Metasemantics — TT2017

BLOCK 1: What fixes reference?

Week 1

Lewis (1974) — Radical Interpretation


As Lewis formulates it, the challenge of radical interpretation is the challenge of specifying how the totality of facts about a subject qua physical system determine that subject’s beliefs, desires, and meanings. Lewis proposes six constraints for any proposed solution to the problem of radical interpretation; included among these constraints are the principles of charity (i.e., a subject should be represented as believing and desiring what he or she ought to believe and desire), rationalization (i.e., subjects should be represented as rational agents), and truthfulness (i.e., subjects should be interpreted as operating within a convention of truthfulness). Invoking these constraints, Lewis then considers several methods (one of which he advocates) for solving the problem of radical interpretation. Notably, the Davidsonian method is found to be inadequate because it flouts the principles of truthfulness and rationalization.

Week 2

Magidor & Kearns (2012) – Semantic Sovereignty


The question we are concerned with in this paper is this: do semantic facts supervene on use facts? According to the thesis we label Semantic Supervenience (SSUP), semantic facts do supervene on use facts. According to the thesis we label Semantic Sovereignty (SSOV), semantic facts do not supervene on use facts. Semantic Supervenience is widely (indeed almost universally) assumed to be correct. Of course, many philosophers accept the thesis only if ‘use facts’ is given a sufficiently broad interpretation: perhaps one that includes facts about the behaviour of the linguistic community as a whole, or about the background physical environment, or about the relative naturalness of properties. But the commonly accepted assumption is that on some such sufficiently wide interpretation, Semantic Supervenience is correct. […] In this paper we argue that (even given a wide interpretation of ‘use facts’) Semantic Supervenience should be rejected in favour of Semantic Sovereignty: semantic properties really do go that deep.

Week 3

Williams (2007) – Eligibility and Inscrutability

(Background Reading: Lewis (1984): Putnam’s Paradox.)


Inscrutability arguments threaten to reduce interpretationist metasemantic theories to absurdity. Can we find some way to block the arguments? A highly influential proposal in this regard is David Lewis’ ‘eligibility ’ response: some theories are better than others, not because they fit the data better, but because they are framed in terms of more natural properties. The purposes of this paper are to outline the nature of the eligibility proposal, making the case that it is not ad hoc, but instead flows naturally from three independently motivated elements; and to show that severe limitations afflict the proposal. In conclusion, I pick out the element of the eligibility response that is responsible for the limitations: future work in this area should therefore concentrate on amending this aspect of the overall theory.

Week 4

Williamson (2007) – Knowledge Maximization (Philosophy of Philosophy, Ch.8)

Hawthorne (2007) – Craziness and Metasemantics.


Consider a crazy interpretation of our utterances that has the virtue of being charitable—most of our utterances come out true1—but the vice of being crazy. What makes such an interpretation incorrect? David Lewis (and various philosophers since) have pinned their hopes on an eligibility constraint: interpretations that assign more natural properties to predicates are, other things being equal, better. On this picture, our words have fairly determinate meanings (contra Quine [1960] and “Kripkenstein” [Kripke 1982])—and, at a pretty good fi rst pass, it is the twin constraints of charity and eligibility that explain why this is so.2 In his admirable “Eligibility and Inscrutability” (in this issue), J. Robert G. Williams makes trouble for this package. In section 1 I describe some cases that reinforce Williams’s misgivings. In section 2 I note a general problem that affl icts the Lewisian vision. In section 3 I offer a few constructive suggestions concerning how the “crazy interpretation” problem should be approached. Finally, in section 4 I try to shed some light on the role of the interpreter in metasemantics.

BLOCK 2: Semantic Plasticity

Week 5

Hawthorne (2006): Epistemicism and Semantic Plasticity


I shall endeavour to make vivid a kind of puzzle that arises when Timothy Williamson’s epistemicist machinery2 is applied to borderline cases of (i) personhood and (ii) semantic properties. My aim will be to raise some concerns about his development of the epistemicist view, and then to explore an alternative way of thinking about epistemicism. What follows is very much a progress report on unfinished business, but I hope there is enough progress to warrant the report.

Week 6

Magidor & Kearns (2008): Epistemicism about Vaguness and Metasemantic Safety.


In this paper, we challenge Williamson’s safety based explanation for why we cannot know the cut-off points associated with vague expressions. We will assume throughout (most of) the paper that Williamson is correct in saying that vague expressions have sharp cut-off points, but we argue that Williamson’s explanation for why we do not and cannot know these cut-off points is unsatisfactory.

Week 7
Hawthorne & Dorr (2014): Semantic Plasticity and Speech Reports


Most meanings we express belong to large families of variant meanings, among which it would be implausible to suppose that some are much more apt for being expressed than others. This abundance of candidate meanings creates pressure to think that the proposition attributing any particular meaning to an expression is modally plastic: its truth depends very sensitively on the exact microphysical state of the world. However, such plasticity seems to threaten ordinary counterfactuals whose consequents contain speech reports, since it is hard to see how we could reasonably be confident in a counterfactual whose consequent can be true only if a certain very finely tuned microphysical configuration obtains. This essay develops the foregoing puzzle and explores several possible solutions.

BLOCK 3: Models

Week 8

Stephen Yablo (MS): Models and Reality.


The title comes from a well-known paper of Putnam’s (Putnam [1980]). The content is very different. Putnam uses model theory1 to cast doubt on our ability to engage semantically with an objective world. The role of mathematics for him is to prove this pessimistic conclusion. I on the other hand am wondering how models can help us to engage semantically with the objective world. Mathematics functions for me as an analogy. Numbers among their many other accomplishments boost the language’s expressive power; they give us access to recondite physical facts. Models, among their many other accomplishments, do the same thing; they give us access to recondite physical facts. This anyway is the analogy I will try to develop in this paper.


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