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Experimental philosophical semantics and the real reference of ‘Gödel’. Amir Horowitz The Open University of Israel amirho@openu.ac.il SPE6, June 2013 St. Petersburg. Purposes: 1. Defending the significance of experimental semantics;

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experimental philosophical semantics and the real reference of g del

Experimental philosophical semantics and the real reference of ‘Gödel’

Amir Horowitz

The Open University of Israel


SPE6, June 2013

St. Petersburg



    • 1. Defending the significance of experimental semantics;
    • 2. Addressing “the puzzle of experimental philosophy”: “How on earth could information about the statistical distribution of intuitions ever give us reason to accept or reject a particular philosophical view?" (Knobe and Nichols);
    • 3. Showing a path from the possibility of experimental semantics to intentional (semantic) irrealism.

Kripke’s attack on the descriptivist theory of names The Gödel/Schmidt alleged counterexample The status of the claim that ‘Gödel’ refers to Gödel - a universal intuition?Machery, Mallon, Nichols & Stich (MMNS) experimentalist challenge- carried out under the assumption that that claim is justified by an appeal to a “widely shared intuition“.The experiment: To whom does John refer by ‘Gödel’?

(A) the person who really discovered the incompleteness of arithmetic?

Most East Asians chose A

(B) the person who got hold of the manuscript and claimed credit for the work?

Most Westerners chose B



  • Cultural Semantic Divergence (CSD)
  • the universality assumption regarding the Kripkean intuition breaks down.
  • - Whose intuitions are to count?
  • It is “wildly implausible that the semantic intuitions of the narrow crosssection of humanity who are Western academic philosophers are a more reliable indicator of the correct theory of reference . . . than the different semantic intuitions of other cultural or linguistic groups.”
  • Thus, the methodology breaks down:armchair theory of reference cannot deliver.
critiques of the appeal to folk intuitions
Critiques ofthe appeal to folk intuitions

1. Deference to philosophy:

“We should instead [of conducting surveys among untrained people] expect that the relevant experts in the field of philosophical semantics will be better placed to give answers which focus on the right features of the cases and what they are supposed to be responding to… What is called for is the development of a discipline in which general expertise in the conduct of thought experiments is inculcated and in which expertise in different fields of conceptual inquiry is developed and refined. There is such a discipline. It is called philosophy.” (Kirk Ludwig)

What are intuitions?

Judgments held independently of justification.


Ludwig in fact appeals to reasoning. His point is underlain by:

    • (PG)Philosophers are good in arguments and theoretical considerations in semantic matters.
  • I grant (PG). But:
  • The judgments philosophers thus arrive at are not intuitions in the sense under discussion (“raw intuitions”).
  • 2. Ludwig’s case against X-Phi depends on an additional premise:
  • (TCS) Theoretical considerations (that do not employ raw intuitions) settle the issues of reference.
  • We shall see that rejecting TCS paves the way for X-Phi.
  • Also, the falsity of TCS is crucial for the possibility of significant
  • X- semantics:
  • Had there been theoretical considerations that completely settle questions of reference, X semantics would have lost its sting.
2 deference to philosophers their raw intuitions
2. Deference to philosophers (their raw intuitions):

A. Their training and expertise make them more sensitive to semantic facts (physician analogy).

    • Practice with arguments is irrelevant.
    • Practice with raw intuitions involves no feedback mechanism.

B. Devitt: The theories underlying experts’ intuitions are better.

  • If it’s theories of reference determination, we don’t need the intuitions to support them
  • Philosophers hold conflicting theories – some get it wrong

 Deference to philosophers’ raw intuitions is unjustified.

back to tcs do theoretical considerations settle issues of reference
Back to TCS:Do theoretical considerations settle issues of reference?

Kripke’s arguments for Gödel reference

  • Example: “[…] one can never be mistaken in uttering a sentence of the form ‘n is the F’, when ‘the F’ denotes, and is a definite description one associates with ‘n’, a proper name. But one can be mistaken in uttering ‘Peano is the discoverer of the axioms’, even if one associates ‘the discoverer of the axioms’ with ‘Peano’. The falsity of this general view is evidence that Kripke is right in claiming that ‘Gödel’ does not refer to Schmidt, in the Gödel-case.” (Deutch)
  • BUT:
  • This, at most, works negatively.

