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Global expressivism as global subjectivism


Huw Price holds that a recognizable version of expressivism about normative and modal language can be “globalized” so as to apply to all areas of discourse. He focuses on globalizing the anti-representationalism of expressivist theories. By contrast, this paper’s topic is the seldom-discussed way Price seeks to globalize the expressivist view that “non-descriptive” discourse exhibits subjectivity. I argue that Price’s own argument against the possibility of a purely objective domain conflicts with his anti-representationalism and is self-undermining. I then defend a different strategy for arguing that a kind of subjectivity can emerge even in domains traditional expressivists have regarded as purely objective. I do so by using an account of assertoric practice to offer a new solution to a puzzle concerning how to describe contingent histories in the use of natural kind terms.

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  1. This use of “expressivism” traces to Gibbard (1986: 473).

  2. He cites Kraut (1990).

  3. They report that ‘describe’ had recently been coopted by philosophers to draw the Great Divide (1952: 31–32).

  4. Toulmin and Baier (1952: 35–36) complain that the Great Divide has “left its mark” even on those “analytical philosophers to-day [who] would refuse to subscribe to some part” of it. They have in mind ordinary-language philosophers, and specifically criticize J. L. Austin and H. L. A. Hart, who later figure as targets in Peter Geach’s celebrated critique of “anti-descriptive theorists” (1965: 461ff). Toulmin and Baier’s critique of the Great Divide differs from Geach’s in rejecting the conception of the “descriptive” in terms of which the Divide is drawn.

  5. Indeed, on their views expressing such attitudes can amount to expressing normative beliefs. For recent discussion of various ways a version of the Great Divide might be upheld without a distinction in terms of truth, fact, or belief, see Tiefensee (2016), Simpson (2018), and Dreier (2018). Dreier, like Toulmin and Baier, concludes that we should give up on “One True Distinction” in favor of drawing “many lines.”

  6. The terminology and substance of “global anti-representationalism” are delicate. Price (2013: 36–37) allows that ‘representation’ may be used for relations other than the “semantic” ones of (e.g.) reference and satisfaction, namely for relations of “environment-tracking” that figure in explaining aspects of the functioning of some traditionally descriptive vocabularies. As to substance, Simpson (2020) argues forcefully that there’s no construal of global anti-representationalism on which its advocates and local expressivists are at odds. In particular, he claims, these parties agree that no expression is such that a “general relation between language and the world” is invoked in explaining its use (154–55). Here I can only gesture at a reply. Even if reference is a relation applicable to predicates in all domains of discourse, local and global anti-representationalists might disagree about whether reference serves an explanatory role in any domain. Understood this way, local expressivism may require a pluralism, rather than a deflationism, about reference and truth. As Price points out, deflationism about representational notions stands in tension with a merely local anti-representationalism.

  7. Price recognizes that his failure to globalize some of the ways expressivists have characterized the non-descriptive side of the Great Divide (e.g., in terms of expressing attitudes other than belief) can make the terminology of “global expressivism” misleading. He suggests “global pragmatism” as a possible alternative (2013: 176; 2019: 134). Relatedly, he has proposed that his view extends globally the claim that the use of certain vocabularies has “pragmatic grounds,” by which he means contingent “practical features of speakers on which the use of a particular vocabulary depends” (2019: 146). However, it isn’t clear to me that a local expressivist couldn’t agree that all vocabulary has such pragmatic grounds.

  8. An expanded second edition of Price (1988) is forthcoming; all first-edition material will appear with unchanged chapter and section numbers.

  9. Price’s discussion of probability statements (1988: §7.6–8) anticipates defenses of truth relativism about epistemic modals (Egan et al., 2005; MacFarlane 2014). Likewise, Price (1991) anticipates the defense of truth relativism about gradable adjectives in Richard (2008).

  10. The explanation of evaporative disputes in the following paragraphs is adapted from Shapiro (2014). Unlike Price, I won’t assume that being involved in a dispute requires actively engaging with the other party. A dispute may persist even though both parties conclude that continued engagement would be pointless.

