Skip to main content

Modal Normativism and Metasemantics

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
Thomasson on Ontology

Part of the book series: Philosophers in Depth ((PID))


I argue that we can accept modal normativism—the view that the function of modal claims is to express semantic rules—while also accepting possible worlds semantics. This is important because modal normativism comes with significant methodological advantages over alternative accounts of modality, but possible worlds semantics arguably provides the best model of semantic competence with modal claims such as the recognition of entailments involving modal claims. I argue that by keeping the metaphysical insights of normativism at the level of metasemantics—i.e., at the level of accounts of what metaphysically explains facts about the meaning of modal claims—it is open to the normativist to wholeheartedly accept possible worlds semantics. One might worry that an appeal to metaphysical explanation or possible worlds in the metalanguage reintroduces substantive metaphysics that undermines modal normativism, but I argue that this is not the case.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or eBook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD 119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. 1.

    Thomasson (2007, 2013, 2020a).

  2. 2.

    Thomasson (2013, pp. 149–150, 2020a, pp. 82–85).

  3. 3.

    Partee (1988), Partee et al. (1990), Fintel (2006), Hacquard (2011) and many standard textbooks in semantics.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., pp. 162–165. See also Chap. 4 where Thomasson deals with objections surrounding de re modal claims and a posteriori necessities.

  5. 5.

    Thomasson (2020a, pp. 59–68).

  6. 6.

    Ibid., pp. 82–87.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., pp. 78–82.

  8. 8.

    As argued in Yalcin (2014) and further elaborated in Rabern and Ball (2019), this is to focus on the theoretical role of meaning as semantic value in contrast to meaning as content, where the latter is characterized by its role in a theory of intentionality, communication, and the role of belief and desire in folk psychology. I am focusing on the former but will disambiguate when needed. Also, see fn.21.

  9. 9.

    Partee et al. (1990, pp. 415–416).

  10. 10.

    Partee (1988).

  11. 11.

    Pérez Carballo (2014, pp. 123–124) makes a similar point regarding metanormative expressivism.

  12. 12.

    Partee (1988, pp. 98–99).

  13. 13.

    Kratzer (1977) and Fintel (2006, p. 5). Hacquard (2011, pp. 20–26) gives an informative overview of theoretical and empirical reasons for and against this approach.

  14. 14.

    Metaphysical modality might be further divided into logical, mathematical, nomic, and essentialist flavors.

  15. 15.

    See Pérez Carballo (2014). Thomasson seems committed to methodological naturalism. For example, Thomasson suggests normativism fits with empirical observations that alethic, deontic, and epistemic modalities tend to come together across languages and that children tend to learn them at the same time and around the same age (2020a, p. 63).

  16. 16.

    See Higginbotham (1991, pp. 559–560).

  17. 17.

    See Nefdt (2020).

  18. 18.

    Burgess (2011) and Pérez Carballo (2014).

  19. 19.

    Pérez Carballo (2014, pp. 138–139) makes similar points about content.

  20. 20.

    Burgess (2011).

  21. 21.

    Here I am focusing on compositionality challenges at the level of talk, but what about at the level of thought, i.e., content? For example, following Dorr (2002), we might raise the challenge of explaining what reasons someone might have to believe whatever thought is communicated with a modal claim. Suppose the communicative content of an utterance of “possibly, p” is modeled in terms of a non-empty set of worlds in which p. For any corresponding belief that p is possible, what reasons might there be to accept that belief on the normativist view? The normativist response is that for a competent user of modal terms, any hypothetical scenario that can be presented without violating the semantic rules that govern the use of p will count as a reason to believe that p is possible, i.e., that the set of worlds in which p is non-empty. See also Thomasson (2020a, pp. 162–163).

  22. 22.

    Chrisman (2016, pp. 184–189).

  23. 23.

    One wrinkle is the subjunctive supposition that there is a married bachelor, which would be a counterpossible supposition. In Locke (2019), I provide a normativist account of counterpossibles. Another wrinkle is someone who asserts (5) but insists that married bachelors are possible. On Thomasson’s view, they are still subject to correction and if the person still insists, they might be seen as trying to negotiate new rules for “bachelor” (Thomasson, 2014, pp. 235–238).

  24. 24.

    Here, building on Thomasson (2020a), I have suggested how this works for modal expressions in metaphysics; see Chrisman (2016) for a metasemantic account of normative expressions and Warren (2020) for a metasemantic account of logical and mathematical expressions.

  25. 25.

    See Brenner et al. (2021) for an overview.

  26. 26.

    See, e.g., Thomasson (2009). Following Warren (2020, p. 18) we might also assume that naturalistically acceptable metasemantic explanations cannot attribute non-causal cognitive powers to users and that our metasemantic explanations cannot appeal to a realm of non-causal facts (which Thomasson would qualify as facts that cannot be explained through some form of conceptual analysis).

