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In Defence of Metametasemantics

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In the paper I defend the idea of metametasemantics against the arguments recently presented by Ori Simchen (2017). Simchen attacks the view, according to which metametasemantics incorporating all possible metasemantic accounts is necessary to protect the metasemantic theories from the notorious problem of inscrutability of reference (see Sider 2011). Simchen claims that if metametasemantics is allowed it ‘absorbs’ metasemantic theories to the extent that it diminishes their explanatory value. Furthermore, in this way Simchen sets up two main metasemantic paradigms i.e. productivism (roughly speaking: speaker’s metasemantics) and interpretationism (audience’s metasemantics) as the rival theories inevitably excluding each other. I endeavour to undermine Simchen’s point by demonstrating that his argumentation mixes up deflationary reading of the predicate ‘is true’ with its substantial reading. Consequently, I demonstrate that accepting metametasemantics does not diminish explanatory value of various metasemantic theories and thus that there is no good reason to forbid metametasemantics. I also argue that even if we ignore the above-mentioned confusion in Simchen’s reasoning, his arguments still fail when considering various problems with the notion of diminishment of explanatory value and because the analogy that his arguments are based on is fairly weak. Eventually, I conclude that metametasemantics does not pose any danger to metasemantics and that it provides a solid ground for developing a theory that benefits from both productivism and interpretationism.

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  1. For instance, being green throughout whole existence is a more natural property than being green until some point in the future and being blue afterwards—hence, the former property is a better candidate for being the extension of e.g. predicate ‘green’ and in result, it is possible to pick standard interpretation of ‘green’ over the ‘grue/bleen’ interpretation.

  2. Strictly speaking, Sider draws on the reading of Lewis’s theory proposed by Robert Williams (2007). For some interesting arguments against this reading and magnetism itself see Schwarz (2014).

  3. As Sider points, analogous remarks can be made about Fodor’s (e.g. 1987) theory.

  4. In other words, if metasemantic and metametasemantic theories were not continuous but distinct, the former would contribute something significantly different than what the latter contributes, and thus we would not be able to say that the former is ‘JUST more theory’ added to the latter.

  5. Where G is a geological phenomenon or event.

  6. In this case Sms belongs to the so-called crude causal theory which is one of the productivistic metasemantic theories.

  7. In the last section of the paper I am going to examine the relevance of this account.

  8. What I have labeled as ‘Middle step’ is necessary here to bridge the gap between being about and being caused by.

  9. What is more, Simchen’s circularity objection is not aimed at metametasemantics but rather at a particular metasemantic account; namely, he argues that Lewis’s global descriptivism enriched with the thesis of reference magnetism is explanatorily circular. Simchen pursues such a strategy, because he assumes that the diminished explanatory value argument (along with the explanatory conflict argument he also offers—see his 2017: 20–22) successfully dismisses metametasemantics and what we are left with is only metasemantics. Then, as a productivist, he offers arguments against interpretationist metasemantics, one example of which is Lewis’s theory (in that context it is quite interesting that Simchen (2017: 26) considers Davidsonian interpretationism to be the theory that avoids the problem of circularity).

  10. Let me also emphasise, that ‘is true’ in the substantial interpretation is in fact an abbreviation of ‘meets the requirements of belonging to the extension of “a true sentence/statement” according to TT’ where TT is a given theory of truthfulness.

  11. I am not assuming here that a strong correlation exists between these syntactic forms of sentences and the two discussed readings of ‘is true’. Both Sub(Sg) and Def(Sg) can be interpreted either way. However, I chose Def(Sg) as the most characteristic form of the deflationary semantic ascent and Sub(Sg) as the most natural for the substantial one (analogous to the case of Def(Sms) and Sub(Sms) in the later example).

  12. Let me emphasise here that similarly to ‘The cat is a tiger’ example, Sub(Sg) is regarded as the one expressing exactly the same thing as e.g. ‘It is the case that this tectonic shift has been cause by G’ or ‘It is a fact that this tectonic shift has been cause by G’ etc.

