Lewis, Meaning and Naturalness

I spent last weekend at the excellent OPW@25 conference at UMass. Philip Bricker and the students there did a really great job of putting together a wonderful conference. My primary role there was to comment on Laurie Paul’s paper on mereological bundle theory. I possibly wasn’t the most helpful commentator, since Laurie’s project is to try to do metaphysics with as few categories as possible (ideally, one), and I think having lots of categories in one’s theory is often a good thing. But I think the audience at least provided more helpful feedback than I did!

John Hawthorne presented a paper on, among other things, the role of naturalness in Lewis’s philosophy, and this touched on some issues about the role of naturalness in Lewis’s theory of meaning. In particular, he raised some objections to the idea that meaning might, in some sense, be a function of use and Lewisian naturalness. I pushed back a little on this, mostly by arguing that we could avoid some problems John raised by adding more into the notion of use.

On the train home, I tried to write up exactly what I meant by ‘use’ that could make my arguments at the conference worked. This got more complicated than I expected, and by the time I was done, I had a short paper on naturalness in Lewis’s theory of meaning.

The paper is incredibly drafty, even by my standards. (Though I’m very happy that my current work setup means that my zeroth draft papers have full bibliographies with hyperlinked DOIs.) And it owes a lot to Wolfgang Schwarz’s Lewisian Meaning without Naturalness.

The short version of the paper is that when thinking about Lewisian approaches to meaning, we have to distinguish between metasemantics, or the giant project of locating linguistic meaning in the pattern of noises we find in nature, from applied semantics, or the project of working out the meaning of meaning of one particular term in a language about which we know a lot. Naturalness matters to both projects. That’s because naturalness matters to rationality, and rationality matters to assignments of mental content, and linguistic meaning is ultimately reducible to mental states, in much the way described in “Languages and Language”. But when we’re doing metasemantics, there’s just no way to disentangle the role naturalness plays from whatever we might mean by ‘use’; roughly, in the sense relevant to metasemantics, use is what it is in virtue of naturalness. On the other hand, in applied semantics, we can say somewhat more clearly what we mean by use. And when we do that, it will fall out of a broader Lewisian theory that (predicate) meaning is given by use (in that sense) plus naturalness.

Obviously there was a lot more interesting that happened at the conference, much of which hopefully we’ll see in print in the near future. The only one I found an online draft of after a quick search was Cian Dorr’s How to be a Modal Realist, but I’m sure I missed some. Anyway, it was a great conference, and thanks to everyone at UMass for inviting me, and for putting on such a good event!

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