Saturday, September 05, 2009

Why Davidson is not Humpty Dumpty

I promised in the comments to the other post to say something about Davidson's argument in "Nice Derangement," which is of course the Ursprung of all this talk about rejecting the idea of "linguistic norms." (In the context of that discussion everybody is clear on this, except possibly me, but let me just tie up that loose end.) Unlike Bilgrami, Davidson does not direct his argument against Kripke and Burge in particular (and McDowell's somewhat differently focused criticism of same). Instead Davidson simply argues that we should not base our conception of language use, and thus of meaning, on the concept of convention, i.e., as manifested in linguistic rules which pre-exist and thereby determine the meanings of particular utterances on particular occasions, as if they were, in Davidson's dismissive terms, "portable interpreting machines."

Instead, the fundamental idea is that language is used above all to communicate (i.e. rather than to denote or represent, which it does in only a derivative manner). Similar ideas are already present in Davidson (q.v. "Reality Without Reference," and "Communication and Convention," in Inquiries), but here he spells out the implications more provocatively. Indeed, in asserting a primary role for the intentions of the speaker in determining meaning, he provokes suspicions of "internalism" and downright semantic nihilism.

The specific thesis he rejects is that "[t]he systematic knowledge or competence of the speaker or interpreter is learned in advance of occasions of interpretation and is conventional in character." Okay, that's pretty much what I said above. But later on, he elaborates: "[i]n principle communication does not demand that any two people speak the same language. What must be shared is the interpreter's and the speaker's understanding of the speaker's words." [438] Now there are some constraints on this sharing, some of which involve what can count as a possible communicative intention of the speaker in the given situation (here leaning on Grice's analysis of same); and it is these constraints which separate Davidson's account from nihilism and/or internalism.

Here Davidson points to Keith Donellan's previous (albeit somewhat differently focused – Davidson explains but I will skip that part) discussion of similar matters. Alfred MacKay had accused Donellan of Humpty Dumptyism ("When *I* use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean"), and in reply, Donellan "explains that intentions are connected with explanations and that you cannot intend to accomplish something by a certain means unless you believe or expect that the means will, or at least could, lead to the desired outcome. A speaker cannot, therefore, intend to mean something by what he says unless he believes his audience will interpret his words as he intends (the Gricean circle)." As quoted by Davidson, Donellan says:
If I were to end this reply to MacKay with the sentence 'There's glory for you' I would be guilty of arrogance and, no doubt, of overestimating the strength of what I have said, but given the background I do not think I could be accused of saying something unintelligible. I would be understood, and would I not have meant by 'glory' 'a nice knockdown argument'?
Davidson approves of this reply (and then explains a disagreement I have here elided). Okay, let me just quote the money paragraphs and then I'll stop.
Humpty Dumpty is out of it. He cannot mean what he says because he knows that 'There's glory for you' cannot be interpreted by Alice as meaning 'There's a nice knockdown argument for you.' We know he knows this because Alice says 'I don't know what you mean by "glory"', and Humpty Dumpty retorts, 'Of course you don't – til I tell you.' It is Mrs Malaprop and Donellan who interest me; Mrs Malaprop because she gets away with it without even trying or knowing, and Donellan because he gets away with it on purpose.

Here is what I mean by 'getting away with it': the interpreter comes to the occasion of utterance armed with a theory that tells him (or so he believes) what an arbitrary utterance of the speaker means. The speaker then says something with the intention that it will be interpreted in a certain way, and the expectation that it will be so interpreted. In fact this way is not provided for by the interpreter's theory. But the speaker is nevertheless understood; the interpreter adjusts his theory so that it yields the speaker's intended interpretation. The speaker has 'gotten away with it.' The speaker may or may not (Donellan, Mrs Malaprop) know that he has got away with anything; the interpreter may or may not know that the speaker intended to get away with anything. What is common to the cases is that the speaker expects to be, and is, interpreted as the speaker intended although the interpreter did not have a correct theory in advance. [440]
One more thing. I think that what this means is that when Wittgenstein asks us to consider whether I can say "bububu" and mean "if it does not rain I will go for a walk," the answer is yes, I can; but only after what he elsewhere calls "stagesetting." Before that, not so much (and certainly not by a Humpty Dumpty-like act of, say, inner ostention).

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bilgrami's critique of the Platonistic urge (or: why reject the very idea of semantic normativity?)