  11. To be more precise, Knobe and Yalcin find that subjects are unwilling, in a case like this, to affirm that what the speaker said is false. Yet subjects are, on average, willing to affirm that what the speaker said is true. A natural hypothesis that would explain this is that (given our example) subjects would take themselves to be affirming that for all A knew, it was true that the patient probably had Lyme disease. Compare Price’s prediction that subjects will be “reluctant” to say A’s assertion is false, and will instead be “likely to say that it was ‘true, given the speaker’s evidence’, or something of the sort” (1988: §7.7 [162–63]).

  12. This section draws on Shapiro (2014, 2020).

  13. Kukla and Lance (2009) distinguish the normative effects of speech acts into “agent-neutral” and “agent-relative” ones. Like Brandom (1994, 238–43), they illustrate this by contrasting commands (which bring about agent-relative obligations) with assertions (which bring about agent-neutral entitlements). According to assertoric perspectivalism, the function of asserting can be to bring about agent-relative normative effects.

  14. A referee reports that ‘You’re wrong’ sounds natural in B’s mouth, even if ‘What you said is false’ doesn’t. If so, the explanation might be as follows. Perhaps ‘You’re wrong’ goes beyond the normatively inert ‘Not so’ in entailing that someone sufficiently better informed wouldn’t be entitled to assert what A did. It could make sense for B to convey this even if (in view, precisely, of having more information than A) she doesn’t see herself as belonging to the class of hearers for whom A is issuing a reassertion license.

  15. In Shapiro (2014), I introduce assertoric perspectivalism as an alternative to truth relativism (Kölbel 2002; MacFarlane 2014) concerning vocabularies for which the latter has been proposed. (For the most part, these are target vocabularies of expressivists.) Assertoric perspectivalism doesn’t invoke the semantic notion of truth relative to a perspective. Here I can only state my view that such a notion counts as broadly representational. For the contrary view that truth relativism is compatible with anti-representationalism, see González de Prado Salas (2018).

  16. To be precise, in Field’s case I have in mind the kind of theory he calls “quasi-disquotational” (1994a: 275), on which a predicate’s application conditions depend on its meaning.

  17. As a referee observed, it might appear that an argument by Price (1997) calls into question the conclusion I’m taking from Horwich. Price notes that on Horwich’s account of meaning, the fact that ‘acidic’ means acidic can be reductively explained in terms of facts about the predicate’s use. He argues that such reducibility stands in tension with Horwich’s semantic deflationism, since it can be leveraged to reduce facts about satisfaction conditions. For example, the fact that vinegar satisfies ‘acidic’ would reduce to a conjunction of the meaning-constitutive fact about the term ‘acidic’ and the chemical fact that vinegar is acidic. But even if Price’s argument is sound (perhaps as strengthened by Trueman 2013), this wouldn’t affect the point I’m making—and not just because Price rejects Horwich’s reductive theory of meaning. A Horwich-style theory still wouldn’t require that facts about satisfaction be scrutable from facts about use. As Field says about such a theory, “there need be no ‘natural connection’ between the ‘meanings’ it assigns and truth conditions: the connections between the meanings it invokes and truth is supplied entirely by the disquotational schema for sentences we understand” (1994a: 276). In the case of satisfaction, the disquotational schema yields that a predicate is satisfied by precisely the acidic things if it shares the relevant use features of our word ‘acidic’. There’s no problem if those use features are finitary.

  18. To be sure, Price’s intention isn’t to characterize true assertions, but rather to explain the truth-predicate’s role in our assertoric practice (1988: §8.9 [194]). My point is that his argument for the claim that subjective uses of ‘true’ can arise globally appears to depend on an understanding of assertoric correctness he isn’t entitled to.

  19. Wilson’s thought experiment is discussed by Jackman (1999), Ebbs (2000), and Brown (2000). A similar one is found in Donnellan (1983: 102–104).

