I’m going to be commenting on Michael Glanzberg’s Context, Content and Relativism (PDF) at Bellingham. The paper is very good, as you’d expect, but I think one of the arguments he is responding to is interestingly different to the argument that I, and some others, have made. (This isn’t to say that some people have also made the argument that Michael makes of course. There are lots of relativists out there!)
What’s under debate is whether a broadly contextualist (what some call an indexicalist) account of epistemic modals and predicates of personal taste are correct. I’ll call such a few contextualism in what follows. Michael suggests that relativists have been moved by the following consideration.
- If contextualism is true, then the metasemantic theory of how context sets the value of variables is very unsystematic.
- Metasemantics is never that unsystematic.
- So, contextualism is false.
Michael argues, correctly in my view, that premise 2 fails. Ironically, that I’m moved by goes quite the opposite way. It’s more like the following.
- If contextualism is true, then either the metasemantic theory of how context sets the value of variables is very systematic, or belief reports involving epistemic modals or predicates of personal taste are non-compositional, or epistemic modals and predicates of personal taste are monsters.
- Metasemantics is never that systematic.
- Those belief reports are compositional.
- Epistemic modals and predicates of personal taste are not monsters.
- So, contextualism is false.
I’ll defend premise 2, then premise 1. I’ll sort of take premises 3 and 4 for granted.
Consider the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘they’. Here’s one theory about their meaning. The two words are synonyms in the sense that they have exactly the same semantics. Each of them is a function from context to groups of individuals. The semantics have nothing more to say about their meaning. It so happens that the meta-semantics requires that the value of ‘we’ is a group that includes the speaker, and the value of ‘they’ is a group that (at least usually) doesn’t. But that isn’t something that follows from the meaning of the two words.
Now I think this is intuitively crazy. It’s not a mere metasemantic regularity that ‘we’ denotes a group that includes the speaker; it is part of the meaning of the word ‘we’ that it is a first-person plural pronoun.
But how could we argue against the crazy view? I think we could appeal to the following principle. It’s a general rule that there are not any interesting meta-semantic generalisations about the function that maps contexts to values of variables. If there are any such interesting generalisations, then they are parts of the meaning of the word in question. The problem with the crazy view is that it allows for an interesting meta-semantic generalisation concerning ‘we’. By some decent principle of reasoning (affirming the consequent, induction on single case, etc) I infer this is generally impermissible. Hence premise 2.
Now for premise 1. Consider the following example sentences.
(4) Roller coasters are fun.
(5) Andy might be in Prague.
A contextualist theory of ‘fun’ will assign a semantic value to an utterance of (4), in context, something like the following. That sentence is true iff roller coasters are above a certain standard s of funness for experiencers e. Perhaps the context will assign s directly, or perhaps it will assign some comparison class c and s is computed from that. This won’t matter to us, because we’ll mostly be interested in e.
A serious infelicity arises when (4) is uttered by someone who doesn’t in fact enjoy roller coasters. It’s clearly misleading for such a person to utter (4). I’ll assume, as seems plausible, that such an utterance would in fact be false. The natural conclusion is that e must include the speaker. There’s nothing anti-contextualist about that; compare the true contextualist story about the plural pronoun ‘we’.
A similar thing arises with (5). The contextualist story is something like this. (5) is true iff Andy’s being in Prague is not ruled out by a body of information that stands in some epistemic relation R to some agents a. Perhaps R is a constant, perhaps not. R is never stronger than knows, but perhaps it is (always or sometimes) weaker. Again, we’ll focus on the agents a.
If the speaker knows Andy is not in Prague, (5) is misleading. A natural inference is that it is in fact, false. Again, the natural conclusion is that a must include the speaker, and again there is nothing anti-contextualist about that.
Now in both cases we could have this generalisation be a semantic fact or a meta-semantic fact. Let’s assume for now it is part of the semantics. If so, consider what happens in (6) and (7).
(6) Tyler thinks that roller coasters are fun.
(7) Ishani thinks that Andy might be in Prague.
Imagine that I utter both sentences, and that the contextualist account of the embedded claims is correct. Now intuitively for (6) and (7) to be true, neither Tyler nor Ishani have to be thinking about me. Tyler just has to be thinking about roller coasters, and Ishani about Andy’s possible locations. So in these cases, the variables e and a don’t have to include the speaker, though they do intuitively have to include the subject of the belief report.
There are two ways this could, I think, happen.
First, it could be the case that although it is part of the meaning of ‘fun’ and ‘might’ as they occur unembedded that the variables e and a include the speaker, this is not part of their meaning when they are in embedded contexts. That is a way compositionality could fail.
Second, it could be that these terms are monsters. When we have a bound usage of the terms, the variables get their values not from the way things are in reality, but from the higher context of the sentence. So just as we can imagine a language where “Fred thinks that we are idiots” is true iff Fred thinks that he and the people salient to him are idiots, because ‘we’ becomes a bound variable under embedding, we can imagine that the values for e and a take values salient to the thinker in propositional attitude ascriptions. This is conceptually possible, but it would make ‘fun’ and ‘might’ into, in David Kaplan’s sense, monsters.
So I think we’ve now convered the field of ways in which we can reconcile the data about (4) through (7). Either we have to say that the facts about (4) and (5) are generated by a systematic meta-semantic fact: the relevant group always includes the speaker. Or we can say it is a semantic fact, but a fact that goes away under embedding, or the fact stays, but it is a fact about a monster. So premise 1 is true.
This is, to say the least, a rather complicated argument. And I’m sure there are many many ways to respond. Most obviously, one can come up with alternative explanations of the data, explanations that show premise one is not true. But it is interestingly different from the argument Michael detects in other relativist work.