TTP, 4. §1.III: Sense, circumstance, world

In the present section, Weir says something about the kind of semantic framework he favours, and in particular about issues of context-sensitivity. Here I do little more than summarize.

The basic idea is very familiar. “Utterances of declarative sentences are typically true or false, and what makes them one or the other is, in general, a triple product of firstly the Sinn or informational content they express, secondly the circumstances of the utterance, and finally the way the world is”. So this is the usual modern twist on the ur-Fregean story: it isn’t just sense, but sense plus context (broadly construed), that determines reference and so fixes truth-conditions. This basic picture is widely endorsed, and Weir doesn’t aim to develop a detailed account of how the three layers of story interrelate. Some general remarks are enough for his purposes.

Suppose we aim for a systematic story about how a certain class of sentences gets its truth conditions, for example those involving a demonstrative ‘that’. The systematic story will, perhaps, use a notion like salience, so for example it tells us that ‘that man is clever’ is true when the most salient man in the context is clever. Now, for this to be part of a semantic theory that is explanantory of speech-behaviour, speakers will have to reveal appropriate sensitivity to what we theorists would call considerations of salience. But those we are interpreting needn’t themselves have the concept of salience. And the explanatory statement of truth-conditions is not synonymous with ‘that man is clever’. We thus need to distinguish the literal content of the sentence as speakers understand it (what is shared by literal translation, for example) from the explanatory truth-conditions delivered by our systematic semantic theory.

Note though, semantics is one thing, metaphysics something else. It might be that what it takes (according to semantic theory) for ‘that man is clever’ to be true is that the most salient man in the context is clever. But what has to exist for that to be the case? — does it require the existence, for example, of a truth-making fact? Semantics is silent on the issue: so, for example, fans and foes of truth-makers can alike accept the same semantic story about explanatory truth-conditions.

Now, ‘literal content’ vs ‘explanatory truth-conditions’ was, Weir tells us (fn. 28) his own originally preferred terminology here. He now thinks ‘informational content’ or ‘sense’ vs ‘metaphysical content’ is less misleading. Really? Does dubbing something ‘metaphysical’ ever make things clearer?? Especially when you’ve just used ‘metaphysical’ in a significantly different way in talking of metaphysical realism, and also insisted on downplaying the metaphysical loading of the semantic story??? But let’s not get fractious! — if we are in the business of a traditional kind of semantic theory, there is a distinction to be made, whatever we call it. Though let’s also be on the watch for occasions where the possibly tendentious labelling is allowed to carry argumentative weight.

As Weir says, not everyone endorses the sense/circumstances/world (SCW) picture. For a start, there are radical contextualists who don’t like the idea of a given sense or meaning making a fixed contribution to determining truth-conditions. But Weir “side[s] with those who hold that radical contextualism makes language grasp a mystery”.

However, even if we go along with the basic SCW picture, there is room for debate about how much work circumstances do, just how much context-relativity we need to recognize. Cappelen and Lepore, for example, have argued that there is only a rather confined Basic Set of context-sensitive expressions in language, contra those who seek philosophical illumination by claiming to discern hidden context sensitivity. Weir hints that he is going to need to take a more generous line than Cappelen and Lepore (but without falling back into radical contextualism). But we’ll have to wait to see how this works out.

So far, as I said, that’s mostly summary. But let me add two final comments. (a) Weir’s anti-realism about mathematics, as we saw, is to be a built on a distinction between representational and non-representational modes of discourse. And on the face of it, you would expect that issues about different modes of discourse would be orthogonal to the issues about kinds of context-sensitivity most highlighted in this section. Again, we’ll have to wait to see just see what connections get forged. True, there is a murky hint on p. 38; but it didn’t at all help this reader. (b) A more thorough-going pragmatist, perhaps of Wittgensteinian disposition, will also emphasize the different roles of different discourses, but will resist the thought that one kind is more basic or more central than others. She might start to worry that Weir’s semantic framework — at least so far — is looking too traditionally biased towards privileging the representational discourse for which the SCW picture seems tailor-made.  More on this anon.

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One Response to TTP, 4. §1.III: Sense, circumstance, world

  1. Alan Weir says:

    Peter writes “Now, ‘literal content’ vs ‘explanatory truth-conditions’ was, Weir tells us (fn. 28) his own originally preferred terminology here. He now thinks ‘informational content’ or ’sense’ vs ‘metaphysical content’ is less misleading. Really? Does dubbing something ‘metaphysical’ ever make things clearer??”

    To tell the truth I can’t remember very distinctly why I dropped ‘explanatory content’ for ‘metaphysical content’! (And if I remember one reader of the manuscript also advised against the change!) It’s such a while since I started out using the former terminology- early versions of the theory in the early 90s. I think I was worried that people would say ‘explanatory’ of what? Also I began to think there is a bit of metaphysical meat in the idea of content which tells us what ‘makes-true’ sentences but doesn’t necessarily mirror the information content/cognitive content/sese.

    Earlier Peter says ‘Note though, semantics is one thing, metaphysics something else.’ Again I agree but I think I want to entangle them more than you do cf p. 37 “The terrain, then, is on the borders between metaphysics and philosophy of language. (I reject the rather strict separation of the two found in Cappelen and Lepore 2005, pp. 159ff.)”

    My idea is that the most fruitful way to approach what are usually called ‘metaphysical’ issues with regard to a given domain of discourse is to ask what a correct metatheory would look like, one which explains what it is speakers understand, who understand the discourse (this is a pretty Dummettian approach I suppose).

    One can, however, have different levels or depths of explanation depending on how far one takes the metatheoretic account. So in the book I want to alienate as few philosophers as possible and don’t want to take stances on e.g. whether properties, events, tropes, situations/states of affairs exist or not (though I couldn’t resist flagging my sympathies and antipathies now and again).

    For the purposes of this work, then, an account of ‘there are an even number of apples in the bowl’ which has it made true by circumstances C, and includes in the latter the clause that there are apples, and they are in the bowl, but doesn’t further analyse the metaphysical content of ‘there are apples’- do we posit applehood in the metaphysical content of that sentence? etc. – that’s fine. Leave worrying about the metaphysics of those sub-clauses to another day and keep as many philosophers on board as possible to bring them to the main bone of contention.

    But at that point I have to join battle with some metaphysical issues in the philosophy of mathematics: will the explanation of what makes that sentence true entail the existence of numbers? Or abstract proofs, syntactic types and the like? Or none of these things, but only concrete tokens of proofs, which is what I’m eventually going to try to sell to you by chapter six.

    EXCEPT: my anti-realism takes the form of saying what makes true, or false, mathematical sentences is not how things stand with numbers and other mathematical entities but the existence of concrete proof (or refutation) structures, and this, I say, is a form of *ontological* reduction. And I’ve joined those who distinguish ontological realism from another sort I’ve joined Putnam in calling *metaphysical* realism. So if I’m not going to use ‘explanatory truth-conditions’ shouldn’t I have used ‘ontological content’ rather than metaphysical content? Well not all metatheoretic accounts yield ontological reductinos, obviously; but maybe the different uses ‘metaphysical’ is put too, are, as you say a bit confusing.

    Too late now but I hope at any rate that, in context, the ‘metaphysical versus ontological realism’ distinction is clear enough and the ‘metaphysical versus informational’ content one is too, or becomes more so after the account in chapter two. (Which does have to take some more contentious positions in philosophy of language than the account in chapter one which I’m glad doesn’t seem too contentious)

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