D.Phil. Thesis

The Meaning of ‘Look’

My main aim is to clarify what we mean by ‘look’ sentences such as (1) below – ones that we use to talk about visual experience:

(1) The ball looked red to Sue

This is to help better understand a part of natural language that has so far resisted treatment, and also to help better understand the nature of visual experience.

By appealing to general linguistic principles I argue for the following account. First, we use (1) to talk about an event. Second, we use the verb ‘look’ to specify the kind of event about which we are talking – it is a looking event. Third, we use the subject ‘the ball’ to specify a stimulus of the event – something that looks some way in the event. Fourth, we use the adjunct ‘to Sue’ to specify an experiencer of the event – someone to whom things look some way in the event. Finally, we use the complement ‘red’ to specify a way of the event – a way in which the event occurs (I take ways of occurring to be properties of events). Which way do we use ‘red’ in (1) to specify? I argue: the maximally specific way w such that the following is generically true: looking events whose stimulus is red occur in way w (it is important that this is understood generically: this is what does much of the work in explaining our use of (1) and other ‘look’ sentences). Putting this together, what we mean by (1) is: there was a looking event whose stimulus was the ball, whose experiencer was Sue, and which occurred in the maximally specific way that looking events occur when their stimulus is red.

This account of how we use ‘red’ in (1) is one of the most interesting aspects of my thesis. It extends to an account of how we use ‘proud’ in ‘John walks proud’, ‘as if he is American’ in ‘John talks as if he is American’, ‘like a duck’ in ‘John sounds like a duck’, and so on. In each case we use the expression in question to specify a way: the maximally specific way proud people walk, the maximally specific way American people talk, and so on. So the study of ‘look’ sentences has much to tell us about the functioning of many other English language constructions, and suggests that ways have a significant role to play in the semantics of natural language – a fact that has not yet been sufficiently recognised by linguists or philosophers of language.

My thesis also has implications for the philosophy of perception. One of the central questions about perception is: What is the nature of visual experience? What is it, for example, for a ball to look red to Sue? My thesis offers an answer: What it is for the ball to look red to Sue is for whatever it is that we mean by ‘The ball looks red to Sue’ to be the case, and what we mean by ‘The ball looks red to Sue’ is that there is a looking event whose stimulus is the ball, whose experiencer is Sue, and which is occurring in a certain way. It thus delivers an adverbial account of visual experience, one that has the resources to better deal with problems that are traditionally thought to be decisive against adverbial accounts.