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