LINGUIST List 15.2586

Fri Sep 17 2004

Review: Philo of Lang/Semantics: Nuccetelli (2003)

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  1. Anne Reboul, New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge

Message 1: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge

Date: Fri, 17 Sep 2004 00:20:14 -0400 (EDT)
From: Anne Reboul <>
Subject: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge

EDITOR: Nuccetelli, Susana
TITLE: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge
SERIES: Bradford Book
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Anne Reboul, Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, Lyon, France


This book could be seen as a companion to the collection of papers
recently published on Tyler Burge (see the review on the Linguist
list: issue 15.1691) and his own version of externalism. A short
introduction on externalism for non-philosophers may be
warranted. Semantic externalism is the position, first advocated by
Putnam (1975), according to which meanings are at least in part
determined by states of affairs in the world and thus are not purely
mental and private. This seems to lead to the conclusion that a
subject could not have a privileged access to his/her own thought,
which contradicts a central tenet in philosophy of mind. The book is
dedicated to the examination of this conflict between semantic
externalism and privileged access. It should be clear that this
question has repercussion in linguistics, notably in Gricean type
pragmatics, where meaning is defined in psychological terms. The
discussion is thus of quite real importance for all linguists who
adopt a mentalistic view of language use and meaning.


The book opens with an Introduction by the editor, Nuccetelli. She
notes that ''the attempt to hold externalism concurrently with
privileged self-knowledge might face a reductio, since it might appear
that substantial propositions about one's environment could be known
by simple deduction from non-empirical premises'' (1). Nuccetelli
presents the opposition between internalism (all mental properties
including those with content are local in the sense that they preserve
across internal replicas) and externalism (some mental properties --
e.g. those with content -- are not local in this sense). This can be
reduced to claims about supervenience (roughly, co-variation) either
on internal or external conditions. Externalism seems to be supported
by theories of direct reference. There is, however, a compatibility
problem between externalism and privileged and authoritative access,
which can be seen from two perspectives: either externalism or
privileged and authoritative access should be abandoned. The
compatibility problem stems from a potential reductio (first proposed
by McKinsey) whose formulation could be: (1) I am thinking that water
is wet; (2) if I am thinking that water is wet, then some empirical
condition obtains (from externalism, which can be argued for from
thought experiments, i.e., a priori); (3) therefore, some empirical
condition obtains. In other words, if externalism and privileged
access are correct, a priori empirical knowledge should be possible.
Nuccetelli then presents the contents of the chapters.

The first chapter, by Martin Davies, deals with ''The problem of
armchair knowledge''. He begins by recalling the McKinsey argument
showing the incompatibility between externalism and privileged access
under its reductio form. He notes that if deduction from a priori
known premises to an empirical conclusion goes through, then indeed
inconsistency threatens. Thus ''externalist philosophical theory, when
taken together with a plausible claim about self-knowledge, gives rise
to an instance of what [Davies] call[s] the problem of armchair
knowledge'' (25). The problem lies in the transmission of evidential
support from the premises to the conclusion. Building on propositions
by Wright, Davies argues that epistemic warrant from premises to
conclusion is limited to those cases where the truth of the conclusion
is not a precondition of the warrantability of one premise. Such
problems, according to him, are relatively widespread and are related
to the issue of begging the question in that both hinge on the
question of background assumptions.

The second chapter, by Crispin Wright, is devoted to ''Some
reflections on the acquisition of warrant by inference''. Wright
begins with a distinction between transmission of warrant and closure
of warrant (across entailment). Closure is weaker, depending merely on
the fact that the existence of warrant for premises ensures the
existence of warrant for the conclusion. Transmission, on the other
hand, depends on warrants for the premises giving warrant for the
conclusion. Transmission fails -- though closure does not -- in cases
where warrant for the premises depends on (antecedent) warrant for the
conclusion (begging the question). Non transmissible warrants may be
connected with the holism of empirical confirmation: in such cases,
there is information-dependence of warrant. This may occur for
inferential warrants. Another type of cases has to do with
non-inferential warrants acting as preconditions for cognitive
activities such as perception, memory or self- knowledge. This seems
to be the kind of failure of transmission, which occurs in McKinsey
cases. However, operational necessity, in such cases, entitles the
subject to believe a priori that the relevant defeaters do not obtain,
thus allowing both semantic externalism and authoritative

