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Anti-realist Semantics: the Role of Criteria

  • Crispin Wright


§I. Anti-realism of the sort which Michael Dummett has expounded takes issue with the traditional idea that an understanding of any statement (here, declarative sentence) is philosophically correctly analysed as involving grasp of conditions necessary and sufficient for its truth. Many kinds of statement to which, as we ordinarily think, we attach a clear sense would have to be represented, according to this tradition, as possessing verification-transcendent truth-conditions; if true that is to say, they would be so in virtue of circumstances of a type transcending our range of possible awareness. Exactly where to draw the boundaries of our possible awareness might be controversial; but there is clearly no being aware, in the relevant sense, of the kind of state of affairs which would make true a generalization of theoretical physics, an assertion about James II weight on his twenty-eighth birthday, a claim about what would have happened if Edward Heath had not sought a fresh mandate during the miners' strike, or—from your point of view—the statement that my left ear aches. In each of these kinds of case the traditional view, while granting that we (or you) cannot experience the truth-conferring states of affairs as such, would nevertheless credit us with a clear conception of the type of thing they would be. To be sure, there is then no possibility of a straightforward construal of this conception as a recognitional capacity. But the traditional view tends to conceal from itself the problematic status which the alleged grasp of truth-conditions therefore assumes by working with the picture that the ‘conception’ is indirectly recognitional, that it issues in a cluster of unproblematic recognitional capacities; in particular, the ability to recognize what is or is not good evidence for the relevant statement and the ability to recognize its logical relations to other statements.



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1 I do not mean to imply that Dummett's exposition has remained uniform throughout his writings. The principal sources are the articles reprinted as chapters 1, 10, 11, 13, 14, 21 in the collection of his papers, Truth and other Enigmas (Duckworth, 1978), and ‘What is a Theory of Meaning? (II)’ in Truth and Meaning, Evans, and McDowell, (eds) (Oxford University Press, 1976). See also Frege: Philosophy of Language (Duckworth, 1973), passim.

2 See, for example, Strawson, , ‘Scruton and Wright on Anti-realism, etc.’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1976).

3 For any agnostic about this claim, Investigations 393 should be explicit enough.

4 In Insight and Illusion (Oxford University Press, 1972), concluding chapter.

5 In ‘Criteria: a New Foundation for Semantics’, Ratio (1974).

6 A question to be aired in §7 of this paper.

7 See most notably Putnam, ‘Brains and Behaviour’ in Analytical Philosophy, Butler, (ed.), second series (Blackwell, 1965); also Chihara, and Fodor, , ‘Operationalism and Ordinary Language: a Critique of Wittgenstein’, American Philosophical Quarterly (1965).

8 In addition to the Investigations passage quoted above, see also Zettel 438.

9,10 see works cited above.

11 ‘The Analogy of Religion’; see Personal Identity Perry, (ed.) (University of California Press, 1975), 101.

12 In ‘Truth’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1958), reprinted as chapter 1 in Truth and other Enigmas, cited above.

13 For misgivings about this way of drawing the contrast, and an attempt to improve upon it, see §3 of my ‘Strict Finitism’, forthcoming in Synthese.

14 Again, however, see ‘Strict Finitism’, §3.

15 See my Wittgenstein on the Foundations of Mathematics (Duckworth, 1980), chapters II, XI, and elsewhere passim.

16 I have in mind, also, the ‘Limits of Empiricism’ remarks in the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.


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