Why knowledge is unnecessary for understanding language

Mind 111 (443):519-550 (2002)
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Abstract

It is a natural thought that understanding language consists in possessing knowledge—to understand a word is to know what it means. It is also natural to suppose that this knowledge is propositional knowledge—to know what a word means is to know that it means such-and-such. Thus it is prima facie plausible to suppose that understanding a bit of language consists in possessing propositional knowledge of its meaning. I refer to this as the epistemic view of understanding language. The theoretical appeal of this view for the philosophy of language is that it provides for an attractive account of the project of the theory of meaning. If understanding language consists in possessing propositional knowledge of the meanings of expressions, then a meaning theory amounts to a theory of what speakers know in virtue of understanding language. In this paper I argue that, despite its intuitive and theoretical appeal, the epistemic view is false. Propositional knowledge is not necessary for understanding language, not even tacit knowledge. Unlike knowledge, I argue, linguistic understanding does not fail in Gettier cases, does not require epistemic warrant and does not even require belief. The intuitions about knowledge that have been central to epistemology do not seem to hold for linguistic understanding. So unless epistemologists have been radically mistaken about what knowledge requires, knowledge is unnecessary for understanding language.

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