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Metasemantics, intentions and circularity


According to intentionalism, a demonstrative d refers to an object o only if the speaker intends d to refer to o. Intentionalism is a popular view in metasemantics, but Gauker has recently argued that it is circular. We defend intentionalism against this objection, by showing that Gauker’s argument rests on a misconstrual of the aim of metasemantics. We then introduce two related, but distinct circularity objections: the worry that intentionalism is uninformative, and the problem of intentional bootstrapping, according to which it is impossible to have referential intentions. We also show how intentionalists could respond to these new objections.

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  1. Predelli (2002) defends intentionalism for indexicals like ‘here’ and ‘now’.

  2. King speaks of semantic values instead of referents. We will come back to this distinction later.

  3. A full explication of A requires a biconditional of the form ‘A if and only if B’ such that one can understand B without understanding A.

  4. Perry (2009) mentions a different way to understand explications. He writes that according to Carnap, to explicate a concept is to ‘replace it with a new somewhat more precise concept, with a somewhat different extension’ (p. 192). We think that most of our arguments could be adapted to a Carnapian conception.

  5. If you are not convinced that this investigation is relevant, imagine that someone asks whether the following principle is circular:

    1. (R)

      An object is red if and only if it looks red under standard conditions.

    We think it will be impossible to answer this question without knowing what role (R) plays. If (R) is supposed to be an explication or an analysis of the concept red, it clearly seems circular. But if one thinks that the concept red needs no explication, one can take (R) to play different role—namely, to state an interesting connection between the color of objects and certain experiences (compare Logue 2016: Sect. 3). The same options are available for the intentional constraint (1), and to determine its role we have to look at the role of metasemantics in general. (We thank an anonymous referee for pressing us on this point.)

  6. They call this basic metasemantics in order to distinguish it from other foundational enquiries in the philosophy of language (see footnote 9).

  7. To be more specific, the content of a demonstrative is a constant function from circumstances of evaluation to some object, which can be identified with the referent.

  8. We thank an anonymous referee for pointing out the need for clarification.

  9. At least when metasemantics is understood in a narrow sense, as we do here. Burgess and Sherman (2014) suggest that a theory of meaning, which deals with such general questions, is also part of metasemantics construed in a broad sense.

  10. An anonymous referee suggested a third understanding of circularity. Consider a principle of the following form:

    1. (C)

      Relation R obtains iff the speaker intends R to obtain.

    Concerning (C), we can ask two different questions: (1), what are the truth-conditions of the right-hand side of (C) and (2), under what conditions is the intention mentioned on the right-hand side fulfilled? Our discussion will focus on (1). But what about (2)? In this regard, (C) also looks puzzling: The speaker’s intention is fulfilled iff R obtains. And R obtains iff the speaker intends R to obtain. Hence, the speaker’s intention is fulfilled as soon as she forms the intention—which has the air of circularity. Given a version of intentionalism on which referential intentions are not only necessary, but also sufficient to determine a referent, the referential intention is automatically fulfilled (setting aside cases in which the speaker intends to refer to non-existent objects or has conflicting intentions). In this respect, referential intentions would be different from most intentions. If I intend to bake a cake, my intention is not automatically fulfilled; it remains unfulfilled if I fail to bake a cake. However, there are intentions that are self-fulfilling and do not seem problematic: One can intend to have an intention, wish to have a wish, etc. Therefore, we do not think that this air of circularity is per se worrisome. Furthermore, the view that referential intentions are sufficient to determine the referent is unpopular; most intentionalists think that there are necessary conditions in addition to the intentional constraint. These conditions are not fulfilled automatically (see for example King 2013, p. 290), and so even if there were something wrong with principles like (C), that wouldn’t be a problem for non-sufficiency intentionalists.

  11. Maybe it could be informative in special circumstances: One might hold that (4) is all we can say about the metasemantics of demonstratives, since referential facts are fundamental and not grounded in other facts. On such a view, metasemantics is in effect impossible because metasemantic theories aim to find the grounds of semantic facts. But given that both Gauker and intentionalists think that metasemantics is possible, we will set this view aside.

  12. At least, this seems correct for those direct reference theories of names according to which a name refers solely in virtue of causal chains that connect an utterance of the name with its bearer. Proponents of other views might have to look for a different response to the problem of intentional bootstrapping. (In particular, someone who thinks that referential intentions play a role in determining the referents of names.)

  13. Speaks (forthcoming: Sect. 3) raises doubts whether children can have the required intentions.

  14. Such a view is already advocated in Neale (2004), Sect. 2.11.

  15. Speaks raises an objection to King’s account which has to do with a sort of circularity, but it is not related to the role of referential intentions per se. What causes the problem is King’s second condition, according to which idealized hearers have to recognize which object was the intended semantic value (Speaks forthcoming, Sect. 5.3.2).

  16. We thank two anonymous referees for raising these.

  17. The semantics of complex demonstratives (such as ‘this way’) is a matter of controversy. For those who believe that bare demonstratives (such as ‘this’ and ‘that’) have referents, but complex demonstratives do not, the example could be changed as follows: Imagine that someone is trying to kill another person and asks: ‘Is this the way he went?’ Then, you might answer: ‘This is not the way he went’, meaning ‘his feet did not tread the very ground you are pointing at’.


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We are grateful to Emanuel Viebahn for helpful comments on earlier drafts and for his encouraging advice. Many thanks also to Christopher Gauker, Timm Lampert, Christoph Schamberger, to audiences in Berlin, Salzburg and Warsaw, and to three anonymous referees for their valuable and challenging comments.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Marschall.

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Lewerentz, L., Marschall, B. Metasemantics, intentions and circularity. Synthese 195, 1667–1679 (2018).

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  • Metasemantics
  • Demonstratives
  • Referential intentions
  • Circularity
  • Bootstrapping
  • Christopher Gauker