Reflections on Lewis, Naturalness and Meaning

It is sometimes claimed (e.g., by Sider (2001a,b); Holton (2003); Stalnaker (2004); Williams (2007); Weatherson (2003, 2010)) that a theory of predicate meaning that assigns a central role to naturalness is either (a) Lewisian, (b) true, or (c) both. The theory in question is rarely developed in particularly great detail, but the rough intuitive idea is that the meaning of a predicate is the most natural property that is more-or-less consistent with the usage of the predicate. The point of this note is to investigate whether a version of this idea could be true, and whether it could be properly attributed to Lewis. I’m going to mostly focus on the second question, but I think in such a way that light is shed on the first question. To anticipate the answer a little, I’m going to say that whether the use plus naturalness theory is plausibly attributed to Lewis (and is plausibly true) depends on what we want a theory of (predicate) meaning to do. Here are two very distinct tasks we could be engaged in. First, we could be investigating the metaphysics of meaning, and so be interested in how it is that a pattern of animal noises can come to have any kind of content at all. Second, we could be investigating the meaning of some particular term, where substantive claims about the meanings of other terms are presupposed in our inquiry. Call the first project metasemantics, and the second project applied semantics. I’m going to conclude that use plus naturalness is a plausible way to approach applied semantics. But it isn’t a great way to approach metasemantics. The problem is that once we crunch through the details, it’s impossible to disentangle a notion of “use” such that naturalness can be added to it to get a theory of meaning. Before we can get very far on any of these inquiries, we need to say a bit about what we mean by ‘naturalness’. Naturalness plays a lot of distinctive roles for Lewis. Some of these broadly metaphysical roles. These roles are the primary focus of (Lewis, 1983a)..
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