By Tristram McPherson
It is a striking fact that many of the most recently influential expressivists (e.g. Simon Blackburn, Allan Gibbard, Mark Timmons) have embraced minimalist accounts of words such as ‘truth,’ ‘fact,’ and ‘property.’ And others have argued that embracing minimalism is indispensable for the expressivist. In this post, I argue that expressivists can and should resist the idea that they are forced to embrace minimalism.
On first approximation, expressivism claims that indicative normative sentences semantically express psychological states that are broadly desire-like, where indicative non-normative sentences semantically express beliefs. Roughly, minimalism is the thesis that the meaning of certain words is exhausted by certain equivalences, which deprive these words of the distinctive metaphysical significance they are sometimes taken to have.
Some expressivists embrace minimalism simply because they are independently convinced of its truth (e.g. Gibbard on truth in Thinking How to Live). However, others have suggested that – if we are conceiving of expressivism as a theory of our actual thought and talk – embracing minimalism is crucial to the viability of the expressivist program. The most prominent reason for thinking this is that it is seemingly obviously felicitous to (e.g.) reply to a normative claim by saying “That’s true,” or “That’s a fact.” And it may seem that embracing minimalism is the only plausible way for the expressivist to vindicate this apparent felicity. (It is worth flagging here that some hybrid expressivists appear capable of vindicating the felicity of such claims without committing to minimalism, in virtue of the belief-like part of the hybrid state they posit. I focus on non-hybrid views here.)
The expressivist’s alleged need to embrace minimalism has been strongly endorsed. Here’s James Dreier: “To save the phenomena, then, expressivism needs a conception of truth that doesn’t commit to anything metaphysically heavy-duty.” (“When do Goals Explain the Norms that Advance Them?” 170). And Huw Price argues on very similar grounds that an anti-realist alternative to adopting minimalistic resources would be a reductio of expressivism as a hermeneutic thesis (“From Quasi-realism to Global Expressivism – and Back Again?” §1.2). And many other philosophers now appear to take for granted that any plausible expressivism must be wedded to minimalism.
If this were so, it would be Bad News for (non-hybrid) expressivism. The problems arising are diverse; here I gesture at the simplest one to state. Embracing minimalism saddles the expressivist with controversial commitments about a topic other than the one she hopes to theorize, and the philosophy of truth is hair-raisingly tricky. Crudely, then, if I have to multiply my theory- of-truth-independent credences in expressivism by my credences in a controversial claim about truth, the resulting credence in expressivism will be tiny. This gives the expressivist reason to resist the idea that felicity data forces them to embrace minimalism. I propose a means of resisting in two stages.
The first stage begins by observing that normative thought and talk present philosophers with a hard interpretive problem. What do I mean by this? It is not difficult to get competent users of normative concepts puzzled by the problem of how to interpret normative thought and talk. And once puzzled, they reach for a wide variety of different solutions. The same is true of the experts: for several generations, philosophers have been systematically investigating normative thought and talk, without convergence.
This observation is compatible with the possibility that the correct interpretation of normative thought and talk vindicates everything we are ordinarily inclined to accept about the topic, in some highly non-obvious way. However, the difficulty of the interpretive problem makes it more plausible that there is no such interpretation. It is thus plausible that some of what we are inclined to accept about normative thought and talk is in error. And this motivates the search for principled theories of error concerning initially plausible features of normative thought and talk.
The second stage of my proposal sketches such a theory of error for the apparent felicity data for ‘true’. To begin, consider:
T-Schema For every well-formed indicative sentence ‘S,’ ‘S’ is true just in case S.
The standard minimalist idea applied to truth is that T-Schema tells us everything that we need to know about both the meaning of ‘true’ and the nature of truth (cf. Terence Cuneo, “Properties for Nothing, Facts for Free?”, 231). One problem for the most straightforward forms of minimalism is that T-Schema is probably false. For example, there are paradoxes associated with ‘Liar’ sentences (e.g. “This sentence is not true”). And many philosophers have proposed that the false premises that generate the paradoxes are instances of T-Schema.
