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I haven’t been doing much in the way of natural language semantics or pragmatics lately. It is something that I hope to return to, especially after seeing my inbox this morning. I know some of my readers are actively working in those areas, so they are likely to appreciate this. I just got an email from Amazon saying that David Beaver’s Sense and Sensitivity: How Focus Determines Meaning is coming out soon. It is a book on the semantics and pragmatics of focus. From the blurb it looks to have a good overview of the field of formal pragmatics. I took a class on semantics and pragmatics from David that was quite good. Near the end we covered focus some, including David’s work, and if that material, or some version of it, is in the book, it is well worth a read.

This is a note I wrote on Salmon and Kitcher’s criticisms of van Fraassen’s view of explanation in the Scientific Image. It is a little flawed in that the defense I gave in the last third doesn’t mesh with what van Fraassen says in the book. I didn’t realize this when I wrote it though. Alas. Up until then I think it is not bad though.


In their article ”Van Fraassen on Explanation,” Salmon and Kitcher charge van Fraassen with presenting a theory of the pragmatics of explanation that fails to be a pragmatic theory of explanation. This is a hefty charge because van Fraassen denies that there is any sui generis explanatory virtue and defends this claim by providing a theory of explanation that purports to show how explanation is merely pragmatic. In this paper I will present two of Salmon and Kitcher’s objections to van Fraassen’s theory of explanation. I will then present replies on behalf of van Fraassen and argue that the criticisms do not undermine his project. I will close by presenting what seems correct in Salmon and Kitcher’s.

Briefly, van Fraassen sees explanations as answers to questions of the form ”Why is Pk the case?” A question Q in a given context can be identified with the triple (Pk, X,R), where Pk is the topic of the question, X is the contextually determined contrast class for Pk, and R is the contextually determined relevance relation. An explanation is an answer A to some ‘why’ question such that the A stands in R to (Pk, X). This makes van Fraassen’s theories of explanation and ‘why’ questions heavily dependent on context. This is explicit at the end of the chapter on explanation in the Scientific Image, where van Fraassen says, ”The discussion of explanation went wrong at the very beginning when explanation was conceived of as a relationship like description: a relation between theory and fact. Really it is a three-term relation, between theory, fact, and context.” Finally, for evaluating answers we need the background theory K and the part K(Q) that is salient to the question, both contextually dependent. With this background in mind, we will move to the objections to van Fraassen’s account.

I will focus on two of Salmon and Kitcher’s arguments against van Fraassen which deal with the relevance relations. One is that without any restrictions on what counts as a relevance relation, van Fraassen’s account of explanation reduces to triviality. The other is that without any restrictions on relevance relations, van Fraassen’s theory of explanation cannot rule out bad explanations without incorporating elements that undermine the claim that explanation is merely pragmatic.

According to Salmon and Kitcher, to reduce van Fraassen’s account to triviality, let Pk be a true proposition and X a set of propositions containing Pk and whose other elements are all false. Let R be {( A, ( Pk, X))}U S where S is any set of pairs of the form ( B, ( Y , Z)) where B and Y are propositions and Z is a set of propositions containing Y. Further, S cannot contain any pairs ( B, ( Y , Z)) such that B is true and ( Y , Z)=( Pk, X). Thus, for any true propositions A and Pk, there is a question Q such that A answers Q and Pk is the topic of Q. The conclusion is then: ”If explanations are answers to why-questions, then it follows that, for any pair of true propositions, there is a context in which the first is the (core of the) only explanation of the second.” Salmon and Kitcher think this is a reductio of van Fraassen’s position. They later go on to say that ”if van Fraassen’s account does not contain context-independent principles that preclude assigning [trivializing propositions] to K(Q)” then the above problems will arise. However, a closer examination of their argument will not support the reductio conclusion.

Salmon and Kitcher’s argument is not a reductio. Assuming that for each triple of topic, contrast class and relevance relation, there is a context that generates it, then all they have shown is that for each topic and explanation there is a context in which the latter explains the former. What they need for reductio is that for any topic and explanation, the relevance relation for a given context will be the one constructed above. If van Fraassen’s account said that any true proposition were an explanation for any question topic in a context, then it would be trivial. However, this is not the case. Some propositions will not explain some question topics in a given context although they could explain the topic in other contexts as the relevance relation of the context would be different. Thus, their reductio fails.

