Wednesday 26 October 2016

Caught in the Act of Confusing Subjunctive Necessity and Apriority: The Importance of the Sprigge Quote in Naming and Necessity

One of the big questions surrounding Kripke's innovations in Naming and Necessity is the extent to which, with his doctrines about necessity and the necessary a posteriori, Kripke corrected false views about necessity, as opposed to just emphasizing a neglected notion of necessity on which 'necessary a posteriori' is a non-empty category. Also unclear is the extent to which pre-Kripkean thinkers were confusing the Kripkean notion of subjunctive necessity with other notions, or just not giving that notion much attention. It's not clear, for instance, that Putnam in 'It Ain't Necessarily So' ever invoked subjunctive necessity.

This makes the following quote from Sprigge, which Kripke uses in N&N (p. 111), particularly interesting. It seems to provide a clear case of a philosopher confusing subjunctive necessity, on the one hand, with either indicative necessity or apriority on the other hand:

The anti-essentialist says that there would be no contradiction in a news bulletin asserting that it had been established that the Queen was not in fact the child of her supposed parents, but had been secretly adopted by them, and therefore the proposition that she is of Royal Blood is synthetic. In this way the anti-internalist parries the argument of the internalist by suggesting with regard to each proposed internal property of the particular in question, that we can quite well imagine that very same particular without the property in question. For a time he is winning. Yet there comes a time when his claims appear a trifle too far fetched. The internalist suggests that we cannot imagine that particular we call the Queen having the property of at no stage in her existence being human. If the anti-internalist admits this, admits that it is logically inconceivable that the Queen should have had the property of, say, always being a swan, then he admits that she has at least one internal property. If on the other hand he says that it is only a contingent fact that the Queen has ever been human, he says what it is hard to accept. Can we really consider it as conceivable that she should never have been human? (Sprigge (1962), p. 203.)

It seems pretty clear that here Sprigge takes the possibility of the bulletin - the possibility of finding out that Elizabeth II is not actually born of royal blood - as tantamount to it being the case that things could have gone such that she was not born of royal blood.

So, this quote makes it seem almost certain to me that someone - namely Sprigge - was actually confusing subjunctive necessity with either apriority or indicative necessity. Further questions are how widespread the confusion was around the time Sprigge wrote, and whether this was a relatively new thing at the time. Is it the case that, by the time Sprigge wrote the above but not for long before that, the notion of subjunctive or counterfactual necessity was "in the air", was salient, and so this sort of confusion is a relatively short term phenomenon occurring only in the lead-up to N&N (and shortly after, while people had yet to digest Kripke)? Or is the confusion something we can find much earlier evidence of?


Kripke, Saul A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.
Putnam, Hilary (1962). It ain't necessarily so. Journal of Philosophy 59 (22):658-671.
Sprigge, Timothy (1962). Internal and external properties. Mind 71 (282):197-212.

Friday 14 October 2016

Distributed Verification: Semantic Deference Needn't Bottom Out in a Non-Deferential User

Woodward in 'Reference and Deference' writes:
Linguistic deference and conceptual deference are widespread phenomena. However, some philosophers say that deferring has to stop at some point, for if everyone were deferential with respect to a given word or concept no one would ever succeed in attaching a definite content to it. That thesis is the stimulus for this paper.

Fodor certainly holds the thesis. In his latest book Concepts, Fodor (1998, p. 154) says, ‘Adherence to conventions of deference couldn’t be a precondition of conceptual content in general, if only because deference has to stop somewhere; if my ELM concept is deferential, that’s because the botanist’s isn’t’. (cf. Fodor 1994, p. 33).
That thesis, or almost that thesis, is the stimulus for this blog post too. But my target is different from Woodfield's. His target - that which he argues against - is literally the thesis that deferring has to stop at some point, in some sense. My target is rather the thesis that deferential concept use can only terminate successfully when someone has the concept and uses it non-deferentially.

So again, while Woodfield's paper may seem to be upholding the same sort of view as I am here, I don't think it is the same. His point seems to be that we need not think that deference must stop, in that a bunch of experts who are good at different things may go on being disposed to defer to each other indefinitely. But my point here is, not that it may sometimes never be finally settled whether a has P, but that it is possible for such a question to be settled without it being the case that any single person's use of 'has P' is non-deferential. 

Imagine three chiefs in a tribe, each one good at certain verification tasks. Everyone in the tribe agrees that for an animal to count as having property P, it needs to appear Xish to Chief A, Yish to Chief B and Zish to Chief C. 

This is, in a way, especially clear if 'has property P' just means 'appears Xish to Chief A, Yish to Chief B and Zish to Chief C'. But that this sort of situation could arise without such a disjunctive meaning having to do with three different people's phenomenology is worth realizing as well, since it may help us see to what extent this sort of distributed verification may happen with more normal, real-world language and concepts.

When someone in this community wants to know if an animal has P, they may put it to the chiefs. In a case where the verdict ends up being that the animal does have P, we might imagine the process going as follows. The questioner asks the three chiefs, who approach the animal together, perhaps from different angles. Chief A says 'It has P if Chiefs B and C have no objection', Chief B says 'It has P if Chief C has no objection', and then Chief C just nods and says 'OK, I guess it has P then!' and everyone is happy.

This is just a quick, initial attempt to show that this kind of 'distributed verification' is possible, and that therefore semantic deference needn't bottom out in a non-deferential language user.


Fodor, J. (1994). The Elm and the Expert. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fodor, J. (1998). Concepts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Woodfield, Andrew (2000). Reference and deference. Mind and Language 15 (4):433–451.