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Pejoratives & Oughts


Chris Hom argued that slurs and pejoratives semantically express complex negative prescriptive properties, which are determined in virtue of standing in external causal relations to social ideologies and practices. He called this view Combinatorial Externalism. Additionally, he argued that Combinatorial Externalism entailed that slurs and pejoratives have null extensions. In this paper, I raise an objection that has not been raised in the literature so far. I argue that semantic theories like Hom’s are forced to choose between two alternatives: either they endorse an externalist semantics that determines prescriptive properties, or they endorse the null extensionality thesis, but they can’t have both.

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  1. 1.

    I do not engage here with prohibitionist or expressivist theories, or where they fall in the semantics-pragmatics division. My own view, which I don’t argue for here, is that pejoratives semantically encode expressive presuppositions (see Marques and García-Carpintero 2020). Expressivist views can vary widely: Jeshion 2013a, 2013b, Cepollaro and Stojanovic 2016, Schlenker 2007, Macià 2002, 2014, Richard 2008, among others, hold different expressivist views of slurs and pejoratives, and many of these are compatible with the semantically encoded expression of derogation (as not at-issue content). A prohibitionist account, such as Anderson and Lepore (2013), holds that slurs are prohibited words, and so, a violation of their prohibition is what may provoke offense. This is an alternative to semantic accounts, since it is not what a word means that is offensive, but the fact that its use is prohibited. The view is compatible with there being some uses that are not offensive. Although I don’t have the space to engage with this account in the paper, I think that the explanatory virtues of prohibitionist views rest in explaining why slurs are offensive. But this explanation appears to be compatible with a pragmatic explanation of the difference between contexts in which a given slur offends and contexts in which that same slur does not offend.

  2. 2.

    The features which a theory must explain, according to Hom, are derogatory force (convey hatred and contempt for their targets), derogatory variation (the derogatory force varies across different epithets; in fact, it varies across different epithets for the same target group), derogatory autonomy, and taboo (there are social constraints on their use).

  3. 3.

    Could we be more precise about the nature of the dependence at issue here? This is a complex question, and Haslanger writes in some detail about it (see especially Haslanger 2012, chapter 13). Unfortunately, I won’t be able to develop the topic further here. A difference between the clauses for, e.g., woman and those of a racial epithet is that Haslanger clauses do not use deontic modals. It is nonetheless arguable that the clauses for race or gender categories that she formulates express normative social impositions.

  4. 4.

    Jeshion (2013a, 2013b) raised a series of problems for Hom’s semantic analysis of slurs. She criticized the idea that the meaning of slurs semantically encodes externally determined contents. Although I share Jeshion’s concerns, Hom may be able to address some of them. Sennet and Copp (2015) also argue against the null extensionality thesis as advocated by Hom and May (2013); I’ll briefly address some of their points below. In a forthcoming paper, Cepollaro and Thommen also argue against a semantic truth-conditional analysis of slurs, focusing on how slurs behave under truth-conditional embedding. The precise objection I raise here differs from the concerns these authors raise, and to the best of my knowledge has not been made by anyone.

  5. 5.

    I will be merely assuming the externalist semantic account for the sake of argument; I am not committed to Hom’s externalist semantics. In fact, I argue for a form of presuppositional expressivism in Marques and García-Carpintero (2020).

  6. 6.

    Hom and May (2018) reply to some of the objections raised by Sennet and Copp (2015), and argue for a form of fictionalism about pejoratives. One of the central points they make is the following: “Sennet and Copp argue that, contra the semantics of MSI, “All kikes are Jews” is “intuitively true”, but that “All kikes are Mormons” is “intuitively false”. Quite. But, it is also intuitively true that Shylock is a Jew, and intuitively false that Shylock is a Mormon, and it is intuitively true that unicorns are white, and intuitively false that unicorns are black. What this shows is that the “intuition” here is being placed on the fictional sense of truth, not on the material sense. In the material sense, it is just as much true that unicorns are white or that they are black or watermelons as it is that kikes are Jews or that kikes are Mormons or watermelons”. This reply relies on the plausibility of fictionalism about pejoratives and slurs. But in Marques 2017, I show that fictionalism about pejoratives is wrong. Pejorative discourse lacks crucial features that are the hallmark of fictional discourse. The aim of the present paper is to argue specifically for the tension between an externalist institutionalist view of the meaning of pejoratives, and the standard semantics of deontic modal claims, which no one has argued thus far. For other recent criticism of truth-conditional semantic theories of pejoratives, see Cepollaro and Thommen (2019).

  7. 7.

    As Haslanger says, “whatever it is that determines the extension of our social kind terms, it isn’t something to which we have privileged access through introspection. If the extension of the term changes over time, it is legitimate to postulate a change in what determines the extension.” (Haslanger 2006, 106)

  8. 8.

