Disagreement, Error, and an Alternative to Reference Magnetism

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (4):743 - 759 (2012)
Lewisian reference magnetism about linguistic content determination [Lewis 1983 has been defended in recent work by Weatherson [2003] and Sider [2009], among others. Two advantages claimed for the view are its capacity to make sense of systematic error in speakers' use of their words, and its capacity to distinguish between verbal and substantive disagreements. Our understanding of both error and disagreement is linked to the role of usage and first order intuitions in semantics and in linguistic theory more generally. I argue, partially on the basis of these more general considerations, that reference magnetism delivers implausible results. Specifically, I argue that the proponent of reference magnetism maintains her analysis of genuinely systematic error at the cost of an empirically unjustifiable error theory regarding ordinary usage. In response, I describe an alternative view of content determination?MUMPS, or Meaning is Use Minus Pragmatics?which is not committed to such error theories. Despite this advantage, MUMPS has high prima facie costs. On such a view, there is a great deal of variation in linguistic meaning across speakers and times. As a result, a large number of seemingly mistaken claims are analysed as expressing true propositions. Correspondingly, a large number of seemingly substantive disagreements are analysed as terminological. However, I argue that these consequences are not as costly as they seem. Despite appearances, MUMPS is consistent with objective, metaphysically realist adjudication of disagreements, even in cases where meanings are not shared and where both parties to a dispute speak truly. MUMPS thus allows for a more nuanced understanding of linguistic usage, change, and variation, without imposing a commitment to any form of metaphysical anti-realism
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DOI 10.1080/00048402.2011.614266
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David Lewis (1983). New Work for a Theory of Universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61 (December):343-377.
John MacFarlane (2007). Relativism and Disagreement. Philosophical Studies 132 (1):17-31.

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