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Dominik Aeschbacher
Context, two-dimensional semantics
and conceptual analysis
Abstract: According to a traditional picture of philosophical practice, Philosophers
engage in conceptual analysis, which results in knowledge that is a priori and necessary in its nature. This picture entails that there is an intimate connection between
a priori knowledge, meaning and modality. Two-dimensional semantics in the spirit
of David Chalmers shows how to make sense of these connections against specific
worries brought in by semantic externalism. However, context affects natural language in many different ways. Tacit background knowledge, philosophical theories
and vagueness have a huge influence on linguistic behaviour. It is therefore an open
question whether two-dimensional semantics can provide an adequate theory of
meaning that allows accommodating the various forms of context. In this paper, it
is argued that if one accepts some further distinctions, the two-dimensional framework can do quite well with different kinds of context-dependence.
1 Introduction
The search for accurate definitions of philosophically interesting notions has
played a central role in philosophy for a long time and providing necessary and
jointly sufficient conditions, known also as “conceptual analysis”, is well-known
among philosophers in the analytic tradition. Conceptual analysis is taken to be a
purely a priori matter and thus it is usually done from the armchair. When engaging in conceptual analysis, philosophers conceive of actual and counterfactual
scenarios and intuitively apply or withhold a philosophically interesting notion.
This in turn helps them in making explicit the conditions of application of the
notion in question. The a priori character of this method is rather innocent, for it
does not require a special faculty of rational insight, but merely a tacit knowledge
of how the notions are usually applied. So in order to engage in conceptual analysis, philosophers merely have to be competent speakers. Let me call this picture
of philosophical methodology “the traditional picture”.1
1 I call this picture “traditional” because the method that it describes can be found in many classical texts of analytic philosophy. Gettier (1963) is probably the most paradigmatic example. For
similar descriptions of conceptual analysis, see Moore (1942), Grice (1989) and Jackson (1998).
DOI 10.1515/9781501504327-009
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172 Dominik Aeschbacher
Unfortunately, the traditional picture requires some strong assumptions that
have been the target of many objections. One such assumption is that every competent speaker has an a priori access to the meanings of our linguistic expressions.
Against this, proponents of semantic externalism such as Saul Kripke (1980),
Hillary Putnam (1975) and Tyler Burge (1979) have argued that the meaning of
a notion should be identified with its direct reference. In their semantic frameworks, competent speakers have therefore no a priori access to the meanings of
their linguistic expressions. A second problem for the traditional picture arises
from its assumption that all necessary truths are knowable a priori. Semantic
externalists have argued, however, that there are necessary truths such as “water
is H2O” which are not knowable a priori.
Frank Jackson and David Chalmers (2001) have attempted to meet these
challenges by developing the framework of two-dimensional semantics. Twodimensional semantics is similar to standard possible world semantics, but in
contrast with the latter it assigns extensions and truth-values to two possible
world parameters, rather than just one. This allows the two-dimensionalists to
reconcile the semantic assumptions of the traditional picture with the arguments
from semantic externalism.
And yet, two-dimensional semantics encounters still other problems because
there are many context influences on natural language and it is not clear whether
two-dimensional semantics can save the traditional picture and conceptual analysis given these type of influences. In this paper, I will discuss the following three
kinds of context influence that affect the traditional picture and two-dimensional
semantics:
(1) There is some evidence from experimental philosophy (Alexander and
Weinberg 2007) and every day observations (Schroeter 2003) that ordinary
people do not share the same tacit knowledge in order apply a notion.
(2) The traditional picture presupposes that there are analytic truths, but
background knowledge can have an influence whether a sentence is analytic
or not; see e.g. Williamson (2007).
(3) Competent speakers are affected by contextual factors when judging borderline cases.
I will argue that with some minor distinctions, the two-dimensional framework
can be saved despite the problems addressed above.
In the first section, I will give a more detailed account of conceptual analysis and I will reconstruct the semantic and epistemological assumptions behind
the traditional picture. In the following section, I will show how semantic externalism threatens the traditional picture and how two-dimensional semantics as
developed by Chalmers (2006) can reconcile these objections with the traditional
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 173
picture. In the three following sections, I will discuss three kinds of context influence and argue that none of them poses a problem for the traditional picture.
2 The traditional picture
The traditional picture, as I understand it, can be characterized by at least two
features2:
(1) Philosophers engage in conceptual analysis.
(2) There is an intimate relation between meaning, reason and modality.
Let’s turn to (1). According to Frank Jackson (1998), conceptual analysis reveals
an implicit folk theory that every competent speaker associates with a linguistic
expression. The folk theory that is associated with a linguistic expression is the
set of common sense beliefs that ordinary people have about a specific subject
matter. These common sense beliefs relate to the properties that an entity must
possess in order to be in the extension of the expression in question. More precisely, these properties specify a functional role that an entity must play in order
to be the denotatum of the expression. For example, the functional role that
we associate with the word “water” is something similar to a colorless liquid in
oceans, lakes and rivers that is in normal circumstances drinkable and so on. For
the sake of brevity, I will follow Chalmers (2006) and call the functional role of
water “being watery stuff”. Whatever plays the functional role of watery stuff in
our actual world counts as water according to our ordinary conception.
