Williamson on Idiolects

In “Conceptual Truth” (Proc Aris Soc Supp 80: 1-41), Timothy Williamson makes the following argument. The context is that he’s attacking Jackson’s argument that there must be some common doctrine held by people who use terms with the same meaning.

Putnam’s insight is relevant far beyond the class of natural kind terms, as Burge observed (1986). Even where we cannot sensibly divide the linguistic community into experts and non-experts, the picture of a natural language as a cluster of causally interrelated but constitutively independent idiolects is still wrong, because it ignores the way in which individual speakers defer to the linguistic community as a whole. They use a word as a word of a public language, allowing its reference in their mouths to be fixed by its use over the whole community. Such verbal interactions between speakers can hold a linguistic practice together even in the absence of a common creed which they are all required to endorse.

Whatever its merits as an argument against Jackson, this seems to me to be a quite bad argument against the view of “natural language as a cluster of causally interrelated but constitutively independent idiolects”. The problem is that individuals may choose to defer to anyone at all. If Williamson’s argument is to work, the ‘linguistic community’ has to be the whole world, and there has to be just one natural language. But that’s crazy, so Williamson’s argument doesn’t work.

We’re all familiar with examples of common loan words like ‘Schadenfreude’. That looks like a case where speakers of English (or other languages) defer, to the extent they defer at all, to experts who are not English speakers. That is, they defer to Germans. But Germans aren’t part of the linguistic community of English speakers.

Now it might be argued that really English speakers are only deferring to other English speakers. After all, ‘Schadenfreude’ is a loanword that has been incorporated into English. But I don’t think this response can be maintained. For one thing, the first English speakers who started using ‘Schadenfreude’ did not defer to other English speakers. For another, the kind of pattern we see here, namely borrowing words from other languages, can happen all the time, and on an ad hoc basis. An individual speaker may choose to defer to English speakers, or Bengali speakers, or Latin speakers, or speakers of any other kind of language, on a moment to moment basis. If Ishani and I find it convenient to adopt some term from Bengali into the language we use to talk to one another, we can, and we are under no obligation to use that term the way that other English speakers do.

If Williamson’s argument against idiolects, and for public languages in a more traditional sense, is going to work, there needs to be a linguistic community that goes with each language. And speakers must be required, in virtue of speaking that language, to defer to it. But this isn’t how language works. We can choose to defer to whoever we want at any time. Or to not defer if we insist on using a term idiosyncratically.

It’s true, and important, that the meanings of terms in my mouth is determined in part by the usage of experts, other language users and so on. But this isn’t inconsistent with the picture of overlapping idiolects. I could well choose to have the meaning of ‘sofa’, or ‘Schadenfreude’, in my language determined by the usage pattern of a broader group. What would be a problem for the idiolect view is if I was required, in virtue of speaking the language of some community, to defer to that very community. But I’m not. And unless Williamson wants to say there is really only one linguistic community, consisting of the whole world, and one public language, which we all speak fragments of, I don’t see how facts about deference can help sustain the traditional picture of public languages.

4 Replies to “Williamson on Idiolects”

  1. Brian,

    you say: “What would be a problem for the idiolect view is if I was required, in virtue of speaking the language of some community, to defer to that very community. But I’m not.”
    However, leaving aside problem case like “Schadenfreude”, when I use very common English words like “spoon” or “mirror”, it seems that I am in fact required to defer to the community of speakers of English (whoever exactly they may be). For example, it would certainly be incorrect for me to start using the word “spoon” to talk about mirrors because I’ve started to defer to some strange German guru who tells me that spoons are really just mirrors.
    So, maybe some words, like “Schadenfreude” are simply unclear cases where it is indeterminate if one ought to defer to speakers of English, German or both. Nevertheless, Williamson’s view could still be correct with regard to more straightforward cases like “spoon”.

  2. It seems to me that, for any word, one can choose not to defer for its meaning. It doesn’t follow (and is in fact wrong) that one could choose not to defer for every word one spoke. The default position is deference. The way to not defer is to offer, or keep in mind, some stipulative definition; but one can’t even do that without employing words or concepts for which one does defer.

    You could make a graph with arrows from each person to the others to whose usage they defer when using particular words. I suspect this would show areas of intense interconnectivity, representing traditional public languages, with a few outlying arrows to other linguistic communities for cases like “Schadenfreude.”

  3. Joachim,

    I don’t know what it would be for Williamson’s view to be correct for some words but not others. If I’m allowed to pick and choose what the metasemantics will be for different words I use (on this word I defer to Bengali speakers, on this word I defer to English speakers, on this word I’m idiosyncratic) then we have the idiolects view, not the communal language view.


    It’s probably true that one has to defer for most of one’s language. But the quantifier scope is important here. What’s arguably true is that for most words, there has to be some linguistic community to which you defer. What isn’t true is that there has to be some linguistic community to which you defer for most words. I know people who communicate in mashups of two different languages, often constructing phrases from words in different languages. And I can easily imagine people who communicate in mashups of three or four languages. They will mostly be deferential in their usage, but there won’t be any one linguistic community to which they defer. And without that, the natural language view I think fails.

  4. Brian,

    assuming that you are right about all this, why would it be so bad to say that there really is only one public super-language? Or, more precisely, that my language community consists of all the people who use the same words as I do (which will probably be much less than the world’s whole population). So, if I use the word “Schadenfreude”, then I defer to the community of all the people who use that same word (putting aside the problem of word individuation for now). If that community largely agrees on how to use that word (which will be true of many, many common words), then I simply ought to defer to these consensual uses. If, on the other hand, that community is divided on certain uses of “Schadenfreude”, then I can go either way, and we would have a case of indeterminacy here. Do you think that there is any in principle problem with such a view, except that it does not map language communities nicely on the standard public languages?

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