AND THE USE-MENTION DISTINCTION
William A. Wisdom
The "use-mention distinction" is familiar to virtually everyone trained in professional philosophy, but to few others. It's a technical notion that is important particularly to philosophers of language and logic; it's the distinction between using an expression or bit of language (e.g., a word or phrase or sentence) and mentioning or talking about that expression. This pair of concepts proves to be rather difficult for some college students to grasp--in part, I suppose, because it requires distinguishing between, say, a name and the name of that name.
Thinking of linguistic expressions as instruments that we use to accomplish various purposes, the distinction is very much like the more readily obvious distinction between using a hammer and talking about a hammer--two clearly different activities. A simple example will dramatize the distinction, though there is no reason, for the present purpose, to further discuss the functions of the distinction in philosophy. Think of the difference between saying (1) " 'Tom' has three letters" and (2) "Tom has three letters". The first is a comment about how the word 'Tom' is spelled, while the second is a comment about the epistles in Tom's hand. In the first I'm mentioning--talking about--Tom's name 'Tom' (which is why I enclose it within its own quotation marks), whereas in the second I'm using his name to say something not about Tom's name but about Tom himself. Hold that distinction in mind.
We all have stories about how very precocious our young children are or were. This one is about my son. I suppose that he was about four at the time. I was trying to complete an important writing project and at the same time keep an eye on him. Robert was running around playfully, but incidentally distracting me. I finally said, "Robert, you're going to have to find something quiet to do. Why don't you play with your building blocks in the other room?" Well, he seemed to think that something like that was a good idea, so he dumped the whole bagful of them on the hardwood floor just outside my open door. I figured that that was all right. It would give him something to do, and I could keep an eye on him.
He set in to building a tower as high as he could. When it got to a good height, he'd accidentally or deliberately knock it over and mumble "Shit!" This happened several times, the expletive getting louder each time. I was finally exasperated, and said to him: "Robert, I don't want to hear you use that word again!"
I must interrupt this narrative to explain that I didn't mind the word. I just wanted him to go somewhere out of earshot if he was going to utter it. "You may use the word if you want, but I don't want to HEAR you use it." But it turned out that that wasn't how he understood my remark.
He played quietly with his blocks for another few minutes; and then of course they fell in a clatter and he cried out: "Shit!!" I whirled in my chair and raised a warning finger. But before I could say anything he quickly added in panic: "...is a dumb word." I laughed so hard that I couldn't chastise him for the offense. Clearly he had construed my warning this way: "I don't want to hear you USE that word again! But of course it's all right for you to MENTION it."
Copyright © 2002, William A. Wisdom