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Linguistic Intuitions. Michael Johnson. Outline. 0. Outline 1. Metasemantics 2. Intuitions 3. A Puzzle about Intuitions 4. Confronting the Puzzle 5. A Realist Solution 6. Conclusions. 1. Metasemantics. Lexical vs. Meta- Semantics. Lexical Semantics. Metasemantics.

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linguistic intuitions

Linguistic Intuitions

Michael Johnson

  • 0. Outline
  • 1. Metasemantics
  • 2. Intuitions
  • 3. A Puzzle about Intuitions
  • 4. Confronting the Puzzle
  • 5. A Realist Solution
  • 6. Conclusions
lexical vs meta semantics
Lexical vs. Meta- Semantics

Lexical Semantics


Answers the question:

In virtue of what do individual words mean what they do, rather than something else, or nothing at all?

Answers the question:

What do individual words mean?

today s talk
Today’s Talk

Today I’ll be concerned with metasemantic accounts of reference: that is, accounts of why words have the referents they do, rather than other referents or no referents at all.

the descriptive theory of reference
The Descriptive Theory of Reference

According to Descriptivism, names are disguised definite descriptions.

Descriptivism: A name refers to the object, if there is one, that uniquely satisfies the description whose disguise it is.

Tired example: ‘Aristotle’ might be associated with the description ‘last great philosopher of Antiquity.’ So ‘Aristotle’ refers to Aristotle because Aristotle is the last great philosopher of antiquity.

causal theories of reference
Causal Theories of Reference

According the Causal Theories, causal, lawful, or informational connections between word and world make it the case that words mean what they do.

One example of a causal theory is this dumbed-down version of Evans:

Evans: A name N in a society S refers to the object that is the dominant causal source of S’s N-involving beliefs.

Example: ‘Aristotle’ refers to Aristotle because it is largely Aristotle’s doings and goings that are the cause of our ‘Aristotle’-involving beliefs.

the final frontier
The Final Frontier
  • Let’s suppose that most Americans believe all & only the following about Neil Armstrong:
  • He was the first man in space.
  • He was an American.
  • In this scenario, most Americans are wrong. Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.
the anti descriptivist intuition
The Anti-Descriptivist Intuition

If you accepted my last claim, that in the scenario described, most Americans are wrong that Neil Armstrong was the first man in space, then you have anti-descriptivist intuitions. There are only two candidates for the description ‘Neil Armstrong’ is a disguise for:

1. ‘The first man in space’

2. ‘An American who was the first man in space’

the anti descriptivist intuition1
The Anti-Descriptivist Intuition

1. ‘The first man in space’

If (1) determines the referent of ‘Neil Armstrong,’ then most Americans are right, because Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.

the anti descriptivist intuition2
The Anti-Descriptivist Intuition

2. ‘An American who was the first man in space’

If (2) determines the referent of ‘Neil Armstrong,’ then most Americans are neither wrong nor right, because no one was an American who was the first man in space.

the evidential relevance of intuitions
The Evidential Relevance of Intuitions

Many philosophers have found this sort of argument compelling. Many have converted to some or another causal theory of reference because of just such arguments.

But why? Why are intuitions about these cases any sort of evidence at all?

the evidential relevance of intuitions1
The Evidential Relevance of Intuitions

After all, nothing about Evans’ theory predicts, entails, or even suggests that if it’s true, we should have intuitions that accord with it.

And nothing about Descriptivism says we can’t be convinced it’s false, even when it’s true.

Both theories are equally compatible with the fact that we have the intuitions we do. So the intuitions just don’t seem to be evidence one way or another.

today s talk1
Today’s Talk

In this talk, I am going to claim that our intuitions are evidence for which theory is true. But also, in a deeper sense, I’m going to claim that neither theory is true.

a crude model of semantic intuitions
A Crude Model of Semantic Intuitions

We are given a story, S (e.g. the Neil Armstrong Story).

We are asked to decide on the basis of the story whether some conclusion C follows, e.g. whether most Americans’ beliefs are wrong.

We take S, add to it our background beliefs B, and answer:

  • “Yes” if we compute C from S & B.
  • “No” if we compute not-C from S & B.
  • “I don’t know/ underspecified” if we cannot compute either C or not-C from S & B.
a reconstruction
A Reconstruction

Add in the background beliefs B1 and B2 to the Neil Armstrong story S:

B1: Neil Armstrong is the dominant causal source of most Americans’ ‘Neil Armstrong’ involving beliefs.

B2: A name N in a society S refers to the object that is the dominant causal source of S’s N-involving beliefs.

S & B1 & B2 entail C, that most Americans are wrong.

