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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Bounds of Thought: Prospects for a Norm-Based Metasemantics

  • Author(s): Tracy, Eric Vincent
  • Advisor(s): Cumming, Samuel J
  • Armstrong, Joshua D
  • et al.

I develop a particular view about the normative explanans of the content of concepts and the meanings of linguistic items, according to which the notion of a rule plays no critical role. Rather, the account centers around an objective notion of a norm which is not automatically coextensive with any social or psychological phenomenon. According to this view, general normative principles of inquiry, interest-grounded norms of communication, and moral norms are all potentially relevant to the determination of content. The advantage of this approach is that it can explain anti-individualist data about the relevance of worldly and social factors to the determination of mental content and linguistic meaning. I respond to challenges to the coupling of a normative theory of content and a truth-theoretic or reference-oriented semantics, by enforcing a strict distinction between semantic and metasemantic theories and by insisting on constitutive explanations in metasemantics rather than merely accounting for the attribution of semantic or intentional properties. I argue that my norm-based metasemantics avoids the kind of subjectivism at play in Brandom's and Gibbard's normative theories of meaning, and that it avoids the regress of rules lurking in rule-oriented treatments of the normativity of meaning. I address the problem for a norm-based metasemantics that we deploy bad meanings and concepts with bad essential inferences, conceptual connections, implications, etc., particularly slur terms and concepts. I explain how the perverse norms needed to explain slur meanings and concepts can arise and proliferate and how the metasemantic and normative elements of the norm-based metasemantic theory can be constructed so that moral and epistemic norms do not preclude the explanation. I also show how the norm-based framework can be extended to the case of natural language metasemantics, in part by evaluating conventionalist proposals for explaining public language meaning. If the resulting metasemantic theory is successful, we will be one step further in the project of accounting for intentional relations as well as accommodating their dependence on our environments.

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