Semantic Norms and Temporal Externalism

Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1996)
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There has frequently been taken to be a tension, if not an incompatibility, between "externalist" theories of content (which allow the make-up of one's physical environment and the linguistic usage of one's community to contribute to the contents of one's thoughts and utterances) and the "methodologically individualist" intuition that whatever contributes to the content of one's thoughts and utterances must ultimately be grounded in facts about one's own attitudes and behavior. In this dissertation I argue that one can underwrite such externalist theories within a methodologically individualistic framework by understanding semantic norms in terms of the need to reach, for each of one's terms, a type of "equilibrium." Each speaker's commitment to making her _own_ beliefs and applications consistent allows one to incorporate these 'external' factors into the contents of their thoughts and utterances in a way that remains methodologically individualistic. Methodologically individualistic accounts are typically taken to be unable to incorporate 'external' factors such as the world's physical make-up or communal usage because of arguments suggesting that the individual's own beliefs and usage underdetermine or even misidentify what, according to externalist accounts, they mean by their terms. These arguments, however, only seem plausible if one presupposes a comparatively impoverished conception of the individual's beliefs. The beliefs a speaker associates with a given term extend far beyond the handful of sentences they would produce if asked to list such beliefs. In particular, speakers have an implicit, but rich, understanding of their language, their world, and the relation between them. Speakers typically understand languages as shared temporally extended practices about which they can be, both individually and collectively, mistaken. Once this conception of language is taken into account, the ascriptions which purportedly forced 'non-individualistic' conceptions of content upon us (particularly ascriptions which seemed to tie what we meant to social use rather than our own beliefs) turn out to be ultimately grounded in the individual's own beliefs. Indeed, our self-conception does much more than merely underwrite 'non-individualistic' ascriptions..

Author's Profile

Henry Jackman
York University


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