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Meaning relativism and subjective idealism

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The paper discusses an objection, put forward by—among others—John McDowell, to Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s non-factualist and relativist view of semantic discourse. The objection goes roughly as follows: while it is usually possible to be a relativist about a given domain of discourse without being a relativist about anything else, relativism about semantic discourse entails global relativism, which in turn entails subjective idealism, which we can reasonably assume to be false. The paper’s first section sketches Kripke’s Wittgenstein’s ideas about semantic discourse and gives a fully explicit formulation of the objection. The second section describes and briefly discusses the formal apparatus needed to evaluate the objection—which is basically equivalent to John MacFarlane’s recent development of David Kaplan’s classic semantic framework. Finally, the third section explains in detail why the objection fails. I show that even though relativism about semantic discourse does entail a form of global relativism, the relativism in question does not entail anything like Berkeleyan or Fichtean idealism. This particular kind of relativism holds that which character (in Kaplan’s sense) is associated to a given utterance depends on what MacFarlane calls “the context of assessment”.

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  1. Note that, contrary appearances notwithstanding, saying that there are no meaning facts is not necessarily pragmatically self-refuting in Kölbel’s (2011, pp. 12–13) sense. According to Kölbel’s definition, a sentence is necessarily pragmatically self-refuting if and only if one can never use it to make a true assertion; and there are certain non-standard contexts, e.g. when I am talking about another possible world, in which “There are no meaning facts” (and, for that matter, also Kölbel’s example, “I am not saying anything”) can be used to make a true assertion.

  2. I want to stress, however, that I think there is at least one other absolutely legitimate way to deal with Kripkenstein’s thesis, namely substituting (what I believe is) the common-sense, in some sense normative, notion of meaning with a purely descriptive one.

  3. McDowell’s primary target in this passage is the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s remarks put forward in Wright (1980); however, the way McDowell introduces Kripke’s reading later in the paper suggests that he thinks that the objection applies to Kripkenstein’s case, too. If I read the relevant passage correctly, basically the same objection is raised also in Wright (1987, p. 122). That being said, whether Wright’s objection is really McDowell’s is secondary. In fact, it is secondary also whether Kripkenstein is really one of the targets of McDowell’s objection. What matters is that it is rather natural to think that McDowell’s objection is a problem for Kripkenstein’s position; and, in fact, this is an objection which, while discussing Kripke’s reading, I have heard countless times.

  4. McDowell also argues that a view such as Kripkenstein’s implies that “for the community itself there is no possibility of error”; for my answer to this objection see Guardo (2012a, pp. 382–383); for a parallel answer to a parallel objection see MacFarlane (2014, § 2.1.3).

  5. The distinction between facts and states of affairs (according to which a state of affairs is a fact if and only if it holds) is, I think, a useful one. In what follows, however, I will sometimes employ Kripke’s terminology and use “fact” in the more general sense of state of affairs.

  6. See also what Kripke (1981, p. 87) says about necessary and sufficient conditions and straight solutions.

  7. This is not, of course, the sense of “non-factualism” used by some of Kripke’s commentators. For example, Kusch (2006, p. 148), following Boghossian (see, e.g., 1989, § 16), defines non-factualism by saying that “A non-factualist about a certain class of declarative sentences denies that they are “truth-apt” or “fact-apt”: he denies that for any sentence s of this class we can infer “s is true” or “It is a fact that s” from s”, while in my sense of the word there is no inconsistency in maintaining that a certain class of declarative sentences, though non-factual, still are truth-apt. For a criticism of the idea that Kripkenstein is a non-factualist in the Boghossian-Kusch sense see Soames (1998, §§ 4 and 5).

  8. For a criticism of Kripke’s reading see Putnam (1994, pp. 66–69). Kripke’s Wittgenstein is a deflationist about truth in general; however, it is worth stressing that, just as non-factualism and relativism, deflationism can be a local matter—see, e.g., Kölbel (2008, §§ 1–3). To borrow Azzouni’s (2010, p. 79) turn of phrase: “true” can be argued to be “[…] neutral between ontically relevant and ontically irrelevant usages”—see also Azzouni (2007, pp. 204–205).

