Individual and Cross-Cultural Differences in Semantic Intuitions: New Experimental Findings

Journal of Cognition and Culture 16 (3-4):322-357 (2016)

Ryan Undercoffer
State University of New York (SUNY)
James R. Beebe
State University of New York, Buffalo
In 2004 Edouard Machery, Ron Mallon, Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich published what has become one of the most widely discussed papers in experimental philosophy, in which they reported that East Asian and Western participants had different intuitions about the semantic reference of proper names. A flurry of criticisms of their work has emerged, and although various replications have been performed, many critics remain unconvinced. We review the current debate over Machery et al.’s (2004) results and take note of which objections to their work have been satisfactorily answered and which ones still need to be addressed. We then report the results of studies that reveal significant cross-cultural and intra-cultural differences in semantic intuitions when we control for variables that critics allege have had a potentially distorting effect on Machery et al.’s findings. These variables include the epistemic perspective from which participants are supposed to understand the research materials, unintended anchoring effects of those materials, and pragmatic factors involved in the interpretation of speech acts within them. Our results confirm the robustness of the cross-cultural differences observed by Machery et al. and thereby strengthen the philosophical challenge they pose.
Keywords Experimental philosophy  Experimental semantics  Reference  Proper names  Cross-cultural
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DOI 10.1163/15685373-12342182
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