So, assuming everyone believes B1, the fact that we are inclined to answer “C is true” is evidence that we hold B2. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have the intuitions we do.

halfway there
Halfway There

We’re closer now to solving our puzzle. Now we can see how our intuitions about cases are evidentially relevant to what metasemantic theories we (tacitly) believe.

What remains is to provide a bridge between what metasemantic theories we (tacitly) believe and what metasemantic theories are actually true. Why is believing a certain metasemantic theory evidence of its truth?

the synthetic a priori
The Synthetic A Priori

The reason the gap seems difficult to bridge, though, is that it’s an instance of a much older problem.

How could our intuitions, which are supposedly a priori, and not derived from experience, provide us knowledge of which metasemantic theory was true, which is a synthetic fact.

How is the synthetic a priori possible?

four ways to bridge trivialize the gap
Four Ways to Bridge/ Trivialize the Gap
  • Anti-Intuitionist Realism: Deny that our intuitions have any evidential relevance to what metasemantic theory is true.
  • Semantic Skepticism: Deny that there are facts about reference and truth, explain our intuitions in a way that doesn’t advert to ‘tracking the truth.’
  • Intuitionist Realism: Claim that we have genuine knowledge of mind-independent semantic facts without empirical investigation and explain how this is so.
  • Idealism: Claim that the semantic facts are constituted/ determined by mind-dependent facts like our intuitions/ our dispositions to have certain intuitions.
option 1 anti intuitionist realism
Option 1: Anti-Intuitionist Realism

“I,” says the anti-intuitionist, “don’t think that intuitions have any evidential relevance to what metasemantic theory is true. You have to go investigate the facts before you can know what things mean or why they mean it…

option 1 anti intuitionist realism1
Option 1: Anti-Intuitionist Realism

“You think ‘cow’ applies to those brown mooing things because they’re what normally cause you to say things like ‘Look at that cow!’ But you don’t know that. ‘Cow’ could be true of all and only isosceles triangles, because it’s most frequently spoken on a Wednesday.

What metasemantic theory is true is an a posteriori matter completely. You don’t know what ‘cow’ means or why until you have a PhD in linguistics and have done fieldwork in English-speaking countries.”


Here’s what I meant by giving the anti-intuitionist that farcical speech:

If intuitions are evidentially irrelevant to which metasemantic theory is true, then those things that are evidentially relevant had better be close by, noticeable, and ubiquitous, otherwise we risk concluding that none of us know what ‘cow’ means.


Now I don’t actually know of any Anti-Intuitionist Realists, because the intuition haters I’m acquainted with are all skeptics.

I’m happy to join the anti-intuitionist if no other option on my list pans out.

But, in the absence of a really good story about what other than intuitions is evidence for which metasemantic theory is true, the view does sound a little… crazy.

troubles for anti intuitionist realism
Troubles for Anti-Intuitionist Realism

Suppose a descriptivist traveler visits a “causal” community and attempts to learn the correct metasemantic theory for the natives.

What differences will he notice about their behavior that will “tip him off” that they’re not descriptivists?

troubles for anti intuitionist realism1
Troubles for Anti-Intuitionist Realism

At least in the literature (e.g. Machery, Mallon, Nichols & Stich, 2004), when it’s claimed that two communities instantiate different metasemantic theories, the only difference described is the intuitions of the communities. But again, that is at best evidence of what the speakers believe.

option 2 semantic skepticism
Option 2: Semantic Skepticism

“I,” says the Semantic Skeptic, “don’t accept that intuitions have evidential relevance to which metasemantic theory of reference is true.

In fact, I don’t accept that anything has evidential relevance to which metasemantic theory is true, because none of them are.

There is no reference and thus there is no true theory of why things refer to what they do. They don’t.”

inverting the theory of reference
Inverting the Theory of Reference

Hartry Field (1990) has proposed a particularly “Humean” skeptical solution to the problem of the synthetic a priori in linguistic intuitions.

inverting the theory of reference1
Inverting the Theory of Reference

Field’s idea is that we accept a primitive inference rule: from “x is the dominant causal source of our N-involving beliefs” to derive “N refers to x”

inverting the theory of reference2
Inverting the Theory of Reference

But that’s the whole story.

Just as Hume thought there was no causation, but we were primitively disposed to reason as if there were, Field thinks there is no reference, we just reason as though there is.

semantic skepticism
Semantic Skepticism

I’ll reserve comment until later as to what reasons there are or at least could be to reject Semantic Skepticism.

option 3 intuitionist realism
Option 3: Intuitionist Realism

“I,” says the Intuitionist Realist, “am exactly the person for whom this problem is a problem for. So I must say something about it. Let me see here…”

realist response 1 not a real williamson quote
Realist Response #1 (not a real Williamson quote)

“Look, linguistic intuitions are intuitions (duh). If you’re gonna start being skeptical about some intuitions, you won’t have any principled place to stop. So unless you’re prepared to doubt all of science, why not just accept linguistic intuitions?”

realist response 1
Realist Response #1

But I am not an intuition skeptic.

