Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

Philosophy Semantic Externalism
by
Sandy Goldberg

Introduction

Semantic externalism is the view that (some) semantic properties of a subject’s words and/or thoughts depend for their individuation on features of the subject’s “external” environment. The external environment has traditionally been taken to be any part of the environment beyond the physical boundaries of the subject’s skin. (See Farkas 2008 for a criticism of this and other construals of “external.”) Externalism’s core claim is often characterized in terms of the possibility of two individuals, duplicates from the skin-in, who nevertheless differ in the meanings of their words or the contents of their thoughts, owing to differences in their respective environments. Originally deriving from the “new” theories of reference developed in the 1970s in the work of such figures as Chastain, Donnellan, Kripke, Putnam, and Stampe, externalist theses were soon developed about the contents of thought and other mental states as well.

General Overviews

Discussions of the variety of semantic externalist positions in the philosophy of mind and language may be found in Pessin and Goldberg 1996, Wikforss 2008, and Kallestrup 2011. Most overviews devoted to the topic of semantic externalism, however, focus on versions in the philosophy of mind (see, e.g., Chalmers 2002, Lau and Deutsch 2002). The first chapter of Brown 2004 offers a nice overview of the varieties of mind externalist positions. Interestingly, Putnam himself (one of the earliest and most influential of semantic externalism’s proponents) originally rejected mind externalism; see Putnam 1996 for a description of the evolution of his thought on the matter. McGinn 1989 contains some early arguments on behalf of externalist views in the philosophy of mind.

Anthologies

There are a number of good anthologies on the topic of semantic externalism. Some, such as Pessin and Goldberg 1996, contain reprinted materials; others, such as Hahn and Ramberg 2003 and Schantz 2004, include new material. There are also some very good anthologies that are more narrowly focused—in particular, on the epistemic implications of semantic externalism. These include Ludlow and Martin 1997, Wright, et al. 1998, Nuccetelli 2003, and Goldberg 2007. The first three of these contain papers that focus on semantic externalism’s implications for self-knowledge and skepticism; the last of these looks at the relations between externalist positions in semantics and the internalism/externalism debate in epistemology.

  • Goldberg, Sandford, ed. Internalism and Externalism in Semantics and Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A volume with papers by leading theorists, aimed at discerning connections between semantic externalism and externalism in epistemology. Several papers raise the issue of externalism and self-knowledge.

    Find this resource:

  • Hahn, Martin, and Bjørn Ramberg, eds. Reflections and Replies: Essays on the Philosophy of Tyler Burge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This volume contains various articles on Burge’s anti-individualistic version of semantic externalism (see In the Philosophy of Language). It is unique in that it includes replies from Burge to all of the articles in the volume.

    Find this resource:

  • Ludlow, Peter, and Norah Martin, eds. Externalism and Self-Knowledge. Stanford, CA: CSLI, 1997.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A collection of some of the seminal pieces published before 1997 on the access and consequence problems.

    Find this resource:

  • Nuccetelli, Susana, ed. New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A volume with papers by leading theorists, devoted exclusively to externalism and self-knowledge.

    Find this resource:

  • Pessin, Andrew, and Sanford Goldberg, eds. The Twin Earth Chronicles: Twenty Years of Reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This volume reprints many of the “classics” in the debate concerning semantic externalism, including pieces by Putnam, Burge, Davidson, and McDowell, as well as an introduction by Putnam in which he reflects on the staying power of his “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,’” one of the papers that initiated the “externalist revolution” in the philosophy of mind and language.

    Find this resource:

  • Schantz, Richard, ed. The Externalist Challenge. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This collection contains pieces by many of the influential participants in the debate; about half of the papers are on the topic of semantic externalism, with the other half discussing the epistemological view known as “externalism.”

    Find this resource:

  • Wright, Crispin, Barry C. Smith, and Cynthia Macdonald, eds. Knowing Our Own Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A volume with several papers by leading theorists, devoted to externalism and self-knowledge.

