The series on “The Embedding Objection” continues. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism), Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). The third post discussed The Objection from Truth Ascriptions. In this post, I discuss what I used to believe was the most pressing difficulty for expressivists, what I call “The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics.”
According to The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics, there is a large gap in many expressivist theories, since many are not “semantically robust” enough to show how we can understand the meanings of complex ethical sentences. The idea is that many, if not most, occurrences of ethical sentences are embedded within complex sentences; thus, any metaethical theory that does not tell us how we can understand the meanings of complex ethical sentences is radically incomplete. Since many expressivist theories do not tell us how we can understand the meanings of complex ethical sentences, it follows that many expressivist theories are radically incomplete. So, expressivist theories must tell us how we can understand the meanings of complex ethical sentences, or they will lack sufficient detail to warrant our rejection of these theories.
This challenge is the central focus of Jamie Dreier’s terrific article “Expressivist Embeddings and Minimalist Truth.” Dreier’s explicit targets there are expressivist theories that accept minimalism about truth (SM- and CM-expressivism), since these theories cannot use a Tarski-style truth theory to explain how we can understand the meanings of complex sentences that embed ethical sentences on the basis of understanding the meanings of their component sentences, logical connectives, and syntactic combination. Hence, these theories are required to provide some other compositional semantic account of how to understand complex ethical sentences. However, this challenge could be raised against any kind expressivism, including SNT- and CR-expressivism, since these theories also cannot make use of a Tarski-style truth theory to explain how we can understand the meanings of complex sentences that embed ethical sentences. (A CR-expressivist could use a Tarski-style truth theory to explain how we can understand the “descriptive” meanings of complex ethical sentences, but would have to supplement it to account for the “expressive” or “prescriptive” meaning of complex ethical sentences.)
I’d like to make two points about this challenge. First, I agree that any expressivist theory that wants to be as complete as possible should offer a semantic theory that explains how we can understand the meanings of complex ethical sentences on the basis of understanding its component sentences, logical connectives, and syntactic combination. Indeed, as Dreier notes, many of the major expressivist theories, including Blackburn’s Projectivism, Hare’s Prescriptivism, and Gibbard’s Norm-Expressivism, all rise to meet this challenge. Thus, it seems to me that this challenge is legitimately directed against all expressivists theories. But, second, it’s not clear to me why an expressivist theory’s failure to include such a semantic theory warrants rejection of that theory, for I don’t see that expressivists have any special burden that others do not also have. Here’s an observation: as far as I can tell, exclamations and imperatives appear to be unproblematically embeddable in almost every kind of complex sentence, including mixed mood sentences. Let me use ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘Go home’ as my two example sentences:
(1) If you do not want to listen, then go home.
(2) If you won the race, then congratulations!
(3) Go home or did I not make myself clear?
(4) Congratulations on winning the race or am I congratulating you before the fact?
(5) Congratulations on winning the race and rest up during the offseason.
(6) Congratulations and best wishes.
(7) Go home and rest up during the offseason.
Now, if a compositional semantic theory is required in order to explain how to understand the meanings of these complex sentences on the basis of their component sentences (including the component exclamations or imperatives), logical connectives, and syntactic combination, then there must be one (and the burden to uncover it falls on everyone).
Expressivists hold that ethical sentences work very much like exclamations or very much like imperatives. Why could an expressivist not simply hold that the correct compositional semantic theory for complex ethical sentences is (mutatis mutandis) just like that for complex sentences containing exclamations or imperatives–whatever the correct theory is? That is, it seems to me that expressivists have no special difficulty here that others do not also have, namely, the difficulty of providing a compositional semantic theory for complex sentences containing exclamations and imperatives. Once the correct theory is uncovered, an expressivist could just adopt it, with appropriate modifications, as the correct compositional semantic theory for complex ethical sentences. That an expressivist theory may not include such a correct compositional semantic theory is perhaps regrettable, but I don’t see why it warrants rejection of that expressivist theory, any more than we would be warranted in rejecting some nonexpressivist theory for not providing a correct compositional semantic theory for complex sentences containing exclamations and imperatives. Expressivism gives rise to no special problem, and so incurs no special obligation to solve the problem.
So, I think that The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics is legitimately directed toward all expressivist theories, and expressivist theories should at least try to meet it. However, I no longer think that an expressivist theory’s failure to meet this challenge warrants a rejection of that theory.
(As far as I can tell, the only grammatical contexts in which exclamations and imperatives are problematic are antecedents of conditionals and complement clauses in truth ascriptions (‘It is true that ____’), modal claims (‘It is possible that ____’), and indirect contexts (‘John believes that ____’). So, an expressivist who wants to adopt the correct compositional semantic theory for exclamations and imperatives would have another burden, namely, to explain why ethical sentences are, but exclamations and imperatives are not, so embeddable. I discussed truth ascriptions in the last post. I’ll discuss antecedents of conditionals and indirect contexts in future posts.)