2004-09-23

Use theories of meaning, primacy of assertive use, & the Frege-Geach problem

I've been meaning to post something substantial on this for a while, but with the holidays there just hasn't been much time, so here's the issue in brief:

For those unfamiliar with the Frege-Geach problem, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it here. Although the discussion is centered on ethics, it is illustrative of the problem in general, which Geach put forward in his 1965 paper "Assertion" (Philosophical Review 17).

My concern is that a use theorist that takes assertive language usage as explanatorily basic for the meaning of terms may incorporate an assertive element of that use into the very meaning of the terms being explained. Horwich, as an example, maintains the primacy of assertive use in determining meanings:
The regularities of use that (I am suggesting) constitute the meanings of works concern the circumstances in which specified sentences are privately accepted (i.e. uttered assertively to oneself). (Meaning, p.94)
If my intuition here is correct, however, "assertion-infected" meanings will not yield a classic case of the Frege-Geach problem, for the meaning of the words will not vary between asserted and unasserted contexts. While Geach's objection is to terms whose meanings change when asserted, his larger point is that the content of propositions is independent of the logical operators: neither changing as operated on, nor incorporating an operator in their content non-compositionally. (We must not be deceived by the absence of an assertion operator in post-Fregean logic.) Our case differs from the classic objection to expressivism (detailed in the SEP entry linked to above) in that where the expressive predicate depends on the assertive use of a predicate token for its meaning, the use theorist makes the entire word type dependent on assertive use. Nonetheless, if the meanings of terms in unasserted contexts are assertion-infected, then the use theorist has failed to capture the meaning of our terms in those contexts. It would seem that, in order to capture the meaning of our words in unasserted contexts, the use theorist needs to ensure that giving primacy to assertive use as explanitorily basic for the derivation of meanings will not infect those meanings with the aspects of their use peculiar to assertive contexts. I'm not certain that Horwich does this.

Hopefully I'll have more (and better!) to say on this in time.

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