Home > Philosophy, Philosophy for the philosophers > Who are the speakers of English? (an attempted refutation of epistemicism)

Who are the speakers of English? (an attempted refutation of epistemicism)

(I was originally going to flesh this out and try and get this published, but have come to the belief that the blogosphere is intellectually and morally preferable to academic journals for discussing these ideas. Also, this is obviously way easier, and I’ve been sitting on the argument for so long I just want to put it out there and see what people think. So I’ve mostly just copied this from the draft, and put some token links in to make it look like a blog post…) 

It has been alleged against the epistemic account of vagueness that the determination of the precise meaning of a vague term appears miraculous, severing the connection between meaning and use. Given the infinite possible precisifications of terms like “thin”, “heap” and “tall”, how on earth is one of those concepts picked out by our ordinary expressions? However, an actual refutation of epistemicism has never been forthcoming, and the epistemicist defence (e.g. Williamson 1994) against the above accusation has been to correctly point out that there isn’t any promising account of how the meaning of non-vague terms is related to use, and that it is unfair to demand that one be provided:

“Every known recipe for extracting meaning from use breaks down even cases where vagueness is irrelevant. The inability of the epistemic view of vagueness to provide a successful recipe is an inability it shares with all its rivals. Nor is there any reason to suppose that such a recipe must exist.” [Williamson 1994 p207 (1996 edition)]

Whilst I agree with Tim Williamson (no relation!) that such a recipe may forever be beyond our grasp, we can still ask whether the epistemic account of vagueness is consistent with the necessary conditions of a true account of meaning determination. It could be the case in the physical sciences that a ‘Theory of Everything’ is necessarily impossible to describe, but this would not prohibit us from making less ambitious but nevertheless true statements about physics and seeing whether they are consistent with other propositions. I submit than the following condition would have to be met in the case of meaning determination

(1)   The determination of the meaning of a word/expression/concept* makes reference to the actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs* of the speakers of the language

(1) does not imply that meaning is exclusively determined by use, whatever that may mean, but it is impossible to see how we could explain how words change their meaning without some version of it.  The ordinary phenomenon of semantic change provides the most compelling intuitive support for there being a role for the speakers of a language in determining the correct meaning of the words they use. Examples abound of words whose meaning has changed over time, with the most plausible explanation of the change being that the speakers of the language gradually took the word to mean something different. This is completely consistent with a realist account of universals, whereby the word “awful” could have once denoted the same universal as “awesome” does now, with the changing actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs of English-speakers eventually changing the denotation.

But who exactly are the speakers of English? The set of English-speakers is a classic example of a vague set; there are borderline cases in terms of who alive today might count as a member of the set (infants/bilinguals/speakers of dialects), and there are borderline cases going back in time (Was Chaucer a speaker of English? How about Shakespeare? Or Samuel Johnson?). On the epistemicist account, it is either True or False as to whether Chaucer spoke my language, even if we cannot ever know whether he did.

However, “English-speaker” is a word in English and, if (1) is correct, its meaning is partially determined by the actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs of the set of English-speakers. The epistemicist cannot account for how “English-speaker” takes on a precise meaning in English, for it requires that an already precise set of individuals be constituted (the set of English speakers), whose actions/assertions/intentions/beliefs serve as an input into the function that is supposed to determine the contents of the very same set. It would be as if a polity attempted to establish the extent of the franchise on the basis of a democratic vote.

Therefore, unless the epistemicist can account for semantic change without positing a (1)-like principle that leads to the problem of the self-constituting set of language-speakers, the epistemicist explanation of vagueness cannot be correct. But since my claim is actually negative (I’m agnostic as to the precise form (1) must take, it merely seems to me that you *can’t* come up with an account of semantic change that won’t result in the circular feature I have described, although I don’t know how to prove it), I would be very interested if anyone can come up with a plausible substitute for (1) that does not have the problem for epistemicism I have described. I can’t think of one, which makes this argument the closest thing to a refutation of epistemicism that I am aware of, and as such is worthy of further inquiry.

