Philosophical Topics

Volume 50, Issue 1, Spring 2022

Inferentialism on Naturalized Grounds

Diego MarconiOrcid-ID
Pages 161-184

Grounds of Semantic Normativity

There are two prevalent accounts of semantic normativity: the prescriptive account, which can be found in some of Wittgenstein’s remarks, and the regularity account, which may have been Sellars’s view and is nowadays defended by some antinormativists. On the former account, meanings are norms that govern the use of words; on the latter, they are regularities of use which, in themselves, do not engender any prescriptions. I argue that only the prescriptive view can account for certain platitudes about meaning, which motivate the very idea of semantic normativity. After some preliminary clarifications about the form that alleged semantic norms should take in order to be prima facie plausible, I argue—against some antinormativists—that whatever normativity is involved in the meaning of words cannot be brought back to a general norm of truth as distinct from specifically semantic norms, for semantic norms already involve a norm of truth (or truthfulness, depending on how they are phrased). Next, I examine what I take to be the strongest objection to semantic normativity, namely the identification of meaning with use: as use is just a bunch of facts, it cannot be attributed any normative import. Nowadays, this view has been defended by Paul Horwich. After criticizing Horwich’s claim that meaning, though not normative in itself, has unmediated normative implications, I propose a different view of the relation between use and meaning, on which meaning is not quite identical with use but (in most cases) is grounded on use. I propose as a model the idea of a hyperconformist social system: a system in which customs, and only customs, generate norms. I suggest that language is such a system, and describe two reasons why it is plausible for language to work like that. Finally, I analyze statements of meaning (“w means such-and-such”) on the model of Ruth Millikan “pushmi-pullyu” representations, i.e. as having both descriptive and normative import. I point out that, however, there are exceptions to meaning’s being grounded on use, as there are cases in which semantic norms are dictated by authorities of several kinds. Lastly, I briefly discuss the suggestion that meaning supervenes on use, showing that, aside from its inherent difficulties, it does not explain why meaning would supervene on use.