Meaning Holism: An Articulation and Defense

Dissertation, University of California, San Diego (1999)

Kelly Becker
University of New Mexico
Meaning holism says that the meaning of an expression depends on all of its inferential connections. This dissertation defends this view from the objections that its grounds are infirm and that any theory of meaning holism faces insuperable difficulties. I argue that there are indeed compelling Quinean grounds for holism . I explicate the debate between Quine and Carnap over the status of analyticity, concluding that Quine is right to deny the distinction between inferences that are constitutive of expression meanings and inferences that are merely empirical. The upshot is that all inferences are constitutive of meaning. Coupled with confirmation holism---the claim that all statements in a system of beliefs are holistically inferentially connected---meaning holism follows. I then argue that holism allows for communication even though it entails that communicants do not share the meanings of their expressions . In Chapter 5, I demonstrate how holism is reconcilable with the compositionality of language, thus denying the criticism that their incompatibility presents a prima facie case against holism. After responding to criticisms of holism, I provide a model of the interdependent structure of meaning constituting inferential relations among sentences in terms of conditional subjective probabilities, and I explain how the theory accounts for the normativity of meaning . I then defend a crucial assumption that underlies the entire dissertation, namely, that the meaning of an expression is in fact constituted by the inferences in which it figures . I argue that transparent self-knowledge is an essential feature of meaning, and show how self-knowledge lends itself to inferential role semantics. Chapter 8 takes a critical look at other meaning theories. I argue that denotational views either neglect the significance of behavior explanation in the theory of meaning, or they face the same difficulties that holism encounters, in which case they offer no advantage over holism. Internalist accounts of meaning, on the other hand, unjustifiably invoke ordinary external objects as semantic values. But without this illicit appeal to external objects, they tell us little about the meanings of expressions
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