This diagnosis of the Liar paradoxes invites a plausible theory of error. This theory suggests that what Matti Eklund (“Inconsistent Languages”) calls the “pull” of the Liar paradoxes is explained by the fact that a disposition to accept any instance of T-Schema is – non-accidentally – correlated with competence with ‘true.’ Consider a (sketchy) conjecture about how that disposition is acquired. We typically learn to use terms felicitously by encountering others’ presumptively felicitous uses of those terms, and by getting felicity feedback on our own utterances. While doing so, we form something like an implicit model of how to use the relevant terms felicitously (perhaps aided by an innate interpretive framework that narrows the range of candidate hypotheses). For those of us who do not wrestle with how to interpret Liar sentences at an early age, T-Schema is plausibly part of the most elegant model to acquire for ‘true.’ If this is right, the process by which almost all of us become competent with ‘true’ likely also disposes us to accept arbitrary instances of T-Schema, even when they are false.
This discussion of Liar sentences is useful in two ways. First, it shows that we can offer plausible theories of error for felicity judgments: we should not simply assume that these are the least vulnerable of our apparent metaethical evidence. Second, it provides a model for the theory of error I propose on behalf of the expressivist.
To begin developing this theory, consider a familiar and compelling motivation for expressivism: normative thought and talk is functionally powerful as a tool for (intrapersonal) planning and (interpersonal) coordination. The expressivist suggests that non-cognitive states are the crucial psychological mechanisms for such a tool: we want our planning and coordination to issue smoothly in action, and non-cognitive states are functionally crucial for the production of action.
In order for normative thought and talk to play these roles in planning and coordination, there arguably must be structurally rational relations among normative thoughts, and implication relations among normative sentences. If thinking I ought to resist racism were not in rational tension with thinking It is not the case that I ought to resist racism, then it would be hard to see how I could reason my way to conclusions about what I ought to do. Similar points apply to implication and discourse. (It is controversial whether we can explain inferential and implication relations among the relevant non-cognitive states. But if we cannot, expressivism is hopeless for reasons that have nothing to do with minimalism, so I set this aside here.)
In non-normative discourse, aptness for inferential and implication relations is tightly correlated with indicative syntactic form (where this form differs from, e.g., the typical syntax of interrogatives or imperatives). If normative talk – as the expressivist understands it – in fact arose as a linguistic vehicle to enable expression of inferential and implication relations, it did so by adopting the same indicative syntactic form. In non-normative sentences, indicative form is highly correlated with truth-aptness. A flat-footed explanation of this is that non-normative indicative sentences function to describe the world. But a universal generalization on the correlation between indicative form and truth-aptness would be part of the most elegant implicit model for the felicity of ‘true’ that we would expect language-learners to develop as they acquire English. The expressivist can propose that, just like the intuitive applicability of the T-Schema to Liar sentences, the applicability of the T-Schema to normative sentences is an elegant overgeneralization that we would expect users to come to implicitly accept as they become competent with a natural language. Even if normative sentences are not truth-apt, then, this conjectured account can explain why being disposed to take them to be truth-apt is non-accidentally correlated with having become competent with ‘true’ in the ordinary way.
It may seem that, in presenting this theory of error, I have exhibited the very vice that I criticized above: I seem to have committed the expressivist to a contentious theory about some ‘truth’ talk. However, my aim here is not to propose that the expressivist should adopt the theory of error sketched here. Rather, the sketch illustrates the credibility of the broad strategy of challenging the probative force of the relevant felicity judgments. This in turn motivates the idea that minimalism is not the only game in town for expressivists: they can afford to be uncommitted about the theory of truth, which is the attitude they should have hoped to be able to adopt in the first place.
Note: this post contains elements of a paper-in-progress with the same name; feel very welcome to email me for a draft, but let’s keep discussion here focused on what’s in the post
Tristram McPherson, Ohio State, email@example.com