Review of Reflections on Meaning, by Paul Horwich [Book Review]
Philosophical Review 118 (1):131-134 (2009)
Reflections on Meaning refines Paul Horwich’s use theory of meaning. Horwich holds that the meaning of a word is constituted by the nonsemantic property that best explains a certain law. For a given word, the law to be explained governs that word’s use by specifying the “acceptance conditions” of a privileged class of sentences containing the word (26). Horwich devotes considerable energy to details in Reflections on Meaning and focuses on especially pressing problems for his use theory of meaning. As a result the book’s topics run the gamut, and the connections between its chapters are not always strong. Rather than try to provide a synoptic overview, I’ll discuss three areas where it seems further clarification and detail could be fruitful: the distinction between semantic and nonsemantic properties, context sensitivity, and compositionality. Horwich thinks ours is a “fundamentally non-semantic world” (27), making it crucial that meaning be explained in nonsemantic terms. In particular, he insists that we “exclude from the analyzing-properties [of word meaning] anything that would itself require analysis in terms of meaning”: we can’t appeal to reference, belief, or intention, for example (37). But Horwich does not object to “accounts of meaning in psychological terms,” and his own theory relies heavily on a psychological, nonsemantic relation that Horwich calls “acceptance” (37). It’s difficult to see a substantive difference between this technical notion and belief. Acceptance, for Horwich, is “the psychological (but nonsemantic) relation to a sentence that is manifested in our relying on it as a premise in theoretical and practical inference” (40–41). Belief, on the other hand, is a relation with these properties except that it is semantic. Horwich’s other characterizations of acceptance don’t sharpen the distinction very much: “S accepts a sentence just in case that sentence, or its mental correlate, is in S’s belief box” (41); “believing a given proposition is nothing more than accepting some sentence that expresses it” (61)..
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