I like intuitions. Or at least, linguistic intuitions.

I just want to know what justifies them, and this response just says: “Stop asking so many questions!”

realist response 2 not an actual bealer quote
Realist Response #2 (not an actual Bealer quote)

“Look, linguistic intuitions are intuitions (duh). Intuitions are a basic source of evidence. They’re like seeing or smelling. You don’t go around doubting that a foul stench justifies the belief that there’s something stinky there. So don’t go doubting your linguistic intuitions either.”

realist response 2
Realist Response #2

The first thing to say is that this response is pure epistemic mysterianism. Not even Kant was satisfied with answers of that form, and he believed in the synthetic a priori.

realist response 21
Realist Response #2

The second thing to say is that the response isn’t just mysterian, it’s mistaken. If we could directly grasp the philosophical truths, we wouldn’t disagree with one another on philosophical matters so much.

For the intuition-defender, this is the problem of conflicting intuitions.

the problem of conflicting intuitions
The Problem of Conflicting Intuitions

Machery, Mallon, Nichols, and Stich (2004) argue, from experiments they conducted on Western and East Asian subjects, that Westerners have intuitions that align with causal theories whereas East Asians have more descriptivist intuitions.

I won’t argue that thatistrue, I’ll just point out that if it’s true, it gives the lie to the idea that we have direct intuitive access to the metasemantic facts. Two people with conflicting intuitions can’t both be right.

option 4 idealism
Option 4: Idealism

“I,” says the Idealist, “have no problem of explaining how our intuitions are evidence for the semantic facts.

According to me, the semantic facts depend upon, are grounded in, hold in virtue of, and are made true by our intuitions.

If we had different intuitions, the semantic facts would be different.”

two types of idealist
Two Types of Idealist

Formal Idealist: The formal (structural) facts about our intuitions ground the semantic facts for the language we speak.

Semantic Idealist: The semantic facts about our intuitions (the content of those intuitions) ground the semantic facts for the language we speak.

formal idealism e g conceptual role semantics
Formal Idealism e.g. Conceptual Role Semantics

According to Conceptual or Inferential Role Semantics, a word means what it does because of the (formal) role it plays in inferences involving it. If you change those inferences– including the “intuition” inferences from a story to a judgment about the story– then you change what the word means.

formal idealism a k a conceptual role semantics
Formal Idealism a.k.a. Conceptual Role Semantics

This would explain how the synthetic a priori is possible.

Unfortunately, CRS has to deny our intuitions: the anti-descriptivist intuitions are just as much anti-CRS intuitions. “Meaning ain’t in the head” is the slogan.

semantic idealism e g intention based semantics
Semantic Idealism, e.g. Intention Based Semantics

“The intention theorist seeks to reduce the having of content of marks and sounds to the having of content of psychological states…”

semantic idealism e g intention based semantics1
Semantic Idealism, e.g. Intention Based Semantics

“Then, having reduced all questions about the semantical features of public language items to questions about mental content, he sees his task as having to answer those further questions, but free now to pursue those answers without any further appeal to public language semantical properties.” (1982)

fodor against semantic idealism
Fodor against Semantic Idealism

“[W]ords can’t have their meanings just because their users undertake to pursue some or other linguistic policies; or, indeed, because of any purely mental phenomenon, anything that happens purely ‘in your head.’…

fodor against semantic idealism1
Fodor against Semantic Idealism

“…Your undertaking to call John ‘John’ doesn’t, all by itself, make ‘John’ a name of John. How could it? For ‘John’ to be John’s name, there must be some sort of real relation between the name and its bearer; and intentions don’t, per se, establish real relations…”

fodor against semantic idealism2
Fodor against Semantic Idealism

“…This is because, of course, intentions are (merely) intentional; you can intend that there be a certain relation between ‘John’ and John and yet there may be no such relation. A fortiori, you can intend that there be a semantical relation… and yet there may be no such relation…”

fodor against semantic idealism3
Fodor against Semantic Idealism

“…Mere undertakings connect nothing with nothing; ‘intentional relation’ is an oxymoron. For there to be a relation between ‘John’ and John, something has to happen in the world. That’s part of what makes the idea of a causal construal of semantic relations so attractive.”

twin earth
Twin Earth

Let’s consider another case where certain intuitions have been taken to support causal theories over descriptive ones: Putnam’s Twin Earth.

Twin Earth is a planet on the other side of the galaxy. In most ways, it is just like Earth, down to the smallest detail. You have a twin on Twin Earth who’s just like you, I have a twin who’s just like me, they’re sitting in a twin seminar room, and my twin is giving a talk just like this one to your twin. And so on and so forth.


