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Semantic Dispositionalism and Non-Inferential Knowledge

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Abstract

The paper discusses Saul Kripke's Normativity Argument against semantic dispositionalism: it criticizes the orthodox interpretation of the argument, defends an alternative reading and argues that, contrary to what Kripke himself seems to have been thinking, the real point of the Normativity Argument is not that meaning is normative. According to the orthodox interpretation, the argument can be summarized as follows: (1) it is constitutive of the concept of meaning that its instances imply an ought, but (2) it is not constitutive of the concept of a disposition that dispositions imply an ought, hence (3) no dispositional analysis of meaning can work. According to my alternative reading, the point of the argument is another one, namely that while (1) dispositionalism is committed to the thesis that speakers have non-inferential knowledge of their unmanifested linguistic dispositions, (2) speakers, as a matter of fact, do not have such a knowledge. A point that is in principle independent from the issue of the normativity of meaning.

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Notes

  1. Whiting 2009, pp. 544–546 maintains that a formulation in terms of “may” is better.

  2. The idea is discussed also in Guardo 2012, pp. 374–375.

  3. Another pretty explicit formulation of the argument is the one Kripke gives in the context of his discussion of what we may dub the “Simplicity Answer” to his challenge (1982, p. 40).

  4. See my answer to those who “may want to stress that Kripke does not even discuss the issue of the mere hypotheticality of semantic oughts”, in the previous section.

  5. … and there are neither mimics nor finkishly lacking dispositions in the neighbourhood (for mimicking see Johnston 1992, p. 232, for the finkish lack of dispositions see Martin 1994, pp. 2–3).

  6. It is worth noting that our fifth premise does not say that speakers cannot have non-inferential knowledge of their unmanifested linguistic dispositions. All it says is that as a matter of fact speakers do not have such a knowledge. This is to say that the form of our argument is not Semantic dispositionalism entails that speakers cannot have non-inferential knowledge of what they mean by their words, hence it must be rejected. Rather, the idea is that semantic dispositionalism entails that as a matter of fact speakers do not have non-inferential knowledge of what they mean by their words and hence it must be rejected. However, this is no big deal, since the notion that we do not have non-inferential knowledge of what we mean by our words is no less absurd than the notion that we cannot have such a knowledge.

  7. Some readers might find this latter claim downright absurd. After all, does not the notion that there is an epistemological constraint that any answer to Kripke’s challenge must satisfy entail that the challenge is epistemological in nature? I myself think not. Here below is the passage in which Kripke stresses that “the sceptical challenge is not really an epistemological one”: «We have just summarized the problem in terms of the basis of my present particular response: what tells me that I should say “125” and not “5”? Of course the problem can be put equivalently in terms of the sceptical query regarding my present intent: nothing in my mental history establishes whether I meant plus or quus. So formulated, the problem may appear to be epistemological —how can anyone know which of these I meant? Given, however, that everything in my mental history is compatible both with the conclusion that I meant plus and with the conclusion that I meant quus, it is clear that the sceptical challenge is not really an epistemological one. It purports to show that nothing in my mental history of past behavior—not even what an omniscient God would know—could establish whether I meant plus or quus» (1982, p. 21). Here Kripke makes clear that the sceptic’s thesis is a metaphysical one, namely that there is no fact of the matter as to whether I meant plus or quus (see, e.g., the reference to “what an omniscient God would know”), which, so Kripke assumes, would eventually lead to the conclusion that there is no such a thing as meaning something by a sign. Of course, there are ways to phrase the problem that make it seem that the sceptic’s thesis is an epistemological one, namely that there is no way to know whether I meant plus or quus; however, this is nothing more than a misleading by-product of a useful rhetorical device. Now, in order to argue for this thesis, the sceptic exploits certain conceptual truths about meaning, e.g. that my having meant a given thing by a given sign, if indeed there is such a thing, has consequences about the way in which I should use that sign (which is why the problem can be summarized “in terms of the basis of my present particular response”). And our first lemma is just one of these truths: it concerns, no doubt, our knowledge of what we mean by our words, but its role is that of helping the sceptic to establish the aforementioned metaphysical conclusion, not its epistemological counterpart.

  8. In other words, Kripke maintains that if we assume that (1) X’s answering “125” to “68 + 57” at T is correct if and only if at T X is disposed to answer “125” to “68 + 57”, then we have that (2) X’s answering “125” to “68 + 57” at T is correct if and only if at T X answers “125” to “68 + 57”. Now, the inference is legit only if (3) if at T X answers “125” to “68 + 57”, then at T X is disposed to answer “125” to “68 + 57”. And, even if it is not relevant to our discussion, it is worth noting that (3) is false, because of the phenomena of mimicking and of the finkish lack of dispositions.

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Acknowledgments

Earlier versions of some parts of this paper were given at the VIII National Conference of the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy (Bergamo, 2008), at the XXXII International Wittgenstein Symposium (Kirchberg am Wechsel, 2009), at PhiLang2009 (Łódź, 2009) and at the I Filosofi del Linguaggio a Gargnano (Gargnano del Garda, 2012). I would like to thank the audiences at these talks, as well as an anonymous referee of this journal, for useful comments and suggestions.

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Guardo, A. Semantic Dispositionalism and Non-Inferential Knowledge. Philosophia 42, 749–759 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-014-9518-x

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