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Volume 11, 1998

Cognitive Semantics II

Michael Liston
Pages 173-215

Externalist Determinants of Reference

According to externalism, reference is a relation between uses of an expression and features of the environment. Moreover, the reference relation is normative (constitutive of correct semantic use), and the referential relata of our expressions are explanatory of successful language use. This paper largely agrees with the broad conception underlying externalism: it is what people do with words that makes them have the references they have, and the world constrains what people can successfully do with words. However, the paper strongly disagrees with the details (at least as usually presented). A centrally important feature of what people do with words is how they use them in inferential contexts. When due attention is given to the reference-determining role played by inferential properties of expressions, I argue, we arrive at a more satisfactory account of semantic norms and explanations. Much of the argument is based on a detailed look at the language of chemical classification used in the late 19th century.

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