To see why their argument fails, it is helpful to note that the construction above does not invoke context. The contrast class X, the relevance relation R, and the background theory K are all determined by the context, not by the theorist. Formally van Fraassen leaves open the possibility that there are contexts such that for any true proposition they provide contrast classes and relevance relations such that the proposition explains the topic at hand, but this is, prima facie, not different than other theories of formal pragmatics. For example, David Kaplan’s theory of indexicals allows contexts in which the speaker is not at the location of the context or at the time or even in the world. These are in a way deviant contexts, but they are formally allowed. Kaplan suggests a natural way of restricting attention to non-deviant contexts. Turning back to van Fraassen’s theory, the possibility of unusual contexts is not a reductio of his position. The claim that there is no context in which a certain proposition would explain a given topic is quite strong, and various science fiction examples should provide inductive counterevidence to this claim.

One of Salmon and Kitcher’s criticisms of van Fraassen’s theory, and a possible reason why they do not mention context in formulating this objection, is that van Fraassen does not indicate any way in which the contrast class or the relevance relation are to be read off of the context. Looking again to Kaplan’s theory of indexicals, the formal contexts are quadruples ( cA,cT,cL,cW) of a speaker, a time, a location, and a world. It is fairly straightforward to figure out which formal context corresponds to which concrete context. The speaker cA will be the person talking and cT will be the time that person is talking. There are some complicating details, such as the extent of the location region. Ignoring these for the moment, the formal contexts are comprised of features that are easily read off of a concrete context. Returning to van Fraassen’s theory, a difference emerges. The contrast class and relevance relation are less straightforwardly read off the concrete situations. We will return to this point in the conclusion.

The other objection of Salmon and Kitcher to be discussed is that without any formal requirements on relevance relations, van Fraassen’s account allows bad explanations and the only way to rectify this makes explanation cease to be merely pragmatic. Their examples follow a pattern, so we will focus on their example of the astrological explanation of the date JFK was assassinated. The setup is that the contrast class is the set of propositions saying that JFK died each day in 1963 together with one saying that he survived 1963. The topic Pk is that he died on 11/22/63. Salmon and Kitcher stipulate that R is the relation of astrological relevance in which the answer stands to the contrast class and the topic. The answer consists of the conjunction of a true description D of the positions of the heavenly bodies, the proposition that if D then Pk, and the denial of everything in the contrast class except Pk. Salmon and Kitcher claim that van Fraassen’s theory says this is an explanation. Further, they think that van Fraassen cannot rule out the answer as being astrological because it invokes only facts that are part of the background theory K, i.e. astronomical facts. The only way out of this predicament, according to Salmon and Kitcher, is for van Fraassen to make it so that the relevance relations are not determined solely by merely subjective factors. They say, ”[van Fraassen] ought to be equally serious about showing that relevance is not completely determined by subjective factors. If we are talking about distributions and redistributions of personal probabilities, they must be subject to some kinds of standards or criteria…. To be scientifically acceptable, the redistribution of probabilities must involve differences in objective probabilities…” However, the move to more objective determinations of relevance and to objective probabilities introduces a non-pragmatic aspect into explanation, undermining van Fraassen’s claim that the explanatory virtue is just pragmatic.

Van Fraassen has two responses available, both rejecting excessive assumptions Salmon and Kitcher need for their arguments but to which van Fraassen is not committed. The first of these is that the background theory K includes only contemporary science, possibly with some additional factual information. Thus, in their example given above, the astronomical information is part of K but the astrological beliefs that the agents have and that make it a good explanation to them are not. This provides space for including suspect relations as relevance relations and getting around van Fraassen’s admonition that explanation shouldn’t rely on old wives’ tales. This allows enough space between K and the agents’ beliefs to allow Salmon and Kitcher’s problems to enter.