The functional role that we associate with a linguistic expression determines its reference. For example, we succeed in referring to water (i.e. H2O in
the actual world) when uttering “water”, because H2O plays the functional role
that we associate with water. This picture of reference fixing implies a specific
form of descriptivism. According to descriptivism, competent speakers grasp a
reference-fixing criterion that is equivalent to some kind of descriptive content of
the expression at hand. It is only in virtue of this descriptive content that a referential expression refers to something. So a proper name (or a natural kind term)
e uttered by a speaker S at a time t refers to its referent R if and only if R uniquely
exemplifies the set of properties that is associated with a descriptive content D.
2 A more subtle version of what I present here is also known as The Canberra Plan (BraddonMitchell and Nola 2009). I changed the label because I will deal with a simpler version that is not
concerned with the technical aspects of the Canberra Plan. However, the arguments put forward
in this paper can also be applied to the Canberra Plan.
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174 Dominik Aeschbacher
For example, the proper name “Batman” might be associated with properties
such as wearing a black costume, being a superhero and having no superpowers. “Batman” refers to Batman because he is the only person who exemplifies
all these properties. Similarly, folk theories state that an entity must possess a
particular set of properties and play a certain functional role in order to belong to
the extension of a concept.
A further important aspect of the traditional picture is that it is committed to
the assumption that higher order facts are entailed a priori by lower order facts.
Thus, truths about H2O state the same as truths about water, but they do so in a
different vocabulary. It is the task of conceptual analysis to show how these different vocabularies are connected. For example, a conceptual analysis of “water”
will reveal that the functional role associated with “water” is that of watery stuff.
When you observe that H2O covers most of the Earth and that H2O is watery stuff,
you know a priori that water covers most of the Earth. In other words, there is an
a priori entailment of truths about water by truths about H2O.
What is of note is that the traditional picture takes conceptual analysis to
play a modest role (see e.g. Jackson 1998). Conceptual analysis does not reveal
anything about the world itself, nor does it reduce philosophical problems
to a confusion of language. It rather helps us to clarify what we mean with
our linguistic expressions: it is nothing else than revealing our respective folk
theory. But whether the folk theory is correct or not is a matter of empirical
investigation.
According to the assumption of the traditional picture mentioned in (2) there
is an intimate relation between meaning, reason and modality. How are these
notions connected? According to Jackson, conceptual analysis is equivalent to
what he calls the method of possible cases (Jackson 1998: 31). By imagining counterfactual scenarios, we can observe whether we intuitively apply or withhold a
linguistic expression e to a specific situation, which in turn helps us to specify
what all the scenarios where e gets applied have in common. As soon as we know
what they have in common, we know the conditions of application of e, which in
turn are equivalent to the functional role associated with e.
The semantic assumptions that underlie this method have been worked out
by David Chalmers (see e.g. Chalmers 2006). According to him, the three notions
“modality”, “meaning” and “reason” are interconnected and build what he calls
a golden triangle. Immanuel Kant established the first link by showing that everything that is knowable a priori is a necessary truth. Thus Kant connected reason
with modality. Secondly, Gottlob Frege (1986) established the link between reason
and meaning by introducing a further aspect of meaning that he called a sense.
While there are crucial differences between senses and Jackson’s folk theories,
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 175
these differences do not matter for our current purpose. Like folk theories, senses
provide some kind of descriptive content that fixes the reference of a linguistic
expression.
Introducing Fregean senses into a theory of language allows establishing a
connection between reason and meaning. A statement “A↔B” (i.e. “A and B are
equivalent”) is cognitively significant, especially when “A” and “B” are proper
names and the equivalence relation is interpreted as the relation of identity. For
example, the statement “Superman is identical with Clark Kent” is cognitively
significant, but the statement “Superman is Superman” is not. The first statement
is cognitively significant because “Superman” and “Clark Kent” have different
senses and therefore we can merely know a posteriori that Superman and Clark
Kent are identical. The second statement is knowable a priori because it involves
twice the same name and the two occurrences of the name have, of course, identical senses. So the link between reason and meaning has been established by
showing that the a priori nature of a statement can be explained by linguistic
entities such as senses.
Finally, Rudolf Carnap (1947) has established the connection between modality and meaning. The link is nowadays known under the label of “possible worlds
semantics”. Possible world semantics allows us, very roughly, to individuate
meanings as functions from possible worlds to extensions. These functions are
called “intensions”. Two linguistic expressions have the same intension if and
only if they are co-extensive across all possible worlds. On the other hand, if two
linguistic expressions are not necessarily co-extensive, they have different intensions. Since Carnap’s intensions behave in the same way as Fregean senses do,
I will follow Chalmers (2006) and speak of intensions instead of senses in the rest
of the paper.
With all links in the golden triangle established, it becomes clear how the
three notions of modality, reason and meaning are interconnected: A statement
“A↔B” can be known a priori, when “A” and “B” have the same intension and
they have the same intension if and only if they are necessarily co-extensive. As a
consequence, if “A↔B” is necessary, it can be known a priori (if “A” and “B” are
proper names, the biconditional must be interpreted as identity).
So the golden triangle guarantees that conceptual analysis can reveal
knowledge that is a priori and necessary in its nature. Conceptual analysis consists in nothing more than revealing the conditions of application of a notion
that can now be identified with its intension. Since the intension determines
the extension of a notion in every possible world, it is possible to find out a
priori what an expression means by applying Jackson’s method of possible
cases.
