Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Modal Status of Semantic Facts

I think this is probably one of the fundamental issues in metasemantics: the modal status of semantic facts. Consider the following thought experiment:
Thought Experiment 1:
Agent A lives in a certain valley and speaks a language $L_1$ in which "snow" refers to snow.
Agent B lives in neighbouring valley, and speaks a language $L_2$ in which "snow" refers to coal.
In this scenario, it seems to me that $L_1$ and $L_2$ are distinct. Consider the following temporal thought experiment:
Thought Experiment 2:
Agent A speaks a language $L_1$ in which "snow" refers to snow.
One day, agent A is hit by lightning, and afterwards, speaks a language $L_2$ in which "snow" refers to coal.
In this scenario, it seems to me that $L_1$ and $L_2$ are also distinct. Consider the following counterfactual thought experiment:
Thought Experiment 3:
Agent A speaks a language $L_1$ in which "snow" refers to snow. Agent A narrowly avoided being hit by lightning one day. But if agent A had been hit by a lightning, A would have spoken a language $L_2$, in which "snow" refers to coal.
In this scenario, it seems to me that $L_1$ and $L_2$ are distinct.

So, in all these cases, $L_1 \neq L_2$. Changing a language, even a tiny bit, yields a new language. The argument is admittedly based on thought experiments and therefore appeals to intuitions. But even so, if it is right, then a semantic fact like
(1) The intension of $\sigma$ in $L$ is $m$ 
is a necessity. It could not have been otherwise. If that is right, languages are individuated very finely.

On the other hand, in the philosophy of language and metasemantics, we're interested in "U-facts", such as,
(2) Agent A uses string $\sigma$ in a certain way.
and how they're related to other facts connected to meaning. (2) is contingent. How an agent uses a string can presumably vary in all kinds of ways. And also we interested in "C-facts", such as,
(3) Agent A cognizes language $L$.
This is contingent too. Which language an agent cognizes is a contingent matter, and can presumably vary in all kinds of ways. It seems that there must be a very intimate relation between facts of the kind (2) and facts of the kind (3).


  1. Can't we say that U-facts are reducible to C-facts?
    Or is it a problem because C-facts take languages as abstract entities?

    1. Michael - thanks, yes, there's a very intimate relation between the two kinds of contingent fact,

      (U) A uses strings in a certain way
      (C) A cognizes language L

      Explaining it is hard, but something like that should be true. I have a go in my paper "There's Glory for You!" (on academia - shows up there if you google).
      The abstractness of L doesn't make it difficult. If anything, I think it makes it easier: my analogy is a state space in physics: a concrete system $S$ can be in a state $X$ at a time $t$ - and the state space (e.g., symplectic manifold in classical physics and a Hilbert space in QM) is abstract; and physics tells us laws about how this function evolves in time.



  2. It depends how you define identity between languages. With your thought experiments, we could also judge that language L1 is simply changing. This judgement is more in line with historical studies of language. For instance, English changed during the past centuries. However, it is considered as a continuous language that evolves.


    1. Thanks, Mathieu,

      Yes, that's more or less the opposite view, and seems to be widely held, particularly by philosophers. And, to be honest, all I can give are these thought experiments, rather than a more definite argument. As you say, it depends crucially on the Individuation conditions. I give these along the lines of,

      $L_1 = L_2$ if and only if $L_1$ and $L_2$ are exactly the same in their phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

      So, languages are as finely individuated as one could imagine. Teeny weeny variations give a new language.

      But then, languages are not "communal languages" - so, I am sceptical about such languages. I think in each speech community there is heterogeneity of language spoken/cognized; even a single speaker may cognize many micro-idiolects, varying in many ways, often introducing new terms by mini-baptisms for convenience and so on. So, for the case of synchronic language shift, I think it is the *speakers* that are changing - what language they speak is varying, just as when a concrete thing undergoes change its properties change. To be more exact, the C-facts are changing (while the S-facts are modally fixed).

