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Semantic deflationism deflated


Deflationism is the view that certain metaphysical debates are defective, leaving it open whether the defect is best explained in semantic, conceptual, or epistemic terms. Local semantic deflationism is the thesis that familiar metaphysical debates, which appear to be about the existence and identity of material objects, are merely verbal. It’s a form of local deflationism because it restricts itself to one particular area of metaphysics. It’s a form of semantic deflationism because the defect it purports to identify in these debates is explained in terms of the broadly semantic notion of a merely verbal disputation. Three questions about this thesis are asked and answered here. Does a commitment to the principle of interpretive charity support it? No. Does it avoid the problems that plagued Carnap? No. Does it support a linguistic turn with respect to questions about the nature of material things? No. The central take-home message is that local semantic deflationism is unstable: advocates of the view must (on pain of inconsistency) admit that debates about material coincidence and identity are substantive.

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  1. 1.

    If one is worried that ‘cheating’ simply can’t be correctly used in this loose way, then the point I want to make can be made less directly. Imagine a different linguistic community, which resembles our community in all but one way: ‘cheating’ is correctly used to describe Suárez’s handball in the language of this community. Presumably, this difference is compatible with ‘cheating’ playing roughly the same role in various rational activities (i.e., communication and inference). If members of the Suárez-cheated camp had been speaking this hypothetical community’s language, then they would be asserting a truth consistent with the truth that members of the Suárez-wasn’t-cheating camp were asserting.

  2. 2.

    A dispute’s being “merely verbal” in the intended sense is compatible with there being disputes in the vicinity that are entirely substantive. And it may well be that these “nearby” disputes are what the interlocutors are really (though dimly) aiming to prosecute. For example, the dispute about Suárez may well have been substantive insofar as it was an effort to properly calibrate (or, as others have put it, “metalinguistically negotiate” (Plunkett and Sundell 2013) or “modulate” (Ludlow 2014)) the meaning of ‘cheating’. In other words, though the disagreement wasn’t really about what it purported to be about—a certain non-linguistic factual matter—speakers could have been using (rather than mentioning) ‘cheating’ to advocate that the rough contours of its meaning be smoothed out in ways that would better serve the purposes for which ‘cheating’ is part of the lexicon. Or, as one anonymous referee suggests, the dispute might have been substantive insofar as it was a less-than-completely-perspicuous effort to determine the appropriate sentiment one ought to have toward Suárez. In either case, there would have been something semantically defective about the dispute, since it was carried out in terms that don’t adequately reflect the genuine issue (how best to speak, or what feelings to have).

  3. 3.

    According to Carnap (1950), insofar as ontological questions are meaningful, they’re questions about which “linguistic framework” one ought to adopt. So there isn’t anything factual at stake beyond the issue of how best to speak. Consequently, the true subject matter of these debates is obscured if they’re carried out, as is often the case, in the material mode of speech. To that extent, then, they’re semantically defective. Whether Carnap took these disputes to be merely verbal is an exegetical question on which I don’t want to take a stand. As Hirsch uses the phrase, a dispute is merely verbal if there isn’t anything at stake in how it’s ultimately resolved other than the correct or best way to speak. (Compare this characterization with the quotation from Hirsch in the main body of this paper. See also Hirsch (2016, p. 2 and p. 6).) To be clear, I’m certainly not attributing any of Hirsch’s more specific commitments, like his belief in the primacy of interpretive charity and his commitment to a plurality of equally good quantifier meanings, to Carnap. Furthermore, there were epistemological elements to Carnap’s deflationary outlook that appear to be absent in Hirsch’s work. As one anonymous referee reminds me, Carnap was partially motivated by unclarity about what it would take to confirm certain metaphysical claims. And, as I acknowledge in the main body of the paper, it’s unclear whether this motivation is best understood in verificationist terms, at least as it’s presented in ‘Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology’. Carnap scholarship is fraught with difficult questions here. I’m grateful to the referee for recommending that I signal these caveats at the outset. I introduce Carnap into the discussion not to take a stand on whether his deflationary outlook was similar to Hirsch’s, but to raise the question whether Hirsch’s local deflationism can avoid all of the pitfalls commonly associated with a more global suspicion of metaphysics.

  4. 4.

    See Hirsch (2010).

  5. 5.

    A trout–turkey is a creature with the undetached front half of a trout and the undetached back half of a turkey. Una is a universalist. She believes that composition is a trivial relation—one that imposes no additional demands beyond there being some things.

  6. 6.

    Niles is a nihilist. He believes that nothing is a composite object. There are, of course, intermediate positions between universalism and nihilism, but I ignore them to avoid complicating the set up.

  7. 7.