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176 Dominik Aeschbacher
3 Semantic externalism and two-dimensional
semantics
The traditional picture rests on a simple but solid semantic foundation. However,
the arguments from semantic externalism might raise some doubt about its
underlying semantic assumptions. Semantic externalists such as Saul Kripke
(1980), Hilary Putnam (1975) and Tyler Burge (1979) argued convincingly that the
reference of linguistic items is not mediated by a descriptive content, but given
directly. Thus the meaning of a word such as “water” is not a description like
watery stuff, but the chemical structure of H2O. Moreover, Kripke has argued that
statements like “Water is H2O” are necessarily true. According to the traditional
picture, such statements are merely contingently true for the statement is not a
priori. Against this, Kripke holds that while it is not knowable a priori that water
is H2O, it is nonetheless necessarily true.
As a consequence of his criticism, the golden triangle shatters because the
link between the necessary and the a priori has been cut. While it is not knowable a priori that water is H2O, it is nonetheless necessarily true.
The arguments from semantic externalism threaten the traditional picture
because they introduce a kind of context-sensitivity that makes conceptual
analysis impossible. Conceptual analysis presupposes that competent speakers
have an a priori access to the meanings of the linguistic expressions in their
community. But if the meaning of “water” is not an a priori knowable functional
role such as watery stuff, but merely the natural kind H2O, conceptual analysis
turns out to be impossible. In an externalist framework, it is the external world
that determines the meanings of our linguistic expressions and the only way to
get to know them is through empirical investigation. It is even possible that
speakers associate completely different properties with a linguistic expression
and still succeed in communicating with each other.
Fortunately, proponents of conceptual analysis have been busy looking for a
solution to reconcile the traditional picture with semantic externalism. This has
lead to what sometimes goes under the name “ambitious two-dimensional semantics” (Soames 2005), or just “two-dimensional semantics”. Two-dimensional
semantics assumes that there is more to meaning than just an intension and an
extension. It is thought to be ambitious because it provides a theory of representation and isolates an a priori aspect of meaning. In what follows, I will
provide a short overview of the ambitious two-dimensional semantics without
going into too many technical details.
The two-dimensional framework developed by Chalmers (2006) and Jackson
(1998) assumes that additionally to the classical intension that one may call a
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 177
“2-intension”, there is another intension associated with a linguistic expression.
I suggest to follow Chalmers in calling it a 1-intension. The 2-intension of a linguistic expression is the same that I mentioned above discussing the golden triangle. It delivers the extension of a linguistic expression when we consider other
worlds as counterfactual. When considering worlds as counterfactual, you ask
yourself what a linguistic expression would refer to in another possible world.
For example, the expression “the inventor of the lambda calculus” refers in our
world to Alonzo Church, but in another world considered as counterfactual it
might refer to Alan Turing. It is worth noting that the 2-intension behaves a little
bit differently when it comes to proper names or natural kind terms. The expression “water” refers to H2O in the actual world and since water is necessarily H2O,
it has H2O as its extension in every possible world considered as counterfactual.
So if worlds are considered as counterfactual, “water” cannot refer to another
natural kind such as XYZ, which plays the functional role of watery stuff but has
another chemical structure.
The other intension, the 1-intension, behaves quite differently. The 1-intension
picks out the extension of linguistic expressions when possible worlds are considered as actual. When you consider a possible world as actual, you do not think
of it as a counterfactual world where things are different from how they actually are. Rather the world considered as actual is an epistemic possibility, i.e. a
world that could turn out to be our actual world. Consider the following example.
Suppose you wonder whether there is life on Titan. You do not know whether
there is life on Titan, but it is possible. In this case, you have conceived a possible
world as actual where life on Titan exists. It is possible that this world turns out
to be the actual world.
If you think of worlds in this way, the extension of our linguistic expressions is fixed differently. This point can be illustrated again by using the water
example. Suppose that you do not know that water has the chemical structure
H2O. If you consider worlds as actual, it is possible that “water” refers to a liquid
that has the chemical structure of XYZ. However, it is also possible that it refers
to stuff that has the chemical structure of H2O. Given these two possibilities, the
sentence “Water is H2O” turns out to be merely contingently true. The set of all
possible worlds that contain some kind of watery stuff can now be identified with
the 1-intension of “water”. However, when you consider worlds as counterfactual
and the actual world contains “H2O”, the statement “Water is H2O” is necessarily
true. Correspondingly, there is a different set of possible worlds associated with
“Water is H2O” which is its 2-intension.
Why can 1-intensions behave differently than 2-intensions? It seems appropriate to interpret the 1-intension of a linguistic expression as its descriptive content,
i.e. a functional role or a folk-theory that we associate with a linguistic expression.
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178 Dominik Aeschbacher
It is something quite close to a Fregean sense. It picks out a reference across possible worlds when possible worlds are considered as actual. In the actual world,
the functional role of watery stuff is played by H2O and therefore “water” refers
to H2O in the actual world. However, if we consider a Twin-Earth as actual where
everything is as on Earth, except that the watery liquid is XYZ, it refers to XYZ for
XYZ plays the functional role of watery stuff on Twin-Earth. As a consequence,
“water is H2O” is merely contingently true with regard to its 1-intension. Once the
reference of “water” is fixed, you can consider worlds as counterfactual and ask
yourself: Could water have been different from H2O? In that case you would ask
yourself whether water is not water. Clearly, asking such a thing makes no sense.
