Knowing Opposites and Formalising Antonymy

Epistemology and Philosophy of Science 59 (2):85–101 (2022)
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This paper discusses knowledge of opposites. In particular, attention is given to the linguistic notion of antonymy and how it represents oppositional relations that are commonly found in perception. The paper draws upon the long history of work on the formalisation of antonymy in linguistics and formal semantics, and also upon work on the perception of opposites in psychology, and an assessment is made of the main approaches. Treatments of these phenomena in linguistics and psychology posit that the principles of minimal difference and invariance are centrally important. It will be suggested that the standard approach employing meaning postulates fails to capture the relevant notion of antonymy, in part because it is not informed by these principles, and in part due to a number of other problems with this kind of approach, many of which may be overcome by building in the central principles from the beginning. The paper also discusses the issue of whether we can know that opposites necessarily exclude each other and, if so, how. This issue is intertwined with what is known as the colour incompatibility problem that Wittgenstein wrangled with at various times during his life. The paper assesses various solutions to these problems including an approach that was first put forward by Jerrold J. Katz. The relation between this approach and the theory of determinables and determinates is also examined. A further development upon this approach is proposed and then applied to the case of the formalisation of antonymy. It is argued that this approach avoids the problems suffered by the main approaches discussed earlier in the paper.

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Keith Begley
Durham University


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