      As I sometimes say, English doesn't really exist - more exactly, if one makes it precise what English is meant to be - say $L$, with exactly defined phonology, syntax, etc. - then there is no speaker A who cognizes $L$. For there are many speech communities, and these exhibit a good deal of uniformity/mutual interpretability in the idiolects cognized; so much so that one can compile dictionaries, etc. But there is always heterogeneity too; and, eventually, it seem to me, the basic component is the individual idiolect spoken/cognized by a speaker.



  3. Hi Jeff,

    The thing about these thought experiments is that the whole way they are described encourages us to (perfectly properly) distinguish two languages. And the very scenarios they describe are indeed probably best described this way. But that doesn't mean we can't also describe scenarios by speaking of a single language changing semantically, as we do when we talk about changes in the sense of English words over time.

    Whenever you write on this fine-individuation way of thinking about languages and their components, I always think: yes, that's probably quite useful, but what's wrong with elsewhere using 'language' and related terms for things which are individuated a bit less finely (as we definitely seem to do)?

    I don't think it's sufficiently clear what it would take for something to be 'the right view about individuating languages', unless you're already just using (stipulatively, as it were) 'languages', in that claim about what the right view is, to mean these finely-individuated things. In that case, it seems there's no real disagreement with people who (appear to) say otherwise - they're just not following you in your use of words.

    All this may be confused or missing the point, but it seems quite natural, so I suggest that the way to develop and make your view more compelling might be to address worries of this sort.

    (You could perhaps argue that yours is the best way of using terms like 'language' - or perhaps the most "fundamental" or "joint-carving" or something - and thereby hold onto the things you're saying. But there's no hint of that here. For my part, I'm inclined to a more relaxed, pluralistic attitude regarding the use of the relevant words, but I do think it's important to be clear how we're using them, or should be using them, in any given instance.)

  4. Tristan, thanks - yes, these are all excellent points and get to some important methodological issues here. Actually, I've thought about them at length for several years.

    Your suggestion is, in effect (on my view ...), that there are two languages here.
    L1 is the language (the language of "folk linguistics"), using "language" to refer to the communal entities, somehow individuated by speech communities.
    L2 is the language (mine) in which "language" refers to the finely individuated abstract entities, sometimes cognized as idiolects.

    Then L1 and L2 are both fine, and this is all in accord with semantic conventionalism, a kind of ultra-pluralism about meaning, because there are countlessly many languages. So, we get that:

    "Languages are communal and undergo change" is true in L1.
    "Languages are communal and undergo change" is false in L2.

    (There is a separate argument too, due to Tarski, related to this topic: this is that semantic concepts need to be relativized to a language. "x is true in L", when "x" ranges over linguistic strings. This is because the same string may be true in L and false in L*. With this accepted, then someone who forgets the relativization, in contexts where it's relevant, is making a conceptual mistake: e.g., thinking of time intervals between events don't depend on a parameter for the co-ordinate system: the spacetime events $e_1$ and $_2$ may have different time intervals $\Delta t_{K_1}$ and $\Delta t_{K_2}$ in different co-ordinates, or "reference frames" $K_1$ and $K_2$, as Einstein called them.)

    So, I think what remains is a methodological one (as you hint at by mentioning "joint-carving") concerning the scientific utility and fruitfulness of concepts: is the communal concept of language (communal entities, perhaps individuated by "speech communities") preferable to fine-individuation concept for the scientific purposes of studying languages themselves and of understanding language acquisition, etc.?

    I've mentioned this sort of thing a bit in my paper "There's Glory for You!". On this, I tend to think that the fine-individuation notion has a better scientific justification than the communal one, and would be more fruitful in terms of overall understanding of the properties (semantic, syntactic, phonological, etc.) of languages, language acquisition, language cognition, semantic shift, local variations of idiolect cognized, Kripkean "baptism" of objects, etc.

    There might be an analogy here with the presicification of the concepts associated with words like "energy", "force" and "power" in physics, as the subject developed.



    1. Thanks, that's very clarifying, and makes me a lot more inclined to seriously consider your view! I think you should consider doing post on these methodological issues.

    2. Thanks, Tristan, actually, I made a bit of a start on that with

      but then got distracted with other stuff, as one does ...