Knowledge and understanding

Mind and Language 16 (5):542–546 (2001)
Some philosophical proposals seem to die hard. In a recent paper, Jason Stanley has worked to resurrect the description theory of reference, at least as it might apply to natural kind terms like ‘elm’ (Stanley, 1999). The theory’s founding idea is that to understand ‘elm’ one must know a uniquely identifying truth about elms. Famously, Hilary Putnam showed that ordinary users of ‘elm’ may understand it while lacking such knowledge, and may even be unable to distinguish elms from beeches (Putnam, 1975). In response, Stanley claims that linguistic understanding in the case of natural kind terms comes in levels, and that only those at the top level need have the knowledge in question. The description theory, in Stanley’s hands, applies only to those with top level understanding and it is their understanding that fixes the term’s reference. To use the term successfully, those with inferior understanding need only be defer- ential to those at the top. However, Stanley’s appeal to expert knowledge fails to revive the description theory.
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DOI 10.1111/1468-0017.00181
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