Van Fraassen should reject this construal of the background theory. Van Fraassen says, ”[K] is a factor in the context, since it depends on who the questioner and audience are.” Since it involves who the questioner and audience are, it would seem that van Fraassen means to include in K at least some of the beliefs of the agents in question. There is nothing to debar them from having mistaken or misguided beliefs, e.g. that astrology is true, which are part of K. Since K is not restricted to just contemporary science, van Fraassen has a response to their argument. He should deny that there are no astrological propositions in K. One of the agents involved in the exchange takes the explanation to be good precisely because they have astrological beliefs, so they should figure in K. If van Fraassen is entitled to claim that explanation should not be based on old wives’ tales then this will provide a way for him to rule the astrological explanation out as an explanation.

Van Fraassen has another response to Salmon and Kitcher’s argument. They assume further that the only solution to the problem is to make the relevance relations more objective and the probabilities involved into objective probabilities. This is a crucial step toward their conclusion that explanatory virtue is not just pragmatic. If the account must involve these objective features then it looks like explanation is not just pragmatic as it latches on to objective features of the world, above and beyond what van Fraassen thinks explanatory virtue involves.

The second response is to deny their crucial premises that the relevance relation and explanation must reflect objective probabilities. Constraints can be put on relevance which do not require tying it and explanation to objective probabilities. Van Fraassen says that ”observable is observable-to-us,” so it is to be expected that relevance would be relevance-to-us. The relevance relation should depend on K, which van Fraassen would allow to include the beliefs of the agents, as well as current science, to give content to van Fraassen’s claim that good explanation should use good science. This ties relevance to subjective factors, in the sense of relying on the subjects involved, possibly including personal probabilities. However, this need not count against it since the subjects and their beliefs are things science investigates, and so, in a sense, objective. Salmon and Kitcher have given no reason to demand more objectivity than that.

Without Salmon and Kitcher’s crucial premises concerning relevance, the pressure on van Fraassen’s theory to give up the claim that explanatory virtue is just pragmatic disappears. Salmon and Kitcher’s argument that van Fraassen’s theory requires explanation to have its own non-pragmatic virtue does not work against van Fraassen’s position. However, part of their criticism still stands.

At the heart of Salmon and Kitcher’s criticism is the charge that van Fraassen does not place any formal constraints on what constitutes a relevance relation while also claiming that not all relations between a proposition and a suitable ordered pair count as genuine relevance relations. This makes the relevance relation an unexplained explainer. It does a lot of the work in van Fraassen’s account of explanation, but there are no constraints on it or indications of what counts as a relevance relation.
As was said above, the relevance relations are less straightforwardly picked out of a concrete context than the speaker. Van Fraassen needs to give an account of how the context determines the relevance relation. Without such an account, van Fraassen has just shifted the focus from problems of explanation to problems of relevance.

While Salmon and Kitcher’s arguments do not work against van Fraassen in the way they claim, they do highlight demands on the relevance relation. The relevance relation should be tightly connected to the background theory. It should involve the beliefs and intentions of the agents involved in the explanation. Salmon and Kitcher supply a promising suggestion: isolating what look like relevance relations for different sciences at different times and generalizing from there. They have not shown that no account of relevance can be given and the pressure is on van Fraassen to supply such an account. If one cannot be given, then Salmon and Kitcher’s arguments will need to be reevaluated.

[This post is rather speculative and the waters may get a little choppy. Please be gentle.] It occurred to me that there are some further consequences to the criticism of Brandom that MacFarlane puts forward. In his Locke Lectures “Between Doing and Saying” (BDS), Brandom talks about some of the consequences of inference as a kind of doing. In particular, he highlights the relationship between the conditional and inference, the former saying what one does in the latter. This idea is generalized to a discussion of what expressive tools one needs to be able to say explicitly what is left implicit in practice. This a theme from Making It Explicit (MIE) that sees a formal working through in BDS.

It has been too long since I read either BDS or MIE, and I only read each once through so some (lots) of the details are getting fuzzy. But, the role of score-keeping is toned down in BDS. The emphasis is placed on the deployment of different vocabularies to express what is done in practice. This is tightly connected to inference, but if MacFarlane is right then the inference is not the proper concept to bridge the practice and its semantic expression. That is deontic score-keeping. I don’t remember any discussion tying the use of different vocabularies together with deontic score-keeping. That could be an aspect of BDS that needs to be worked out. The role of inference in BDS is a bit different from that of MIE, so MacFarlane’s point is not directly applicable. BDS does build on the MIE account though, and inference is the paradigmatic kind of doing in both MIE and BDS. Probably the clearest place at which the semantic role of inference comes into play is when Brandom discusses modal notions and how certain inferences are counterfactually robust.

