APA Blogging: Relativism

31 03 2006

(Anyone who is not familiar with contextualist and relativist semantics might want to read the last three paragraphs here first.)

The last day of the APA saw an interesting session on relativism by Bob Stalnaker, John MacFarlane, and John Hawthorne. I had unfortunately slept through the morning session on relativism with Michael Glanzberg, Thony Gillies, and Andy Egan. And since it was at the end of the conference, I wasn’t at peak form in catching what was said. But what I got out of it was that Stalnaker gave a good summary of the New Relativist position (together with some challenges about “ambivalence” towards propositions that I didn’t quite catch), MacFarlane gave the start of an account of how it is that an assertion of P by one person can disagree with a denial of P by another person if the relevant context of assessment has changed between people, and Hawthorne gave some arguments to challenge standard intuitions that are taken to motivate the relativist move.

When John says, “rotting flesh is not tasty”, I will agree with him. But it seems that I will disagree with Vinny the Talking Vulture who says “rotting flesh is tasty”. This would be an argument against standard (indexical) contextualism – an indexical account would say there is no more disagreement here than there is when I say “My name is Kenny” and you say “My name is not Kenny”. But Hawthorne suggested that this intuition just doesn’t exist here, so there is no need to reject contextualism for something more radical. Because John (having seen some roadkill a little bit back) can then go to Vinny and say “there’s something tasty down the road” – and it seems both that he is agreeing with Vinny, and that he hasn’t changed his mind from earlier, so his original statement and Vinny’s original statement aren’t really contraries, as the relativist (but not the contextualist) would suggest. I think this example is a bit beside the point, because it seems to me that there’s some odd pragmatic move going on when John says “there’s something tasty down the road”. (I think John MacFarlane pointed this out best by asking what John Hawthorne would say if the vulture said “Aha! So you agree with me now! Rotting flesh is tasty!”) But there may well be challenges in the vicinity.

I think it was a bit unfortunate that so much of the discussion was focused on predicates of personal taste (like “fun”, “funny”, “tasty”, and the like), because it’s generally seemed to me that the relativist’s best case is for epistemic modals (“might” in the sense that’s roughly similar to “as far as I know”), though Branden Fitelson might have convinced me that future contingent statements (“I will go shopping tomorrow”, when nothing about the world guarantees that this either will or won’t be the case) are a better case. All the relativist needs to do is point out that at least some area of discourse is best modeled with their semantics.

In general, it seems that there is a family of problems and a family of solutions available for them. The problem cases include future contingents, epistemic modals, predicates of personal taste, gradable adjectives (like “tall” and “flat” – which Gil Harman pointed out may well fall into two categories depending on whether or not they have an absolute at one end), knowledge, indexicals (“I”, “here”, “tomorrow”), demonstratives (“this”, “that”), and probably others. The solutions that have been proposed include saying that the effect is (1) merely pragmatic, (2) subject-sensitive invariantism (or something similar), (3) indexical contextualism, (4) non-indexical contextualism, and (5) relativism.

(1) attempts to explain away the data by appeal to non-literal speech or conversational practices. (2) says the relation discussed is more complicated than it seems, but ultimately only depends on the status of the situation being talked about, not the circumstance it is mentioned in. The other three suggest that some additional sort of contextually supplied parameter is important in the assessment of sentences involving the relevant concept. The question is just whether the parameter is necessary to find out what proposition is expressed, as in (3), or to find out whether or not the proposition is true, as in (4) and (5). The distinction between (4) and (5) is whether the parameter is taken from the circumstance of utterance or the circumstance of assessment. Since an utterance typically expresses a unique proposition, any parameter needed to find out what that proposition is will need to come from the circumstance of utterance. But when assessing an utterance for truth, we have an extra circumstance available to us, so both (4) and (5) are theoretically options (despite the problems one might find with (5)).

I think we have fairly decisive evidence that the best way to treat indexicals and demonstratives is with (3), and people have generally agreed that a proposition gives not just an individual truth-value, but a function from worlds to truth-values, so that the world of utterance must show up in the parameter needed for (4). Perhaps this means that non-indexical contextualism should be called bicontextualism, and relativism should actually be called tricontextualism! However, it’s a somewhat open question whether anything other than person, time, location, and world appear in (3), anything other than world appears in (4), and whether anything at all shows up in the parameter for (5). A debate about one specific parameter for predicates of personal taste will be relevant to whether anything shows up in (5), but it is by no means decisive about relativism.

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