Twin Earth

twin earth1
Twin Earth

There is however one difference between Earth and Twin Earth. On Earth, all the watery stuff is H2O. On Twin Earth, the watery stuff is composed of a complicated chemical compound we can abbreviate XYZ.

H2O and XYZ look and behave exactly the same. They taste the same, they boil at the same temperatures at the same distance above sea level, their conductance is the same, etc.

twin earth2
Twin Earth

Consider two twins, Arnold on Earth and Twin Arnold on Twin Earth.

Neither knows any chemistry. What they know/ believe about the stuff they call ‘water’ is the same. Q: Would it be true for Arnold to call the stuff on Twin Earth ‘water’?

twin earth3
Twin Earth

The intuition is supposed to be that, no, Arnold’s word ‘water’ is true of all an only H2O, whereas Twin Arnold’s word ‘water’ is true of all and only XYZ

a realist explanation
A Realist Explanation

Let me suggest the following explanation for the intuition.

The reason Arnold’s word ‘water’ is true of all and only H2O, and not true of any XYZ, is that were he to know all the relevant facts (about the chemistry and distribution of the two substances) and were in a position to distinguish samples of the two substances, he would apply ‘water’ to H2O but not XYZ.

a realist explanation1
A Realist Explanation

I want to emphasize that this is a Realist and not an Idealist story.

The reason why Arnold’s word ‘water’ means what it does is that he would act in a certain manner if certain very specific circumstances obtained. This could arise because he intended to act in that manner, but it is not merely his intention but his disposition to follow through on it that makes his words mean what they do (according to the claim).

a realist explanation2
A Realist Explanation

The view is this.

Suppose A’s and B’s both cause you to apply some term T.

However, were you to know about the difference between A’s and B’s and be able to distinguish A’s from B’s as such, you would apply T to A’s but not B’s.

Then, in that case, T would mean A-but-not-B.

how you know what you mean 1
How You Know What You Mean 1

So how can you know, without getting a PhD in linguistics and doing fieldwork, that your word ‘cow’ is true of cows and not, say, isosceles triangles?

Easy. You know that you would apply ‘cow’ to cow and wouldn’t apply it to isosceles triangles were you to be able to tell the difference between the two, because you can tell the difference, and you do apply ‘cow’ to cow and not isosceles triangles.

how you know what you mean 2
How You Know What You Mean 2

What if you’re like Arnold though. What if you can’t tell the difference between H2O and XYZ? Suppose someone confronts you with the Twin Earth case. How do you know your intuition is reliable– that under those circumstances, your word ‘water’ would mean H2O and not XYZ?

how you know what you mean 21
How You Know What You Mean 2

Recall that the prompt stipulates that you know all the relevant information. It tells you that there’s a difference between the watery substances on Earth and Twin Earth, and it tells you that H2O is what you’ve got on your planet.

If you intuit that ‘water’ only applies to the thing on your planet, that’s good evidence that were you to actually be in epistemically ideal circumstances, you would only use ‘water’ for the stuff on your planet.

linguistic intuitions and metasemantics
Linguistic Intuitions and Metasemantics

So, can we use intuitions to tell us which metasemantic theory (descriptivism, Evans’ theory, my theory, etc.) is true?

My considered view is: it depends.

linguistic intuitions and metasemantics1
Linguistic Intuitions and Metasemantics

If I’m wrong, then since for Williamsonian reasons we shouldn’t be intuition skeptics, we can use intuitions as we normally would, which is: take them as evidence but not super-evidence.

However, it does seem that since most metasemantic theories outside of a small class (which includes my view) don’t have any plausible story to tell about the epistemology, we should probably correspondingly discount those intuitions.

linguistic intuitions and metasemantics2
Linguistic Intuitions and Metasemantics

And the intuitions are even less helpful if I’m right:

If my theory is true, then our linguistic intuitions are evidence for what our words mean. So we can know ‘a priori’ without empirical investigation, what we mean. If the theory is true.

But we cannot infer, from the meaning facts, to the theory that best fits them. Because we had to assume that theory in the first place to arrive at the meaning facts!

linguistic intuitions and metasemantics3
Linguistic Intuitions and Metasemantics

It follows, or so I claim, that metasemantic theorizing is not to be done by intuition. We can’t use Armstrong/ Gagarin, Gödel/ Schmidt, H2O/ XYZ, etc. cases to determine which metasemantic theory is true.

metasemantic theory building
Metasemantic Theory-Building

Instead, we must establish the role that meaning plays in our ultimate theories of cognition and communication.

Until then, we are subject to attack from the Semantic Skeptic, who claims there is nothing to be explained by, and hence no reason to believe in, semantic properties construed Realistically.