John MacFarlane explores how we might make sense of the idea that truth is relative. He provides new, satisfying accounts of parts of our thought and talk that have resisted traditional methods of analysis, including what we mean when we talk about what is tasty, what we know, what will happen, what might be the case, and what we ought to do.
We consider a paradox involving indicative conditionals (‘ifs’) and deontic modals (‘oughts’). After considering and rejecting several standard options for resolv- ing the paradox—including rejecting various premises, positing an ambiguity or hidden contextual sensitivity, and positing a non-obvious logical form—we offer a semantics for deontic modals and indicative conditionals that resolves the paradox by making modus ponens invalid. We argue that this is a result to be welcomed on independent grounds, and we show that rejecting the general validity of modus (...) ponens is compatible with vindicating most ordinary uses of modus ponens in reasoning. (shrink)
The relativist's central objection to contextualism is that it fails to account for the disagreement we perceive in discourse about "subjective" matters, such as whether stewed prunes are delicious. If we are to adjudicate between contextualism and relativism, then, we must first get clear about what it is for two people to disagree. This question turns out to be surprisingly difficult to answer. A partial answer is given here; although it is incomplete, it does help shape what the relativist must (...) say if she is to do better than the contextualist in securing genuine disagreement. (shrink)
Philosophers on all sides of the contextualism debates have had an overly narrow conception of what semantic context sensitivity could be. They have conflated context sensitivity (dependence of truth or extension on features of context) with indexicality (dependence of content on features of context). As a result of this conflation, proponents of contextualism have taken arguments that establish only context sensitivity to establish indexicality, while opponents of contextualism have taken arguments against indexicality to be arguments against context sensitivity. Once these (...) concepts are carefully pulled apart, it becomes clear that there is conceptual space in semantic theory for nonindexical forms of contextualism that have many advantages over the usual indexical forms. (shrink)
The goal of this paper is to make sense of relativism about truth. There are two key ideas. (1) To be a relativist about truth is to allow that a sentence or proposition might be assessment-sensitive: that is, its truth value might vary with the context of assessment as well as the context of use. (2) Making sense of relativism is a matter of understanding what it would be to commit oneself to the truth of an assessment-sensitive sentence or proposition.
If it is not now determined whether there will be a sea battle tomorrow, can an assertion that there will be one be true? The problem has persisted because there are compelling arguments on both sides. If there are objectively possible futures which would make the prediction true and others which would make it false, symmetry considerations seem to forbid counting it either true or false. Yet if we think about how we would assess the prediction tomorrow, when a sea (...) battle is raging (or not), it seems we must assign the utterance a deﬁnite truth-value. I argue that both arguments must be given their due, and that this requires relativizing utterance-truth to a context of assessment. I show how this relativization can be handled in a rigorous formal semantics, and I argue that we can make coherent sense of assertion without assuming that utterances have their truth-values absolutely. (shrink)
By “epistemic modals,” I mean epistemic uses of modal words: adverbs like “necessarily,” “possibly,” and “probably,” adjectives like “necessary,” “possible,” and “probable,” and auxiliaries like “might,” “may,” “must,” and “could.” It is hard to say exactly what makes a word modal, or what makes a use of a modal epistemic, without begging the questions that will be our concern below, but some examples should get the idea across. If I say “Goldbach’s conjecture might be true, and it might be false,” (...) I am not endorsing the Cartesian view that God could have made the truths of arithmetic come out differently. I make the claim not because I believe in the metaphysical contingency of mathematics, but because I know that Goldbach’s conjecture has not yet been proved or refuted. Similarly, if I say “Joe can’t be running,” I am not saying that Joe’s constitution prohibits him from running, or that Joe is essentially a non-runner, or that Joe isn’t allowed to run. My basis for making the claim may be nothing more than that I see Joe’s running shoes hanging on a hook. (shrink)
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the semantics of knowledge-attributing sentences, not just among epistemologists but among philosophers of language seeking a general understanding of linguistic context sensitivity. Despite all this critical attention, however, we are as far from consensus as ever. If we have learned anything, it is that each of the standard views—invariantism, contextualism, and sensitive invariantism—has its Achilles’ heel: a residuum of facts about our use of knowledge attributions that it can explain only with (...) special pleading. This is not surprising if, as I will argue, there is a grain of truth in each of these views. (shrink)
