Thursday 14 February 2008

Semantic normativity

I’ve begun reading a book I bought last year and put to one side because I couldn’t believe it could say anything persuasive: Martin Kusch’s (2006) A Sceptical Guide to Meaning and Rules: Defending Kripke’s Wittgenstein, Chesham: Acumen. My doubt had nothing to do with Kusch’s reputation (I’ve another book of his on the history of psychology) but Kripke’s. Although Kripke’s book drew attention to the importance of the rule following sections of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and outlines a seemingly powerful sceptical argument against the very idea of meaning, it is widely regarded as misguided. Hence my initial interest in, and temptation to buy, a book that attempts to resuscitate Kripke but also my tendency to defer actually looking at it.

I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things, so far, about the role of normativity.

The first is the status of normativity in Kripke’s argument. I have always taken it that the normativity of meaning (‘semantic normativity’) is a pre-philosophical characteristic of meaning that Wittgenstein invokes to criticise a number of substantive philosophical accounts of meaning. Reductive dispositionalism, for example, is false because it cannot account for the normativity of meaning. Similarly, I took Kripke to share that pre-philosophical assumption and follow it, almost unwillingly, as it seemed to lead him, at least, to scepticism about realism about meaning. And I took it that his slightly uneasy sceptical solution (to his sceptical problem) at least attempted to rebuild something akin to semantic normativity in the negative judgements of the community.

Kusch has a much more straight forward idea. Semantic normativity is part of a package of ideas that constitute ‘meaning determinism’ all of which are under fire. This means that Kusch can ascribe to Kripke a positive view which – consistently – also rejects semantic normativity. (Of course it also means that he needs to explain what a positive account of meaning is which eschews normativity.) More strangely, it means that his account of Kripke’s criticism of dispositionalism has to be accounted for as an aspect of meaning determinism. Supporters of meaning determinism are supposed to attempt to develop their own position by invoking dispositionalism. That seems odd because of the ad hominem point that it is only the anti-reductionists who ever stress the normativity of meaning. Getting to grips with this dialectic, however, will require me to understand his positive account of meaning better than I do at present.

The second point is that Kusch takes Kripke’s supposed rejection of semantic normativity to be correct. This is something I do want to reject.

Following Searle, Kusch suggests that there are two sorts of norms: regulative and constitutive:
Regulative: In conditions C you ought to perform action A. These regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behaviour.
Constitutive: Doing A counts as B in context C. These create or define new forms of behaviour.
Kusch suggests that defenders of semantic normativity take it to be regulative since they suggest it concerns how words ought to be used. But he argues, first, that the same philosophers have often compared language use to a game and thus suggested a constitutive reading instead. Secondly, he argues that they owe an account of what kind of thing semantic normativity is, distinct from moral or prudential senses of ‘ought’. Thirdly he points out that one cannot simply get a regulative norm out of a constitutive one because the injunction ‘Do B in context C by doing A!’ could not be broken. ‘Constitutive rules cannot be breached’ [ibid: 55].

But this seems to me to be odd. Defenders of semantic normativity need not think that semantic norms regulate antecedently of linguistic conventions. So given the forced choice, I’d say semantic norms were constitutive rules. That also accords with the frequently made comparison of language with games. Given that then it still seems possible to get some sense of ‘ought’ in this way. If you want to say that something is red in the context of an English speaking community you ought to use the word ‘red’. It may be true that in that context that that is the only way to say it is red so in one sense that linguistic rule cannot be breached (by fiat). Still, one may still fail to say that something is red (by misspeaking in whatever way). This, of course, need not be a prudential ‘ought’. Perhaps it is not prudent to draw attention to the colour. Semantically, however, to say that something is red one should aim at saying ‘red’.

See also this and this later entry on semantic normativity.