    Find this resource:

In the Philosophy of Language

Various externalist theses have been advanced regarding linguistic meaning and content. Such views, which we might dub “language externalism,” developed out of sustained reflection on the role of context in reference determination (Donnellan 1966, Chastain 1975), on the behavior of referring terms in modal contexts (Kripke 1980), and on the presuppositions of radical interpretation (Davidson 1984). These reflections came to fruition in the development of the so-called “new” theory of reference (also known as the causal theory of reference) in the 1970s and early 1980s (Donnellan 1966, Chastain 1975, Putnam 1976, Stampe 1977, Kripke 1980, Evans 1982 [cited under Singular Thought]). Externalist theses were subsequently advanced regarding the meaning of natural kind terms (Putnam 1976) and artifact terms (Burge 1979 [cited under In the Philosophy of Mind]), the semantic value of names (McDowell 1977, Kripke 1980), and the semantic value of a given use of a demonstrative expression or other context-sensitive expression (Kaplan 1989).

  • Chastain, Charles. “Reference and Context.” In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 3, Language, Mind, and Knowledge. Edited by Keith Gunderson, 194–269. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This is an influential early paper focusing on the nature of reference, and the role of contextual features—features that are not part of a word’s “meaning”—in reference determination.

    Find this resource:

  • Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contains some of the classic pieces by Davidson on radical interpretation. These pieces have been influential in the philosophy of mind.

    Find this resource:

  • Donnellan, Keith S. “Reference and Definite Descriptions.” Philosophical Review 77 (1966): 281–304.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A classic essay that presents the distinction between two uses of definite descriptions: referential and attributive. Donnellan argues that Russell’s theory of descriptions might be the correct account of attributive use, but it is not the correct account of referential use as well as in the philosophy of language.

    Find this resource:

  • Kaplan, David. “Demonstratives.” In Themes from Kaplan. Edited by Joseph Almog, John Perry, and Howard K. Wettstein, 481–563. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of Kaplan’s seminal papers on the semantics of demonstratives; it makes explicit Kaplan’s distinction between the character of an indexical and its content (on an occasion of use).

    Find this resource:

  • Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the behavior of referring expressions in modal contexts. Introduces the notion of a rigid designator; presents a “causal theory” of reference; and employs this apparatus to argue for the existence of a posteriori necessities and a priori contingencies. This book has had an enduring influence on discussions ranging from the nature of sensory states to the metaphysics of essentialism.

    Find this resource:

  • McDowell, John. “On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name.” Mind 86 (1977): 159–185.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Attempts to formulate a theory of the semantics of names that endorses both the Fregean doctrine of sense—roughly, the view that each name has a cognitive significance, by virtue of which it has the reference that it does—while also endorsing the broadly Russellian view that the semantic value of a name is what the name contributes to a sentence’s truth conditions.

    Find this resource:

  • Putnam, Hilary. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning.’” In Philosophical Papers. Vol. 2, Mind, Language, and Reality. By Hilary Putnam, 215–271. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A locus classicus. Presents the famous thought experiment involving “twin earth” as part of its discussion of the semantics of natural kind terms, concluding that “meaning ain’t in the head.” (The result was what many call an externalist semantics regarding natural kind terms.) Also develops the hypothesis of the division of linguistic labor, anticipating the work of Tyler Burge.

    Find this resource:

  • Stampe, Dennis W. “Towards a Causal Theory of Linguistic Representation.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 2 (1977): 42–63.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4975.1977.tb00027.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early and influential version of the causal theory of reference.

    Find this resource:

In the Philosophy of Mind

Although many early proponents of “language externalism” (including Putnam 1976 [cited under In the Philosophy of Language]) appeared hesitant to extend their externalist claims to the philosophy of mind, others (see especially Burge 1979, Davidson 1984 [cited under In the Philosophy of Language], and Evans 1982 and McDowell 1986 [both cited under Singular Thought]) were not so hesitant. We might call these views “mind externalism.” Externalist theses in the philosophy of mind standardly assert that certain mental kinds or properties—especially representational/intentional kinds, such as the kind one instantiates when one believes that Bill Clinton was president, or hopes that the water in the lake is warm, or intends to visit Pueblo, Colorado—depend for their individuation on the existence and/or nature of factors in the subject’s “external” environment. Once again, such a view is often advanced in terms of the possibility of two individuals, duplicates from the skin-in, who nevertheless differ in the mental kinds they instantiate, owing to differences in their respective environments. Externalist theses of this sort have been advanced for various mental kinds: for thoughts regarding natural and artifactual kinds (Burge 1979, McGinn 1989 [cited under General Overviews]), for perceptual experience (including phenomenal content) generally (Tye 2000), and for singular thought (see Singular Thought). There are a variety of arguments for such views: they appeal to the possibility of incomplete grasp (Burge 1979), to causal accounts of information content (Dretske 1981, Stalnaker 1993), to the presuppositions of radical interpretation, to teleological conceptions of mental representation (Millikan 1984, Papineau 1993), to the objectivity of perception, to the intelligibility of rejecting meaning-giving characterizations of a word (Burge 1986), and to the nature and prevalence of the linguistic communication of knowledge (Goldberg 2007). In addition, it is standard to distinguish social or “anti-individualistic” versions of mind externalism, according to which the relevant external facts (on which the individuation of mental states is held to depend) include “social” facts—facts about the other speakers, and/or the norms of the public language being employed.