Brian McLaughlin writes the next chapter, on ''McKinsey's challenge,
warrant transmission, and skepticism''. He begins by noting that given
the closure principle, the issue is ''whether it is possible to know a
priori a contingent environmental proposition'' (80), where a
contingent environmental proposition a priori entails the existence of
the external world. McKinsey's incompatibilism would go through if
there was any ''reason to believe that we can't know a priori that the
external world exists'' (80). By contrast, some compatibilists claim
that privileged self- knowledge and a priori mental externalism can
refute some kinds of skeptical hypotheses. McLaughlin then notes that
neither Wright's nor Davies' argument (see above) shows ''that no
compatibilist argument could be one in which warrant transmits'' (88).
McLaughlin distinguishes two notions of a priority: a weak notion in
which a belief is a priori if it warranted but not on the basis of
empirical evidence; a strong notion in which a belief is a priori if
it is warranted but not on the basis of empirical evidence and if it
is empirically indefeasible in the sense that it cannot be rebutted by
empirical evidence. The same distinction applies to privileged access
to mental states, yielding four possibilities for a given mental
state: weakly privileged, weakly a priori external; weakly privileged,
strongly a priori external: strongly privileged, weakly a priori
external, strongly privileged, strongly a priori external. The three
first possibilities would involve a failure of warrant transmission,
though the fourth would not. However, such a case is considered as
implausible by McLaughlin.

The fourth paper is by Michael McKinsey and deals with ''Transmission
of warrant and closure of apriority''. He begins by rehearsing his
incompatibilist argument. This leads him to the conclusion that either
semantic externalism or privileged access is false. However, it seems
that semantic externalism is true given ''semantic facts about
cognitive predicates that contain small-scope proper names and
indexical pronouns'' (99). Thus, privileged access should be
restricted to logically narrow properties. McKinsey then turns to the
problem of transmission of warrant. He agrees that there is a failure
of transmission in his argument but insists that closure is sufficient
to the validity of the argument and that warrant is not necessary. He
notes that closure will apply similarly in strong and weak apriority
arguments. However, he admits that there is a logical possibility that
some form of semantic externalism might be consistent with privileged
access. Yet, ''most forms of externalism imply that certain cognitive
premises have very strong empirical consequences'' (112) and they are
not subject to the closure objection. He concludes that ''[privileged
access] is false, and so there is simply no point in looking for forms
of externalism that are consistent with it'' (113).

''The reductio argument and transmission of warrant'', by Jessica
Brown, rejects failure of transmission of warrant in the reductio
argument on the grounds that Wright uses an internalist epistemology
which is incompatible with externalism. ''Thus, the concern that
drives Wright to his conditional analysis need not be shared by
epistemological externalists, for whom epistemic entitlement is partly
a matter of the subject's relations to her environment'' (121). What
is more, Wright's solution is as problematic as the reductio
itself. ''It seems then that we need to look for an answer to the
reductio argument elsewhere'' (130).

Dretske devotes the sixth chapter to ''Externalism and self-
knowledge''. He begins by noting that metaphysical and
epistemological doctrines in philosophy are often difficult to
reconcile and that in such cases, ''there is a temptation to trash the
metaphysics in order to salvage the epistemology'' (131). In the
specific case of the compatibility between externalism and privileged
access, however, he would suggest ''to reexamine (...) a suspect
epistemology'' (131). Dretske begins by reminding the reader that his
externalism is not restricted to mental content, but generalizes to
all forms of representation. He then turns to the sort of epistemology
embodied in the current view of privileged access, noting that it
makes a wrong assumption: ''it assumes that knowledge of what you
think -- for instance, that there is water -- is (or requires)
knowledge that you think'' (133). Thus, ''if we think, we can know --
in a privileged and authoritative way -- what we think. What we can't
know, at least not in the same authoritative way, is that we are
thinking it'' (136). Introspection is like perception in that it gives
us the content of our cognitive states, but not the fact that it is
content. Thus, ''perception is not an answer to the skeptic's problem
about other minds'' (138). Additionally, ''carrying information (...)
is not closed under (known) logical implication'' (140). Knowing that
we are thinking is not done through introspection, neither is it
subject to privileged and authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is
learned by human children through their parents and language plays a
major role. ''Nonhuman animals never learn these things. This is
exactly what one would expect on an externalist theory of the mind''