  9. [Readers might prefer to come back to this footnote after having read Sect. 2 and the first paragraph of Sect. 3] Such a view of meaning ascriptions is neither a form of nonindexical contextualism nor a form of truth-value relativism—in fact, it is none of the six views I describe in Sect. 3. It resembles nonindexical contextualism and truth-value relativism in that it holds that the circumstances of evaluation relative to which the proposition expressed by a meaning ascription should be assessed for truth or falsity vary with context; however, here the relevant context is neither the context in which the meaning ascription (e.g. “The meaning of Jones’ utterance of “68 + 57 = 125” is M”) was uttered nor that in which it is assessed, but—rather—that in which the utterance the meaning ascription makes reference to (e.g. Jones’ utterance of “68 + 57 = 125”) was produced—the view is therefore akin to Stanley’s (2005) interest-relative invariantism about knowledge and Street’s (2008) constructivism about practical reasons. Note, however, that this position entails—not for meaning ascriptions but for language in general—a view which I do describe in Sect. 3, namely the ambiguity theory.

  10. The question I started with was whether Kripkenstein can be viewed as a relativist—in one of the two senses I described above. Since the notion that Kripkenstein is a relativist was a straightforward consequence of the non-factualist reading, I answered the question by providing evidence in support of that reading. As I see it, the evidence I provided outweighs any evidence for the factualist reading; however—lest some reader be distracted by what, after all, is a side issue—let me remind you of the dialectic. McDowell takes Kripkenstein to be a non-factualist about meaning (in fact, McDowell is the primary target of Wilson’s polemic against the non-factualist interpretation) and his argument presupposes such a reading. My goal is to show that even if we grant McDowell this assumption, his argument does not go through. Therefore, I do not have to prove that the non-factualist reading is correct; all I have to show is that it is a plausible interpretation of Kripke’s remarks—and that, therefore, McDowell’s argument cannot be ignored.

  11. An anonymous reviewer for this journal noted that the factualism I described above (according to which when we assess the proposition Jones means addition by “+” for truth or falsity the only relevant community is Jones’) is much more intuitive than the non-factualism of McDowell’s Kripkenstein. This is, I think, correct. Consider, e.g., the word “prima”—which, I am told, means excellent in German and a number of things (e.g. before), but never excellent, in Italian—and suppose that the proposition we are assessing for truth or falsity is By “prima”, Üter means excellent. Saying that, since Üter is German, this proposition is true is definitely more intuitive (or at least less counterintuitive) than saying that it is true relative to the community of the German speakers and false relative to that of the Italian speakers. So far, so good. What I deny (and, to be fair, I am not sure that the reviewer in question would disagree with me on this) is that this shows that the factualist interpretation of Kripke’s essay is more plausible than the non-factualist one. Granted, Kripke (1981, e.g. pp. 63–65) stresses that Wittgenstein did not regard himself as a skeptic, but he also makes it clear that he does not think that Wittgenstein’s self-assessment should be taken too seriously (1981, esp. pp. 65–66). I therefore doubt that the move from View X is more intuitive than view Y to View X is more likely to be Kripkenstein’s than view Y is a valid one. If anything, the fact that a given view does not constitute too much of a departure from common sense should, I think, make us wary of ascribing it to Kripke’s Wittgenstein.

  12. Note that I am assuming that for every state of affairs there is a corresponding proposition, but not that for every proposition there is a corresponding state of affairs: there are, of course, propositions that are non-factual.

  13. [Readers unfamiliar with the distinction between contexts of use and contexts of assessment might find this footnote more helpful after having read Sect. 2—and maybe Sect. 3, too] Strictly speaking, saying that the way a word should be used depends on X is not yet embracing a form of relativism (at least in MacFarlane’s sense of the word), since X might be a feature of the context of use. That being said, there are three reasons to believe that, in this case, X is a feature of the context of assessment. First, this is what is suggested by the word “ratification”. Second, this seems to be the reading most consistent with the general tenor of Wright’s book. Third, as we have seen, McDowell believes both that his argument applies also to Kripkenstein’s case and that Kripkenstein is a non-factualist about meaning, and—as Azzouni and Bueno have shown—non-factualism and relativism usually go hand in hand.