The distinction between 1-intensions and 2-intensions is quite intuitive for it
turns on the fact that one can make a similar distinction between epistemic and metaphysical possibilities. 1-intensions can be considered as sets of epistemically possible
worlds, while 2-intensions can be considered as metaphysically possible worlds.
According to Chalmers and Jackson (2001), 1-intensions provide an interesting view on what it means to possess a concept. A competent speaker is supposed
to be able to determine the extension of a linguistic expression across possible
worlds considered as actual. So having a concept e of something implies to be able
to determine the truth of a material conditional: If world w is actual, e refers to x.3
With this two-dimensional framework at hand the traditional picture can be
saved from the criticism put forward by semantic externalism. First, it allows to
say that 1-intensions take on the job of a functional role. Consequently, the aim
of conceptual analysis is to make explicit our 1-intensions. It does not matter that
the 2-intension of a linguistic expression can change with the external world, for
conceptual analysis is merely targeted at whatever fixes the reference and this job
can be done by the 1-intension. Second, the golden triangle can be re-established
because the 1-intension behaves in the same way as Fregean senses do: A statement “A↔B” is therefore cognitively insignificant in case “A” and “B” share the
same 1-intension; and if they share the same 1-intension, they have the same
extension across all possible worlds considered as actual.
Finally, it has been argued by Chalmers and Jackson (2001) that the twodimensional framework gives an interesting explanation for what is actually going
on in thought experiments such as Putnam’s well-known Twin Earth ­experiment
3 My discussion of two-dimensionalism is quite simplified. However, it should be noted that
neither Chalmers (2006) nor Jackson (1998) claim that 1-intensions behave like Kaplanian characters (see Kaplan 1989). Kaplanian characters will pick out a reference merely in contexts of
utterance, while 1-intensions can pick out a reference in worlds considered as actual where there
are no speakers. For a thorough discussion of these issues see Chalmers (2006).
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 179
referred to above4. The thought experiment starts of by describing two subjects
S1 and S2 that are mentally fully alike and hence associate the same descriptive
contents with their linguistic expressions e1 and e2. Then you point to a difference
in their environment, which shows that e1 and e2 do not have the same reference.
This can only be done successfully, if you consider two worlds as actual. In Putnam’s Twin-Earth scenario, for instance, you consider first a H2O world as actual
and you judge that H2O is the reference of “water”. Then you consider a XYZ world
as actual and you judge that XYZ is the reference of “water”. In a last step, you
conclude that e1 and e2 cannot have the same meaning because they have different referents. But how did Putnam determine the extension of “water” in the H2O
world and in the XYZ world? The only intelligible answer is that the subjects S1
and S2 share the same descriptive content. Since their worlds are different, the
same descriptive content picks out different referents. So it seems that Putnam
has to presuppose that there is a descriptive content, namely a 1-intension that
determines different referents across possible worlds. Hence, externalists like
Putnam failed to refute descriptivism because they have to consider worlds
as actual for their thought experiments to succeed in the first place. Despite
this criticism they are right regarding what they say about usual intensions,
namely 2-intensions. And this is exactly what ambitious two-dimensionalism
amounts to when it suggests that there are two ways of thinking about necessity
and possibility. Since ambitious two-dimensionalism states that 1-intensions are
descriptive contents, and since externalists have to presuppose the two-dimensional
framework for their thought experiments to succeed, externalists seem to presuppose descriptivism.
At this point it is worth mentioning that the two-dimensional framework
developed by Chalmers and Jackson does not reject the claims made by semantic
externalists. To the contrary: It rather combines the traditionalist picture with
an externalist semantics. I think that this fact is very important and all too often
ignored by the critics. In fact the framework can account for both Fregean and
Kripkean intuitions.
4 Bad context: Individual folk theories
The two-dimensional framework has not been spared from criticism. One kind of
criticism is that while it might be able to integrate externalism in the traditional
4 The same argument can also be applied to Burge’s famous Arthritis case.
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180 Dominik Aeschbacher
picture, it fails to account for other kinds of context. More precisely, it has been
objected that 1-intensions can be affected by context in such a way that conceptual analysis still is impossible. For example, proponents of experimental philosophy claim to have shown that intuitive judgments about counterfactual cases
vary with contingent factors such as cultural background or priming (see e.g.
Alexander and Weinberg 2007). Similarly, Laura Schroeter (2003) has pointed
out that 1-intensions differ from one subject to the other because everyone determines different extensions when considering worlds as actual. Finally, David
Chalmers (2006) acknowledges that whether a proposition can be known a priori
varies with context insofar as that 1-intensions can differ from one individual to
the next. For example, the sentence “If Neptune exists, it perturbs the orbit of
Uranus” expresses a 1-intension that is knowable a priori by Leverrier because he
defined the 1-intension of “Neptune” as whatever perturbs the orbit of Uranus.
His wife, however, associates a different 1-intension with “Neptune” and therefore it is not a priori knowable for her that Neptune perturbs the orbit of Uranus.
These examples point to a ubiquitous divergence in linguistic usage. It seems
that despite the fact that competent speakers associate different folk theories
with a linguistic expression they still succeed in communicating with each other.
