Thursday 19 December 2013

Sidelle and the Contingency of Conventions: An Objection Regained

This is a draft of a paper.

Alan Sidelle's conventionalism about modality is well-known, and only a bit less of a whipping-boy than the earlier positivistic views of Ayer (1936) and Carnap (1947). Published in his 1989 book Necessity, Essence and Individuation: A Defense of Conventionalism, it focuses on the problem of explaining the existence of the necessary a posteriori from a metaphysical standpoint according to which (in Sidelle's phrase) we, and not the world, are the source of modality. (I think this isn't very clear, but I don't want to press that here.)

I will not give a proper exposition of Sidelle's account here. I will just say that the basic idea is that a modal claim such as 'Necessarily, water is H20' follows from the a posteriori claim 'Water is H20' together with an a priori claim, such as 'If water is H20, then necessarily, water is H20'. The idea is that the a priori claim is somehow a matter of convention.

There are many problems with such a view – see Yablo's incisive (1992) review for a start. For example, can the a priori claim really be said to be a matter of convention? How doesn't this fall prey to the following argument?: it may be that what sentences mean is conventional, but we can't make the propositions they mean true by convention, except for the special case of propositions about conventions. (Yablo calls this the Lewy point, citing Lewy (1976). See also Quine (1936).) And even if this is somehow surmounted, aren't we still in the dark about what necessity is? (While Sidelle's aims, when stated carefully, do not seem to include saying what necessity is, some of his more impressionistic rhetoric does seem to try to say something about that. In any case, his account leaving us in the dark about the nature of necessity, if it does, is something worth taking due note of, since it is commonly taken to be addressing that issue.)

Here I will discuss another central objection (or type of objection) – that from the contingency of conventions. Or rather, Sidelle's recent response to it; in a 2009 paper called 'Conventionalism and the Contingency of Conventions', Sidelle defends his conventionlism about modality from this sort of objection. He carefully distinguishes two objections here, one focusing on truth-making, the other on necessity-making:

  1. Truth-making version. If conventions were different, certain necessary truths would not be true. This seems to follow from conventionalism, catching it in a contradiction – since what it is to be a necessary truth is not failing to be true in any circumstances.
  2. Necessity-making version. If conventions were different, certain necessary truths may have been contingent. This seems to follow from conventionalism, but seems wrong.

Sidelle argues (convincingly, in my view) that (1) is wrong – the conventionalist isn't committed to that. (I refer readers to his paper for this.)

Sidelle acknowledges (2) to be more serious, and devotes his paper to responding to it. Here, I will argue that his response to (2) fails at an early step, for use-mention reasons.

Sidelle considers but rejects one possible avenue of response, a partly bullet-biting response which says: OK, so this shows that, at least sometimes, what is necessarily so may not have been necessarily so (and also that, at least sometimes, what is contingently so may not have been contingently so). Such truths, then, are contingently necessary and contingently contingent, respectively. This is tantamount to rejecting the characteristic axiom of S4 – that what is necessary is necessarily necessary.

Sidelle will not have this. It is simply too implausible that the S4 axiom fails for metaphysical modality. Indeed, there is reason to think that the appropriate system is S5 (since an unrestricted accessibility relation seems appropriate), which is stronger than S4. Furthermore, he says, conventionalists, in his opinion, ought to try to “save the modal phenomena” and not be highly revisionary.

He also has an argument to the effect that even biting this bullet wouldn't suffice, but I do not understand that argument (I think because it involves certain confusions bound up with Sidelle's form of conventionalism, but I won't try to go into that here).

Sidelle's strategy with (2) is to consider an example – that of 'bachelor', and what would be the case if our conventions governing it were different – and try to show that, if we are careful to stick to the proper mode of evaluating counterfactuals, namely where we keep our conventions, and the meanings of our terms, intact, we can see that the relevant (2)-like counterfactuals are not true.

Sidelle supposes for the sake of argument that our conventions make it that 'bachelor' applies to unmarried but eligible men, and not women, and then considers an alternative situation in which the conventions differed so that unmarried, eligible women fell in the extension of 'bachelor':

With such a convention, we would call unmarried Linda ‘a bachelor’, and so, ‘necessarily, bachelors are male’ would be false. However, how should we describe this situation? Is Linda a female bachelor? Of course not—someone counts as a bachelor only if they are male. Our rules for applying ‘bachelor’ tell us that one must be (give or take) ‘a never-been-married, but eligible male’ [footnote 14]—so ipso facto, the rules tell us that what rules the speakers in that world use is quite irrelevant to whether or not someone is a bachelor. They are no more relevant than the rules of Spanish if we are, in English, describing a situation in Mexico. And of course, this is perfectly general. Notice that this has nothing at all to do with Conventionalism—it is what anyone should believe about evaluating counterfactuals, when those counterfactuals contain words governed by certain semantic conventions—and of course, one doesn’t need to be a Conventionalist to believe there are at least some, or even many, such conventions. [footnote 15] And as the conventions in that situation are irrelevant to the truth of ‘Linda is a female bachelor’, so are they to the question of the necessity of bachelors’ being male there, and so, to whether our necessary truth is itself necessarily so (i.e. to whether or not it is necessarily necessary that bachelors are male). Thus, if the conventionalist story is correct, it will not be true that ‘had our conventions been different, what is necessary would (could) have been false’, or not necessary.

