I just got back yesterday from the University of Texas Graduate Philosophy Conference, which was a lot of fun. In fact, I think it was the most fun I’ve had at a conference other than FEW last year, which coincidentally was also in Austin – maybe it’s just a fun town! At any rate, it was a lot of very good papers, and I got a lot of good ideas from the discussion after each one as well. Even the papers about mind-body supervenience, and Aristotelian substance (which aren’t issues I’m normally terribly interested in) made important use of logical and mathematical arguments that kept me interested. And the fact that both keynote speakers and several Texas faculty were sitting in on most of the sessions helped foster a very collegial mood. I’d like to thank the organizers for putting on such a good show, and especially Tim Pickavance for making everything run so smoothly, and Aidan McGlynn for being a good commentator on my paper (and distracting Jason Stanley from responding to my criticism!)
Because the theme was “thoughts, words, objects”, most of the papers were about language and metaphysics, and perhaps about their relation. There seems to be a methodological stance expressed in some of the papers, with some degree of explicitness in the talks by Jason Stanley and Josh Dever, that I generally find quite congenial but others might find a bit out there. I’ll just state my version of what’s going on, because I’m sure there are disagreements about the right way to phrase this, and I certainly don’t pretend to be stating how anyone else thinks of what’s going on.
But basically, when Quine brought back metaphysics, it was basically with the understanding that it wouldn’t be this free-floating discipline that it had become with some of the excesses of 19th century philosophy and medieval theology – no counting angels on the heads of pins. Instead, we should work in conjunction with the sciences to establish our best theory of the world, accounting for our experiences and the like and giving good explanations of them. And at the end, if our theories are expressed in the right language (first-order logic), we can just read our ontological commitments off of this theory, and that’s the way we get our best theory of metaphysics. There is no uniquely metaphysical way of figuring out about things, apart from the general scientific and philosophical project of understanding the world.
More recently, it’s become clear that much of our work just won’t come already phrased in first-order logic, so the commitments might not be transparent on the surface. However, the growth of formal semantics since Montague (building on the bits that Frege and Tarski had already put together) led linguists and philosophers to develop much more sophisticated accounts that can give the apparent truth-conditions for sentences of more complicated languages than first-order logic, like say, ordinary English. Armed with these truth-conditions from the project of semantics, and the truth-values for these statements that we gather from the general scientific project, we can then figure out just what we’re committed to metaphysically being the case.
Of course, science is often done in much more regimented and formalized languages, so that less semantic work needs to be done to find its commitments, which is why Quine didn’t necessarily see the need to do formal semantics. Not to mention that no one else had really done anything like modern formal semantics for more than a very weak fragment of any natural language, so that the very idea of such a project might well have been foreign to what he was proposing in “On What There Is”.
In addition to the obvious worry that this seems to do so much metaphysical work with so little metaphysical effort, there are more Quinean worries one might have about this project. For one thing, it seems odd that formal semantics, alone among the sciences (or “sciences”, depending on how one sees things) gets a special role to play. On a properly Quinean view there should be no such clear seams. And I wonder if the two projects can really be separated in such a clear way – it seems very plausible to me that what one wants to say about semantics might well be related to what one wants to say about ordinary object language facts of the matter, especially in disciplines like psychology, mathematics, and epistemology.
In discussion this afternoon, John MacFarlane pointed out to me that this sort of project has clear antecedents in Davidson, when he talks about the logical structure of action sentences, and introduced the semantic tool of quantifying over events. This surprises me, because I always think of Davidson as doing semantics as backwards from how I want to do it, but maybe I’ve been reading him wrong.
At any rate, thinking about things this way definitely renews my interest in the problems around various forms of context-sensitivity. The excellent comments by Julie Hunter on Elia Zardini’s paper helped clarify what some of the issues around MacFarlane-style relativism really are. Jason Stanley had been trying to convince me of some problems that made it possibly not make sense, but she expressed them in a way that I could understand, though I still can’t adequately convey. It seems to be something about not being able to make proper sense of “truth” as a relation rather than a predicate, except within a formal system. Which is why it seems that MacFarlane has emphasized the role of norms of assertion and retraction rather than mere truth-conditions, and why he started talking about “accuracy” rather than “truth” in the session in Portland.
Anyway, lots of interesting stuff! Back to regularly-scheduled content about mathematics and probability shortly…