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Quasirealism as semantic dispensability

A Correction to this article was published on 06 October 2020

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I argue that standard explanationist solutions to the problem of creeping minimalism are largely on the right track, but they fail to correctly specify the kind of explanation that is relevant to distinguishing realism from quasirealism. Quasirealism should not be distinguished from realism in terms of the explanations it gives of why a normative judgment—a normative sentence or attitude—has the semantic content that it has. Rather, it should be distinguished in terms of the explanations it offers of what the semantic content of a normative judgment is.

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  1. 1.

    For a summary discussion of various solutions and objections, see (Dreier 2018).

  2. 2.

    This is true even of Gibbard (1990, 2003), who identifies the semantic content with abstract entities, such as world-norm pairs. See footnote 15.

  3. 3.

    But see (McPherson 2020) for a defense of revisionary expressivism; also see (Richard Richard 2008: 72–88).

  4. 4.

    For classic statements of deflationism or minimalism, see Field (1994) and Horwich (1998a, b).

  5. 5.

    Alternately, a belief is any state of mind that can be expressed by a sentence with an assertoric syntactic form (Timmons 1999; Dreier 2004).

  6. 6.

    See Svavarsdóttir (2019) and McPherson (2019).

  7. 7.

    For excellent discussions of what sort of communicative role propositions-talk and that-clauses could play on a deflationary theory, see Köhler (2017, 2018).

  8. 8.

    The presentation of these interconnections is here left intuitive. For rigorous presentation of the same, see Taylor’s (2020).

  9. 9.

    ‘Disapproving’ here is a placeholder for some more detailed account of the noncognitive attitude expressivists identify with normative judgment, such as accepting norms that endorse getting angry (Gibbard 1990) or being for blaming (Schroeder 2008).

  10. 10.

    For a classic statement of the theory, see Brandom (1994).

  11. 11.

    Also see Dreier (2018: 544).

  12. 12.

    For the more standard objection to Chrisman’s solution, see (Tiefensee 2016: 2443–2444; and Dreier 2018: 536–537).

  13. 13.

    Also see Köhler (2018: 338–339).

  14. 14.

    This claim may seem limited to very traditional expressivism, as even Gibbard (1990) identifies the meaning of normative sentences with sets of world-norm pairs, rather than expressed attitudes. But just as compositional semantics in terms of accessible worlds is an incomplete account of meaning until we know what worlds are or what they model, Gibbard’s semantics is incomplete until we know what norms (and worlds) are or model. What’s more, if Chrisman is right that truth-conditional semantics does not rule out irrealist or quasirealist metaethical views, it is hard to see why a formal semantics invoking norms distinct from worlds would be enough to rule out a robustly realist metaethics. In any case one plausible interpretation is that for Gibbard norms model an agent’s planning states, which are psychological states. Another is that Gibbard does not tell us directly what norms are, but provides an indirect explanation, in terms of what it is to accept a norm. Thus talk of world-norm pairs plus an account of what it is to accept a norm provides an indirect but complete explanation of what normative sentences mean, in terms of what it is to accept them (see Dreier 2015: 283–284).

    Thanks to a referee for asking me to be clearer on this point.

  15. 15.

    Would such a metasemantic story of why ‘dog’ has its content still provide an indirect explanation of the word’s meaning? Not in the same sense that I have been using the phrase. An indirect explanation of meaning in my sense provides information on how an expression modifies the meaning of expressions of which it is part, without attributing a referent to the expression. This is different from providing information that lets someone infer the referent of ‘dog’.

  16. 16.

    Or, to put the point another way, we can avoid objections to Dreier’s solution by insisting that certain kinds of explanations count, but others don’t. Now we need to show why that isn’t merely ad hoc stipulating away of objections. What is the motivation for treating some explanations as relevant and others not?

  17. 17.

    See Gibbard (2003).

  18. 18.

    See Schroeder (2008).

  19. 19.

    While our arguments are different, the resulting view is very similar to Lenman’s (2003).

  20. 20.

    Thanks to a referee for raising this question.

  21. 21.

    This would bring my proposed solution closer to Dreier’s. But note that INTENTIONAL still rules out purely metasemantic (or meta-intentional) explanations—the explanation must still be in terms of what normative attitudes are about, rather than that in virtue of which they have their content. My solution would specify the kind of explanation we want, in a way that rules out the objections listed in Sect. 4. Also see footnote 17.

  22. 22.

    For an analogous view about deontic modals, see Alwood (2016).

  23. 23.

    A referee helpfully points out that given Ridge’s account of the semantics of normative terms, it is very likely such semantic explanations will always be incomplete (in my sense). The meaning of normative sentences is explained for Ridge in terms of acceptable standards of practical reasoning (Ridge 2014: 118ff.). ‘Acceptable’ is a technical notion for Ridge, and so to fully explain what normative sentences mean we must say what ‘acceptability’ amounts to. For Ridge, what it is for a standard to be acceptable is itself explained in terms of belief-normative perspective pairs, in which a normative perspective is, very roughly, made up of commitments to deliberate and choose in certain ways (111ff.).


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Baker, D. Quasirealism as semantic dispensability. Philos Stud 178, 2313–2333 (2021).

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  • Expressivism
  • Quasirealism
  • Creeping Minimalism
  • Deflationism