Verbal Disputes and Substantiveness

Erkenntnis 79 (1):31-54 (2014)
One way to challenge the substantiveness of a particular philosophical issue is to argue that those who debate the issue are engaged in a merely verbal dispute. For example, it has been maintained that the apparent disagreement over the mind/brain identity thesis is a merely verbal dispute, and thus that there is no substantive question of whether or not mental properties are identical to neurological properties. The goal of this paper is to help clarify the relationship between mere verbalness and substantiveness. I first argue that we should see mere verbalness as a certain kind of discourse defect that arises when the parties differ as to what each takes to be the immediate question under discussion. I then argue that mere verbalness, so understood, does not imply that the question either party is attempting to address is a non-substantive one. Even if it turns out that the parties to the mind/brain dispute are addressing subtly different questions, these might both be substantive questions to which their respective metaphysical views provide substantive answers. One reason it is tempting to reach deflationary conclusions from the charge of mere verbalness is that we fail to distinguish it from the claim that a sentence under dispute is, in a certain sense, indisputable. Another reason is that we fail to distinguish mere verbalness from a certain sort of indeterminacy. While indisputability and indeterminacy plausibly capture forms of nonsubstantiveness, I argue that mere verbalness is insufficient to establish either indisputability or indeterminacy.
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DOI 10.1007/s10670-013-9444-5
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David Lewis (1983). New Work for a Theory of Universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (December):343-377.
Tyler Burge (1979). Individualism and the Mental. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 4 (1):73-122.

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