What Are Words? Comments on Kaplan (1990), on Hawthorne and Lepore, and on the Issue

Journal of Philosophy 108 (9):486-503 (2011)
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Under what conditions are two utterances utterances of the same word? What are words? That these questions have not received much attention is rather surprising: after all, philosophers and linguists frequently appeal to considerations about word and sentence identity in connection with a variety of puzzles and problems that are foundational to the very subject matter of philosophy of language and linguistics.1 Kaplan’s attention to words is thus to be applauded. And there is no doubt that his discussion contains many useful insights. Nevertheless, we find his picture deeply flawed for a variety of crosscutting reasons. Our aim in this paper is to further advance an understanding of the nature of words, both by remedying the problems with Kaplan’s account, and also by achieving a suitable perspective on what the metaphysical investigation of word identity can hope to achieve. Our discussion divides into four parts. In Part One, we examine and critique Kaplan’s discussion of a contrast integral to his own account: that between the type-token and the stage-continuant conceptions of words. In Part Two, we present three constraints on any account of words and two further themes in Kaplan’s discussion central to his conception of words – the role of repetition and the constitutive authority of intentions. While these ideas have laudable motivations, we argue they are far from the best way of making good on the insights that drive them. The final two sections take a skeptical turn. In Part Three, we express doubt about Kaplan’s presumption of the importance of what he calls ‘common currency names’, thus raising a suspicion that he may be in pursuit of chimera. Finally, in Part Four, we express pessimism about whether interesting answers to question above will be forthcoming, and suggest that the legitimacy of our word ontology need not depend on the availability of such answers. Along the way, we tease apart a number of metaphysical questions in the vicinity of the topic of word individuation – questions that are often not disentangled – and consider how the discussion of the previous parts bears on them..

Author Profiles

Ernie LePore
Rutgers - New Brunswick
John Hawthorne
Australian Catholic University


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