    A peculiarity of the difference between what Hom wanted to say and Haslanger’s view, however, is that on Haslanger’s view there are women, whereas on Hom’s (intended) view there are no kikes. With respect to arguments based on failures of substitutivity, and the reply a semantic externalist can offer, it is irrelevant that there figure no deontic modals in Haslanger’s formulations, as I hope is obvious to the reader.

  9. 9.

    Sennet and Copp consider that Hom’s best arguments for his view are the substitution arguments (‘am I racist if I think xs are ys?” vs ‘am I racist if I think xs are xs?”). If Hom appeals to externalism to help with substitution, failure of substitutability arguments cut against him and perhaps more deeply. If externalism is the right view, then substitutions might be fine but not obvious to the competent speaker. If one gives up on externalism then (2) seeming false is once again hard to explain. So, he can’t evade their extended argument quite that easily. I make a similar point near the end of the paper.

  10. 10.

    Cepollaro and Thommen (2019) use fictional slurs to criticize truth-conditional accounts. Part of my intention in using a word like ‘Gothic’ instead of a fictional example is to use a case where our pre-theoretic intuitions support the idea that the reference has not changed. Fictional cases make such pre-theoretic intuitions harder to elicit. Indeed, ‘Gothic’ doesn’t even seem to be a claimed word any longer, since its use does not register or assume that the term was ever derogatory. One needs to do some historical and etymological work to discover that fact (unlike other claimed uses of slurs, where it is common knowledge even for those making the reclamation that the word is still a slur, for instance uses of “dyke” by lesbian feminist activists).

  11. 11.

    The derogation of Gothic art is referred also, for instance, in Vasari (1998), De Beer (1948), and Gombrich (1995).

  12. 12.

    The pejorative character of ‘Gothic’, in Italian also ‘goffi’, is possibly the origin of the English ‘goofy’ (De Beer 1948, p. 146).

  13. 13.

    Various authors have argued for non-orthodox accounts of deontic modals. For instance, Ninan 2005 argues that simple must sentences have imperative force. Expressivism about deontic modals is another non-orthodox view. Charlow 2016, for example, argues for an analysis that assumes that uses of deontic modals effect a specific kind of update on Conversational Scoreboards, where the acceptance conditions of a deontic modal sentence depend on the information that is available to an agent, and on her practical rational concerns. It’s unclear how any of the non-truth-conditional analyses of deontic modality on offer could offer a better prospect for Hom’s externalist semantics than the orthodox analysis. Non-truth-conditional theories seem to recommend a much more internalist conception of meaning than Hom’s externalism requires.

  14. 14.

    I’m grateful to Adam Sennet for raising this possibility.

  15. 15.

    I also make this point in author 2017.

  16. 16.

    Sennet and Copp offer the same objection: “Murderers are those who kill people without sufficient moral justification, and they deserve negative moral evaluation on this account. Moreover, we can stipulate that the concept of murderer* is the concept derived from ‘kill without sufficient moral justification’ by the application of PEJ. It is therefore the concept of being an appropriate target of negative moral evaluation on account of having killed without sufficient moral justification. On Hom and May’s account, then, it would seem that ‘murderer*’ may count as a pejorative. If so, this is a counter-example to their view. It would be a counter-example on two counts. First ‘murderer*’ has an extension. There are people who deserve negative moral evaluation on account of having killed without sufficient moral justification. Second, ‘murderer*’ does not actually seem to be a pejorative” (Sennet and Copp 2015, 1085). This objection is close to an issue that had already been raised by Jeshion (2013a, 2013b). Hom and May’s MSI prima facie postulates a disjoint account: depending on whether or not a target group is morally contemptful, a term may be a pejorative or not. For groups of individuals towards whom moral contempt is not justified, the term that encodes the moral prescription is a pejorative. For groups of individuals towards whom moral contempt is justified, the term that encodes that normative prescription is not a pejorative. As Jeshion rightly notes, it is bizarre to expect morality to determine whether a lexical expression is semantically a pejorative or a slur (Jeshion, 2013a, b, 327). These considerations suggest that derogation is not reducible to the semantic expression of moral condemnation of a given target group.

  17. 17.

    Financial support was provided by the DGI, Spanish Government, projects FFI2016–80588-R and FFI2015–73767-JIN; European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme under Grant Agreement no. 675415, Diaphora, and European Union’s FP7 programme under Marie Curie Grant Agreement no. 622114.

    Versions of this material were presented at the NOMOS Meeting at the Humboldt University, Berlin, and at the GRS – Gender, Race, and Sexuality seminar, at the University of Barcelona. I am thankful to the audiences at those meetings, and especially to Bianca Cepollaro, Adam Sennet, Esa Díaz-León, Manuel García-Carpintero, Camilo Vergara, Chris Bennet, Josep Corbí, Francesca Bunkenborg, Israel Roncero, Carlos Moya, and to the anonymous referees who commented on the paper.


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Correspondence to Teresa Marques.

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Marques, T. Pejoratives & Oughts. Philosophia 49, 1109–1125 (2021).

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  • Pejoratives
  • Slurs
  • Externalism
  • Prescriptive properties
  • Deontic modals