To assert something is to perform a certain kind of act. This act is different in kind both from other speech acts, like questions, requests, commands, promises, and apologies, and from acts that are not speech acts, like toast buttering and inarticulate yodeling. My question, then is this: what features of an act qualify it as an assertion, and not one of these other kinds of act? To focus on a particular example: in uttering “Bill will close the window,” one (...) might be practicing English pronunciation, asserting that Bill will close the window, or requesting that Bill close the window. What makes it the case that one is doing one of these and not another? (shrink)
Let me start with a well-known story. Kant held that logic and conceptual analysis alone cannot account for our knowledge of arithmetic: “however we might turn and twist our concepts, we could never, by the mere analysis of them, and without the aid of intuition, discover what is the sum [7+5]” (KrV, B16). Frege took himself to have shown that Kant was wrong about this. According to Frege’s logicist thesis, every arithmetical concept can be defined in purely logical terms, and (...) every theorem of arithmetic can be proved using only the basic laws of logic. Hence, Kant was wrong to think that our grasp of arithmetical concepts and our knowledge of arithmetical truth depend on an extralogical source—the pure intuition of time (Frege 1884, §89, §109). Arithmetic, properly understood, is just a part of logic. (shrink)
Much philosophy of logic is shaped, explicitly or implicitly, by the thought that logic is distinctively formal and abstracts from material content. The distinction between formal and material does not appear to coincide with the more familiar contrasts between a priori and empirical, necessary and contingent, analytic and synthetic—indeed, it is often invoked to explain these. Nor, it turns out, can it be explained by appeal to schematic inference patterns, syntactic rules, or grammar. What does it mean, then, to say (...) that logic is distinctively formal? (shrink)
According to Semantic Minimalism, every use of "Chiara is tall" (fixing the girl and the time) semantically expresses the same proposition, the proposition that Chiara is (just plain) tall. Given standard assumptions, this proposition ought to have an intension (a function from possible worlds to truth values). However, speakers tend to reject questions that presuppose that it does. I suggest that semantic minimalists might address this problem by adopting a form of "nonindexical contextualism," according to which the proposition invariantly expressed (...) by "Chiara is tall" does not have a context-invariant intension. Nonindexical contextualism provides an elegant explanation of what is wrong with "context-shifting arguments" and can be seen as a synthesis of the (partial) insights of semantic minimalists and radical contextualists. (shrink)
Logic is usually thought to concern itself only with features that sentences and arguments possess in virtue of their logical structures or forms. The logical form of a sentence or argument is determined by its syntactic or semantic structure and by the placement of certain expressions called “logical constants.” Thus, for example, the sentences Every boy loves some girl. and Some boy loves every girl. are thought to differ in logical form, even though they share a common syntactic and semantic (...) structure, because they differ in the placement of the logical constants “every” and “some”. By contrast, the sentences Every girl loves some boy. and Every boy loves some girl. are thought to have the same logical form, because “girl” and “boy” are not logical constants. Thus, in order to settle questions about logical form, and ultimately about which arguments are logically valid and which sentences logically true, we must distinguish the “logical constants” of a language from its nonlogical expressions. (shrink)
This paper motivates and explores an expressivist theory of vagueness, modelled on Allan Gibbard’s normative expressivism. It shows how Chris Kennedy’s semantics for gradable adjectives can be adjusted to fit into a theory on Gibbardian lines, where assertions constrain not just possible worlds but plans for action. Vagueness, on this account, is literally indecision about where to draw lines. It is argued that the distinctive phenomena of vagueness, such as the intuition of tolerance, can be explained in terms of practical (...) constraints on plans, and that the expressivist view captures what is right about several contending theories of vagueness. (shrink)
I want to discuss a puzzle about the semantics of epistemic modals, like “It might be the case that” as it occurs in “It might be the case that Goldbach’s conjecture is false.”1 I’ll argue that the puzzle cannot be adequately explained on standard accounts of the semantics of epistemic modals, and that a proper solution requires relativizing utterance truth to a context of assessment, a semantic device whose utility and coherence I have defended elsewhere for future contingents (MacFarlane..