The first part of this quote is an unexceptionable rehearsal of how to evaluate counterfactuals dealing with situations where the meanings of words differ: don't get confused into using the words with those different meanings in describing the situation: it isn't the case that, if 'tail' meant 'leg', dogs would have four tails – although 'Dogs have four tails' would be true in such a situation, ceteris paribus. So while 'Dogs have four tails' would, in that situation, say something true, it does not actually say something true of that situation, i.e. about what happens in that situation.

Similarly with the sentence 'Linda is a female bachelor' – it would say something true in the situation in question, but it isn't – given what it actually means – actually true of that situation.

So far, so good. The trouble is in the last two sentences, when Sidelle tries to conclude from his unexceptionable rehearsal that it's not the case that, if our conventions were different, which propositions are necessary might be different. The last sentence just gives the conclusion. The whole argument, really, is in the second last sentence, so we will concentrate on that. Here it is again, with two words capitalized by me: 

And as the conventions in that situation are irrelevant to the truth of ‘Linda is a female bachelor’, so are they to the question of the necessity of bachelors’ being male there, AND SO, to whether our necessary truth is itself necessarily so (i.e. to whether or not it is necessarily necessary that bachelors are male).

Firstly, there is an ambiguity in Sidelle's phrase 'the truth of “Linda is a female bachelor”'. The conventions in that situation are obviously not irrelevant to the truth, in that situation, of the sentence 'Linda is a female bachelor'. But it is true that they are irrelevant to whether or not that sentence is actually true of the situation: it isn't of course, because there can't be female bachelors in any possible situation. So we can accept this and move on to see what Sidelle is likening it to.

The way Sidelle has put the point, it is not easy to see what the similarity is. The conventions in that situation are irrelevant to the truth of some sentence here, and similarly, to the necessity of bachelors being male there? The points would seem more similar if Sidelle semantically descended for the first bit: just as the conventions in that situation are irrelevant to whether Linda is a female bachelor in that situation, so too are they irrelevant to whether the bachelors are necessarily male there.

In any case, the point can be accepted: bachelors are necessarily male, in all situations. So in a situation where the conventions were different, any bachelors would still need to be male.

But, and this is the crucial point, in saying this, we are using our language, with our conventions, and describing a counterfactual scenario. Our proposition 'Necessarily, all the bachelors are male' is true of that situation. Call the situation S – our more explicit proposition 'Necessarily, all the bachelors are male in S' is true. And you can substitute for 'S' the name of any possible situation.

To ask of that situation, of S, whether the bachelors are necessarily male there, is palpably not to ask whether the proposition that bachelors are male – the proposition now, or whatever thing bears modal statuses, not just the sentence – is necessarily true in that situation. That question just hasn't been raised.

And this is why 'AND SO' is capitalized – it is spurious. It just doesn't follow from all the bachelors in situation S necessarily being male – that's us describing the scenario from here, remember – that the proposition that bachelors are male is necessarily true in that situation – and so you can't conclude from it that some proposition of ours which is necessarily true is necessarily necessarily true. Of course, such a conclusion is itself plausible, but that doesn't mean Sidelle – a conventionalist about the modal statuses of propositions – is entitled to it! And his argument only gets there by means of a subtle, illicit use-mention shift.

Having established to his satisfaction that he is not committed to what is necessary varying with convention, Sidelle then faces the task of explaining why the following plausible constraint on explanation fails in this instance: if A explains B, it can't be that no change in B would ever come about if A changed.

I think there are serious problems with his attempt, and I hope to make this clear in future. My purpose here has just been to show that the previous step, which led Sidelle to having to face this question about explanation, is fallacious. Sidelle has slid from mention to use in the consequents of the counter-conventional, counterfactual conditionals at issue: he can agree with everyone else that, if conventions had been different, any bachelors would still necessarily be male, but this is not the same as being able to agree that, if conventions had been different, the proposition that any bachelors are male would still be necessary. His argument from common knowledge about how to evaluate counterfactuals does not succeed in earning him the right to the latter, only the former. We can conclude from this alone that Sidelle has not adequately responded to the (necessity-making focused) objection from the contingency of conventions. 


Ayer, A.J. (1936). Language, Truth and Logic. London, V. Gollancz, Ltd.

Carnap, Rudolf (1947). Meaning and Necessity. University of Chicago Press.

Lewy, Casimir (1976). Meaning and Modality. Cambridge University Press.

Quine, W.V. (1936). Truth by Convention. In The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays.

Sidelle, Alan (2009). Conventionalism and the contingency of conventions. Noûs 43 (2):224-241.

Sidelle, Alan (1989). Necessity, Essence, and Individuation: A Defense of Conventionalism. Cornell University Press.

 Yablo, Stephen (1992). "Review of Alan Sidelle, Necessity, Essence and Individuation." Philosophical Review 101: 878-81.