, Volume 152, Issue 1, pp 95-128

Individualism, Externalism and Idiolectical Meaning

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Abstract

Semantic externalism in contemporary philosophy of language typically – and often tacitly – combines two supervenience claims about idiolectical meaning (i.e., meaning in the language system of an individual speaker). The first claim is that the meaning of a word in a speaker’s idiolect may vary without any variation in her intrinsic, physical properties. The second is that the meaning of a word in a speaker’s idiolect may vary without any variation in her understanding of it. I here show that a conception of idiolectical meaning is possible that accepts the “anti-internalism” of the first claim while rejecting (what I shall refer to as) the “anti-individualism” of the second. According to this conception, externally constituted idiolectical meaning supervenes on idiolectical understanding. I begin by trying to show that it is possible to disentangle anti-internalist and anti-individualist strands of argument in Hilary Putnam’s well-known and widely influential “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’.” Having once argued that the latter strand of argument is not cogent, I then try to show that individualism (in the sense above) can be reconciled with perhaps the most plausible reconstruction of Putnam’s well-known and widely accepted “indexical” theory of natural kind terms. Integral to my defense of the possibility of an individualist externalism about idiolectical meaning are my efforts to demonstrate that, pace Putnam, there is no “division of linguistic labor” when it comes to the fixing the meanings of such terms in a speaker’s idiolect. The fact that average speakers sometimes need defer to experts shows that not reference, but only reliable recognition of what belongs in the extension of a natural kind term is a “social phenomenon.”

A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.

Wittgenstein (1958, 14).