Hence, successful communication seems not to rely on shared 1-intensions.
Unfortunately, this divergence in linguistic usage does not really support the traditional picture. While it does not challenge the connection between necessity
and the a priori, it could still cause some troubles for conceptual analysis for the
following reasons. Conceptual analysis is essentially a social endeavor. We use it
in order to clarify specific subject matters. We also need it for scientific purposes
such as the reduction of higher-order facts to lower-order facts. As I have shown
in section 2, proponents of conceptual analysis like Jackson (1998) believe that
conceptual analysis is committed to the a priori entailment of higher-order facts
by lower-order facts5. However, if communication is possible without significant
convergence in folk theories, it is not necessary to clarify the concepts, but one
needs to look at the things themselves and this is achieved by doing empirical
investigations and not through fancy thought experiments.
I would like to add another problem in relation to the divergence in linguistic
usage. It follows from it that it undermines the possibility of disagreement. If my
1-intension of a linguistic expression e is different from yours, you express a different 1-intension when you utter e. So when you utter e and I utter the negation ~e,
I do not express the negation of the proposition that you utter and therefore, there
is no disagreement. As a consequence, most philosophical disputes turn out to
5 For the connection between reductionism and conceptual analysis, see Jackson (1998).
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 181
be pseudo-disagreements. For example, an internalist in epistemology believes
that a subject knows a proposition solely in virtue of internal states or reasons
of that subject, while an externalist believes that factors outside of a person can
determine whether she has knowledge or not. But it seems that internalists and
externalists do not have a genuine disagreement for both understand the word
“knowledge” differently. As a consequence both of them talk past each other.
The question, however, is if the traditional picture can be dismissed that
easily. As far as I can see, it cannot, at least if you are a meaning pluralist.
A meaning pluralist6 believes that a linguistic expression can express different
semantic contents. It is obvious that proponents of two-dimensional semantics
are meaning pluralists because they believe that a sentence expresses at least a
1-intension and a 2-intension. However, there is no reason to stop there. In order
to explain the variety of folk theories and successful communication, I suggest
that a speaker can also express two different kinds of 1-intension with one and the
same utterance. The first kind of 1-intension is the intension that the majority of a
community or its experts associate with a linguistic expression. In what follows,
I will call this the public 1-intension. The public 1-intension of a specific expression accompanies the expression whenever it is used by a member of a specific
language community.
The second kind of intension is what a specific individual associates with
a linguistic expression. In what follows I will call it the private 1-intension.
A speaker counts as fully competent if and only if her private 1-intension converges
with the public 1-intension. So a speaker expresses with an expression the private
1-intension she associates with it and at the same time, she expresses the public
1-intension that the community or the experts of it associate with it. In order to
illustrate the point I will use this rather extreme example: Suppose I falsely believe
that monkeys are a liquid that have an orange color and contain a lot of vitamins.
My private 1-intension of the word “monkey” will include these properties and
I will privately succeed in referring to orange juice when I think about monkeys.
However, when uttering sentences such as “I had a glass of monkeys for breakfast”, my utterance expresses the public 1-intension that I had a certain kind of
animal for breakfast.
A speaker who utters a sentence such as “I had a glass of monkeys for breakfast” is completely incompetent with regard to the word “monkey”. Almost every
property that he associates with the expression does not belong to the folk theory
that is associated with the public 1-intension. However, there are other cases
where a speaker’s private 1-intension differs merely in some minor aspects from
6 The expression “meaning pluralist” can be found in Chalmers (2006).
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182 Dominik Aeschbacher
the public 1-intension. Should such a speaker be deemed to be incompetent?
Perhaps, language competence is a matter of degree and a speaker can count as
more or less competent with regard to a specific linguistic expression. I think that
this suggestion makes sense for pragmatic reasons. If degrees of language competence are not allowed, many speakers would count as incompetent for there
are many words (for example scientific expressions) whose public 1-intension is
only known by a small group of experts. However, it seems that non-experts are
quite capable to engage in conversations about scientific issues with the experts.
If degrees of language competence are allowed, this fact can be explained very
easily by pointing out that the ordinary people might have a partial understanding of scientific terms such as “electron” or “dark matter”.
One important question that needs to be answered is what the nature of
these public 1-intensions is. Various contextual factors determine what a public
1-intension of a particular linguistic expression is. In the simplest case, the public
1-intension corresponds to the functional role that the experts of a community
have defined explicitly. According to Putnam’s (1975) metaphor of linguistic
labor, the meaning of a linguistic expression is parasitic on the meaning that the
experts have assigned to it. For example, if someone without expert knowledge
uses a scientific term such as “electron” or “dark matter”, it has the meaning the
experts have assigned to it. Adopting this metaphor, it seems plausible to say that
the 1-intension that is expressed in a normal conversation usually corresponds to
the public 1-intension that the experts have assigned to it.
But things get more complicated with everyday terms where there are no
experts for the subject matter in question. What could be the public intension of
an everyday term like “bottle” or “table”? As far as I know, there are no experts
for tables or bottles. I suggest to resolve this problem in the following way: If it is
presupposed that the members of a linguistic community are rational and intend
to adjust their own usage to the usage of their peers, the public 1-intension could
be whatever the speakers would agree to while negotiating under ideal rational
conditions. This process, of course, is not easy and may be affected by contingent
social factors, but nevertheless it is prima facie available. One could say that the
public 1-intension is some kind of ideal intension, which fits the purposes of the
members of a community in the best way.
