Semantic deference and semantic eliminativism
Antonin Thuns
(Université Libre de Bruxelles)
Friday (April 21st), 12:00-12:25
Lipsius 148

Semantic deference allows for the meanings that utterances convey to be determined by external standards rather than by speakers' actual understanding of the conceptual contents involved. Thus, I can believe that mass and time are relative, that I suffer from arthritis, or that democracy is the best possible form of government without necessarily mastering all the notions and criteria supporting my beliefs. Even more, I can have linguistically expressible beliefs involving concepts for which arguably no clear-cut defining criteria are really available in my linguistic environment (‘responsibility’, ‘public opinion’). From the theoretical observer’s point of view, semantic deference makes room for belief content ascriptions independently of speakers’ conceptual and lexical mastery. From the point of view of language users themselves, semantic deference also represents the implicit rational commitments which go along with the use of a public language. Starting from the classical examples of externalism (Putnam 1975; Burge 1979), I argue that semantic deference becomes maximally relevant only if it is generalized: from deference to speakers to deference to languages, on to deference to more abstract cognitive and epistemic norms. The resulting picture is that of a kind of normative externalism, potentially compatible with semantic eliminativism (the main focus of my research project): the hypothesis that abstract lexical meanings are not automatically activated by the use of the corresponding lexical items, and depend rather on contextual factors to be implemented in discourse, thus making literal meaning a heavily pragmatic matter. Semantic deference is one such contextual factor.