Molecularity in the Theory of Meaning and the Topic Neutrality of Logic

In Antonio Piccolomini D'Aragona (ed.), Perspectives on Deduction: Contemporary Studies in the Philosophy, History and Formal Theories of Deduction. Springer Verlag. pp. 187-209 (2024)
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Without directly addressing the Demarcation Problem for logic—the problem of distinguishing logical vocabulary from others—we focus on distinctive aspects of logical vocabulary in pursuit of a second goal in the philosophy of logic, namely, proposing criteria for the justification of logical rules. Our preferred approach has three components. Two of these are effectively Belnap’s, but with a twist. We agree with Belnap’s response to Prior’s challenge to inferentialist characterisations of the meanings of logical constants. Belnap argued that for a logical constant to exist, its rules must be conservative over a previously given consequence relation and guarantee the uniqueness of the constant. The twist is that we require logical vocabulary to be provably conservative, not over a previously given formal consequence relation, but over a previously given meaningful vocabulary of a language. Uniqueness is also a feature defined in terms of provability: if two syntactically distinguished expressions are governed by the same rules, then formulas with them as main operators are interderivable. Belnap’s criteria are not only those for the existence of a logical constant, but more: they are what distinguishes logical vocabulary from all other expressions. It is the defining mark of a logical constant that it is provably conservative over the fragment of the language which excludes it and that its rules guarantee its uniqueness. The third component is the topic neutrality of logic. The provable conservativeness of logic over a previously given vocabulary of a language is motivated, in part, by appeal to molecularism in the theory of meaning. Molecularity is a feature endorsed by the theory of meaning as a whole, so it does not distinguish logical constants from other expressions. The same is true for conservativeness. We argue that molecularity, and hence conservativeness, are implicit presuppositions of speakers’ use of language: the addition of new vocabulary to a language is presupposed to be conservative. But this presupposition is one that we should be able reflectively to endorse (such as when attempting a rational reconstruction of the use of the vocabulary). Thus, where conservativeness is found to fail, this defect should be remedied and the use of the vocabulary corrected (as in classical negation) or excised altogether (as in pejoratives). We go on to characterise a notion of topic neutrality, which we argue applies to logical vocabulary. We then note that reflective endorsement of the conservativeness of a topic neutral vocabulary requires a proof that the vocabulary is conservative relative to any base vocabulary. Thus we require that logical vocabulary be demonstrably conservative. Allying this requirement, distinctive of logic, to a general consideration about the commitments of assertion yields a mode of justification for logical constants akin to some conceptions of Harmony, i.e., to the idea that the consequences of assertion of a logical complex need to be warranted by the grounds and ought to be the strongest consequences warranted by the grounds. Intuitionistic logic acquires a somewhat familiar justification but emanating from a new motivation.

Author Profiles

Nils Kürbis
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Bernhard Weiss
University of Cape Town


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