Monday 3 April 2017

Reflections on My Claim that Inherent Counterfactual Invariance is Broadly Semantic

This post presupposes knowledge of my account of subjunctive necessity de dicto as expressed in my thesis and in a paper derived from it which I have been working on. (I hope my self-criticism here doesn't cause any should-have-been-blind referees to reject the paper. A revise-and-resubmit verdict I could live with.) Here I try to take a next step in getting clear about the status and significance of the account.

In my thesis and derived paper, I propose that a proposition is necessary iff it is, or is implied by, a proposition which is both inherently counterfactually invariant (ICI) and true, and explicate this notion of ICI.

I claim that ICI is broadly semantic, and put this forward as a key motivation and virtue of the account. I don’t provide much argument for this claim - the intention, I suppose, was that this would just seem self-evident. But I have become increasingly aware of the importance of the fact that this could be challenged, and the importance of getting clearer about the underlying primitive notion of a genuine counterfactual scenario description (CSD).

I do provide one reason, near the end of my presentation of my account, for thinking that ICI is broadly semantic given my preferred approach to propositions and meaning. But there are two reasons for wanting more. One is that it may be hoped that my claim that ICI is broadly semantic could be justified independently of my particular approach to propositions and meaning, where I advocate understanding what I distinguish as the ‘internal’ component of meaning as role in language system. A second, perhaps more suggestive, reason for wanting more is that, even given my preferred approach, the argument I give is basically this: ICI is explained in terms of how a proposition - its negation, really - behaves in certain contexts - namely CSDs. But here of course I have to single out genuine CSDs.

And here’s the thing. (At least, the following seems to be right.) For my claim that ICI is broadly semantic to hold water, the notion of genuineness of a CSD had better be broadly semantic. For it is not enough for a notion to be broadly semantic that it can be characterized in terms of appearance in certain sorts of linguistic context C, where C-hood is blatantly extra-semantic. For instance, we may say a proposition has G iff it (or its negation, to make this more like the ICI case) doesn’t appear in any description which has the property of being written in some notebook I have in my room. In that case, it is plain that whether or not a proposition has G is not a matter of its meaning or nature.

So, I now think that the little argument I give at the end of my presentation of my account, about how my particular approach to propositions and meaning ‘fits well’ with the notion of ICI as broadly semantic only goes so far, and that as an argument that given my particular approach the notion of ICI is or should be seen as broadly semantic, it is weak, since it gives no reason to think that the all-important notion of genuineness of CSD is broadly semantic.

Further, I think it is clear that I want to put forward my account, and I think the account has theoretical value, independent of whether a case can be made that genuineness of CSD is broadly semantic. And so my whole presentation of why my account is interesting and of its motivation is somewhat crude. As a story about what caused it, and the specific things I was thinking, it may have some interest. But as a way of situating the theory and giving a sense of what its value (within philosophy) consists in, it is crude and not really to the point. I do of course hint at other sources of interest (e.g. that the account clarifies the relationship between the notion of necessity and those of truth and implication), and don’t rest everything on the ‘semantic hunch’, but I do perhaps give it too prominent a place - or at least, an incompletely justified place.

So, is the notion of a ‘genuine counterfactual scenario description’ broadly semantic? And what does it mean to be broadly semantic? I may follow up with a post addressing these questions more thoroughly, but for now a couple of remarks. Whatever it is to be broadly semantic, it is not to be conventional in any sense. The idea is perhaps better gotten at, in some ways, by saying that genuine CSD-hood is a conceptual matter. But really I need to roll up my sleeves and investigate this more closely - it is not merely a question of hitting on some formulation. Finally, I propose that the following passage from §520 of Wittgenstein’s Investigations seems very to-the-point when it comes to the questions and difficulties I find myself coming up against here, and may help me plumb the depths of the matter:
So does it depend wholly on our grammar what will be called (logically) possible and what not,—i.e. what that grammar permits?”—But surely that is arbitrary!—Is it arbitrary?—It is not every sentence-like formation that we know how to do something with, not every technique has an application in our life [...].

1 comment:

  1. Maybe further reflection on Wittgenstein's Tractatus 3.342 and related argument might help you