According to “sensitive invariantism,” the word “know” expresses the same relation in every context of use, but what it takes to stand in this relation to a proposition can vary with the subject’s circumstances. Sensitive invariantism looks like an attractive reconciliation of invariantism and contextualism. However, it is incompatible with a widely-held view about the way knowledge is transmitted through testimony. If both views were true, someone whose evidence for p fell short of what was required for knowledge in her (...) circumstances could come to know that p simply by feeding her evidence to someone in less demanding circumstances and then accepting his testimony. (shrink)
It is taken for granted in much of the literature on vagueness that semantic and epistemic approaches to vagueness are fundamentally at odds. If we can analyze borderline cases and the sorites paradox in terms of degrees of truth, then we don’t need an epistemic explanation. Conversely, if an epistemic explanation suﬃces, then there is no reason to depart from the familiar simplicity of classical bivalent semantics. I question this assumption, showing that there is an intelligible motivation for adopting a (...) many-valued semantics even if one accepts a form of epistemicism. The resulting hybrid view has advantages over both classical epistemicism and traditional many-valued approaches. (shrink)
One of the central themes of Brandom’s work is that we should construct our sematic theories around material validity and incompatibility, rather than reference, truth, and satisfaction. This approach to semantics is motivated in part by Brandom’s pragmatism about the relation between semantics and the more general study of language use—what he calls “pragmatics”: Inferring is a kind of doing. . . . The status of inference as something that can be done accordingly holds out the promise of securing an (...) appropriate relation between pragmatics, the study of the practices, and semantics, the study of the corresponding contents. (MIE, 91)1 Although Brandom does not go so far as to say that a pragmatist attitude to the relation between semantics and pragmatics requires an inferentialist semantics, his motivating arguments strongly suggest that a pragmatist ought to be an inferentialist. In what follows, I discuss the connections between Brandom’s pragmatism and his inferentialism. I’ll argue that pragmatism, as Brandom initially describes it—the view that “semantics must answer to pragmatics”—does not favor an inferentialist approach to semantics over a truth-conditional one. I’ll then consider whether inferentialism might be.. (shrink)
Richard on truth and commitment Content Type Journal Article Pages 1-9 DOI 10.1007/s11098-011-9795-1 Authors John MacFarlane, Department of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA Journal Philosophical Studies Online ISSN 1573-0883 Print ISSN 0031-8116.
Much of The Reason’s Proper Study is devoted to defending the claim that simply by stipulating an abstraction principle for the “number-of” functor, we can simultaneously fix a meaning for this functor and acquire epistemic entitlement to the stipulated principle. In this paper, I argue that the semantic and epistemological principles Hale and Wright offer in defense of this claim may be too strong for their purposes. For if these principles are correct, it is hard to see why they do (...) not justify platonist strategies that are not in any way “neo-Fregean,” e.g. strategies that treat “the number of Fs” as a Russellian definite description rather than a singular term, or employ axioms that do not have the form of abstraction principles. (shrink)
As Paul Boghossian sees it, postmodernist relativists and constructivists are paralyzed by a “fear of knowledge.” For example, they lack the courage to say, in the face of the Lakotas’ claim that their ancestors came from inside the earth, that it is a matter of known fact that their ancestors came across the Bering Strait. To avoid this, they accept the nonconfrontational view Boghossian calls..
In recent work, John McDowell has urged that we resurrect the Kantian thesis that concepts without intuitions are empty. I distinguish two forms of the thesis: a strong form that applies to all concepts and a weak form that is limited to empirical concepts. Because McDowell rejects Kant’s philosophy of mathematics, he can accept only the weaker form of the thesis. But this position is unstable. The reasoning behind McDowell’s insistence that empirical concepts can have content only if they are (...) actualizable in passive experience makes it mysterious how the concepts of pure mathematics can have content. In fact, historically, it was anxiety about the possibility of mathematical content, and not worries about the “Myth of the Given,” that spurred the retreat from Kantian views of empirical content. McDowell owes us some more therapy on this score. (shrink)
In Confusion: A Study in the Theory of Knowledge, Joseph Camp argues that the reasoning of a person who has confused two objects in her thought and talk ought to be appraised using a four-valued relevance logic. I discuss two key moves in Camp’s argument: the assumption that charity to the reasoner requires recognition of her arguments as valid, and the argument that validity for a truth-valueless discourse should not be defined in terms of truth preservation. I then question whether (...) Camp’s four-valued semantics satisfies his own desiderata for a logic of confusion. -/- . (shrink)
