Meaning, Use, and Supervenience

In James Conant & Sebastian Sunday Grève (eds.), Wittgenstein on Philosophy, Objectivity, and Meaning. Cambridge University Press. pp. 211-230 (2019)
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What is the relation between meaning and use? This chapter first defends a non-reductionist understanding of Wittgenstein’s suggestion that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’; facts about meaning cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, facts about use, characterized non-semantically. Nonetheless, it is contended, facts about meaning do supervene on non-semantic facts about use. That supervenience thesis is suggested by comments of Wittgenstein’s and is consistent with his view of meaning and rule-following. Semantic supervenience is then defended against two criticisms: first, John McDowell’s suggestion that the supervenience thesis falsifies the epistemology of meaning and fails to accommodate common-sense truths about meaning; second, a series of counter-examples proposed by Stephen Kearns and Ofra Magidor, who argue that worlds may differ semantically without differing non-semantically. It is argued that neither criticism is convincing: we should accept the thesis that semantic facts supervene on non-semantic facts.

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William Child
Oxford University


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