    See in particular Hirsch’s remarks in his (2003, p. 122) and his (2005, p. 170).

  8. 8.

    There are elements of Lewis’s theory of naturalness that I’m leaving out. For example, I’m leaving out the connection it posits between naturalness and laws of nature. My reason for doing so is that I don’t want to make a long paper any longer.

  9. 9.

    Hirsch (2008b) argues that this sort of stipulation imposes inconsistent interpretive demands. For a response, see Sider (2014). In any event, the precedence of the joint-carving constraint is premised on the assumption that the aim of inquiry is to represent the world in its terms. This assumption will be explained and assessed momentarily.

  10. 10.

    I interpret “existence fits PVI’s use” to mean that assigning existence to PVI’s use of ‘there is’ would be the most charitable interpretation. Further evidence that Sider sees the joint-carving constraint as being in competition with the principle of charity can be found in his (2014, p. 4).

  11. 11.

    The example of identity is adapted for my purpose from Korman (2015, p. 305), which is concerned with different issues.

  12. 12.

    The plausibility of this is reflected in the disproportionate attention that philosophers give to literal, assertoric language. The assumption underlying such favoritism seems to be that the transmission of information is the fundamental purpose for linguistic communication, and that other kinds of linguistic interaction can be explained derivatively.

  13. 13.

    This isn’t quite how Goodman (1955) defined it, but it’s not too far off, and it serves my purpose much better than the original definition.

  14. 14.

    How the ellipsis is filled in will depend on what other color predicates are part of Goodmanese. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Goodmanese is rich enough to construct a complex predicate that’s intensionally equivalent to ‘green’. Assume also that these additional color predicates are definable using English color terms. These assumptions secure the claim that ‘green’ and the complex Goodmanese color predicate above are analytically equivalent.

  15. 15.

    Recall: “It is almost irresistible to describe [the community of Goodmaniacs] as making a mistake. [...] Although their beliefs are true, those beliefs do not match the world’s structure” (Sider 2011, p. 2, my emphasis in bold).

  16. 16.

    ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’ may be epistemically better than ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’, even though they express the same truth-conditions, but that’s because the different linguistic forms (in this case, ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’) aren’t analytically equivalent.

  17. 17.

    The point expressed in this passage is reiterated in Hirsch (2013b).

  18. 18.

    When do some things compose a further thing—always, sometimes, or never? Whatever the answer may be, it’s usually presupposed that the answer is a necessary truth. This assumption has recently been questioned. See Cameron (2007). But if the assumption is abandoned, and the contingency of, say, nihilism is intelligible, then by Hirsch’s own lights the debate between universalists and nihilists would be substantive, just as, by his lights, the debate between physicalists and dualists is substantive (Hirsch 2005, p. 164, footnote 29). (Physicalism, if true, is usually understood to be a contingent truth.)

  19. 19.

    One possible asymmetry between the instance of H1–H5 in which ‘There is a table’ appears and the instance in which, abbreviating a bit, ‘Nothing is a trout–turkey’ appears is that a universalist might explain ordinary speakers’ disposition to affirm the latter by appealing to implicit quantifier domain restriction. To get around this sort of worry, one would need to claim that even if the standard ways of lifting implicit domain restrictions were applied (e.g., the application of intonational focus, the use of ‘strictly speaking’, etc.) ordinary speakers would still accept ‘Nothing is a trout–turkey’.

  20. 20.

    See Balcerak Jackson (2013) and Horden (2014). See also Hirsch (2013a) for a response.

  21. 21.

    Proof. Spatiotemporal coincidence entails material coincidence. According to one-thingism, material coincidence entails identity. So, if one-thingism is true, spatiotemporal coincidence entails identity.

    Kit Fine very quickly presents an apparent counterexample to the principle that spatiotemporal coincidence entails material coincidence: “[...] a water-logged loaf of bread and the loaf of bread that is water-logged are spatially yet not materially coincident” (2003, p. 3). Fine’s idea seems to be that a certain quantity of water is part of the material constituting a water-logged loaf of bread but not part of the material constituting the corresponding loaf of bread. The water is additional material, according to Fine, but not material that takes up more space, since it permeates the water-logged loaf.

    I’m not persuaded. Suppose I have a single loaf of bread. I don’t believe that I make a second loaf of bread by simply dunking my loaf of bread into water. So I think the water-logged loaf of bread just is the loaf of bread. But if they’re identical, then they share the same matter. Fine must be assuming that the water-logged loaf of bread and the loaf of bread are numerically distinct—maybe because he’s assuming that the water-logged loaf of bread is necessarily wet, whereas the loaf of bread isn’t. (Incidentally, this interpretation of Fine fits well with his theory of qua-objects.) But I don’t see any reason to believe that the water-logged loaf of bread is necessarily wet. One can intelligibly ask, “Is the water-logged loaf of bread dry now?” And one can intelligibly reply, “Yes!”

