Volume 10, Issue 3, 2010
Semantic Normativity and Coordination Games
Social Externalism Deflated
Individualists and externalists about language take themselves to be disagreeing about the basic subject matter of the study of language. Are linguistic facts are really facts about individuals, or really facts about language use in a community?
The right answer to this question, I argue, is ‘Yes’. Both individualistic and social facts are crucial to a complete understanding of human language. The relationship between the theories inspired by these facts is analogous to the relationship between anatomy and ecology, or between micro- and macro-economics: both types of facts are important objects of study in their own right, but we need a theory that accounts for the complex relationship between the two. I argue that modern extensions of the signaling-games approach of Lewis (1969) do just this, defusing the conflict while preserving the core positive insights of both sides of this debate.
The upshot is that arguments for social externalism and the normativity of meaning pose no threat to individualist explanations and can be accounted
for within a naturalistic theory of language. A good externalist theory will make crucial reference to individualistic facts, but go further by examining language users’ interactions in a systematic way.