It might be objected that the members of a community have quite different
interests and are affected by different social factors when negotiating the public
1-intension. As far as I can see this is, however, unproblematic. It seems rather
plausible to allow that a linguistic expression might have more than one public
1-intension assigned to it. A community is not a homogenous group of people,
but might contain several groups as parts. The members of these groups might
come to an agreement about the usage of a specific term. In that case there would
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 183
be different groups in a community and each group would have their own public
1-intension. A linguistic community would therefore consist of different groups
attributing different public 1-intensions to a specific expression, and yet they
share a high degree of resemblance.
At first sight, it might seem that introducing a public and a private 1-intension
simply is an ad-hoc solution for saving conceptual analysis. However, the distinction can account for other phenomena, too and this strengthens the explanatory
force of the distinction. For instance it allows to make sense of disagreement.
Given the distinction between the public and the private 1-intensions, it is possible for two speakers to disagree even in case they associate different 1-intensions
with a specific linguistic expressions. In such a case, one speaker expresses the
public 1-intension of an utterance and the other its negation. This allows us to
explain why two philosophers who disagree for example on the right analysis
of “knowledge” do have a genuine disagreement even though they understand
the word “knowledge” differently. Both are disagreeing on the public 1-intension
of the word and not on their private 1-intensions. Furthermore, some pseudodisagreements can be solved if the two disagreeing parties make explicit what
their private 1-intensions are. The pseudo-disagreement appears to be a genuine
disagreement if one looks merely at the public 1-intension. However, if the speakers realize that there are too many differences between their private 1-intensions,
they could solve the disagreement by adjusting their 1-intensions in such a way
that they get closer to the public 1-intension. And this is the point where conceptual analysis takes over as it is meant to do: Conceptual analysis will help
us to elucidate the character of a pseudo-disagreement and either show that we
actually are confronted with a genuine disagreement or it will help to resolve the
disagreement altogether.
Furthermore, people who defend conceptual analysis can admit that irrelevant context factors do have an impact on our intuitions regarding the classification of counterfactual cases. However, they can reply to this that conceptual
analysis targets the public 1-intension of philosophically interesting terms and
not the individual private intension of a specific speaker. So while our intuitions
might play an important role with regard to the individual private 1-­intension,
they are not sufficient for making explicit the public 1-intension. What is needed
in addition is that philosophers negotiate about how to use a linguistic expression correctly, compare their individual intuitions with the ones others have
and come up with an analysis that everyone can agree to. This exercise is of
course less prone to error than the process where a speaker applies or withholds
an expression without any serious reflections. From this, I conclude that even
though experimental philosophers have addressed an important issue, they have
nonetheless failed to make a point against the possibility of conceptual analysis.
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184 Dominik Aeschbacher
5 Bad context: Experts have different folk theories
The distinction between two kinds of 1-intension depends on the assumption that
there is such a thing as a public 1-intension. Further above I have argued that one can
make partially sense of this claim by adopting Putnam’s metaphor of linguistic labor,
according to which the meaning of a linguistic expression behaves parasitic on the
meaning that is given to it by the experts of a community. However, it is not obvious
that the experts of a community share the same public 1-intension with one and the
same linguistic expression. Timothy Williamson (2007) has pointed to this problem,
though he introduced it for different reason. His criticism can, however, be applied
to the problem at hand. In a series of counterexamples to analyticity, Williamson has
argued that even experts do not associate the same conditions of application with a
linguistic expression that belongs to their domain of expertise. As a consequence,
Williamson doubts that one can make sense of the notion of analyticity.
In order to give an overview of Williamson’s criticism, let’s turn to the notion of
analyticity. Following Paul Boghossian (1997), analyticity is understood as an epistemic notion7. Let me define this epistemic understanding of analyticity as follows:
Analyticity: A sentence e that expresses the proposition that P is analytic if and
only if a subject S can know that P merely by grasping the meaning of e.
Since I have introduced the two-dimensional framework, I take the relevant kind
of meaning to be the 1-intension.
Williamson has pointed out that if one interprets analyticity as an epistemic
notion, one is forced to defend what he calls understanding-assent links. By this,
he means that anyone who understands the sentence must also assent to it. This
relationship is implied by the concept of epistemic analyticity because in order to
know a proposition, one has to assent to it. According to Williamson (2007: 86),
a proponent of analyticity has to accept the following understanding-assent link:
UA1: Necessarily, whoever understands the sentence “Every vixen is a vixen”
assents to it.
However, Williamson has found different counterexamples to UA1 and these have
at least two interesting features. First, the counterexamples all suppose that the
7 Epistemic notions of analyticity are opposed to metaphysical notions. Metaphysical notions
of ­analyticity explain the phenomenon of analyticity by appealing to the metaphysical notion of
­meaning. Analytic sentences are taken to be true in virtue of their meaning. Epistemic notions of
analyticity deny that analytic sentences are true in virtue of their meaning. Instead they try to characterize them through epistemic properties. For more information on this issue, see Boghossian (1997).
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 185
speakers are competent and understand all the expressions used in UA1; and
still the speakers do not assent to UA1. Second, the protagonists in Williamson’s
examples are experts.