  27. 27.

    Kovacs (2019) develops a view along these lines.

  28. 28.

    Though see Thomasson (2020b) for an account of how these notions can be read conceptually.

  29. 29.

    Cf. Moltmann (2017). Though I think it is not hard to find analogues in ordinary talk of ways things could be—e.g., “there are many different ways my life could have gone after graduation”—and possible scenarios—e.g., “I can imagine many possible scenarios in which the merger will be delayed”. These uses can be seen as pleonastic derivations from basic modal claims. See Thomasson (2020a) and Locke (forthcoming).

  30. 30.

    For example, Donald Davidson suggests that “if we understand our metalanguage, we are using a system of concepts and a language which is the one for which we really want a theory, for it is this richer system that is our natural one”—quoted in Yalcin (2018, p. 73).


  • Brenner, A., Maurin, A.-S., Skiles, A., Stenwall, R., & Thompson, N. (2021). Metaphysical Explanation. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 ed.).

  • Burgess, A. (2011). Mainstream Semantics + Deflationary Truth. Linguistics and Philosophy, 34(5), 397–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chrisman, M. (2012). On the Meaning of “Ought”. In R. Shafer-Landau (Ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics (Vol. 7, pp. 304–332). Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Chrisman, M. (2016). The Meaning of ‘Ought’. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dorr, C. (2002). Non-cognitivism and Wishful Thinking. Noûs, 36(1), 97–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • von Fintel, K. (2006). Modality and Language. In D. M. Borchert (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2nd ed., No. 10, pp. 20–27). Macmillan Reference USA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hacquard, V. (2011). Modality. In C. Maienborn, K. von Heusinger, & P. Portner (Eds.), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. HSK 33.2 (pp. 1484–1515). Mouton de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Higginbotham, J. (1991). Remarks on the Metaphysics of Linguistics. Linguistics and Philosophy, 14(5), 555–566.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kovacs, D. M. (2019). Metaphysically Explanatory Unification. Philosophical Studies.

  • Kratzer, A. (1977). What Must and Can Must and Can Mean. Linguistics and Philosophy, 1, 337–355.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, D. K. (1986). On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, T. D. (2019). Counterpossibles for Modal Normativists. Synthese.

  • Locke, T. D. (2020). Metaphysical Explanations for Modal Normativists. Metaphysics, 3(1), 33–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Locke, T. D. (forthcoming). Modal Normativism and Modal Representationalism. In Metaphysics Today: In Conversation with Amie Thomasson. Springer Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moltmann, F. (2017). Natural Language Ontology. Oxford Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nefdt, R. M. (2020). The Philosophy of Linguistics: Scientific Underpinnings and Methodological Disputes. Philosophy Compass, 15(1).

    Google Scholar 

  • Partee, B. H. (1988). Possible Worlds in Model-theoretic Semantics: A Linguistic Perspective. In S. Allén (Ed.), Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts, and Sciences: Proceedings of Nobel Symposium (65, pp. 93–123). Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Partee, B. H., Meulen, A. ter, & Wall, R. E. (1990). Mathematical Methods in Linguistics. Kluwer Academic Publishers

    Google Scholar 

  • Pérez Carballo, A. (2014). Hermeneutic Expressivism. In A. Burgess & B. Sherman (Eds.), Metasemantics (pp. 17–54). Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Price, H. (2011). Naturalism Without Mirrors. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rabern, B., & Ball, D. (2019). Monsters and the Theoretical Role of Context. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 98, 392–416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2007). Modal Normativism and the Methods of Metaphysics. Philosophical Topics, 35(1–2), 135–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2009). Answerable and Unanswerable Questions. In D. Chalmers, D. Manley, & R. Wasserman (Eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology (pp. 444–471). Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2013). 2012 Nancy D. Simco Lecture: Norms and Necessity. Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51(2), 143–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2014). Ontology Made Easy. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2020a). Norms and Necessity. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Thomasson, A. (2020b). A Pragmatic Method for Conceptual Ethics. In H. Capellen, D. Plunkett, & A. Burgess (Eds.), Conceptual Engineering and Conceptual Ethics (pp. 435–458). Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Warren, J. (2020). Shadows of Syntax. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Yalcin, S. (2014). Semantics and Metasemantics in the Context of Generative Grammar. In A. Burgess & B. Sherman (Eds.), Metasemantics. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Yalcin, S. (2018). Formal Semantics as Model-based Science. In B. Rabern & D. Ball (Eds.), The Science of Meaning (pp. 334–360). Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Locke, T.D. (2023). Modal Normativism and Metasemantics. In: Garcia-Godinez, M. (eds) Thomasson on Ontology. Philosophers in Depth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation

Publish with us

Policies and ethics