There are still a few more days before the deadline to submit abstracts for a workshop on Scott Soames’ philosophy in Cologne, Germany this May. The conference is aptly titled Meaning, Modality and Apriority, and involves both a Graduate Conference with a keynote from Soames as well as a research workshop with Soames. The call for the graduate conference has passed some time ago, but the deadline for the research workshop is 15th March. There are only four slots though, so I expect that there will be a bit of competition for those. Anyway, since I have commented on Scott Soames’ work before, for instance in my paper ‘On the Modal Content of A Posteriori Necessities’, I thought that I should submit something. I’ve come up with an abstract for a paper in which I plan to show that Soames’ case against the linguistic account of modality supported by people like David Chalmers, Frank Jackson and Alan Sidelle suffers from the fact that his own, supposedly metaphysical story about modal statements, is remarkably close to the one offered by deflationists such as Sidelle. My abstract follows, but please don’t steal it!
The Metaphysical Status of Modal Statements
In his Reference and Description: The Case Against Two-Dimensionalism (2005), Scott Soames puts forward an influential critique of the framework of two-dimensional modal semantics and the interpretation of a posteriori necessities proposed by proponents of the framework, especially Frank Jackson (1998) and David Chalmers (1996). While I agree with much of what Soames has to say about the topic, I am concerned that ultimately both Soames and the two-dimensionalists fail to see the fine-grainedness of the metaphysical status of modal statements. This is partly due to the short-comings of Kripke’s (1980) original treatment of a posteriori necessities, and partly due to the contemporary deflationist trend, which takes modality to reduce fully to linguistic or conceptual content. The latter is familiar especially from the work of Jackson and Chalmers, as well as Alan Sidelle (2002).
On the face of it, Soames is clearly opposed to this trend, as he thinks that Kripke’s most important achievement was to break the illusion that the a priori can be identified with the analytic, and that modality is merely linguistic (Soames 2006: 307). Soames claims that any kind of interesting philosophy will not fit into this deflationary, linguistic model. I very much sympathise with this idea, but it seems to me that Soames fails to fully commit to it himself. E. J. Lowe (2007a, 2007b) has raised similar concerns about the shortcomings in Soames’ metaphysical story, but so far Soames has not replied to them in any detail (cf. Soames 2007). The closest that Soames comes to addressing the metaphysical status of modal statements are the last three chapters of his earlier book, Beyond Rigidity (2002, ch. 9-11). We are especially interested in his analysis of the difference between the following identity sentences:
 For all x, x is a drop of water iff x is a drop of a substance molecules of which contain two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.
 For all x, x is a drop of water iff x is a drop of the substance instances of which fall from the sky in rain and fill the lakes and rivers. (Soames 2002: 272.)
Presumably, (1) is metaphysically necessary, while (2) is contingent. Soames takes a point from Nathan Salmon (2005), which I believe to be of crucial importance for this analysis: what makes (1) a metaphysical necessity, if anything, is the underlying assumption concerning chemical substances, namely, that they have their molecular structures essentially (Soames 2002: 273). Now, Soames goes on to ask ‘What exactly are substances, and how do we arrive at our modal intuitions (pretheoretic beliefs) regarding them?’ (ibid.). This is of course where one ought give the metaphysical story, but the story that Soames gives is remarkably close to the one familiar from the deflationists. Soames describes how we introduce a natural kind term such as “water” with the intention that it is a ‘substance term’, i.e. applies to everything that shares the molecular structure in the original sample that we decided to call “water”. However, we do not need to know what that structure is when we introduce the term, all that matters is that we intend to use the notion in a way that respects the original intuition. We may subsequently learn more about the substance in question, e.g. that water is H2O, but this is the point where the metaphysical story about (1) ends (cf. Soames 2002: 273-275).
Soames goes on to refine the account somewhat, but this picture is effectively what he ends up with. Now, it seems that we could sum up Soames’ account roughly as follows: ‘Nothing counts as water in any situation unless it has the same deep explanatory features (if any) as the stuff we call “water”’, which I have quoted from Sidelle (2002: 319). But as Sidelle argues, this is an analytic principle concerning the linguistic usage of the the term “water” rather than a metaphysical a priori truth! The way Soames sometimes puts this is almost exactly as in the passage quoted from Sidelle:
‘”Water” was stipulated to designate whatever underlying physical characteristic it is that is shared by (nearly) all members of the class of paradigmatic water-samples that explains their most salient features – the fact that they boil and freeze at certain temperatures, that they are clear, potable, and necessary to life, etc.’ (Soames Forthcoming: 7).
According to Soames, when this stipulation is combined with our empirical information about water, it follows that water is necessarily H2O. So, it seems that Soames has given us little more than what the deflationary picture offers, and hence we are still at risk of identifying the a priori with the analytic and reducing modality to linguistics. In fact, Soames explicitly opts for a linguistic analysis rather than a metaphysical one, although he claims that this helps us to narrow down ‘the range of feasible ontological alternatives’ (ibid., 1).
In addition to an inquiry into Soames’ account of modal statements, I will offer a more detailed analysis of the metaphysical assumptions associated with modal statements and argue that the metaphysical story is much more fine-grained than Soames suggests. The elements of the metaphysical story are indeed already familiar from Salmon (2005), but there is much more to be said about e.g. the status of chemical substances, and it seems to me that Soames does not do justice to Salmon, who did recognize the complexity of the underlying metaphysical story (p. 176 ff.). Relying on recent work in the philosophy of chemistry (e.g. Hendry 2006, Needham 2008), I will attempt to give a more satisfactory account about the underlying metaphysical assumptions concerning chemical substances. We will see that there are some good reasons to think that the assumption according to which chemical substances have their molecular structures essentially may even be mistaken.
The upshot is that although Soames is on the right lines in challenging the deflationary approach to modal statements, his own account fails to fully accommodate their metaphysical status.
- Chalmers, D. (1996) The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- Hendry, R. F. (2006) ‘Elements, Compounds, and Other Chemical Kinds’, Philosophy of Science 73, 864–75.
- Jackson, F. (1998) From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defence of Conceptual Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- Lowe, E. J. (2007a) ‘Does the Descriptivist/Anti-Descriptivist Debate Have Any Philosophical Significance?’, Philosophical Books 48, 27-33.
- Lowe, E. J. (2007b) ‘A Problem for A Posteriori Essentialism Concerning Natural Kinds’, Analysis 67.4, 286-92.
- Needham, P. (2008) ‘Resisting Chemical Atomism: Duhem’s Argument’, Philosophy of Science 75, 921–31.
- Salmon, N. U. (2005) Reference and Essence, 2nd ed. (New York: Prometheus Books).
- Sidelle, A. (2002) ‘On the Metaphysical Contingency of Laws of Nature’, in Conceivability and Possibility, ed. T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 309-336.
- Soames, S. (2002) Beyond Rigidity: The Unfinished Semantic Agenda of Naming and Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
- Soames, S. (2005) Reference and Description: The Case Against Two-Dimensionalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Soames, S. (2006) ‘The Philosophical Significance of the Kripkean Necessary Aposteriori’, Philosophical Issues 16: Philosophy of Language.
- Soames, S. (2007) ‘The Substance and Significance of the Dispute Over Two-Dimensionalism’, Philosophical Books 48: 34–49.
- Soames, S. (Forthcoming) ‘What are Natural Kinds?’, Philosophical Topics.