One counterexample Williamson introduces reads as follows: Stephen is a
philosopher who defends the philosophical thesis that borderline cases for vague
terms such as “being bald” generate truth-value gaps; hence beside the value of
being true and being false it is possible that a sentence is neither true nor false
and must be attributed a third value “undefined”. For this reason, he endorses a
three-valued semantics using Kleene’s three valued “strong tables”. According
to this three valued system, an implication of the form “If p then p” is no longer
valid. Suppose Stephen believes that some evolutionary ancestors of female foxes
were borderline cases. Regarding these animals, the sentence “x is a vixen” is
neither true nor false, but undefined. Since Stephen endorses Kleene’s three
valued strong tables, the conditional “If x is a vixen then x is a vixen” is not true
and one can conclude that Stephen does not assent to “Every vixen is a vixen”,
even though he understands the sentence perfectly.
One would not want to deny that Stephen is a competent speaker with regard
to the words used in “Every vixen is a vixen”. He fully understands the word
“vixen”, for he applies it correctly to all vixens and he can engage in every day
conversations about female foxes. Moreover, Stephen is not incompetent with the
word “every” and he not only engages in every day conversations by using the
word “every” correctly, but he can also defend his view on truth-value gaps coherently. He defends a specific semantic theory about “every” that is possibly false,
but doing so does not make him incompetent. Many philosophers and linguists
defend semantic theories that are false, but that does not make them incompetent.
Counterexamples like the one mentioned above provide lethal arguments against
the assumption underlying the traditional picture for two reasons. First, it undermines the epistemic notion of analyticity that I characterized above. This is unfortunate for the traditionalist picture because conceptual analysis aims at delivering
sentences that are analytic. Secondly, it shows that even experts seem to associate
different conditions of application with a linguistic expression and still count as
competent speakers within a specific linguistic community. This very fact speaks
against adopting Putnam’s metaphor of linguistic behavior according to which the
meanings of ordinary people behave parasitic on the agreed usage of the experts.
However, I think that we must be careful what kind of conclusions we should
draw from the counterexample above. Only because we defend a specific analysis
of a linguistic expression, this does not mean the analysis is identical with our
private 1-intension that determines our linguistic behavior in every day speech.
For example, philosophers have believed for a long time that knowledge is justified true belief. But Edmund Gettier’s (1963) famous examination of the notion of
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186 Dominik Aeschbacher
knowledge showed that this analysis is not accurate. Nonetheless, even though
many philosophers believed that knowledge is equivalent to justified true belief,
this analysis of knowledge did not determine their everyday use of the term.
In view of this fact it seems necessary to introduce a further distinction. It is
necessary to distinguish between the private 1-intension that can be equivalent
with the public 1-intension, and what I would call a meta-theory regarding the
public 1-intension. The meta-theory describes those believes that result from an
adequate analysis of the public 1-intension. The meta-theory can be equivalent
to our public or private 1-intension, without being necessarily equivalent. The
justified-true-belief analysis of knowledge is a typical meta-theory of a public
1-intension of knowledge. It overlaps to a great extent with everybody’s public
and private 1-intension without being identical with either of them because metatheories are often incomplete.
All competent speakers are able to provide a meta-theory for a wide variety
of linguistic expressions. For example, for the expression “bachelor” most people
will provide the meta-theory that bachelors are unmarried men. However, this
characterization of the meaning of the word “bachelor” is incomplete. Monks or
the pope are unmarried men and yet they are not bachelors. This small example
shows that it is difficult to provide a complete conceptual analysis, but easy to
spell out some necessary conditions.
In the former section, I pointed out that divergence about meaning can be
explained by differences in the private and public 1-intension. But the distinction between 1-intensions and meta-theories provides a further explanation for
this kind of divergence. Given the meta-theoretical level, it is possible that the
private 1-intension of a speaker converges with the public 1-intension of the linguistic community a speaker is part of, while her meta-theory differs significantly
from the meta-theories of other people. And yet, as long as speakers are capable
of engaging in conceptual analysis and as long as they can agree on some core
assumptions, they can count as competent speakers.
Above, I have argued that language competence can be a matter of degree
in so far as that a private 1-intension can diverge from the public 1-intension.
However, language competence can be a matter of degree in yet another respect:
a speaker whose meta-theory is closer to the public 1-intension can count as
more competent. As a consequence, the terms “language competence” and
“understanding” are somehow ambiguous between the two following readings:
Understanding1: A speaker S is competent with a linguistic expression e if and
only if a) her private 1-intension Pprivate associated with e converges with the
public 1-intension Ppublic and b) S is able to provide an approximately correct
meta-theory M of the public 1-intension Ppublic.
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 187
The second kind of understanding can be characterized as a deep understanding that amounts to some kind of expert knowledge. This means that
one has mastered Understanding1 of a specific expression. When engaging, for
example, in conceptual analysis during a certain amount of time this will lead
to a deeper understanding of the expression in question, especially in the area
of philosophy. Thus the second way of understanding can be characterized as
follows:
Understanding2: A speaker S has a deep understanding of a linguistic expression e if and only if a) S is competent as spelled out in Understanding1, and b) S
can provide a meta-theory M of e in such a way that M and e express the same
public 1-intension (which would be identical to Ppublic).