  13. We have to remember that Simchen construes the geological example as from the point of view of a geologist. A geologist who does not know how substantial ‘is true’ works, will not be able to make any explanatory use of Sub(Sg) for her geological inquiry. Even though she recognises the embedded familiar geological content (‘This tectonic shift has been caused by G’) she does not know what ‘is true’ is doing with that content and as a result she does not know if this tectonic shift has been caused by G, or not. What the geologist is presented with is the familiar sentence occurring in quotes and some incomprehensible predicate ascribed to the sentence. As a matter of fact, for such a geologist Sub(Sg) would not differ with respect to the geological explanatory usefulness from e.g. ‘“This tectonic shift has been caused by G” is XYZ’ where it is not known what ‘XYZ’ exactly means.

    Obviously, we can consider a possible scenario in which the geologist takes ‘is true’ to be deflationary i.e. interpret Sub(Sg) as Def(Sg) for her inquiry. Nevertheless, that would be, so to say, just a happy mistake—just like it would be a happy mistake if the geologist, for some reason, interpreted ‘XYZ’ as the deflationary ‘is true’ or e.g. ‘is a correct statement’.

  14. The sentence in this form is ambiguous since ‘it is true that’ can have different scopes. This ambiguity cuts no ice with my considerations (see footnote 4), although obviously the intended interpretation is the one with narrow scope because it conforms to the original meaning of Sms. What is said in Def(Sms) and Sms may be then represented as: [BECAUSE < caused by pigs, it is true that ‘pig’ is about pigs >], but not as: [IT IS TRUE THAT [BECAUSE < caused by pigs, ‘pig’ is about pigs >]].

  15. It should be emphasised that accepting the deflationary reading of ‘is true’ as it is understood here does not entail deflationism. Generally speaking, such an understanding of the predicate is the only one that is possible within deflationism, whereas the view discussed here assumes that there are two plausible readings. It is also worth noting that for a zealous deflationist, who does not allow using even deflationary ‘is true’ for merely stylistic purpose, explanations 1, 2, 2a and 2b would appear absurd, as the explanans would then be something along the lines of: pigs φ because ‘pig’ is caused by pigs and pigs φ.

  16. In other words, allowing the substantial reading results in the detachment from ‘the Quinean methodology’ which was established by Simchen as the framework for the whole debate. Moreover, allowing the substantial approach creates unconnected sets of truths and thus excludes holism, which is the intrinsic part of Quine’s position.

  17. Obviously, there may occur some, let’s say, ‘operational’ or ‘practical’ diminishment. For instance, a geologist who knows {Sg1, Sg2, Sg3} will not obtain any new geologically useful content from the ‘metageological’ counterpart of this theory (even if she understands the truth predicate in its substantial reading). Similarly, if a geologist—who knows how to interpret substantial ‘is true’ and how to use T-convention to turn Sub(S) into S—knew ‘metageology’ she would not get anything new from {Sg1, Sg2, Sg3}. She would not need geology, because everything that is geologically significant is encompassed by ‘metageology’. It shows that depending on who and how obtains some piece of knowledge, this piece of knowledge may make some other piece of knowledge redundant and less valuable for that person in these circumstances. If a geologist suffered from a strange cognitive disorder and did not recognise any words included in quotes, she could not make any use of {Sub(Sg1), Sub(Sg2), Sub(Sg3)} and we could say that in some sense geology diminished the explanatory value of ‘metageology’ for her. But all of that is definitely not the sense of ‘diminishment of explanatory value’ that is relevant for our considerations here.

  18. Also, just like in the geological case (see the previous footnote), it may be said that knowing a metametasemantic theory makes the relevant metasemantic theory redundant because the former encompasses the latter. It is, however, ‘operational’ phenomena again and it seems to have nothing to do with explanatory value. If we assume that every metasemanticist by-definition knows how to use T-convention and thus always knows how to get Sms from Sub(Sms)—still, what plays the genuine explanatory role in her metasemantic explanation is the metasemantic content of Sms.


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Correspondence to Filip Kawczyński.

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The work on this paper has been funded by National Science Center, Poland, grant under award number 2018/31/D/HS1/03745.

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Kawczyński, F. In Defence of Metametasemantics. Axiomathes 31, 401–418 (2021).

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