Some Objections to KW's sceptical solution
I have for quite
some time now been perplexed by KW's sceptical argument and sceptical solution.
In particular, I have never been able to see how KW is able to prevent his
sceptical argument from becoming a kind of semantic "universal acid"
(to borrow one of Dennett's examples), i.e., something which is able to
"refute" not only "fact-based" conceptions of meaning but
also ANY legitimate conception of meaning. Because I, unlike some Kripke
commentators, was unable to convince myself that KW's sceptical argument was not
universal acid, I was also unable to accept KW's reassurances that his
sceptical problem admitted of a Hume-like sceptical solution. For according to
Kripke, a sceptical solution "begins . . . by conceding that the sceptic's
negative assertions are unanswerable" (K, p. 66).
Of course, for someone who believes KW's sceptical argument is universal acid, the idea of granting the unanswerability of his sceptic's attack on meaning and yet SOLVING the sceptical problem, is absurd or nonsensical. However, many Kripke commentators, even some of his harshest critics, have not seemed to regard the very idea of a sceptical solution to KW's sceptical problem as absurd. Clearly such commentators do not regard the sceptical argument as universal acid. In particular, it is clear that most commentators have accepted KW's suggestion that the sceptical problem poses a difficulty only for fact-based conceptions of meaning, making it possible to accept the sceptic's case against meaning facts while yet leaving the door open for a sceptical SOLUTION to the difficulty. My goal here is to establish that such a view is mistaken by showing that the difficulties KW regards as sufficient to reject fact based conceptions of meaning are either not sufficient or can be raised against other conceptions of meaning as well, in particular, against KW's preferred assertion condition conception of meaning.
While I certainly allow that the nonexistence
of something can be granted (and quite cheerfully at that) by those who believe
that the something in question is of little or no use for achieving one's
desired goals, I do not see that KW 's sceptical paradox presents a difficulty
unique to fact based conceptions of meaning. The chief reason for this can be
discerned by a careful consideration of the key claim of KW's "sceptical
challenge", viz., the claim that there is no "fact as to what I meant
that would show that only '125', not '5', is the answer I 'ought' to give [to
'68 + 57']." (K, p. 11). This
claim, and related statements, e.g., Kripke's claim that there are no facts
that someone meant plus rather than quus, certainly have a Humean flavor, and of course,
Kripke is alive to the similarity, and then some. (See Chapter 3 of Kripke's book).
For both KW and Hume, the key move in their sceptical worries seems to be that of reminding us of more possibilities than we had previously imagined or conceived of. For Hume, the reason we cannot know, a priori, that bread will nourish, or unsupported objects will fall, is because we are capable of forming ideas of alternatives to nourishment and falling objects, e.g., poisoning and unsupported objects that do not fall. Similarly, the reason that reason or the understanding cannot be the source of our causal conclusions is because we are able to conceive of alternatives to what our past experiences have shown us about the world. In short, we can conceive of bread poisoning us rather than nourishing us in the future, no matter how constant and prevalent the conjunction between bread eating and nourishment in the past. For KW's sceptic, the reason the concept of meaning is nonsensical or bankrupt (and so language impossible) is due to the fact there is "no . . . fact that establishes that I meant plus rather than quus." (K, p. 13). And this result is alleged to follow from another "rather than" result, viz., there is no fact that shows that I ought to say 68 + 57 = 125 rather than 5.
The respective scepticisms of KW and Hume
then lean on the idea that our experience (or facts at our disposal), are
capable of supporting (or are not able to rule out) alternative or competing
claims about us, or the world. And
because of this, our usual/habitual/standard understanding of things is
threatened. However, Hume uses his sceptical doubts to argue that reason or the
understanding cannot be the source of our causal conclusions. Given that we do
believe, e.g., that bread will always nourish us and that reason is unable to
legitimate such a belief, Hume proposes custom or habit as the source of our
belief that bread will always nourish us. Custom or habit is Hume's sceptical
solution to his sceptical doubts.