Singular Thought

One class of mind externalist views is worth singling out for its uniqueness. These are views that develop externalist accounts of singular thought—thoughts that (purport to) single out a particular entity. Such views were developed in a very influential way in Evans 1982 and McDowell 1986. Recanati 1993 also argues for a mind externalist by appealing to the relationship between language (in particular, direct reference accounts of singular reference) and thought.

Psychology

Most versions of mind externalism are thought to raise some important questions for psychology and psychological taxonomy. One question is whether an externalist thesis should be applied to the mental kinds that figure in the taxonomy of a scientific psychology (Burge 1986 and Shagrir 2001 defend such a proposal; Egan 1991 questions it). Others, however, question whether externally individuated mental states have a role to play in psychological explanation (Fodor 1980, Fodor 1991, Loar 1988). Part of the issue here is whether externally individuated mental states will be involved in mental causation; proponents of mind externalism have offered responses to this concern (see some of the entries in Heil and Mele 1993 and Yablo 1997).

Fregeanism

Fregeanism about meaning is the view that two sentences S1 and S2 express distinct thoughts just in case it is possible that a subject who understands both can rationally adopt different attitudes toward S1 and S2 (i.e., endorsing one while remaining neutral on the other), on an occasion when he or she has both “in mind.” (We can also formulate a Fregeanism about thought contents: the thought content that p and the thought content that q are distinct contents so long as…) Although Burge 1979 (cited under In the Philosophy of Mind) and Burge 1986 claim to develop his version of semantic externalism in a way that is “in the spirit” of Fregeanism about meaning and thought content, the compatibility of externalism and Fregeanism has been challenged by still others (Bach 1988, Elugardo 1993, Brown 2001). Goldberg 2002 responds to several of these on behalf of Burge. Kripke 1979 argues that difficulties can be generated in this vicinity on some plausible assumptions having to do with translation and disquotation—whether or not one endorses semantic externalist doctrines.

First-Person Authority

There has been a lively debate about the compatibility of the doctrine of mind externalism with the doctrine of first-person authority, according to which a subject is in a position to have a priori (or at least reflective) knowledge of the contents of his or her thoughts and attitudes. Those who want to establish compatibilism must face what Brown 2004 (cited under General Overviews) calls the “access problem”: that of showing how, on the assumption that such contents depend for their individuation on features of the external world, the subject is nevertheless in a position to have authoritative first-personal knowledge of his or her thoughts. Davidson 1987 attempts to argue that privileged self-knowledge is presupposed by the possibility of a subject’s being correctly interpreted as having determinate thoughts and attitudes in the first place. Burge 1988 appeals to the self-verifying nature of a subject’s judgments regarding his or her own occurrent thoughts, in order to establish that mind externalism poses no threat to privileged self-knowledge of one’s current thoughts. Many authors have noted that, at best, Burge’s strategy only works for authoritative self-knowledge of the contents of one’s own occurrent thoughts. Boghossian 1989 argues that Burge’s account fails even for the limited domain for which it was intended: Boghossian’s argument uses a world-switching case, together with a principle regarding memory and a discrimination condition on knowledge, to argue that if mind externalism is true, then one might fail to have reflective knowledge of the contents of one’s occurrent thought. Content externalists have responded by denying the principle regarding memory (Ludlow 1995, Brueckner 1997), the relevance of the alternatives needed to generate the problem (Warfield 1992), or the applicability of the relevant alternative analysis of knowledge to the case of authoritative self-knowledge of one’s thoughts (Falvey and Owens 1994, Goldberg 2006).

