Monday, November 17, 2014
Meaning and the experts
(answer to question in previous post)
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.
Although the semantic externalism I defended in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” is relevant to speaker’s meaning as well, the explicandum of that essay was meaning in a language. I know that there are those (Noam Chomsky and, at one period, Donald Davidson) who have denied the very existence of “languages”, but I cannot take this language skepticism seriously. If the fact that the boundaries between languages are somewhat vague and, moreover, depend on social conventions, means that languages do not exist, then, by the same token, cities do not exist either, but I am not a city skeptic either. More seriously, if social entities do not exist then there is no subject matter for any of the social sciences, and it is sheer chutzpah on the part of even a great linguist or philosopher of language to claim such a thing.
Not only do I believe that there are such things as languages, I believe that there are things that speakers of a language are expected to know (both in the sense of tacit “know-that” and in the sense of “know-how”) qua competent speakers of that language. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” enumerated a number of those things. For example, competent speakers of English are expected to know that tigers are stereotypically–not necessarily actually—striped. But, and this is where “externalism” comes in, knowing, all those things is not necessarily speaking English‑it could be speaking Twinglish, the language called “English” on Twin Earth! Meaning has another dimension, apart from the dimension of speakers’ tacit knowledge. Words like “water” and “gold” have their reference fixed partly by the actual nature of what are taken by speakers to be paradigm cases and partly by the division of linguistic labor, which allows a subset of the speakers, the relevant experts, authority over such questions as whether a liquid is really water or a metal is really gold. But the knowledge of the experts is not knowledge it is linguistically obligatory for a speaker to have. That is why I resist saying that the experts have a better grasp of the meaning of “water” or “gold”. Nevertheless, the extension is a component of the meaning of those words, but not in the sense that speakers or even experts have to possess a description of the meaning that would single out the right liquid or substance or whatever on an arbitrary planet. (Before the development of modern chemistry, the experts might very well be using false theories, whose falsity doesn’t matter in the Earth environment but would become disastrous on Twin Earth). What speakers have to be causally linked to is the correct extension, not the correct description of the extension. And extensions, as opposed to descriptions of extensions, aren’t things we grasp with our minds; they are out there in the world.
All this is summed up in the “normal form description for ‘water’ on page 269 of my (1975) Mind, Language and Reality. A brief history of how I came to all this is contained my Schock Prize Lecture, “The Development of Externalist Semantics.” Theoria 79.3 (2013), 192-203.
 In “Explaining Language Use,” Philosophical Topics, vol. 20. no. 1, the philosophy of hilary putnam (205-232) [collected in Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge, 2000)], Chomsky wrote, “Such terms as London are used to talk about the actual world, but there neither are nor are believed to be things in the world with the properties of the intricate modes of reference that a city name encapsulates.” (See my Reply (379-385) in the same issue of Philosophical Topics.)