Linguistic convention and worldly fact: Prospects for a naturalist theory of the a priori

Philosophical Studies 176 (7):1725-1752 (2019)
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Abstract
Truth by convention, once thought to be the foundation of a uniquely promising approach to explaining our access to the truth in nonempirical domains, is nowadays widely considered an absurdity. Its fall from grace has been due largely to the influence of an argument that can be sketched as follows: our linguistic conventions have the power to make it the case that a sentence expresses a particular proposition, but they can’t by themselves generate truth; whether a given proposition is true—and so whether the sentence that expresses it is true—is a matter of what the world is like, which means it isn’t a matter of convention alone. The consensus is that this argument is decisive against truth by convention. Strikingly, though, it has rarely been formulated with much precision. Here I provide a new rendering of the argument, one that reveals its structure and makes transparent just what assumptions it requires, and then I assess conventionalists’ prospects for resisting each of those assumptions. I conclude that the consensus is mistaken: contrary to what is almost universally thought, there remains a promising way forward for the conventionalist project. Along the way, I clarify conventionalists’ commitments by thinking about what truth by convention would need to be like in order for conventionalism to do the epistemological work it’s intended to do.
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First archival date: 2020-12-29
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