It seems a little odd that there wasn’t any talk (to my memory at least) of the explicitating-explicating (technical Brandomese, left unexplained here; see BDS lectures 1 & 2) role of score-keeping vocabulary, namely commitment and the various kinds of entitlement. I don’t think that was mentioned at all, when it is starting to seem to me like it should have been. [edit: I have been corrected in the comments. Brandom does talk about the vocabulary of score-keeping. He says in lecture 4 that it is explicitating-explicating for all vocabularies. That roughly vindicates the intuition behind this paragraph. It also seems to support some of MacFarlane’s idea. Tip of my hat to eccecattus for pointing this out.] This could turn into a summer project…

John MacFarlane’s “Pragmatism and Inferentialism” is, in large part, about Brandom’s claim that inferring is a kind of doing and how that claim fits into the larger picture of Brandom’s project. Brandom also thinks that semantics must answer to pragmatics, that the meaning of a term is its role in a practice. This commitment means that representation can’t be one of the semantic primitives since representation is not an action, whereas inference is. Norms and proprieties can be brought to bear on actions and are less naturally brought to bear on states. But, as MacFarlane points out, even if representation isn’t an action, asserting is and we can see truth as a norm of assertion. This is not a completely unproblematic response (have there been any in philosophy?), but it is a line that Davidson, who MacFarlane characterizes as a pragmatist in the sense of emphasizing use, takes. Davidson is a pragmatist in this sense since the truth-conditional theories he promotes are tested in the field by how well they allow us to interpret agents as rational beings.

Brandom sees inference as bridging the gap between pragmatics and semantics. The notion of (material and formal) validity supplies proprieties for inferences. MacFarlane asks what makes validity an unproblematic norm where truth fails the test. He give an explicit answer to that question, but he points to analogs of the reasons why truth fails. There are times when evidence supports asserting something that is false and there are times when it is improper to assert something that is true, e.g. due to redundancy or to lack of evidence. Going a bit further, when we look at Brandom’s primary semantic notions (incompatibility, entitlement-preservation, commitment-preservation) we find that they do not have anything to do with validity. They are all norms for deontic score-keeping. Deontic score-keeping is what connects use to meaning. (This is really what makes MacFarlane’s paper interesting.) The score-keeping is a kind of Davidsonian interpretation, so it looks like this lends some support to someone that wants to be a representationalist, i.e. use truth-conditional semantics, while being a pragmatist. Additionally it leaves it somewhat open what the role of inference in meaning is. Inferential role is how Brandom cashes out meaning, but it is no longer the concept bringing together meaning and use. That concept is score-keeping, and inference shows up there in what inferences the score-keepers are disposed to make, not the ones the asserting agent is disposed to make. Also, it opens the door as to what sorts of use meaning could consist in (if it so consists). The candidates on the table are inference and score-keeping (maybe assertion?), but there is no argument (that I know of) to the effect that this exhausts the possibilities. I don’t have anything to offer as a candidate, although it seems like there could be possibilities out there.

In his “Predicate Meets Property,” Mark Wilson presents a challenge to the traditional (Frege-Russell) view of predicates expressing or being attached to properties. The challenge is to explain how the extension of the predicate (determined by the property or universal) changes when the usage of the predicate in the community changes. He has a few examples from non-technical usage and a few from the history of science to illustrate this point. E.g., how are the extensions of the predicate “is an electron” different when it was used in Thompson’s time and then in the late 20th century. His idea is to make determining the extension of a predicate on a par with measurement in experiments. That is to say that he wants to view speakers as measuring devices of a sort. Measuring devices have a fairly limited range of circumstances in which they will give the correct results and they have an extremely limited range of things they can detect with any accuracy. This means including in descriptions of what speakers are meaning when they make their utterances parameters for, e.g. background conditions. I think I made this sound much less radical than it is. Anyway. I think that the move to viewing speakers as measuring devices fits with Marconi’s model of referential competence. The focus in Wilson’s article is not on the spooky reference relation; it is on the practice of speakers applying words to things. This description should make clear the connection to Marconi’s work. His referential competence is the ability of speakers to apply words to things in accordance with the meanings they associate with the words. In particular, this seems like it could flesh out the further distinction Marconi draws within referential competence of application and recognition.

