I’ve been meaning to get back to my brief criticism of two-dimensional modal semantics for a while. I’ve now produced this short draft of just over 3,000 words. Previously I tried to do too much in the same paper, talking about conceivability and modal epistemology as well, but this is now a much more concise analysis of why I think that substantial a posteriori necessities, such as ‘Water=H2O’ (although I think that this is in fact a problematic example), are a problem for the 2D framework defended especially by David Chalmers and Frank Jackson. In short, the problem is that trivial a priori truths and substantial a posteriori necessities cannot be distinguished in the two-dimensional framework. The paper is so short that I don’t think I will outline it here, but I would of course appreciate any comments on the draft!
Tag Archive for: a posteriori necessity
Time for the second part of my Germany report. This concerns the combination of a graduate conference and research workshop with Scott Soames, entitled ‘Meaning, Modality and Apriority’. The events took place in Cologne 17-20 May 2010. Photos from both events are up in my Gallery. I gave a paper in the research workshop, with the title ‘The Metaphysical Status of Modal Statements’ (a slightly revised draft). Soames agreed with much of my criticism, although I was perhaps a bit provocatively pushing him closer to deflationism about modality than I was entitled to — in any case he conceded that the kind of essentialist picture that I sketched in the paper is on the right lines.
The organisation was top notch, although it was a pity that we couldn’t stay in the same venue for both events. I enjoyed all three events, but the conference marathon started to take its toll on me already during the graduate conference. The graduate conference included seven talks with dedicated comments and they were quite good in general, although I didn’t find any of the papers extraordinary. I think that on this post I will focus on Scott Soames’ keynote lecture and the discussion at the workshop rather than individual talks.
Soames has got two new books forthcoming very soon. One of them is entitled What Is Meaning?, the other Philosophy of Language. We got excerpts of both books before the workshop, and Soames talked about related matters in his keynote lecture as well. The topic is rather less interesting for me than Soames’ work on modality and apriority, but it was interesting to get this sneak preview and I think that there is something here that I could latch on to.
I won’t go into this in much detail, but basically Soames is defending a realist account on the nature of propositions: he thinks that propositions are ‘event types instances of which are events in which agents perform cognitive acts that are inherently representational’. Soames defends the view in some detail against the traditional Frege-Russell account on one hand and a modern deflationary view of propositions on the other hand. However, he does not really elaborate what the ontological status of propositions is according to his view. I tried to get into the bottom of this by asking whether he thinks that propositions have an existence independently of the agents’ cognitive acts. There are some problems with either answer to this question. If propositions do have an independent existence, how and where exactly do they exist? Are they abstract objects? Is there a Platonic realm of propositions? If they do not have an independent existence, then it seems that propositions just come in and out of existence according to the cognitive acts of the agents, which might have undesirable consequences as well.
Be that as it may, more needs to be said regardless of how one might answer this question. Soames, though, wishes to remain non-committal: he said that he’s happy to commit to non-existing propositions and it seemed as if he might be willing to conceive of them as abstract objects of some kind. When pushed towards Platonism, Soames becomes a little bit uneasy, as it, understandably, strikes him as mysterious. So, I think that we can ask more from Soames in this regard, and it might also be an interesting project to examine the ontological options available to him.
Another theme that came up in the workshop was Soames’ view that we can quantify over non-existents. Basically this is based on a substitutional rather than an objectual reading of the existential quantifier. The difference can be illustrated by considering the sentence ‘There is at least one thing which is F’. On an objectual reading, the sentence is true just in case some object in the domain of discourse is F, whereas on the substitutional reading the sentence is true just in case there is some true sentence of the form ‘a is F’, where ‘a’ is a singular term (this is how Lowe puts it).
Now, I was rather surprised and pleased at the same time that Soames is a proponent of the substitutional reading, as I am also more sympathetic to it, as are E. J. Lowe and Kit Fine. Now, since Soames thinks that we can can quantify over non-existents, the question arises: what can we know about non-existent objects? Can we know something about their essential properties? I put this question to Soames, and he said: yes, we must be able to know something about the essential properties of non-existents. This indeed seems to be an obvious requirement, as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to individuate them. Here I am reminded of Lowe’s saying ‘essence precedes existence’. My interest in this is that Soames seems to be very close the the Lowe-Fine view of essence here, or it would at least be fairly easy to push him towards that direction, which is good news of course!
So much for that. Numerous other issues came up during the events and I really enjoyed most of the discussion. But I’d like to keep these blog posts at least reasonably brief, so this will have to do for now. I think that I will return to these two mentioned themes at some point though.
Next up: a more general, non-philosophical report of my trip to Germany, and some more photos.
I’ve now got a draft of my paper for the Meaning, Modality and Apriority symposium with Scott Soames. You can get it from here. The abstract of the talk is here. The paper does pretty much what I promise in the abstract: I first summarise Soames’ account of the necessary a posteriori, then I look into Alan Sidelle’s deflationary account of it, and attempt to demonstrate that these two accounts are remarkably close to each other. Hence, Soames is at a risk of sliding towards the view according to which modality is linguistic and the a priori reduces to analyticity — which is a view that he strongly opposes.
I then go on to give an analysis of what I believe is missing both from Soames’ and Sidelle’s account: an examination of the a priori, essentialist principles which are responsible for the modal content of the necessary a posteriori. Since the main example being discussed is that of water, I look into some recent work in the philosophy of chemistry, especially by Robin Hendry. I argue that we will need a detailed analysis of the nature of chemical substances, and specifically whether chemical substances have their molecular structures essentially to determine whether ‘Water is H20′ is an example of the necessary a posteriori. Hendry’s analysis of the case is a good example of how I think the essentialist account should proceed.
The upshot is that Soames is at a crossroads: either he should concede to the deflationist and adopt the view that modality is linguistic and the a priori can be identified with the analytic, or he should engage in the type of work that we saw in Hendry’s suggestion: a detailed analysis of the underlying essentialist principles. Given that Soames is one of the loudest critics of the deflationary approach, I would hope that he is more tempted by the latter option.
The paper is still in draft stage, so comments are especially welcome. I will present the paper in Cologne on May 19th.
As I reported in a previous post, I submitted an abstract to a workshop with Scott Soames in Cologne. My paper ‘The Metaphysical Status of Modal Statements’ (see my earlier post for the abstract), is one of the four papers that has been accepted for presentation at the workshop, and the programme is now online. The other presentations at the workshop will be by Robert Michels from Konstanz, Dr. Michael Nelson from UC Riverside, and the fourth speaker is still TBA. There is also a graduate conference preceding the workshop, which I will attend. I’ll post a draft of my paper for the conference once I get around to it. I’ve got most of the material already, but need to work on it quite a bit still.
I will be flying to Cologne on May 13th and staying until the 21st. The reason for such a long stay is that there is also a Workshop on the A Priori just before the Soames conference, and I thought I might as well go to that as well since I’m working on the a priori myself. There will be some good people there too: Carrie Jenkins, Daniel Cohnitz, and Jonathan Ichikawa, among others.
From Cologne I plan to take the train to Dresden, stay there for two nights, then head to Berlin for another two nights, and finally fly back to the UK on May 25th. The Dresden-Berlin trip is just to see some friends and to have a look around in Germany. Any suggestions as to what to do/see in Cologne, Dresden or Berlin are most welcome!
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.