los Angeles.

“That [weather] was the start of it,” Soames said. “But I was also impressed with USC’s commitment to building first-rate departments and ultimately a first-rate university that can compete with anybody.”

Soames had spent most of his life teaching at MIT, Yale and Princeton. “When you have a sense you are already on top, it’s all too easy to become complacent,” Soames said. “So, to meet these people at USC, who were eager to improve and to move forward, well, it just appealed to me.”

The move also sparked Soames’ competitive streak, which has its roots in sports.

Growing up in Seattle, Soames played football, played baseball and swam, but his real love was basketball. “I was short, so I played point guard,” said Soames, a fit 60-year-old with sandy hair.

Academics didn’t really register. “I was more interested in athletics,” admitted Soames, who remains an avid cyclist. The only time he read was “when I was ill with scarlet fever in the second and third grades and spent a year in bed,” he said. “I read almost all sports stories: Phantom Backfield, The Kid Who Batted a Thousand.”

Although his parents never attended college, they encouraged their two sons to do so.

“I knew I would go to college but never thought about it very much,” Soames said. “So along came my senior year and a representative from Stanford came to our high school. He spoke and I was impressed.”

At Stanford, he entered a new, intellectual world.

“I found myself intrigued with philosophy because I was interested in what you might think of as the ‘big philosophical questions,’ ” he said.

He earned his bachelor’s in philosophy and spent the next four years teaching English in Hong Kong, then giving reading lessons to first-, second- and third-grade immigrant children in Mountain View, Calif.

“My work with Mexican-American children brought me into contact with literature on language development,” he said. “There were various theories about why these children were having a hard time reading. So, I started to read about what people knew about language and how children learn it.”

He read Noam Chomsky, the legendary founder of modern linguistics, and was attracted to his naturalist approach to the study of language. Soames pursued his Ph.D. at MIT, where, working with Chomsky, he became one of the first scholars to combine theoretical linguistics with the philosophy of language. Higginbotham, who worked closely with Chomsky as a professor of philosophy at MIT from 1980 to 1993, is also among the field’s pioneer scholars.

Soames has written scores of articles and five scholarly books, including the two-volume Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2003) and most recently Reference and Description (Princeton, 2005). He is also general editor of the Princeton series Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy, a collection of 21 books in which today’s leading philosophers, including Soames, discuss the state of contemporary work in their specialized areas.

Explaining his specialty, Soames described the philosophy of language as investigating the nature of truth, reference, meaning and representational content — and developing theoretical frameworks for applying these concepts to the study of natural language, communication and representational states of mind.

During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, philosophers believed that the solution to all philosophical problems could be found in the study of language. The philosophy of language became the center of philosophy.

“Now, that period is over,” Soames said. “We learned that language, though very important, is not the key to all of philosophy.”

So what is the key to all philosophy?

“No one knows,” he said with a boyish grin.

A Linguistic Glossary, as Explained by Scott Soames

A natural language is the native language of a speech community. We contrast natural languages with artificial languages, e.g., invented languages of symbolic logic, mathematics or computer science. In the past half century, the logical and linguistic techniques originally developed to endow artificial languages with meaning have been modified and adapted to the task of describing the meanings of natural language sentences.

The reference of a term is that which the term is used to stand for or talk about, e.g., the two-word name “Scott Soames” is used to talk about a certain person — me.

A representational state of mind is a state of mind — like seeing or believing something — that represents the world to the agent as being a certain way. When the world is indeed that way the perception is accurate, and the belief is true. When it isn’t that way, the perception is inaccurate, and the belief is false.

The representational content of a sentence or of a mental state (e.g., a state associated with belief or perception) is whatever it is about that sentence or state that represents the world as being a certain way. For example, we use a sentence “A is F” to represent the thing referred to by “A” as having the property designated by “F.” When the world is the way the sentence represents it to be, we say that the sentence is true.

Understanding the meaning of a sentence involves knowing what the world must be like in order for it to be true. Similar points can be made about perception and belief. When you see a certain color, your perceptual experience represents your immediate environment as containing a colored object located at a certain place. When the perception is accurate, there is such an object at that place. In this way, the notions of truth, reference and meaning are brought together in a theory of representational content. These are fundamental components of a theory of information needed to understand both language and mind.

The anti-descriptivist revolution was a development in the philosophy of language, led by Saul Kripke, David Kaplan and Hilary Putnam, in the early 1970s, which analyzed the meanings of many words — e.g., ordinary proper names and many common nouns for kinds of things occurring in nature (words like water, gold, tiger, blue) — as consisting simply of the things or kinds referred to, rather than of qualitative descriptions or definitions of those things. Instead of looking for definitions in people’s heads, we look for the things in the world that these words are attached to and how that attachment came about.