I’ve gotten excited about Marconi’s book again (last time was September when we had a brief email correspondence) in part due to a post over at Philosophy of brains on Lexical Competence.

Suppose that Cappelan and Lepore’s minimal semantics is right. This means that most of the things we say are false. No utterance of “I am tall” is ever true (at least on this planet). No utterance of “That is flat” is either. Lots of things we say won’t be literally true. This means that most of what goes for what-is-said is not true either.

There’s the rub. If most of your propositions expressed as what-is-said are not true, then the maxim of quality goes right out the door. I suppose that one could reason like this: he said “I am tall” but since that isn’t true, there must be a further proposition that is relevant that he wanted me to understand. There are two problems with that. One is that there are a lot of propositions in the neighborhood of the one expressed by my “I am tall”. A whole lot of them. You’d be hard-pressed to pick out the right one just given that I have expressed something in that semantic neighborhood. Additionally, this would turn most acts of understanding into implicature recovery. I suppose that Kent Bach would be happy with this since his position isn’t too far from this line. Actually, I suppose that the relevance theorists wouldn’t mind this either since they think that some amount of inference is done in every communicative act. They don’t use the maxim of quality though. This might indicate that going minimal about semantics pushes one to abandon canonical (or even neo-?) Gricean pragmatics. There are a lot (most?all?) of details that would need to be filled in before the connections (or lack thereof) between minimal semantics and Gricean pragmatics can be made explicit. It seems telling that Cappelan and Lepore aren’t Griceans; and the minimal semantic project is designed to be bolster Davidson’s program and Davidson was very much not a Gricean.

Kent Bach has this idea he calls “conversational impliciture.” It comes out of his reading of Grice. He says that Grice posits a constraint on what is said that each part of what is said should correspond (be expressed by?) a syntactic element of the sentence. What does that get us? If you have a sentence that looks “semantically incomplete” then without the constraint you would be tempted to say that the missing semantic elements are there, just unexpressed or unarticulated. Bach says these things aren’t part of what is said since they don’t have a corresponding syntactic realization. They are implicit in the conversation though. Rather than enriching what is said, he suggests a new layer, conversational impliciture, which is the material that is implicit in a given utterance. This meshes with some of his recent stuff because he does not think that utterances of full sentences always express complete thoughts or propositions. He is all for accepting semantic incompleteness.

Here are three quick, related questions I have about his view. First, how much different is it than, say, the unarticulated constituent view of Perry? Both have implicit, assumed information making its way into propositions. (I’m pretty sure conversational impliciture is propositional.) The main difference seems to be that Perry puts it in what is said (or the locutionary content, which, I believe, is his preferred term these days) while Bach leaves what is said semantically incomplete and puts it somewhere else. Does this difference end up coming to much though?

Second, how does impliciture interact with implicature? Is it used in the derivation of implicatures? Grice says that what is said is used to determine what the implicatures are, in combination with the maxims. I suppose it becomes a part of the background knowledge, but it makes what is said seem otiose. If we have an implicature whose derivation requires using the impliciture, which is an enriched version of what is said, then what is said is doing exactly 0 work in the derivation. It only serves to get us to impliciture, then drops out. It does not seem difficult to construct cases in which this would happen, say an implicature depending on someone not having eaten today when the person says “I have not eaten.” This example needs a lot of fleshing out before it becomes convincing, but hopefully one can see where it is heading. This leads to the third question.

What exactly is the difference between implicitures and implicatures? They seem to require very similar mechanisms in their determination. Why not say that impliciture is an intermediate step in the derivation (if I may use these terms like the derivations were well-defined) of implicature from what is said? There doesn’t seem to be any good demarcation line between the two concepts. Of course, an unclear boundary doesn’t mean that the concepts are worthless (Quine didn’t win that fight in all cases) but it would be good to clarify.