The previous post was a bit of a bear, wasn't it. (By the way, if you liked it, you may vote for it here - once they work out the bugs, that is.) Let's back up a bit, and see if we can't get clearer on the various players. The dialectic here is quite complicated, with strange bedfellows all over the place, and a number of distinct yet overlapping positions on the issue(s). (When we get back to vagueness, we'll see that there too the teams have a somewhat unusual alignment, which is what provoked Marinus's remarks about Wittgenstein in the LL post.)

Why would anyone deny that there were linguistic norms? If there were no such norms, it is easy to assume, there would be no constraint on meaning. An agent could mean anything by anything, simply by intending to do so (that is, that whatever "norms" constrained his meanings – if we still want to call them "norms" at all – are merely "internal"). But maybe this is correct. This position is called "internalism" or "individualism," and its Cartesian flavor is undeniable, thus attracting criticism from all across the philosophical spectrum (including from closet or residual Cartesians themselves). Rejecting internalism seems to require that there be external linguistic norms, and thus that I can make errors in meaning as determined by others.

But what is it to make an "error in meaning"? On one view, whenever I refer to an ocelot as a lynx, I make an error in judgment (i.e. get the world wrong/say something false), and in so doing, I misuse the word "lynx," which should only be applied to lynxes, and I thus "use the word wrongly" in this way. What determines that this is the "wrong" use of the word? Answer: linguistic rules ("norms"). Among those who take this view, there is some variation about what constitutes the linguistic norms in question: obviously other English speakers have something to do with it, but there is also some role to be played by ocelots and lynxes themselves (what role this is exactly will depend on how you feel about natural kinds and Kripkean metaphysical realism more generally).

Now we can respond to this conception of meaning errors in a few ways. A natural way is to object to a conflation between two cases: 1) using a word "wrongly" (coming out with the wrong fusebox), and 2) using it correctly to express what happens to be a false belief (I perfectly correctly characterize how things appear to me, but as it happens I am mistaken). In one sense, Davidsonians will be happy to make this distinction, as one of their (our) main concerns here is the holism of belief and meaning: that in attributing the two together, we have some interpretive leeway (or even indeterminacy) in saying what falls under what. This doesn't mean there are *no* constraints on interpretation – that someone's meaning may swing free entirely from what both subject and interpreter see as observable evidence for it; it just means that we have a better sense of how content is attributed in interpretation than do those with non-Davidsonian accounts of meaning.

However, even after distinguishing in this way, the question remains how to characterize the first case (and the sense of "correctly" in the second). We are nowhere near out of the woods. It can be a further Davidsonian point that we fall directly back into the Platonistic soup if in making this distinction we carve out a realm of purely or sui generis semantic normativity, or in other words, those same "linguistic norms." On this view, we need nothing so robust (or theoretically questionable) as linguistic normativity so construed to account for the actual constraints we make on meaning attribution. We can perfectly well, for example, think of such "mistakes" as prudential ones, in which the sound I make is inconveniently chosen to convey my perfectly determinate (and indeed often perfectly intelligible) meaning – a prudential "error," not a contravening of "linguistic norms" in the disputed sense.

This is the point Bilgrami is making in "Norms and Meaning," in which he criticizes Kripke and Burge, not for opposing "internalism" or "individualism" per se, but for not getting at the root of the problem, and thus perpetuating it in a new form. In hurrying to explain my attempted moderation of Bilgrami's rejection of semantic normativity, I kind of skipped over his reasons for rejecting it in the first place. So let me go back and say more about that.

In Kripke's and Burge's discussions, the "individualist" is pretty much someone with a "private language," someone whose inner intentions determine his meanings no matter what other people say, which is why the issue comes up in Kripke's book on Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations. Naturally Wittgenstein rejects this view; and so does Kripke, who takes the RFC (whether or not Wittgenstein himself does so) to require an appeal to a "social theory of meaning" to save us from the meaning-skeptical paradoxes to which "individualism" so construed famously leads. On Kripke's picture, if we are to account for meaning at all, *something* must provide the norms manifested in linguistic rules. In distancing itself from mere linguistic nihilism, individualism promises to locate the source of normativity in the speaker's linguistic dispositions. However, as the paradoxes show, such dispositions cannot do this, as they are compatible with *any* subsequent behavior. Nor, Kripke argues (following Wittgenstein at least this far), can we find the source in Platonistic "rigid rails" or whatnot; so "[w]hat then can the source of the desired normativity be but the social element?" ("Norms and Meaning," p. 126). The result is Kripke's "skeptical solution" to the meaning-skeptical paradox, an appeal to the dispositions of the surrounding linguistic community.

