Inferential Role and the Ideal of Deductive Logic

There is a substantial question in the philosophy of language whether understanding a language involves knowledge of some metalinguistic facts about words. Does understanding a language in part consist in knowing what the words in that language mean? Most of the debate about this topic is carried out in the philosophy of language proper, where it seems to belong.1 But recently a subculture of philosophers has emerged who have argued that one of the lessons we must draw from issues in the philosophy of logic and theory of truth is that this picture of language understanding is mistaken. These philosophers aim to make sense of the idea that the paradoxes show that our language itself is inconsistent. One way this idea is spelled out is that the semantic facts that are constitutive of the meaning of certain words are inconsistent with each other. Language understanding thus can not be based on knowledge of semantic facts, and not even on true belief about semantic facts. The semantic ‘facts’ we take to obtain about our language don’t obtain, and so they can’t be known or truly believed. Another attempt to make sense of an inconsistency theory is to hold that language understanding involves believe in a false semantic theory. The main proponent of this line of thought is Douglas Patterson who has argued that we can’t know the truth conditional semantic theory for our language that we employ in understanding utterances of English since that truth theory can’t itself be true. The paradoxes show, he argues, that the compositional semantic theories on which language understanding is based itself aren’t true. And since these theories are not true they can not be known, nor can they be the content of a true belief. Language understanding is instead based on sharing a false belief about what semantic facts govern our language. But since this false theory is shared among speakers of the language, communication is still possible. We come to know what speakers are trying to say, even though we do not know what the truth conditions of the sentences they utter are.
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DOI 10.4148/biyclc.v5i0.283
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