Gary Ebbs then turns to ''A puzzle about doubt''. He begins by noting
that the standard view of the relevant thought experiments supposes
subjectively equivalent worlds such that a subject might never know,
without empirical investigation, which world she is in. However, Ebbs
argues, this is wrong because this analysis ''conflicts with the
truism that to express a thought, one must have some idea of what that
thought is'', which entails, on an externalist view, that one must
know in which world one is. On Ebbs' view, ''minimal self-knowledge is
a practical aspect of ordinary competence in the use of language, not
a kind of second-order propositional knowledge as many philosophers
assume'' (147). Additionally, ''most philosophers assume that for a
person to entertain the thought that she is actually in one of her
subjectively equivalent worlds, she need only picture herself in it''
(150) in the sense of adding to her present subjective experience a
caption referring to that world. Adopting this standard picture leads
to a puzzle as to what words refer to. To dissolve this puzzle, Ebbs
proposes that in fact we can know without empirical investigation
which world we are in. His first assumption is to the effect that ''it
is epistemically possible that p for a given person only if she can
make sense of its actually being the case that p'' (154). But for
that, it is not enough that she pictures herself in such a world: she
must be able to express that possibility and to do that she would have
to suspend all her substantive beliefs, which would deprive her
language of its semantics, preventing her from expressing the
possibility. ''Statements that we can't make sense of doubting in the
sense described above are among the statements that we properly take
ourselves to know without empirical investigation'' (162).

The editor of the book, Susana Nuccetelli signs the eighth chapter,
''Knowing that one knows what one is talking about''. She wants to
''argue (...) that externalist claims about the dependence of content
on environmental factors presuppose certain theses about the semantics
of natural- kind terms that, if sound, would make those claims
eligible for empirical justification instead'' (169). She uses the
example of singular propositions, where a causal chain is involved
linking the (proper) name and its referent. This excludes Fregean
senses. As for natural-kind terms, though they do have senses, these
fall short of being Fregean. Just as singular terms may fail to have
referents, so do natural-kind terms (e.g. phlogiston). Thus, if
semantic externalism is correct, then the justification of belief
about substantial entailments from words and thoughts to the
environment rests (at least in part), on empirical investigation. This
leads to an answer to incompatibilist arguments: self-ascriptive
beliefs about propositional attitude contents could be a priori
justified under the weak notion of apriority (see above).

Anthony Brueckner deals in chapter 9 with ''Two transcendental
arguments concerning self-knowledge''. He begins by noting that ''what
is needed for a fully adequate reply to the skeptic about
self-knowledge is an explanation of how it is that I know that I am
thinking a water thought'' (186). He then turns to two transcendental
arguments, one by Moran and one by Bilgrami. They both reject
infallibility and transparency of self-knowledge, as well as the
notion of an introspective faculty. They both agree on the
non-inferential and not evidentially based character of
self-knowledge. Bilgrami tries to show that the notion that believing
to be in a given mental state is enough to guarantee that one is
indeed in that mental state is a condition of the possibility of
responsible agency. Brueckner introduces here Shoemaker's notion of a
self- blind person, incapable of second order beliefs and question
whether such a person would be incapable of responsible agency
(entailing freedom, responsibility and appropriateness of
reactions). This leads him to the conclusion that Bilgrami's argument
fails. He then turns to Moran's. Moran distinguishes ''between two
points of view upon one's own intentional mental states: the
theoretical/empirical point of view and the transcendent point of
view'' (194). The first one is evidential (and thus subject to a
Moore's paradox), while the second is not, but is based on actual
states of affairs in the world (and thus not subject to a Moore's
paradox). A rational agent should adopt the transcendental point of
view, which is necessary for responsible action. This is however
false. Hence, again there could be a self-blind but nonetheless
responsible agent.

In chapter 10, Joseph Owens turns to ''Externalism, Davidson, and
knowledge of comparative content''. He examines Davidson's views on
externalism and self- knowledge, arguing that Davidson misunderstands
the incompatibilist arguments. Owens begins by a distinction between
physical externalism of the Putnam kind (P- externalism) and social
externalism of the Burge kind (B- externalism). One key issue here is
whether one should not only think that ''the twins merit different
psychological characterizations'' (202), but also ''assign different
psychological states to the twins'' (202). Davidson would accept the
first possibility, but not the second, thus qualifying as a linguistic
but not a metaphysical realist. He also rejects B-externalism as
incompatible with self- knowledge, while he accepts P-externalism as
compatible with self-knowledge, rejecting incompatibilist arguments on
the grounds that they rely on an introspective view of self-knowledge
as perception of inner mental objects. This, however, is mistaken in
Owens'view in that the mistake is not about the mechanisms but about
the nature of self- knowledge. The nature of self-knowledge is
(wrongly) taken to be that to know that I'm thinking a water thought,
I must be able to reject the possibility that I'm thinking a twater
thought. Davidson's rejection of B-externalism is based on the fact
that, given that, on B-externalism, public conventions determine
content, ''this makes content independent from intention'' (212),
opening the possibility that one would know what one is thinking or
saying. This conclusion is not, however, correct.