Comments/counter-arguments/reading suggestions are most welcome.


*Delete as appropriate, according to your philosophical sensibilities

  1. Dan W
    April 3, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    I’m not entirely sure I understand the worry. The epistemicist picture is presumably clear: there is a set of people (call them English-speakers) whose linguistic behaviour (broadly understood) determines the semantic facts about English; and it is a semantic fact about English that every English term has a precise meaning.

    So, when you ask, how does the term “English-speaker” come to have a precise extension?, the answer will be: in exactly the same way as every other term, it’s determined by the patterns of usage exhibited by English-speakers.

    Basically I’m not sure I see a problematic circle. There would be an issue if the account was that people determine the meaning of vague terms in English because they are in the extension of the term “English-speaker”. But that’s not the account: they do so because *they are English-speakers*.

    • April 4, 2012 at 4:54 am


      Surely one is an English-Speaker if and only if one is in the extension of “English-Speakers”? Just as one is tall if and only if one is in the extension of “tall”? You see the problem I’m getting at (if that’s right).

      • Dan
        April 4, 2012 at 7:38 am

        it’s certainly true that being an english speaker is logically equivalent to falling under the term ‘english speaker’. but, presumably, one wants to say that ‘ determination-facts’ are hyper-intensional, in the sense that their truth-value is sensitive to more than just logical equivalence of components.

      • April 4, 2012 at 9:30 am


        I agree, but I’m not sure it matters, because the extension is still relevant for determining the intension, even if intensional facts obviously play a huge role. Maybe it is easier to express my concern by example. Imagine a hypothetical man, let’s call him Jeff, and it is vague whether Jeff is an English speaker. Furthermore, imagine that Jeff’s intentions/actions etc., were they to be included in the meaning function, ever so slightly change the meaning of ‘English speaker’. Suppose if those inputs are included in the meaning function he ends up being an English speaker, and if not then not. In this case, the meaning function (because of its recursive nature in this example) has multiple solutions. It is irreducibly indeterminate whether or not he speaks English.

  2. Graeme
    April 4, 2012 at 5:03 am

    Four things.

    a) My knowledge of this field is limited to the wikipedia article linked to, about a quarter of the stanford page linked to, and this article.
    b) I agree with the previous commenter.
    c) Ignoring b), how about replacing “speakers of the language” with “users of that word/expression/concept”? It seems to be non-vague, as you could in principle determine everyone who has or hasn’t used a word, and helpfully excludes even fluent native speakers of a language who don’t understand or use a particular word and who therefore probably don’t contribute to its meaning.
    d) Notwithstanding c), the whole idea of defining absolute meaning appears both unnecessary and futile.

    • April 4, 2012 at 6:45 am


      Welcome to the blog! I think that replacement you suggest can still lead to circularity problems, and you can’t obviously determine whether two people have used the ‘same’ word. This is especially true of vague terms – what I mean by ‘tall’ could easily be different to you, even (if not especially) on an epistemic account of vagueness.

      As for your last point, I agree with you. All I’m trying to do is express a concern that the epistemicist belief that vague predicates have precise cut-off points is in tension with the ability of language users to determine the meaning of the words they use.

  3. Dan W
    April 6, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Two things: sorry the last point was a bit cryptic (I was posting from my phone). What I was trying to say is that although it’s true that being tall and falling under the extension of the term “tall” are equivalent, in certain kinds of contexts you can’t substitute them without changing the truth value. For instance, being red and falling under the extension of “red” are equivalent; it might nevertheless be true that some object is coloured *because it is red* and not *because it falls under the extension of “red”* — the latter is, as it were, merely a semantic fact, whereas the former is a substantive fact about which particular colour it is. Likewise, people affect the sharp boundaries of vague terms of English, on the epistemicist picture, *because they are English-speakers*, not *because they fall under the extension of “English-speaker”*.