  22. 22.

    An anonymous referee for this journal voices a concern about my use of the words ‘thing’ and ‘object’ in this context: since these words aren’t associated with any individuating criteria, it’s not at all clear what the thesis that the statue and the piece of alloy are “one thing” really amounts to, nor is the thesis that they’re really “two objects” any clearer. It does no harm to my discussion, however, to replace ‘thing’ and ‘object’ with ‘artifact’. The relevant thesis would thus be that no two artifacts can occupy the same region of space at the same time. Presumably, ‘artifact’ is equipped with sufficient individuative content to side-step this worry. If readers aren’t happy with my use of ‘thing’ and ‘object’, I recommend that they make the appropriate mental substitutions.

  23. 23.

    I recently learned about Bios Urn, a receptacle which is designed to promote the growth of new plant life from the cremated remains of people or pets. As of June 28, 2016, the description for this product on the website,, reads: “The Bios Urn is a fully biodegradable urn designed to convert you into a tree after life. [...] Bios Urn turns death into a transformation and a return to life through nature” (my emphasis).

  24. 24.

    The most obvious alternative strategy borrows an idea from Wiggins (1980, 2000). One might say that IDENTITY involves the ‘is’ of constitution. But standard linguistic tests for detecting ambiguity indicate that there is no ‘is’ of constitution (Pickel 2010).

  25. 25.

    As Hartry Field famously observed, physicalism “functions as a high-level empirical hypothesis, a hypothesis that no small number of experiments can force us to give up” (1972, p. 357).

  26. 26.

    Qualitative properties, in the relevant sense, are to be contrasted with haecceitistic properties. For discussion about why this assumption bears on the formulation of physicalism, see Almotahari and Rochford (2011). Regarding both intrinsic and relational properties as physical is supposed to accommodate externalism about mental content.

  27. 27.

    See, e.g., Zimmerman (1995) and Rea (1997). The term, “coincidents-friendly”, is Zimmerman’s.

  28. 28.

    One exception to this might be found in Sider (2008). The kind of coincidence without identity Sider describes is compatible with strong global supervenience. But in order to ensure the compatibility Sider is forced to say things that are fundamentally at odds with the kind of deflationism we’re considering. The kind of deflationism under scrutiny here is one that’s committed to a linguistic turn—that is, to the resolution of debates about the nature of material objects by considerations schematized in H1–H5. To reconcile coincidence without identity and strong global supervenience Sider is forced to say, among other things, that there’s no such thing as being right-handed, and that, as between the statue and the piece of alloy, it’s indeterminate which would survive melting (pp. 615–617). If such statements were appropriately plugged into H3, they would surely yield falsehoods. A local deflationist committed to a linguistic turn wouldn’t, therefore, view Sider’s proposal as a viable option.

  29. 29.

    Popper (1963) presses this point again and again.

  30. 30.

    Another dispute that Hirsch regards as merely verbal is the debate between 4Dists and 3Dists about the nature of material persistence. One early move in this struggle was Russell’s argument that Special Relativity entails 4Dism (Russell 1927, p. 286). It’s unlikely that this argument is sound (Sider 2001, pp. 79–87), but I take it that one wouldn’t want to prejudge the issue in advance of inquiry. Classifying the dispute between 4Dists and 3Dists as merely verbal, and thus regarding the two doctrines as substance-less, would be to prejudge the matter.

  31. 31.

    I borrow these terms from Sattig (2014), who has recently argued that there’s a prima facie incompatibility between determinism and the negation of NO-TWO-THINGS.

  32. 32.

    Parts of this paper were presented, in various stages of development, to audiences in Chicago, Miami, and Tehran. I’m indebted to Hamid Vahid for his kind invitation to The Institute for Research in the Fundamental Sciences (IPM), where early drafts of this paper took shape. For their helpful feedback, I’m grateful to Bill D’Alessandro, Rachel Goodman, Aidan Gray, Dave Hilbert, John Horden, Matthias Jenny, Dan Korman, Mostafa Mohajeri, Mahmoud Morvarid, Amir Saemi, Paolo Santorio, Will Small, Sajed Tayebi, and Amie Thomasson. Special thanks to Will for written comments on multiple drafts, and for valuable conversations about related issues.


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Almotahari, M. Semantic deflationism deflated. Synthese 196, 2435–2454 (2019).

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  • Verbal disputation
  • Reference magnetism
  • Naturalness
  • Metaphysical structure
  • Composition
  • Coincidence