It is worth highlighting that Understanding2 can only be achieved when one
inquires carefully in the sense of rational reflection undertaken under ideal conditions. For this reason, I will also speak of “understanding in a deep sense”
when referring to understanding2. It is likely that most people do not have such
a deep understanding of the expressions they use because they have not thought
about the notions carefully enough. As my thesis regarding understanding as a
matter of degree suggests, one can be more or less close to having an understanding of a word in this deeper sense.
Conceptual analysis provides a deeper understanding of our words. However,
it might be that some expressions have a 1-intension that is too complicated and
so it is not possible to achieve a full understanding of them. The discipline of
philosophy just shows how difficult it is to give a complete analysis of a term, and
in some cases it might be even impossible. For this reason, conceptual analysis is
not a trivial matter.
This account of understanding has an interesting consequence with regard to
the question what it means to assent to analytic truths. If understanding is such
a demanding task then we should not assent blindly to analytic truths. Rather we
have to think carefully about them and engage in rational discourse in order to
get the most accurate meta-theories of our 1-intensions. So assenting to an analytic truth is not similar to a gut reaction where we blindly follow our intuitions or
emotions. Rather it is based on rational reflection.
A further consequence of this account is that it can show why analytic philosophers have a special expertise when it comes to philosophical notions such
as “knowledge” or “causality”. Their meta-theories of the respective 1-intensions
are more detailed than those of the ordinary people. Given the fact that they are
experts in conceptual analysis, they know that some analyses are mistaken. For
example, ordinary people might blindly assent to a justified-true-belief analysis
of knowledge, while experts know that this analysis is mistaken.
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188 Dominik Aeschbacher
Now that these distinctions have been made clear, it is possible to handle
Williamson’s counterexample. I take analyticity and conceptual analysis to be
a difficult endeavor that aims at understanding in the deep sense. If a speaker
has achieved this kind of understanding, she is able to assent to analytic truths.
It is obvious that the subjects in Williamson’s example do not have this kind of
understanding. They hold controversial meta-theories about expressions that
are not easy to analyze. So only because experts do not behave carefully and do
sometimes deny analytic truths, this does not imply that conceptual analysis is
in principle impossible. It still can be that everybody shares the same 1-intension
with a linguistic expression, but that different people disagree with respect to its
right analysis. Analysis is not easy, nor is assenting to analytic truths. Philosophy
has always been a difficult task and it would be surprising if its methodology
such as conceptual analysis is easy to realize.
6 Bad context: Vagueness
At the end of this paper I want to address a last problem that the traditional
picture must address, namely the phenomenon of vagueness. Different speakers seem to get to different results when applying a linguistic expression to
borderline cases. For example, there are borderline cases between shades of
orange and red. One and the same shade might be judged on one occasion to
be red and on another occasion to be orange. If a speaker proceeds in a similar
manner when considering philosophical thought experiments, this might be
explained by the vagueness of the philosophical notion in question. Unfortunately, if conceptual analysis is supposed to deliver rigid characterizations
of the conditions of application of philosophically interesting expressions, it
does not allow this kind of context-sensitivity. The reason is that there would
always be an unsolvable disagreement about the right analysis of a linguistic
expression.
I think the right answer to these worries is that one should not expect conceptual analysis to provide just a short list of necessary and sufficient conditions.
Rather it has to deliver a complicated description of a folk theory that might also
include the property of vagueness. When we find out that ordinary people have
not made up their mind about philosophical notions such as “knowledge” or “causality” then this belongs to the very results that conceptual analysis must deliver.
In such cases, philosophers must deliver more precise definitions. For example,
it can be imagined that our folk theory regarding the phenomenon of free will is
completely confused and vague. In that case it is the task of philosophers to come
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Context, two-dimensional semantics and conceptual analysis 189
up with similar but more elaborated definition. Since this goes clearly beyond
conceptual analysis and can be considered as some kind of engineering, I call this
processes conceptual engineering. However, it is important that philosophers and
scientists make explicit when they engage in this. Doing conceptual engineering
and sell it as a conceptual analysis could lead not only to confusions, but also to
unnecessary pseudo disagreements.
7 Conclusion
According to what I call the traditional picture, conceptual analysis takes a
central role in philosophical inquiry. In formulating two-dimensional semantics,
Chalmers and Jackson have provided a sophisticated framework that can a)
explain the a priori nature of conceptual analysis and b) incorporate both,
descriptivism and semantic externalism in one coherent semantic framework.
In this paper I have discussed three types of context-influence that might pose
a problem for this framework. First I discussed the problem that subjects can be
competent when using a linguistic expression without sharing the same tacit
conditions of application. I distinguished between a public and a private intension and argued that this is not a real problem for conceptual analysis. Secondly,
I considered the problem that background theories might affect whether a sentence is analytic or not. I have rejected the alleged counterexamples to analyticity by Williamson by arguing that the subjects in these thought experiments lack
a deep understanding of the notions in question. Finally, I have considered the
problem of vagueness and argued that vagueness is not a problem for conceptual
analysis, but rather a feature that can be discovered through conceptual analysis. I conclude that there is no problem from context for conceptual analysis.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Silvan Imhof and Fabrice Teroni for
commenting on an early draft of this paper. I am very grateful to Sarah-Jane
Conrad for her advice and extensive feedback.
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