  14. Some might want to argue that the second step of McDowell’s original version of the argument should be identified with my regimentation’s second lemma. That might be. Anyway, nothing of importance hinges on this point.

  15. For a useful complement to MacFarlane’s own defense of his system see Predelli (2012).

  16. “Logical form” might, of course, be a tad misleading. Another term used in the literature is “clause”—see, e.g., Predelli (2005, pp. 14–17).

  17. I speak of utterances only for the sake of simplicity, since I must confess that I sympathize with the Kaplanian idea that, as far as semantic theorizing is concerned, all talk of utterances should be replaced by talk of, say, logical forms in context—see, e.g., Predelli (2005, chapter 3, §§ 3–4), which develops the strategy suggested by Kaplan (1989a, part 2, § 1). Note that even if it entails a switch from (uses of) tokens to types, such a view is not platonistic in nature—for one thing, it is consistent with the metaphysics of words outlined in Kaplan (1990).

  18. The relevant notion of context is a rather technical one—see, e.g., the remarks on contexts and indexes in Predelli (2005, pp. 17–18). A quite interesting consequence of the adoption of this notion is that the circumstance against which a given logical form in context must be evaluated can be “non-standard”—see, e.g., Predelli (2005, chapter 2, § 5 and chapter 3, § 6).

  19. For an influential argument against the idea that the values of a character are not always truth conditions see Stanley (2000, 2002). For a by now classic example of a character and its arguments (allegedly) falling short of determining truth conditions see Travis (1997, §§ 1–3)—in the remainder of the paper Travis draws from his analysis conclusions concerning several issues, e.g. Grice’s (see, e.g., 1989) criticism of certain distinctively philosophical uses of “what we would not say”; for a sensible analysis of Travis’ example see Predelli (2005, chapter 4, §§ 1–5), to which I owe my use of the distinction t-distributions-truth conditions. For other Travis-friendly examples see Lewis (1979).

  20. It should be clear that this sense of “truth conditions” is not Kripke’s. For one, while Kripke’s truth conditions are facts, truth conditions in the sense at issue here are functions. That being said, the two notions are not unrelated. If there are no truth conditions in Kripke’s sense which correspond to a given kind of declarative sentences, then the relevant utterances have no truth conditions in the “functional” sense, and vice versa. By the way, this correspondence shows that just as there are two senses in which the utterances of a declarative sentence can be said not to have “functional” truth conditions in a robust sense (either because their t-distributions are not truth conditions or because which truth conditions they express depends on the context of assessment—see below for the lingo), there are two senses in which one can say that, strictly speaking, there are no Kripkean truth conditions which correspond to a given kind of sentences: either because the facts in question do not exist or because which facts correspond to the sentences in question is a relative matter. As the next section should make clear, I believe that—if Kripkenstein is right—while meaning ascriptions and related constructions lack Kripkean truth conditions also in the first—stronger—sense, all the other kinds of sentences lack Kripkean truth conditions only in the second—weaker—sense.

  21. If you want, you can reserve the word “proposition” for the counterparts of truth conditions and say that t-distributions that are not truth conditions are the theoretical counterparts of propositional radicals—in Bach’s (1994) sense. The distinction between propositions and propositional radicals is basically Recanati’s (2007, p. 5) distinction between complete and explicit content.

  22. The dependency of the truth value of a proposition(al radical) on a certain parameter is, of course, represented in our system by a dependency of the argument of the corresponding t-distribution on that parameter, and the argument of a t-distribution is a circumstance of evaluation.