External-World Skepticism

There is a second line of argument that has been used to question the compatibility of the doctrine of mind externalism with that of first-person authority. This line of argument focuses on the antiskeptical implications of combining these two doctrines. In particular, it is alleged that the combined position implies the possibility of acquiring substantial empirical knowledge a priori (or at least through reflection) by reflecting on one’s own thoughts and the truth of mind externalism. The problem of responding to this allegation has been dubbed the “consequence problem” in Brown 2004 (cited under General Overviews). Anticipated in Putnam 1981, the point is most vividly made in McKinsey 1991. McKinsey himself takes this antiskeptical result to be implausible, and so regards it as a reductio of mind externalism (he assumes that the doctrine of privileged self-knowledge is unassailable). Proponents of mind externalism have responded in several different ways. Some have embraced and then defended the antiskeptical implications of mind externalism, whether because they find this result independently plausible (Warfield 1998), or because they believe that its counterintuitiveness dissolves once we realize that this a priori route to empirical knowledge is open only to those subjects who have a posteriori knowledge of the “external” features in question (Sawyer 1998). The more popular way to resist McKinsey’s conclusion, however, is to deny that mind externalism has any such antiskeptical implications. A variety of diagnoses of the (alleged) failure of McKinsey’s argument have been offered: it is alleged to fail because the warrant of the premises fails to transmit to the conclusion (Davies 1998, Wright 2000); because it illicitly assumes that privileged self-knowledge of one’s thoughts involves knowledge that one’s concept succeeds in picking out an external kind (McLaughlin and Tye 1998); or because its premises cannot be simultaneously justified (Pryor 2007).

  • Boghossian, Paul. “What the Externalist Can Know A Priori.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 97 (1997): 161–175.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9264.00011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Formulates the consequence problem in a variant way, by appealing to a thought experiment involving dry earth, where there is no liquid corresponding to the subject’s “water” thoughts, it is merely hallucinated.

    Find this resource:

  • Davies, Martin. “Externalism, Architecturalism, and Epistemic Warrant.” In Knowing Our Own Minds. Edited by Crispin Wright, Barry C. Smith, and Cynthia Macdonald, 321–361. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that semantic externalism does not have the feared antiskeptical implications alleged by the consequence problem, on the grounds that the warrant of the premises of the would-be antiskeptical proof fails to transmit to the conclusion. Available online.

    Find this resource:

  • McLaughlin, Brian P., and Michael Tye. “Is Content-Externalism Compatible with Privileged Access?” Philosophical Review 107.3 (1998): 349–380.

    DOI: 10.2307/2998442Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that semantic externalism does not have the feared antiskeptical implications alleged by the consequence problem; posits that the would-be antiskeptical proof illicitly assumes that privileged self-knowledge of one’s thoughts involves knowledge that one’s concept succeeds in picking out an external kind.

    Find this resource:

  • McKinsey, Michael. “Anti-Individualism and Privileged Access.” Analysis 30 (1991): 9–16.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The seminal paper presenting the consequence problem.

    Find this resource:

  • Pryor, James. “What’s Wrong with McKinsey-Style Reasoning?” In Internalism and Externalism in Semantics and Epistemology. Edited by Sanford Goldberg, 177–200. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Criticizes Wright’s and Davies’s proposal that McKinsey’s paradox suffers from transmission failure and suggests instead that one cannot have the kind of justification that the paradox requires for all the premises simultaneously.

    Find this resource:

  • Putnam, Hilary “Brains in a Vat.” In Reason, Truth, and History. Edited by Hilary Putnam, 1–21. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Anticipates the development of the consequence problem.

    Find this resource:

  • Sawyer, Sarah. “Privileged Access to the World.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76.4 (1998): 523–533.

    DOI: 10.1080/00048409812348651Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that semantic externalism does have strong antiskeptical implications (as alleged by the consequence problem) but goes on to assert that the counterintuitiveness of these implications dissolves once we realize that this a priori route to empirical knowledge is open only to those subjects who have a posteriori knowledge of the “external” features in question. Available online.

    Find this resource:

  • Warfield, Ted A. “A Priori Knowledge of the World: Knowing the World by Knowing Our Minds.” Philosophical Studies 92.1 (1998): 127–147.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that semantic externalism does have strong antiskeptical implications (as alleged by the consequence problem) but goes on to suggest that we should embrace these implications rather than regard them as a reductio of semantic externalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Wright, Crispin. “Cogency and Question-Begging: Some Reflections on McKinsey’s Paradox, and Putnam’s Proof.” Philosophical Topics 10 (2000): 140–163.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that semantic externalism does not have the feared antiskeptical implications alleged by the consequence problem, on the grounds that the warrant of the premises of the would-be antiskeptical proof fails to transmit to the conclusion.

