LINGUIST List 8.1067

Sat Jul 19 1997

Review: Platts: Ways of Meaning 2nd Ed.

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Message 1: Review of Platts book

Date: Fri, 18 Jul 1997 08:52:44 +0100
From: John Lee <>
Subject: Review of Platts book

Review of Mark Platts (1997), Ways of Meaning, MIT Press (a Bradford book),
Cambridge MA. pp. 304+xiv. Price not known.

Reviewed by John Lee <>

Ways of Meaning is a book that may already be familiar to many readers. It
first appeared in 1979 and is here republished as a second edition. In
this second edition, Mark Platts has made only two changes: the addition
of an extra chapter, and a list of further readings relating to the
existing chapters.

The main objective of the book is to lay out, render coherent and make
accessible the main structure of an approach to the theory of meaning,
which is essentially the approach sometimes known as the "Davidsonian
programme". Previously recognisable mainly through the scattered writings
of a number of authors, not always clear or consistent, Platts' book helps
to underpin the wide perception of this programme as one of the most
significant developments in post-war philosophy of language. Aside from
many of the characteristics of a textbook, there is also in here the
development of a distinctive position which, woven into a somewhat more
contemporary discussion in the new final chapter, suggests that despite the
passage of 18 years the book is not merely historical.

There are three parts to the book: in the first (chapters I-III), the basic
theory of meaning is laid out; in the second (chapters IV-VIII) its
implications and justifications are considered in terms of various
well-known issues in dealing with different linguistic structures; in the
third (chapters IX-XI), some of the issues raised by the underlying realist
metaphysic are discussed.

The first chapter deals with the central role of truth-conditions in the
theory. One objective is to establish that cases of Tarski's familiar
"Convention T" are not merely trivial. Platts makes central use of the
notion of translation, observing that

'Grass is green' is true if and only if grass is green

expresses a contingent truth about the English language, more obviously so
if it were expressed say in French, a truth "both learnable and
forgettable". This truth is about the relationship between language and
the world (i.e. that which makes sentences true), which leads Platts
further to argue that the theory is "realistic", that it implies a
"correspondence" theory of the relationship between linguistic structure
and the structures of reality, and that acceptance of this commits one to
the identification of the theory of meaning with the theory of
truth-conditions. The theory of meaning, Platts says, is ultimately all
about deriving a theory of understanding; such an objective also argues for
maintaining as close a fit as possible between object- and meta-language,
so that we can be clear about what it is we are attributing understanding

In chapter II, this basically Davidsonian position is augmented with a
notion from McDowell, that we need also a theory of "force", which provides
a characterisation of the speech-act that an utterance involves -- its
"mode" -- and its grammatical mood, and also allows us to derive for any
utterance "a suitably related indicative sentence". We then arrive at the
following final definition for "Sentence s in language L means that p":

	There is a truth-theory <theta> for L such that:
	(a) It is a theorem of <theta> that s is true if and only if p; and
	(b) the deliverances of that theory combine with an acceptable
	theory of force and with observed linguistic and non-linguistic
	behaviour to license the ascription of plausible propositional
	attitudes to speakers of L. (p 67)

Chapter III is a critique of intentional theories of meaning, conducted via
a detailed discussion of Grice (now anachronistically introduced as
"recent"), taken as being apparently representative of these. There is
much of interest in the detail, but Platts' central point is that in the
end Grice can only supply (b) in the definition above; i.e. that the role
of intentions is in the theory of force, not in the theory of sense which
has to be abstract and recursive if it is to lead us fully to understand
linguistic behaviour.

In part 2, there emerges ever more clearly the characteristic bifurcation
of Platts' treatment of meaning into matters of sense and force, and his
insistence that the former is central at least for philosophical concerns,
and that all it has to do is specify truth-conditions. Thus, for example,
he takes it as sufficient, in accounting for non-standard quantifiers such
as "most", to produce a relational analysis (avoiding the troublesome
connective in standard quantificational analyses) and then saying: a
sequence S satisfies '(Mx)(Fx, Gx)' if and only if most F-satisfiers are
also G-satisfiers (p 104). It's of little concern e.g. that this fails to
license inferences such as from "most: to "some", which simply need some
additional axiomatisation in the meta-language, so long as we have "an
adequate truth-theory". Here appears a gap between the interests of the
formal semanticist and the "traditional logician", which is also taken into
account in discussing intensional contexts: here, after detailed treatments
of Quine, Frege, Davidson and Donellan, the conclusion is that
identification of referential usage, and the "speaker's referent" is
critical to establishing truth-conditions, and cannot therefore be
relegated to "pragmatics". Discussing naming and identity, Platts proposes
that sameness of "literal" meaning needs to be distinguished from "sameness
of saying", which latter notion is essentially pragmatic, and is also
assimilated to "sameness of informative content". So

The Morning Star is the Evening Star

means the same as

The Morning Star is the Morning Star

and the difference in informativeness has to do with the theory of force,
not sense. This helps develop the way in which Platts sees his theory as
being properly "austere": it needs only to specify what it is that an
expression connects to in the world; it need (and should) say nothing about
how this connection arises. So austere is it, that it should not even seek
to disambiguate. The truth-conditions of sentences e.g. containing proper
names just are ambiguous; speakers' meanings can be decided only by
considering force and ascribing appropriate propositional attitudes.

