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Modal Normativism and Metasemantics

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Thomasson on Ontology

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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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).

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Locke, T.D. (2023). Modal Normativism and Metasemantics. In: Garcia-Godinez, M. (eds) Thomasson on Ontology. Philosophers in Depth. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-23672-3_6

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