Kevin Falvey devotes the eleventh chapter to ''Memory and knowledge of
content'', turning to the second kind of incompatibility argument. He
begins by noting that our knowledge of our past mental states is not
as authoritative as knowledge of our present mental states. It may
also be more objective, though less direct. Thus, ''first-person
authority extends primarily over one's present-tense attributions of
intentional mental states'' (221). However, a more pressing question
is to whether one can still be authoritative about one's own thoughts
if one is radically out of touch with one's past mental states,
through, for instance, world switching. This is Boghossian's argument,
''directed against Burge's idea that a central part of our notion of
first-person authority involves the self- verifying character of first
person attributions'' (221). This self-verifying property stems from
the fact that one cannot entertain a second-order judgment about a
first order thought without thinking that first-order
thought. Boghossian's argument rests on an equation between
remembering and having once known and not forgotten, an equation which
Falvey contests. To show this, Falvey introduces the notion of
disjunctive kinds of stuffs, which takes care of world
switching. Thus, the right to rely on preservative memory is not
itself entirely free of empirical presuppositions.

In chapter 12, Sanford C. Goldberg asks ''What do you know when you
know your own thoughts?''. He wants both to acknowledge that there are
valid incompatibilist arguments and that semantic externalism is well
motivated. His view is that one should distinguish between two kinds
of self- knowledge. The first kind are first-person present-tense
judgments, or basic self-knowledge, and self-verifying. Goldberg then
turns to a variation on Boghossian's argument, noting that it relies
on the notion that world switching is accompanied by concept shifting
in the sense of a replacement. This however is unconvincing and indeed
implausible. Nevertheless, an adaptation of Boghossian's argument does
go through. However, this argument does not threaten compatibilism
between externalism and basic self- knowledge as this is not the kind
of self-knowledge involved in the Boghossian style argument. What is
more, such a distinction between two types of self-knowledge is
independently motivated.

Chapter 13, by Richard Fumerton, deals with ''Introspection and
internalism''. Fumerton begins by pointing out critics of externalism
use arguments which rely on half of Leibniz's law in a way strongly
reminiscent of the Cartesian dualist argument. After having outlined
various internalist and externalist commitments, Fumerton revisits the
incompatibilist argument. He supposes ''that the externalist will
concede that we know through introspection what we are thinking of in
a way in which we cannot know through introspection truths about the
causal origin of our internal states'' (270), a concession that,
according to him, is fatal to some externalist commitments.

Mathias Steup examines, in chapter 14, ''Two forms of
antiskepticism''. He goes back to the McKinsey's argument, noting
that Sawyer and Warfield have argued that there is no contradiction in
spite of appearances between semantic externalism and privileged and
authoritative access, which they take to be a basis for an
antiskeptical argument. Steup, though sympathetic with the attempts,
is however doubtful about the soundness of the arguments. According to
him, ''there is reason to think that, while it might be possible to
gain a priori knowledge of some very general propositions about the
external world, the premises of Warfield's argument are, in point of
fact, not knowable a priori'' (282). One point is that Warfield's
argument falls under failure of transmission of warrant, thus begging
the question against the skeptic. However, Steup thinks that an appeal
to background knowledge might do the trick: I know that I have a body
and that there is an external world because I can know that the
skeptical alternative is false through my background knowledge, which
defeats it. Thus, skeptical alternatives ''are defeated in the strong
sense that their negations are beyond a reasonable doubt'' (291).


This is an excellent book in which most papers are of very high
quality. Its relevance to linguists should be obvious. All the
linguists who think that, whatever ''the function'' of language is,
language can be used to describe reality presumably think that words
have extensions as well as intensions and may also think that, where
words refer to categories of objects in the world, e.g. natural kinds,
the extension of these words play a major role in their semantics. In
this, they are semantic externalists. They may also think however that
meaning should be described in psychological terms and that speakers
have privileged access to what they mean by a given utterance. Hence
the resolution, if any, of the conflict between semantic externalism
and privileged access is of special interest to at least some
linguists. Though I don't think that any specific paper in this
collection provides a complete and completely satisfying solution to
this problem, most of them make an interesting contribution. Of
special interest for linguistics are, in my opinion, Dretske's, Ebbs',
Nuccetelli's, Owens' and Steup's papers. Each of them contributes a
more or less important piece to what could be a solution to the
puzzle. They also happen to be perhaps more accessible to a
non-philosopher audience than are other papers in the collection,
which though highly sophisticated and fascinating for philosophers,
tend to be more technical.


Putnam, H. (1975) ''The meaning of 'meaning''', in Mind, Language and
Reality. Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 215-271.

Hahn, M. & Ramberg, B. (2003),Reflections and replies. Essays on the
philosophy of Tyler Burge, Cambridge, MA.,The MIT Press.


Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics
(EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva,
Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English,
on pragmatics and/or philosophical subjects.
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