In this context, Platts has an unexpectedly elaborate discussion of
adjectives. Much of this is fascinating and ingenious, but it seems
largely tangential to the general development of the theory, serving
however to show how complex can be the logical form of something apparently
fairly simple. The subsequent discussion of actions and causes is largely
aimed at establishing whether Strawson and others have been right to
suggest that Davidson's account of these as based on an ontology of events
actually falsifies the intuitions of competent speakers. Austerity comes
naturally to the rescue here since as long as the truth-conditions of the
event-based analyses come out as required Platts is content to ignore the
whole question of how speakers understand their language.

Part 3 of the book has three chapters. The first of these (chapter IX)
elaborates the realist picture of the relationship between meaning,
understanding and reality by addressing the notion that meaning can be
identified with a rule for usage. Here are discussed (following Crispin
Wright) problems of paradoxes such as that of the heap, or of a pictured
face made of dots (where moving or removing one dot always leaves it still
a face). Wright argued that these paradoxes would be fatal if meaning were
rule based, so it can't be. But Platts proposes instead that sufficiently
austere rules will avoid the problem, which is then seen to arise from an
unwanted and unwarranted decompositional analysis. In the face case, for
example, we do not infer that there is a face from the pattern of dots; we
just see it. So our mastery of the predicate "is a picture of a face"
can't be reduced to our mastery of predicates about dots (though it is a
bit trickier thus to explain away the heap). The combination of austerity
and realism renders Platts immune to all reductionist or verificationist
arguments: he is determined to banish all issues of how and why expressions
relate to the world to enterprises outside his focus on the theory of sense.

Chapter X extends the realist idea into the field of moral discourse and
proposes a version of ethical intuitionism. I shall not discuss it, since
it does not concern further development of the theory itself. The final
chapter is the new one. It arises partly as a response (Platts says in the
preface) to the complaints of reviewers that he had said nothing about
natural kinds. These earlier reviews of course address the main part of
the book in exactly the same form as it is now re-issued, and it would be
pointless here to re-tread the ground they cover. (Two are identified by
Platts as being the most perceptive -- Steven E Boer in Linguistics and
Philosophy 1980, and Bernard Linsky in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy
1980 -- though he chooses not to respond to them. I commend these both to
the reader as raising other important issues such as Platts' failure to
comment on the indeterminacy of translation, which is disturbing given the
centrality of translation in his discussion of T.) It seems best to devote
most of the rest of this discussion to the final chapter.

A well-known argument due originally to Putnam proposes that the meanings
of "natural kind" terms, such as "water", "tiger", "lemon" etc., are partly
determined by scientific knowledge which is available in detail only to
experts. The truth of "X is water" depends on facts about the chemical
composition of X, etc. But, observing a distinction between "natural
kinds" and "artificial kinds", Platts says we need to ask, for any
kind-word: is it treated as a natural-kind word, and is its extension the
actual membership of a natural kind? He then embarks on a long discussion
of what it is to be a natural kind. The notion is developed in terms of
causal laws and explanation, which (following a later argument of Putnam's)
makes it interest-relative, and it is proposed that there can be natural
kinds at different "levels" -- e.g. lemons, soft fruit, fruit, etc. --
which defuses some earlier objections to aspects of Putnam's original
arguments by e.g. Mellor. This is interesting (and reasonably persuasive
as far as it goes), but it seems to be unnecessary. Given the earlier
emphasis on austerity in the theory of sense, it is hard to see why Platts
would not say that there is no important distinction, from that point of
view, between natural and artificial kinds: 'X is a lemon' is true if and
only if X is a lemon; 'Y is a viola' is true if and only if Y is a viola.
It makes no difference that lemons are kinds of fruit, or that violas are
members of the violin family; these are not issues that affect
truth-conditions as such.

Platts pursues his theme of interest-relativity through a discursion on
Locke and other empiricists, Ramsey and also Leibniz, intent on
establishing that natural kinds should not appear to be "merely in the
mind" -- I find this less persuasive, but again, apart from its relevance
to supporting realism, it seems tangential to the book's programme.
Eventually, however, Platts does propose the consistently austere response
to Putnam (pp 286ff), accusing him of armchair psychologising and arguing
that the theory of meaning is in no way dependent on explaining acquisition
or speakers' knowledge. Putnam has been misled partly by concentrating too
much on words rather than sentences as the primary unit of meaning.

In summary, this is a useful book as a text for teaching the issues in the
Davidsonian programme up to 1979. However, it is never brought up to date
in a satisfactory way -- the suggestions for further reading are useful but
brief, and even the new discussion of natural kinds, interesting and
worthwhile in itself, is firmly based on Putnam's early work. Though
dedicated to Putnam, the book entirely ignores his later work: "Meaning
and the Moral Sciences" is referenced on the topic of explanation, but not
on the irrelevance of realism to Convention T; the essays it contains on
anti-realism, and Putnam's subsequent writing in that line, are neglected.
Such considerations I think could show Platts' book more relevant than it
appears to other theoretical traditions. But even if one accepts the
realist assumptions, much other recent work in semantics has been related
not only to the philosophical interests focussed on by Platts, but even
more to the demands of e.g. cognitive science. While it is perhaps
salutary to be reminded of the proper boundaries of a theory of
truth-conditions, the reminder is also apt to emphasise how narrowly that
theory figures in the overall theory of understanding which is also for
Platts the ultimate objective. Most useful in this second edition would
have been some discussion of progress on the general programme. Austerity
is tolerable only for so long -- we need the promise of jam tomorrow.

- ----------------

John Lee works at the Human Communication Research Centre at the University
of Edinburgh. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Science and Philosophy from
Edinburgh, and is interested in cognitive theories of representation and
reasoning. In particular, he is currently working on representation in
education, and the educational importance of dialogue.
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