I like the story that Brandom put forward in Making It Explicit and his Locke lectures. The focus on commitment and entitlement of assertions in a social practice seems like a good direction to go in. The constant focus on the truth of an assertion and cashing things out in terms of truth-values or truth conditions, while useful, seems to miss something, namely a lot of the interaction between people. That being said, the story isn’t perfect.

One example is that it isn’t really clear what I’m committing myself to when I make an assertion containing a metaphor. Suppose I assert, “You are my sunshine.” I’m not committing myself to the claim that you are made of photons. I think all of the examples in the book and lectures were of literal, fairly straightfoward sentences. There is nothing wrong with startint there, but there are several things that still need accounting for. Metaphor is one of them. I think I am committing myself to the claim that you are important to me, but we need some story to get us from my usage of that to that particular claim. I’m not familiar with the metaphor literature, so I’m not sure what the canonical ways of dealing with metaphor are. The one I’m familiar with is a quasi-Gricean way that I don’t think applies here since Brandom reverses the order of explanation that Grice requires. Brandom is starting with the pragmatic force and then gets to the semantic content while Grice went the other direction. A more interesting question to me is when am I entitled to make an utterance with a metaphor instead of a literal utterance that expresses roughly the same content? Are the entitlement conditions for “you are my sunshine” and “you are very important to me” different or is this just a matter of taste? There aren’t going to be any extra epistemological conditions placed on the entitlement to one over the other and I don’t think there are any particular collateral beliefs that would support using one rather than the other. An exception might be a belief about whether you think your addressee has a preference for poetic flattery, but could that be the only difference?

The relevance theorists say that meaning is what is disclosed (transmitted?) via one’s communicative intention (or was it informative intention?) in communication. They sound like they are saying that recognition of the communicative intention is necessary and sufficient for communication, i.e. getting meaning across. They go on to say that language is just one effective means of aiding the recognition of the communicative intention. I have a couple of thoughts about this.

First, if meaning is linked only to the communicative intention, then I am guessing that they deny that there is such a thing as sentence meaning. As Stephen Neale put it (I’m not completely sure it is fair to put him in the same camp, but the sentiment is the same), “Sentences don’t mean; people mean things.” That isn’t a direct quote. It is a paraphrase from his paper “On Location” coming out in the volume Situated Semantics. If sentences, don’t mean things, and sentences are compositionally built up from the meanings of words, then words don’t mean things either. This has the odd result that lexical semantics should not be possible since that field studies the meanings of individual words. I’m not sure what the relevance theorist’s response to this would be. Maybe she would appeal to the conventionalized use of words to signal certain sorts of intentions.

Here is another worry about tying meaning to intentions in this way, i.e. seeming to bypass words altogether. Suppose you have an unusual or underdeveloped theory of mind, e.g. you are autistic (fairly sure this is accurate). If understanding and recognizing intentions is linked to your theory of mind, then we would expect people with an underdeveloped or unusual theory of mind to have a great deal of trouble catching implicatures. This means that we should expect, e.g., autistic people to have a great deal of trouble with implicatures. I don’t know if they do have trouble with that. It would be worth checking out. This might not even present any problems for the relevance theorist if they don’t have trouble with implicatures. I’d expect a response along the lines of: their theory of mind may be deficient, but it is not deficient in the way that impairs the recognition of intentions and intentionality. Getting more into this will require reading up on some psychology I expect.

Some people think that what constitutes the answer to a question is an entirely semantic matter. I think Sag, Ginzburg, Gronendijk, and Stokhof all hold this view. For them, answerhood seems to be a function of the semantic content of the question.. But, there are thtings this seems to leave out. What constitutes an answer, at least in part, depends on what the information the asker has is. If I know that the height of an average community member is 5′ tall and I ask if community member C is tall, then your answer of ‘C is 6′ tall’ will be an answer. Semantically though, my question and your response are independent. Another problem with a purely semantic account is that it leaves out the possibility of non-verbal answers. For example, a silence after a doctor asking “Did he make it?” regarding a patient is an answer. A shrug is also an answer. In the case of a shrug or a shake of the head, one might say that the agent indicated a propositional content. I don’t think this is a good route to take, but in the case of a silence, it doesn’t seem tenable at all. My conclusoins: pragmatics are very involved in questions and answerhood.

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Shawn Standefer, recent Ph.D. in philosophy from Pitt. (More about me)

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