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Lecture 18

Lecture 18 - Class 2 on Wittgenstein

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University of Ottawa
Patrice Philie

Nov. 14, 2013 LAUNDERING THE DISPOSITIONS The central thought is that the correct application of a term cannot be identified with that which an individual is disposed to apply it to, nor with what the community is disposed to apply it to; but it might be possible to identify it with what the individual or the community is disposed to apply it to under certain circumstances. This is the device that enables some dispositions to be preferred to others. The proposal here parallels certain versions of the dispositional theory of color, and useful lessons can be gained from considering that. According to a crude dispositional theory of color, an object is, say, red, if and only if observers have the disposition to judge it as red. But that crude form of the theory is hopeless. Some observers are color-blind; some circumstances, for instance colored lighting, will distort the color judgments even of someone who is not. So a more 5 plausible dispositional account of red will say that an object is red if and only if competent observers in favorable circumstances have the disposition to judge it as red. This makes the account more plausible; and it re-introduces the possibility of error. Yet it raises a difficulty, that of specifying what competent observers and favorable circumstances are. For if all that can be said about them is that they are, respectively, the people who are good at identifying red things, and the circumstances that are good for such identifications, then the account will be circular. Parallel issues arise for the rule following concerns. Suppose it were said that an individual means plus rather than quus by ‘+’ just in case, under favorable circumstances, they have the disposition to use it to denote the addition function, i.e. to answer ‘125’ to ‘What is 68 + 57?’; ‘2’ to ‘What is 1 + 1?’ and so on. Now the possibility of error has been reintroduced, since sometimes the circumstances will not be favorable. But how should the favorable circumstances be specified? They cannot be specified as those circumstances in which the individual uses ‘+’ to denote the addition function; for that makes the proposal is trivial. Worse, the proposal can provide no support for thinking that the individual does in fact use ‘+’ to mean plus, since it is equally true that they have a disposition to use ‘+’ to denote quus in those circumstances in which they use it to denote the quaddition function. Moreover, it seems that it won’t do to say that favorable circumstances are those in which the individual is thinking hard, and has no distractions, for even here people make mistakes. Everyone does. Of course, in such cases the individual will not be thinking hard enough; but if that is shorthand for ‘not thinking hard enough to get it right’, then the proposal has lapsed back to triviality. What other ways might there be to launder dispositions without triviality? One response, stemming from those who seek to give a biological foundation to meaning, is to seek to spell out competent speakers and favorable circumstances in terms of proper functioning, where this in turn is spelled out in terms of the function that has been selected for. This is typically presented as part of a broader project of understanding semantics notions in terms of evolutionary ones. Whatever the merits of the broader project, it faces great difficulties in providing a response to the rule following worries. One kind of problem arises when we try to give an account of highly abstract terms, terms which do not bring obvious evolutionary advantage to those who grasp them: the case of addition, discussed so far, provides a case in point, let alone the concepts of, say, algebraic topology. But suppose one were to consider more down to Earth conce
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