  20. In particular, we couldn’t complain that the man’s application of the word fails to respect the boundaries set “by nature” concerning what is the same kind of stuff (, 457–58). In neither scenario need the man’s linguistic usage fail to respect such boundaries, since there are multiple equally natural boundaries. As I argue in Shapiro (1999), Locke isn’t denying that that our proper use of substance names is constrained by natural kinds. Rather, the purpose of his thought experiment is to show that his opponents have a simplistic understanding of how such constraint works.

  21. This wouldn’t just be the everyday polysemy involved when, in fact, we affirm both “Ice is frozen water” and “Ice is lighter than water.”

  22. Jackman (1999: 168) takes this approach to a parallel example involving a “split” in a shared linguistic practice. His example serves to qualify his “temporal externalist” claim that “future usage” can “determine what we mean” at present (167). Jackman concludes that an “actual split undermines any identity [of meaning] between past and future.”

  23. Metalinguistic negotiation is what Locke himself has in mind when he discusses inquirers who, while agreeing about the observed phenomena, nonetheless differ over “[w]hether a Bat be a Bird, or no” (1975: III.xi.7, 511). If their inquiry is to be serious rather than “meerly Verbal,” he says, its point must be for the inquirers to use observed correlations in the features of animals as a guide in improving the ideas that are the meanings of these words, i.e. “to make their yet imperfect Ideas … more complete.”

  24. This approach is taken by Ebbs with regard to a parallel example (2009: 253, 256, 268); he criticizes Jackman’s conclusion mentioned above.

  25. A defense of each approach might invoke indeterminacy in the extension(s) of our characters’ term ‘water’, respectively before and after their experiences in London. That need not conflict with the deflationism about reference espoused by global anti-representationalists (Field 1994b).

  26. In focusing on “entrenched beliefs,” I follow Jackman (1999: 158–59).

  27. Such evaporation needn’t prevent Mary for continuing to press James to adopt her standpoint and to consequently give up his belief that the floating stuff is water.

  28. Clearly, much remains to be said about when different standpoints can take on such normative significance. For example, as a referee remarked, we need to avoid holding that disputes with espousers of conspiracy theories are generally prone to evaporation. My aim has been to provide a way to make sense, consistently with anti-representationalism, of plausible cases of evaporative dispute involving vocabulary traditionally held to be descriptive. I haven’t made any general proposal about when it can be reasonable to attribute perspective-dependent force to the assertion of a given proposition. As we’ll see in response to Objection 4 below, that topic can’t be divorced from the topic of perspective-dependent assertoric entitlement.

  29. I take this idea to be close to a central thesis of Ebbs (2009), though I diverge from him in applying the thesis to ascriptions of meaning to word-tokens, rather than applying it to tacit judgments about which tokens belong to the same word-type. Cf. also Price (1991: 107).

  30. MacFarlane recognizes that in examples like ours, A may resist pressure to retract. One explanation, he suggests, would be that A is confusing an obligation to retract with an obligation to recognize that the assertion was incorrectly made in the first place (2014: 258–59).

  31. I thus agree with Jackman (1999: 158) in stressing how the notion of a “shared, temporally extended practice” enables us to resist pressures to recognize changes in meaning. But we appeal to different kinds of “diachronic division of labor” (1999: 161). He has in mind relying on future speakers to determine what one means by one’s words; I have in mind licensing future speakers to rely on one for the justification of their assertions.


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This is a descendant of a paper given in 2014 at a workshop on global expressivism in Szczecin. I’m grateful to the participants for feedback, to anonymous referees for very helpful suggestions, and to Huw Price for discussion of related topics. During late-stage revisions, he kindly shared drafts of new chapters to be included in the forthcoming second edition of Price (1988). While they contain material relevant to my topic, I haven’t been able to discuss it here. Some work for this paper was done while I was supported by a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lionel Shapiro.

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Shapiro, L. Global expressivism as global subjectivism. Philos Stud 179, 777–799 (2022).

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  • Global expressivism
  • Assertion
  • Disagreement
  • Anti-representationalism
  • Objectivity
  • Price, Huw
  • Brandom, Robert