B. More than one way to describe the misidnetification:

  • The Kripkeanobjection sticks to –
  • (1) [It turned out that] Gödel did not prove the incompleteness theorem.
  • - true but incompatible with descriptivism.
  • But –
  • (2) "[It turned out that] the person we took to prove the incompleteness theorem did not in fact prove it".
  • - is also legitimate and is compatible with descriptivism.
  • Why assume that (1) is a proper way to describe the misidentification?
  • If it isn't taken for granted that 'Gödel' refers to Gödel, we cannot take it for granted that (1) is indeed a proper way to describe it.
  • This consideration relies on semantic intuitions, and is not resilient to conflicting intuitions. In fact, it begs the question.

Generalizing the point:

Theoretical considerations can only work relative to a framework that constrains ascriptions of reference (relative, e.g., to some semantic intuitions or a scheme thereof).

Without knowing how the concept of reference is ever applied, no pure a priori reflection on the concept of reference or of any representation (as if it contained information about its own intentional function) would tell us what the object of any representation is – some friction is required.



theoretical considerations cannot settle issues of reference,

and since

(2) deference to experts’ raw intuitions is unjustified,


(3) universality of intuitions is undermined,


Armchair philosophical semantics is in trouble

So X-Phi is significant:

It examines whether (3) is true and thus whether armchair philosophy is indeed in trouble

If indeed (3) is proven true (as it is), then X-Phi’s specific findings suggest the only viable alternative to theorizing about reference [if indeed ascriptions of reference have truth conditions]

But the X-Phi Puzzle looms: How can raw intuitions matter to reference? TBC

what do intuitions tell us the meaning of csd
What do intuitions tell us? The meaning of CSD

Claim : Asians use names descriptively; Westerners use them causally.

BUT different theories of reference need not differ in prediction with respect to linguistic use

The[G/S] issue: what’s the reference given the use.

- CSD =/= divergence of (1st order) linguistic use

The experiments don’t reveal the reference forthe groups (that they differ in reference); it’s reference according tothe groups (their practice of ascriptions)


What about reference itself?

Theoretical considerations don’t settle  no test for intuitions their evidential value is in doubt: Which of them (if any) should we trust?

  • Knobe’s and Nichols’ puzzle: “In a typical experimental philosophy paper, the evidence being gathered is about the percentages of people who hold various sorts of intuitions, but the theories under discussion are not about people's intuitions but about substantive philosophical questions in epistemology, metaphysics, or ethics. It may appear, at least on first glance, that there must be some sleight of hand involved here. How on earth could information about the statistical distribution of intuitions ever give us reason to accept or reject a particular philosophical view?“
  • X-Phi is challenged and armchair Phi is in trouble
  • Perhaps ascriptions of reference don’t have truth conditions?
  • - Or can X-Phi be nevertheless defended?

Intentional (semantic) irrealismtrivially resolves the puzzle.Intentional irrealism– qua constitutivity of practice of ascriptions [G or S – practice-dependent.. Coherence… ].If intuitions constitute reference, they trivially matter to it.But adopting Intentional realism is priecy.

  • The route from the possibility of experimental semantics to the irrealisticconstitutivity view:
  • The possibility of experimental semantics  theoretical considerations don’t settle issues of reference
  • Theoretical considerations don’t settle issues of reference  there is no practice-independent test for the truth of semantic intuitions [only coherence]
  • Practice independent semantic facts would be unknowable… they also make no difference to our use, and to our ascriptions, and have no explanatory power.
  • There are no practice-independent semantic facts.
  • X-semantics  intentional irrealism


  • Content ascriptions do have truth-conditions, but they are practice-dependence.
  • X-Phi of reference is significant
  • To whom does 'Gödel‘ “really” refer?
  • - The answer is practice-dependent, and as X-Phi shows, there is more than one practice.
  • If you want a theory of reference, you must do X-phi –
  • X-semantics.
  • That’s philosophy?
  • That’s what philosophy (of reference) turns out to be.