Akeel in a typical poseHowever, Bilgrami rejects this forced choice (dare I say "dualism"?) between anything-goes-if-I-say-so "individualism" on the one hand and external linguistic normativity on the other, such that we must locate a source for it in this way. Bilgrami frequently qualifies his criticism of Kripke and Burge, rejecting normativity "in the sense demanded by" K/B, or "such" normativity. (This is what encourages me to risk re-expansion of the concept into the semantic realm, or that is, recognizing a properly semantic component to our normative commitments.) Yet he is determined to pull the objectionable picture out by the roots, and takes so doing to require a stronger line against "linguistic norms" than has seemed feasible until Davidson's criticism.

Bilgrami's diagnosis goes like this:
[I]n rejecting the abstractions and metaphor of [platonistic] Meanings and 'rails' on the one hand and the internalistic mentalism of inner facts of the matter on the other, one has not yet succeeded in rejecting what in Platonism underlies the search for these things being rejected. Without rejecting this deeper urge, one will no doubt find another such thing to gratify the Platonist urge and indeed one has found it in society. This deeper urge underlying Platonism is precisely the drive to see concepts and terms as governed by such normativity. (p. 127)
John McDowell has of course also criticized Kripke's diagnosis and attempted solution to the paradoxes. In particular, McDowell too criticizes Kripke on his own terms - that his "skeptical solution," locating semantic norms in community practice, fails to do what it promises. And he too wants to dissolve the problem and allay the skeptical anxiety, just as does Bilgrami, only without giving up semantic normativity entirely. It is in trying make sense of McDowell's approach not only to this issue, but to normativity generally (especially in response to Davidson), that I am motivated to moderate Bilgrami's flat rejection of semantic normativity in the way I did the other day.

But let's see what Bilgrami says about McDowell. According to Bilgrami, McDowell says
that the way Kripke brings in the social is just an extension of the normativity-denying position of the dispositionalist because all Kripke does is bring in the dispositions of other members of society to account for an individual's meanings. So if he says something was missing in the individual dispositionalist account in the first place, then it will be missing in the social extension as well. This criticism seems to me to be fair enough, if one accepts the normativity demand as one finds it in Kripke and as one finds it in these others who think that Kripke has himself failed to live up to that demand. But I do not accept the demand in the first place. So mine is a much more fundamental criticism of Kripke. In my view, one should repudiate the 'Platonism' altogether (even in its ersatz forms) and in so doing give notions like meaning and concepts a much lower profile, whereby it does not matter very much that one is not able to say [referring here to the familiar examples in Kripke and Burge] that KWert is making a [properly semantic, or as Bilgrami puts it, "intrinsic lexical"] mistake on January 1st 1990 or that Burge's protagonist has all along made a mistake when he applies the term to a condition in his thigh. [...] [I]t makes no difference to anything at all, which answer we give. His behaviour is equally well explained no matter what we say. There is no problem, skeptical or otherwise. (p. 128)
Because of the holism of belief and meaning, we can attribute either concept, adjusting the belief component accordingly, and equally well explain the agent's behavior, which is after all the constitutive function of interpretation in the first place. This is the sense in which Bilgrami's is a Davidsonian view (and in response to this article, Davidson agrees heartily).

In this sense, again, I have no problem with this view. However, I think that here too (that is, w/r/t this view itself) we have other options in explaining the anti-Platonism we are after, options which leave the concept (or again, *a* concept) of "properly semantic normativity" in place. I was no doubt remiss in the previous post not to stress that it is only after the point has been understood that we safely can go on and try to accommodate McDowell's way of talking, with its characteristic stress on normative rather than (as readers of Mind and World will recognize as the criticism of Davidson there on analogous grounds) "merely causal" (or again, descriptive) relations between mental contents and the world they are about. When we do this we can see how McDowell's criticism can be properly directed. Davidson is not making a "Platonistic" error, as Kripke et. al. are, but in recoiling to a picture devoid of properly semantic normativity (properly construed), he misses a chance to tell a better story about normative commitment generally speaking, and thus recover gracefully from the error he really does make which results in his "coherentism," dismissed by McDowell as "frictionless spinning in a void" (again, see Mind and World, esp. ch. 1-2). I hope that helps place the other post in dialectical space (if not actually vindicate what I say there, and I still have some more fast talking to do on that score as well).

Okay, that's enough for Bilgrami. Next time: Davidson.