Words and Images: An Essay on the Origin of Ideas

Oxford University Press, 2011, xii + 302 pp.

At least since Locke, philosophers and psychologists have usually held that concepts arise out of sensory perceptions, thoughts are built from concepts, and language enables speakers to convey their thoughts to hearers. Christopher Gauker holds that this tradition is mistaken about both concepts and language. The mind cannot abstract the building blocks of thoughts from perceptual representations. More generally, we have no account of the origin of concepts that grants them the requisite independence from language. Gauker's alternative is to show that much of cognition consists in thinking by means of mental imagery, without the help of concepts, and that language is a tool by which interlocutors coordinate their actions in pursuit of shared goals. Imagistic cognition supports the acquisition and use of this tool, and when the use of this tool is internalized, it becomes the very medium of conceptual thought.

Some reviews:
Edouard Machery in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Jaroslav Peregrin in Organon F.
Robert Briscoe in Mind.
Commentaries by Mohan Matthen, Daniel Weiskopf and Åsa Wikforss in Analysis.


Conditionals in Context

MIT Press, 2005, xi + 329 pp.

"If you turn left at the next corner, you will see a blue house at the end of the street." That sentence -- a conditional -- might be true even though it is possible that you will not see a blue house at the end of the street when you turn left at the next corner. A moving van may block your view; the house may have been painted pink; a crow might swoop down and peck out your eyes. Still, in some contexts, we might ignore these possibilities and correctly assert the conditional. In this book, Christopher Gauker argues that such context-relativity is the key to understanding the semantics of conditionals. Contexts are defined as objective features of the situation in which a conversation takes place, and the semantic properties of sentences -- conditionals included -- are defined in terms of assertibility in a context.

One of the primary goals of a theory of conditionals has to be to distinguish correctly between valid and invalid arguments containing conditionals. According to Gauker, an argument is valid if the conclusion is assertible in every context in which the premises are assertible. This runs counter to what Gauker sees as a systematic misreading of the data by other authors, who judge arguments to be invalid if they can think of a context in which the premises are judged true and some other context in which the conclusion is judged false. Different schools of thought on conditionals reflect fundamentally different approaches to semantics. Gauker offers his theory as a motive and test case for a distinctive kind of semantics that dispenses with reference relations and possible worlds.

Some reviews:
Anthony Everett's review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Charles B. Cross's review in Mind.

Staffan Larsson's review in Language.

Some endorsements


Words without Meaning

MIT Press, 2003, xi + 299 pp.

According to the received view of linguistic communication, the primary function of language is to enable speakers to reveal the propositional contents of their thoughts to hearers. Speakers are able to do this because they share with their hearers an understanding of the meanings of words. Christopher Gauker rejects this conception of language, arguing that it rests on an untenable conception of mental representation and yields a wrong account of the norms of discourse.

Gauker's alternative starts with the observation that conversations have goals and that the best way to achieve the goals of a conversation depends on the circumstances under which the conversation takes place. These goals and circumstances determine a context of utterance quite apart from the attitudes of the interlocutors. The fundamental norms of discourse are formulated in terms of the conditions under which sentences are assertible in such contexts.

Words without Meaning contains original solutions to a wide array of outstanding problems in the philosophy of language, including the logic of quantification, the logic of conditionals, the semantic paradoxes, the nature of presupposition and implicature, and the nature and attribution of beliefs.

Some reviews:
Brian Weatherson's review in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Anthony Everett's review in Essays in Philosophy

Michael Rescorla's review in The Philosophical Review

Some endorsements


Thinking Out Loud:
An Essay on the Relation between Thought and Language

Princeton University Press, 1994, x + 327 pp.

Most contemporary philosophers, psychologists and linguists think of language as basically a means by which speakers reveal their thoughts to others. Christopher Gauker calls this "the Lockean theory of language," since Locke was one of its early exponents. Gauker argues that the Lockean theory is a fundamentally mistaken approach to language. The central problem is that the Lockean cannot adequately explain the nature of the general concepts that words are supposed to express. In developing this theme, Gauker covers a wide range of topics, including Locke's own views, contemporary theories of conceptual development, the nature of reference and logical validity, the nature of interpretation and psychological explanation, and the division of epistemic labor in society.

The Lockean theory contrasts with the conception of language as itself the medium of a distinctive kind of thinking. Without lapsing back into the Lockean framework, Gauker explains how language, so conceived, is possible as a means for cooperative interaction. Gauker articulates the possibility and objectivity of a kind of non-conceptual thinking about similarities and causal relations. In terms of this he is able to explain how a simple language might be learned. He then takes on the subject of logical structure and gives a formally precise account of logical validity formulated in terms of "assertibility in a context" rather than in terms of truth. Finally, belief and meaning are explained in terms of the role that attributions of belief and meaning play in facilitating cooperative interaction.

Some reviews:
Ausonio Marras in The Philosophical Quarterly 46, 1996: 422-425.
Peter Sullivan in Philosophical Books 37, 1996: 195-198.

Christoph Hoerl in Mind and Language 10, 1995: 299-304.