    Also, I am a bit worried you’re begging the question with your Jeff example, in the sense that you’re assuming a kind of view of vagueness and indeterminacy that the epistemicist will roundly deny. For the epistemicist, there is no *indeterminacy* as to whether Jeff is an English-speaker or not, unless indeterminacy is understood in a very non-standard way to apply to things we are ignorant of. The meaning function, as you put it, has *only one solution*; it’s just that we don’t know what that solution is.

    • April 6, 2012 at 7:04 am


      Let me focus on the Jeff example, because we are in agreement that hyper-intensional facts matter and thinking more about the example could well bring out why that would or would not affect the argument.

      I presume the epistemicist wants to say that there is an *explanation* of semantic facts about vague terms, even if they are unknowable. There’s a truthmaker (if a complex one!) for why someone counts as an English-speaker or not. I have no problem with the semantic facts of ‘tall’ being determined in some unknowable way. However, if it is the case that the meaning function is recursive in the way that (1) makes is, then it is logically possible for people like Jeff to exist, where the meaning function is not sufficient for determining the semantic facts, as it leaves unexplained why one solution and not the other. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for your comments, it’s really helping me get to the bottom of my objection.

  4. Dan
    April 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I presume the epistemicist wants to say that there is an *explanation* of semantic facts about vague terms, even if they are unknowable. There’s a truthmaker (if a complex one!) for why someone counts as an English-speaker or not. I have no problem with the semantic facts of ‘tall’ being determined in some unknowable way. However, if it is the case that the meaning function is recursive in the way that (1) makes is, then it is logically possible for people like Jeff to exist, where the meaning function is not sufficient for determining the semantic facts, as it leaves unexplained why one solution and not the other. Does that make sense?

    OK, so let’s distinguish two different things that one might describe as “counting as an English-speaker”.

    1) S being correctly described as an English-speaker; or equivalently, S falling under the extension of “English-speaker”; and

    2) S’s behaviour/dispositions/etc affecting the meanings of English terms.

    1) is broadly speaking a semantic fact, about the word “English-speaker” and its meaning. Presumably the explanation is going to be given in terms of a long and complicated story involving how meanings — and the meaning of “English-speaker” in particular — are generated from the behaviour/dispositions/etc of speakers. Put in terms of “meaning functions”, a perfectly good answer to this question is going to consist in a) a specification of the meaning function and b) a specification of the “inputs” — together, those pieces of information suffice to pin down the meaning of the word, and thereby will explain why S counts as an English-speaker.

    2) is broadly speaking a meta-semantic fact, about why it’s the case that some people’s behaviour/dispositions/etc affect English terms and others’ don’t. A full explanation of it is going to have to explain, roughly speaking, why the meaning function is the way it is (instead of some other way).

    Now, it seems like your complaint is one of circularity: what it is to count as an English-speaker is explained in terms of the behaviour/dispositions/etc *of people who count as English-speakers*, and this appears to rely on precisely the notion that needed to be explained. But I think the circularity is really only apparent: what is being explained is the *semantic fact*; and it is being explained in terms of the *meta-semantic fact*. If the explanation was in terms of the *semantic fact*, there would indeed be a problem; but (fortunately for the epistemicist), I don’t think that’s the story.

    • April 12, 2012 at 12:58 pm


      It is clear the semantic fact is being explained in terms of the meta-semantic fact. But it is also my contention that the meta-semantic fact probably needs to be explained in terms of the semantic fact. S’s behaviour/dispositions etc. affect the meaning of English terms *because* S is an English-speaker, and S’s behaviour/dispositions etc. don’t affect the meaning of Cantonese terms because S doesn’t speak Cantonese. My suspicion is that the meaning function (whatever it is) would have to make use of such semantic facts in order to determine whether or not S’s behaviour/dispositions matter and to what extent. Clearly, I need to focus my effort on fleshing this out, which is currently more on the vague-intuition-end of the epistemological spectrum.

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