Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Context sensitivity and productivity are not incompatible

On April 21 my post began "In “Skepticism, Stroud, and the Contextuality of Knowledge” [See that post for reference], I endorsed a view of meaning that I called “contextualism” (which I credited to Charles Travis, who in turn credits Austin and Wittgenstein, although the versions of each of these three philosophers—as well as, no doubt, mine—have significant differences, as I am sure Travis would agree). A key notion that I used in that essay is “truth-evaluable content”. Sanjit Chakraborty has asked me to say more about that notion, and I shall do that in forthcoming posts."
Four days later, the Nepal earthquake occurred, and because one of my grandchildren, Lauren Chin, was trekking near the epicenter I forgot about this plan (she and her group are all fine and back home now).  But the promised "forthcoming posts" will now come. First, however, I need to dispel  a widespread confusion, namely the mistaken idea that contextualism is incompatible with the "productivity" of language.
The argument that we can understand (idealizing radically) an "endless number of sentences" always turns on recursive aspects of language. There are recursive rules that enable me to understand "If Fa then Ga". "Every F loves some G", etc., etc.,if I understand what F refers to, what G  refers to, etc.  But where context-sensitivity enters is in the fact that F, G, etc; can refer to different things in different contexts (each of which generates a further infinity of possible sentences, in which "being an F",etc., is understood in each of these ways).On one understanding of "rational" , for example, "all men are rational" might count as  true, and on another as obviously false! "Productivity" is explained by the fact that our minds do employ recursions; and the truth conditions of the "endless number of sentences" generated by any recursive scheme - say, the rules of predicate calculus  - do not depend on context sensitivity once the reference of F, G, etc. have been fixed But in practice our predicates, or the great majority of them, have different understandings in different contexts.
Sentence meaning in my philosophy is described just as it is in the traditional theory. by describing word meanings and describing the semantics of the logical words and other structural elements that we need to combine words to make sentences. The difference between my philosophy and traditional views (internalist or context insensitive theories) has to do with word meanings. not with how we get from word meanings to sentence meanings
What determines truth conditions is not word meaning, which I take to be described by "core facts" (in "Is Semantics Possible" - the "normal form" of "The Meaning of 'Meaning'")  in the case of natural kind words - and I say in the latter essay that I take it to be the task of linguistics, not philosophy to classify the different sorts of words there are in natural languages, and to devise appropriate ways of representing their meanings (but not to devise ways of representing all the possible ways those meanings could themselves be understood in different contexts). What determines truth conditions is word meaning as understood by a speaker in a context. Even a simple word like "chair" has an enormous number of ways in which it could be understood

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