Are cantonese speakers really descriptivists? Revisiting cross-cultural semantics

Cognition 115 (2):320–32 (2010)

Authors
Barry Lam
Vassar College
Abstract
In an article in Cognition, Machery, Mallon, Nichols, and Stich [Machery et al., 2004] present data which purports to show that “East Asian” native Cantonese speakers tend to have descriptivist intuitions about the referents of proper names, while “Western” native English speakers tend to have causal-historical intuitions about proper names. Machery et al take this finding to support the view that some intuitions, the universality of which they claim is central to philosophical theories, vary according to cultural background. Machery et al hypothesize that the differences in intuitions about reference stem from general psychological differences between Eastern and Western subjects. Machery et al conclude from their findings that the philosophical methodology of consulting intuitions about hypothetical cases is flawed vis ` a vis the goal of determining truths about some philosophical domains. To quote Machery et al, “our data indicate that philosophers must radically revise their methodology” because “the intuitions philosophers pronounce from their armchairs are likely to be a product of their own culture and their academic training” ( [Machery et al., 2004] pp.B9). “The evidence suggests that it is wrong for philosophers to assume a priori the universality of their own semantic intuitions” ( [Machery et al., 2004] pp. B8). In the following study, I present data incompatible with Machery et al’s results. Native Cantonese-speaking immigrants from a Cantonese diaspora 1 in Southern California do not have descriptivist intuitions about the referents of proper names when presented with a Cantonese story and Cantonese questions about reference and truth-value. This data raises questions about the quality of Machery et al’s study and the conclusions they draw from it.
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DOI 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.12.018
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