Friday, November 14, 2014

A Question About Experts’ Meaning
In 1976, when I delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, I often spent time with Peter Strawson, and one day at lunch he made a remark I have never been able to forget. He said, "Surely half the pleasure of life is sardonic comment on the passing show".  This blog is devoted to comments, not all of them sardonic, on the passing philosophical show.
Hilary Putnam

 A good friend, a graduate student who is interested in externalism, semantic holism, context sensitivity, etc., asked me an important question recently, having to do with the relation between experts and lay speakers in what I called “the division of linguistic labor” in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”.
The question was whether I would say that experts have a more comprehensive grasp of the meaning of terms like gold and water. I answered:

  I don't want to say that "An expert has a comprehensive grasp of the meaning whereas an ordinary person has a partial grasp of the meaning of a term like 'water' or 'elm tree'", but I see why you think I should. What I want to say, in brief, is that in the ordinary sense of "know the meaning of", experts and laypersons both "know the meaning of gold, and what that means is that they possess linguistic competence with respect to the word. They have the same stereotype, and the term refers to the same metal (has the same extension).[1] The expert has a better description of that extension than the layperson (although even the experts' criteria are generally only approximately correct), but that doesn't mean that the expert "has a more comprehensive grasp of the meaning of 'gold'", it means that s/he knows  more about gold. 
      But I do say that the extension of 'water' is one of the things that belongs in the "normal form description" of the meaning of water (and, similarly, the extension of 'gold' belongs in the normal form description of the meaning of 'gold') - so doesn't someone who knows more about the extension have, in that sense,  a more comprehensive grasp of the meaning of the word?
      That is the puzzle you raise for my view.

My answer to the puzzle will be in the next post.

I discussed a similar issue with Gareth Evans in 1976. (A correspondent recently asked whether we had ever talked about the division of linguistic labor.) My answer was:

 I did discuss this with Gareth when I was giving the Locke Lectures and our views did not agree. He maintained, in those precise words, that (in the division of linguistic labor) we defer to the meaning of the expert (his very words) and I insist that the expert does not have a different meaning (in the case of the word gold), he simply knows more about gold.

[1] See the “normal form” I proposed for representing the meaning of a natural kind word in the final pages of “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”.