KW, on the other hand, uses sceptical considerations to claim that there is no fact that shows that Jones meant plus rather than quus (this claim, it must be noted, is based on the assumption that such a fact must somehow show how Jones is justified to say 68 + 57 is 125 rather than 5). This claim is then conjoined with a few waves of the hand to produce the startling and unacceptable conclusions that following a rule is indistinguishable from "unjustified leaps in the dark", and that meaning one thing rather than another is nonsense, and ultimately, that (meaningful) language is impossible. Obviously, these sceptically induced conclusions are unacceptable and so KW claims that a shift from a fact based conception of meaning to a justification or assertion condition conception allows us to avoid the unacceptable, while yet granting the success of the sceptical arguments against "meaning facts". Such is KW's sceptical solution.
Although Hume and KW both offer sceptical
solutions to their respective sceptical musings, there is a very important
difference between their respective scepticisms. Although Hume alleges that
reason cannot be the source of our causal conclusions, Hume does not suggest
that we reject reason as a source of conclusions generally. Hume's sceptical doubts simply reveal
an unnoticed limitation of reason.
In particular, Hume does not offer us an alternative conception of
reason that will permit us to draw the causal conclusions that the original
conception of reason did not permit us to draw. KW, however, in trying to solve the alleged problem of the impossibility
of (meaningful) language, does claim to offer an alternative conception of
meaning to the one that was alleged, via the sceptical challenge, to be unable
to justify various meaning claims.
As such, KW is laboring under a constraint that Hume was not, viz., showing why or how his alternative conception of meaning is able to avoid the sceptical worries that allegedly afflicted the fact based conception of meaning. Since Hume did not offer us an alternative conception of reason but rather appealed to a very different process, viz., custom or habit, he did not have to explain how or why custom or habit is able to avoid the sceptical doubts that revealed our rational limitations. The question thus arises: How or why is KW's assertion condition conception of meaning able to avoid the sceptical considerations that bedeviled the fact based or tc conception of meaning?
I suspect that many who are acquainted with
Kripke's book will be inclined to suppose that this question has a rather
obvious answer, viz., the assertion condition conception of meaning, unlike the
fact based conception, doesn't need facts of the sort demanded by KW's sceptic
(and, allegedly, shown not to exist by the sceptic as well). But before we
regard this answer to be as legitimate as it is obvious, another question needs
to be asked: Why doesn't the assertion condition conception need "meaning
facts" of the sort denied by KW's sceptic? It seems to me that there are
two significantly different answers to this question. First, it could be
alleged that the assertion condition conception of meaning is somehow able to
show how Jones is justified to say that 68 + 57 = 125 rather than 5, or show
that Jones means plus rather than quus, all without appeal to the sort of facts
which the sceptic allegedly showed do not exist. Failing this, it could be
alleged that assertion condition conception of meaning is somehow able to turn
its back on the problem of showing how Jones is justified to say that 68 + 57 =
125 rather than 5, and on the problem of showing that Jones means plus rather
This second answer however comes with another requirement, viz., showing why or how the assertion condition conception of meaning is able to turn its back on the problem of showing how Jones is justified to say 68 + 57 is 125 rather than 5, etc., but a similar maneuver is not possible for fact based conceptions of meaning. For if KW's sceptical solution simply does not ask an assertion condition conception of meaning to do that which allegedly undermined the fact based conception of meaning, viz., show how Jones is justified to say 125 rather than 5, or show that Jones means plus rather than quus, we had better be told why this is legitimate for assertion conditions conceptions of meaning but not fact based conceptions of meaning. For absent any such reason, KW's sceptical challenge admits of a very simple solution, viz., we allow that there is no fact that shows how Jones is justified to say 125 rather than 5, etc., and then claim that the felt need to show how Jones is justified to say 125 rather than 5 is misplaced, and so the lack of any facts to show this presents no difficulty at all, even for fact based conceptions of meaning. In short, we can avoid any problems arising from the alleged nonexistence of a fact that shows how Jones is justified to say 125 rather than 5 by relieving ourselves of the requirement of showing how Jones is justified to say 125 rather than 5.
Last modified September 9, 2011
Dept. of Philosophy