On Schiffer’s new view, propositions are easy to come by. Any that-clause can be counted on to express one. Thus, trivially, there are vague propositions, conditional propositions, moral and aesthetic propositions. And where propositions go, truth and falsity follow: barring paradoxical cases, Schiffer accepts instances of the schemata “the proposition that p is true iff p” and “the proposition that p is false iff not-p.” What isn’t easy to find, Schiffer thinks, is determinate truth. By the end of the book, (...) we have heard that a huge number of the things we say or think are indeterminate in truth value: not just whether Schiffer’s book is long, but whether the property of being in pain is identical with any physical property, whether torturing children for fun is morally permissible, whether modus ponens is a valid inference rule, and whether someone else would have shot Kennedy if Oswald hadn’t. Indeed, on Schiffer’s view, there are no determinately true moral propositions and virtually no determinately true conditionals that are “likely to interest us”. (shrink)
This is a lightly edited version of my comments on Brandom’s Lecture 2, as delivered in Prague at the “Prague Locke Lectures” in April, 2007. I try to say why Brandom’s proposed demarcation is significant, by placing it in a broader context of demarcation proposals from Kant to the twentieth century. I then raise some questions about the basic ingredients of Brandom’s demarcation—the notions of PP-sufficiency and VP-sufficiency—and question whether the vocabulary of conditionals, Brandom’s paradigm for logical vocabulary, can be (...) universal-LX. (shrink)
I argue for a new construal of Aristotle’s definition of anagnorisis (recognition) in Poetics 11. Virtually all translators and interpreters of the definition have understood the phrase ton pros eutuchian e dustuchian horismenon as a subjective genitive characterizing the persons involved in the recognition. I argue that it should instead be taken as a partitive genitive characterizing the genus of changes (metabolon) of which recognitions are a species. In addition to being preferable on philogical grounds, the construal I recommend helps (...) illuminate the relation between recognition and reversal (peripeteia) and makes sense of Aristotle’s views about the relative values of various kinds of recognition. (shrink)
The central chapter of Burnyeat’s Map is organized like a commentary, moving through Metaphysics Ζ (and parts of Η) section by section. But unlike a commentary, it does not strive for comprehensiveness. Its aim is to describe the general lay of the land—what is being argued for where, in what way, and why— and so its exegesis is limited to Aristotle’s “signposts.” For example, every time Aristotle says “we must investigate” or “as we have seen,” Burnyeat asks “where?” As far (...) as possible, he tries to construct his map on philological evidence, remaining neutral on many of the substantive issues that have defined readings of Ζ. The hope is that, map in hand, we can interpret Ζ’s notoriously obscure arguments with a better sense of their place in Aristotle’s overall project. (shrink)
This lecture presents my own solution to the problem posed in Lecture I. Instead of a new theory of speech acts, it offers a new theory of the contents expressed by vague assertions, along the lines of the plan expressivism Allan Gibbard has advocated for normative language. On this view, the mental states we express in uttering vague sentences have a dual direction of fit: they jointly constrain the doxastic possibilities we recognize and our practical plans about how to draw (...) boundaries. With this story in hand, I reconsider some of the traditional topics connected with vagueness: bivalence, the sorites paradox, higher-order vagueness, and the nature of vague thought. I conclude by arguing that the expressivist account can explain, as its rivals cannot, what makes vague language useful. (shrink)
I can say that a building is tall and you can understand me, even if neither of us has any clear idea exactly how tall a building must be in order to count as tall. This mundane fact poses a problem for the view that successful communication consists in the hearer’s recognition of the proposition a speaker intends to assert. The problem cannot be solved by the epistemicist’s usual appeal to anti-individualism, because the extensions of vague words like ‘tall’ are (...) contextually fluid and can be constrained significantly by speakers’ intentions. The problem can be seen as a special case of a more general problem concerning what King has called “felicitous underspecification.” Traditional theories of vagueness offer nothing that can help with this problem. Appeals to diagonalization do not help either. A more radical solution is needed. (shrink)
One approach to the problem is to keep the orthodox notion of a proposition but innovate in the theory of speech acts. A number of philosophers and linguists have suggested that, in cases of felicitous underspecification, a speaker asserts a “cloud” of propositions rather than just one. This picture raises a number of questions: what norms constrain a “cloudy assertion,” what counts as uptake, and how is the conversational common ground revised if it is accepted? I explore three different ways (...) of answering these questions, due to Braun and Sider, Buchanan, and von Fintel and Gillies. I argue that none of them provide a good general response to the problem posed by felicitous underspecification. However, the problems they face point the way to a more satisfactory account, which innovates in the theory of content rather than the theory of speech acts. (shrink)