Expressivism, Inferentialism, and the Theory of Meaning

In Michael Brady (ed.), New Waves in Metaethics. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan (2011)
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One’s account of the meaning of ethical sentences should fit – roughly, as part to whole – with one’s account of the meaning of sentences in general. When we ask, though, where one widely discussed account of the meaning of ethical sentences fits with more general accounts of meaning, the answer is frustratingly unclear. The account I have in mind is the sort of metaethical expressivism inspired by Ayer, Stevenson, and Hare, and defended and worked out in more detail recently by Blackburn, Gibbard, and others. So, my first aim (§1) in this paper is to pose this question about expressivism’s commitments in the theory of meaning and to characterize the answer I think is most natural, given the place expressivist accounts attempt to occupy metaethics. This involves appeal to an ideationalist account of meaning. Unfortunately for the expressivist, however, this answer generates a problem; it’s my second aim (§2) to articulate this problem. Then, my third aim (§3) is to argue that this problem doesn’t extend to the sort of account of the meaning of ethical claims that I favor, which is like expressivism in rejecting a representationalist order of semantic explanation but unlike expressivism in basing an alternative order of semantic explanation on inferential role rather than expressive function.

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Matthew Chrisman
University of Edinburgh


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