  23. And so, on the non-factualist/relativist reading Kripkenstein holds (or at least is committed to) the idea that (1) which character is associated to an utterance depends on the value of the perspective parameter in the context of assessment. But is this not inconsistent with the very notion that Kripkenstein maintains that (2) there is no fact of the matter as to what a given utterance means? Is not saying that an utterance’s character depends on the context of assessment just saying that meaning facts have, as it were, more structure than we thought, rather than flat out denying that they exist? The answer is that no, it is not, since—as I have already stressed in Sect. 2—there is no “correct” context from which to assess a particular speech act. Saying that an utterance’s character depends on the context of assessment is not saying just that meaning facts have more structure than we thought; it is saying that, where we thought there were facts, there really are only opinions. That being said, a somewhat related objection deserves a more careful answer. The objection is that even though (1) and (2) are in principle consistent, maybe one (or more than one) of the arguments that support (2) can be adapted to refute (1). So far, I have tried to be as non-committal as possible about the details of the notion of a perspective; however, it is impossible to discuss this second objection without making this concept a little bit more precise. Let us therefore identify a perspective with a set of dispositions, which, in this context, strikes me as the most natural way to cash out the notion of a perspective. After all, when I first introduced the notion that Kripkenstein is a (reality) relativist about meaning ascriptions the idea was that the ground for saying that the proposition Jones means addition by “+”is true relative to Smith’s perspective and false relative to Williams’ is that while the answers to particular addition problems Smith is inclined to give agree with Jones’, Williams’ do not. And it is quite natural to take the answers Smith is inclined to give to be those he is disposed to give. This would make Kripkenstein’s view a form of dispositionalism; however, it is worth stressing that the relevant dispositions would be the assessor’s, which would make Kripkenstein’s brand of dispositionalism utterly different not only from classic semantic dispositionalism, but also from views such as McDowell’s—for the role of dispositions in McDowell’s view see McDowell (2009, p. 95); mutatis mutandis, the same holds for McDowell’s remarks concerning the role of the linguistic community, for which see, e.g., McDowell (1991, p. 315). Anyway, if we identify perspectives with sets of dispositions, the objection becomes that maybe one of the arguments that refute less idiosyncratic varieties of semantic dispositionalism can be adapted to refute (1), too. Well, as far as I can see, the main arguments against semantic dispositionalism one finds in the literature are (I) Kripke’s Argument from Finitude and Mistake, (II) what we may call “the Ought Argument” (i.e. Kripke’s Normativity Argument as rendered in, e.g., Glüer and Wikforss 2009), (III) what we may call “the Non-Inferential Knowledge Argument” (i.e. Kripke’s Normativity Argument as rendered in, e.g., Zalabardo 1997; Guardo 2014), and, finally, (IV) the Privileging Problem (for which see, e.g., Bird and Handfield 2008; Guardo 2012b, pp. 206–207). Now, my view on the matter is that (I) fails against ideal-condition dispositional analyses (since I no longer accept the argument I gave in Guardo 2012b, § 3), while (II) is at the very least invalid (see Guardo 2012a, pp. 374–375); as for (III), the point of this argument is that if we analyze meaning in terms of dispositions we make a mystery of our non-inferential knowledge of what we mean, and (1) is not an attempt to analyze meaning in terms of dispositions: the idea is, rather, that there is no fact of the matter as to what we mean; finally, the point of (IV) is that there is no principled, non-question-begging reason to identify what I mean by “+” with my disposition to give certain answers in conditions X rather than with my disposition to give certain other answers in conditions Y—and such a problem does not even arise with regard to (1), for according to (1) any set of dispositions (mine or someone else’s) is as good as any other. (Note that while in the case of (I) and (II) my answer is that I am skeptical that these arguments can really refute classic semantic dispositionalism and so I do not see any reason to think that they can refute meaning relativism, in the case of (III) and (IV) my point is just that they cannot be adapted to refute meaning relativism, which is not to say that they do not work against classic semantic dispositionalism—and, in fact, I suspect they both do).


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I would like to thank for their comments on previous versions Alan Sidelle, John Mackay, Paolo Spinicci, Francesco Guala, Marcello D’Agostino, and my audience at the II Filosofi del Linguaggio a Gargnano, as well as three anonymous referees for this journal (one of whom was extraordinarily helpful) and one for another journal.

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Guardo, A. Meaning relativism and subjective idealism. Synthese 197, 4047–4064 (2020).

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