Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Semantic Realism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Semantic Realism

Article excerpt

Michael Devitt has argued that Michael Dummett unsuccessfully attacks realism because Dummett does not address the traditional, and perhaps more interesting, doctrines that have been called by the name "realism." Dummett, will balk at the charge that his writings on realism, truth, and the theory of meaning do not bear on the traditional metaphysical issues of realism. Indeed, he thinks that his most singular philosophical achievement has been showing that different realisms (about universals, mental states, physical objects, numbers) have a common characteristic: each involves the claim that the principle of bivalence holds for the relevant class of statements. Since he thinks that bivalence holds for a class of statements just in case those statements possess truth-conditions which transcend their conditions of verification, and since he thinks that the meanings of statements are either their truth-conditions or their conditions of verification, Dummett thinks he has succeeded in transforming persistently thorny questions of metaphysics into more tractable questions of meaning. His argument against realism, then, centers on his critique of truth-conditional semantics.

In this paper I shall set forth the major claims of one form of truth-conditional semantics, which I call "semantic realism." After investigating criticisms of this doctrine, I conclude that it remains unscathed by Dummett-style objections. En route I will defend four major theses. First, a truth-conditional theory of meaning is compatible with a verificationist theory of understanding. Second, the warrant for attributing truth-conditions to statements derives from the nature of the justification-conditions for those statements. Verificationist semantics, properly understood, justifies truth-conditional semantics. Third, metaphysics is prior to semantics. Dummett's strategy to treat metaphysical issues as issues of meaning begs certain metaphysical questions. His position about meaning crucially depends upon certain metaphysical commitments. Thus verificationists cannot allow relevant metaphysical issues to remain unsettled pending the outcome of the debate over the nature of meaning. Fourth, skepticism, which is supposed to create trouble for truth-conditional semantics, creates equal trouble for any plausible account of truth that is acceptable to the verificationist.

Section 1 contains a sketch of semantic realism and in sections 2 through 4 I defend this view against objections. Section 2 concerns Dummett's claim that the theory of meaning is nothing more than a theory about competent linguistic usage. In section 3 two objections from undecidable statements are defused and in section 4 alleged skeptical difficulties for any theory dependent upon substantive truth-conditions are examined. I conclude, in section 5, that not only do these objections fall to pose difficulties for semantic realism, but Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations give it further credibility.

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What is Semantic Realism? Two doctrines constitute semantic realism: one semantic, one metaphysical. The semantic doctrine is the well-known view that truth is central to a correct theory of meaning and that the meanings of statements are their truth-conditions.(2)

The content of truth-conditional semantics is obscure in the absence of some characterization of the nature of truth-conditions. Hence the need for a metaphysical doctrine. The metaphysical component of semantic realism is that truth-conditions are robust, objective structures of the world that render particular statements true. They are often concrete complexes commonly constituted by medium-sized dry goods and their attributes. As such they are not identifiable with any set of evidential conditions because they transcend any relevant conditions of justified belief or assertion. This transcendence allows for the truth of the relevant statement(s) in the absence of any attending evidence and, in a range of cases, it allows for the truth of some statements in the absence, in principle, of evidence sufficient to warrant assertion. …

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