    Find this resource:

Reasoning

Another debate that has arisen regarding the epistemic implications of semantic externalism concerns its implications for reasoning. This issue can be raised even if we assume the compatibility of the doctrines of semantic externalism and first-person authority (see Goldberg 1999). The problem lies with the sort of authoritative self-knowledge that is compatible with externalism. To know one’s thoughts in this way is compatible with an inability to distinguish one’s thought from other (twin) content-distinct thoughts. The problem then arises that, in cases where a subject suffers from this sort of discriminative failure, he or she appears to not be in a position to tell whether certain arguments are valid (as opposed to invalid by exhibiting the fallacy of equivocation). The two main questions this literature addresses are as follows: Can such cases arise? And what is the significance (for semantic externalism; for the epistemology of discursive justification) of an affirmative answer to this first question? Boghossian 1992 argues that they can arise, and that for this reason semantic externalism should be rejected. Most responses grant that these cases can arise, but deny that this spells trouble for semantic externalism. Such a view may be found in Burge 1996, Brown 2004, Goldberg 2007a, and Goldberg 2007b; Schiffer 1992 suggests that, given the nature of the intentions with which a subject uses his or her words in a course of reasoning, these sorts of cases might not arise in the first place.

  • Boghossian, Paul. “Externalism and Inference.” In Philosophical Issues. Vol. 2, Rationality of Epistemology. Edited by E. Villanueva, 11–28. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, 1992.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The initial presentation of the problem; argues that there is a problem and this is grounds for rejecting semantic externalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Brown, Jessica. “Critical Reasoning, Understanding, and Self-Knowledge.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61.3 (2000): 659–676.

    DOI: 10.2307/2653617Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the sort of understanding of one’s own concepts required for concept possession; uses this account to delimit the scope of the problem.

    Find this resource:

  • Brown, Jessica. Anti-Individualism and Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Agrees that the problematic cases can arise but argues that the problem of reasoning is not sufficient grounds for repudiating semantic externalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Burge, Tyler. “Memory and Self-Knowledge.” In Externalism and Self-Knowledge. Edited by Peter Ludlow and Norah Martin, 351–370. Stanford, CA: CSLI, 1996.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that in reasoning, a subject typically intends for those terms he or she regards as “the same” to be linked anaphorically to one another, in which case the problematic reasoning pattern will not arise; also argues that even if there are cases where the problematic reasoning pattern does arise, the problem is one of a false (suppressed) premise, rather than a problem of reasoning per se.

    Find this resource:

  • Goldberg, Sanford. “The Relevance of Discriminatory Knowledge of Content.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 80.2 (1999): 136–156.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-0114.00077Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the common compatibilist responses to the externalism/self-knowledge issue give rise to issues in the epistemology of reasoning.

    Find this resource:

  • Goldberg, Sanford. “Anti-Individualism, Content Preservation, and Discursive Justification.” Noûs 41.2 (March 2007a): 178–203.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues against recent attempts by semantic externalists to show that the problematic cases do not arise; explores the implications for the epistemology of discursive justification if we nevertheless continue to endorse semantic externalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Goldberg, Sanford. “Semantic Externalism and Epistemic Illusions.” In Internalism and Externalism in Semantics and Epistemology. Edited by Sanford Goldberg, 235–252. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007b.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Agrees that the envisaged cases of problematic reasoning can arise but argues that this result by itself is not sufficient to jettison semantic externalism.

    Find this resource:

  • Schiffer, Stephen. “Boghossian on Externalism and Inference.” Philosophical Issues 2 (1992): 29–38.

    DOI: 10.2307/1522853Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents the earliest version of the “anaphorical linkage” response to the argument of Boghossian 1992; this response is subsequently presented in Burge 1996.

    Find this resource:

Responses to Semantic Externalism

Not everyone has jumped on the externalist bandwagon. There have been many influential responses to the arguments for externalism, and many theorists have developed internalist accounts of mentality. Some are straightforwardly internalist positions (see, e.g., Searle 1983, Segal 2000, Farkas 2008). Others involve defending so-called two-dimensionalist approaches to the mind (see Jackson 2003 as well as the papers in García-Carpintero and Macià 2006). Stalnaker has been a long-time critic of attempts to formulate more “internalist” notions of mentality; see Stalnaker 1990.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0113

back to top

Article

Up

Down