Institut Jean Nicod

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Deference and Shared Concepts

March, 25

Jointly presented by Institut Jean Nicod and the Edinburgh Center for Epistemology, Mind and Normativity.
Program "New Ideas" - Institut d'Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure.

Ecole Normale Supérieure,  45, rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris. Salle Dussane.


It would seem that for ordinary conversation to take place, we must share concepts, and ensure that our language use matches that of our interlocutor. One strategy many think we use to accomplish this is for everybody to accept a certain standard for the meanings of the words in their language, where these standards are fixed by the relevant experts in the linguistic community: the physicist decides what 'quark' means, the biologist decides what 'microbe' means, and the cobbler decides what 'shoe' means. However this phenomenon - sometimes called 'deference' - raises many puzzling questions. If deference takes place, should we assume there really are experts for every term in a language? This might be plausible for terms like 'quark' and 'microbe', but are there really experts on the meaning of 'shoe'? And if others determine the meaning of my words, how can I express my own beliefs using these words? If on the other hand deference does not take place, why do we accept that there are 'correct' or 'incorrect' ways of using words? And how do we ensure that we are all using words in the same way, to express shared concepts? In this workshop we hope to investigate these and related questions.


9.40: Cathal O’Madagain (Institut Jean-Nicod)
"Deferring to Groups"

One recurrent feature of theories of deference is the idea that when we defer, we defer to individuals. If have a deferential thought like ‘arthritis is bad for me’, where I defer on the meaning of ‘arthritis’, it is often held that there must be a single person whose concept of ‘arthritis’ I defer to. But this isn’t plausible if deference is widespread – there are no single identifiable experts for the vast majority of words in our vocabulary. In fact it isn’t even plausible in specialized cases – if we approach the medical community to find the single person whose concept of ‘arthritis’ everybody defers to, they will not likely be able to produce such a person. If deference occurs, therefore, it must be to groups of people that we defer. But how might that work? Here I argue that the same reasoning we use to attribute intentional states to groups can be recruited to make sense out of how we might attribute concepts or meanings to groups, to show that the idea of deferring to groups is at least coherent. I then discuss the group-determination of the meaning of ‘meter’ by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures to illustrate how this process takes place, at least in formal contexts.

10.40: Diana Raffman (University of Toronto),
"Deference, Disagreement; and Divergence: the Case of Vague Words"

I argue that competent speakers' classifications of borderline cases for vague words (e.g., 'rich', 'tall', 'heap') are crucially arbitrary.  As a result, borderline items can be classified in multiple equally permissible ways; for instance; a patch whose color is balanced between blue and green may permissibly be classified as blue by one speaker and as green by another, although their concepts blue and green are the same. Speakers who diverge in this way with respect to borderline cases merely diverge: they do not disagree, where by 'disagreement'  I mean a divergence in which reasons or justifications can be given for one classification rather than another.  In a borderline case, deference to others' classification(s) would be improper; there can be no justification, in the nature of the case, for deferring.  I argue that this distinctive arbitrariness in the application of vague words is key to solving the sorites paradox.

11.40: Coffee

12:00: Paul Egré (CNRS, Institut Jean Nicod),
"Shared meaning and conventional meaning: when experts defer to lay people's judgments",

This talk is about the division-of-linguistic-labor hypothesis proposed by Putnam in his famous essay 'The Meaning of "Meaning'''. On the externalist picture of meaning defended by Putnam, we would not use distinct words if there were not a subclass of competent speakers in the community able to recognize what those words fundamentally and correctly apply to. Putnam's hypothesis is illustrated on the example of natural kind terms (such as "gold'', "aluminium'' or "water''). Putnam's idea is that we can use a word without knowing exactly when the word applies, but in so doing we ultimately defer to experts. In this paper I would like to question what I take to be an important presupposition of Putnam's hypothesis, namely that experts fundamentally agree with each other on the correct definition of a term.  I will examine dual cases in which experts are tempted to defer to lay people's judgments in order to adjust their scientific use of a term, namely cases where they are trying to track the ``ordinary'' or ``common'' understanding of a term to fix their own use. A case study I will discuss concerns the debate that has surrounded the conventional definition of the word "planet'' proposed by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. An examination of the reasons that have led the IAU to propose a conventional definition of the word ``planet'' shows that the need for a conventional definition arose in particular from the quandary felt by experts themselves regarding the applicability of the word "planet'' to new and unprecedented cases (viz. M. Brown 2010). Inspection of the resolutions passed by the IAU shows that a compromise was found between experts about the scientific definition of the word "planet'', basically between a revisionary use and deference to the common use. This example, like others discussed in the recent literature on the relation between natural kind terms and artifactual terms (Bloom 2007, Marconi 2012), suggests that the relation between expert's meaning and layman's meaning is more intricate than what the division-of-linguistic-labor hypothesis suggests at first.

1.00: Lunch

2.30: Joey Pollock (University of Edinburgh),
"Social Externalism and the Problem of Communication"

Social externalism is the view that mental content is individuated by a subject’s social environment. The view claims that subjects can often entertain thoughts which contain the same content as others in their linguistic community. One might think that this widespread sharing of content would make communication easy. In this paper, I argue that this is not the case. In positing shared content, social externalism must allow that subjects can misunderstand the content of their own thoughts. I argue that we can exploit this relationship between content and understanding to create a dilemma for the view. To arrive at the dilemma, I first argue that on social externalism it is understanding, and not content, which is the measure of communicative success. This is the first horn of the dilemma. Most think that communicative success should be measured, in part, in terms of a relation which holds between the content expressed by the speaker and the content grasped by the hearer. On the first horn of the dilemma, the social externalist must deny this: she must claim that this relation is irrelevant to communicative success. This is a highly revisionary view of communication. The only way that the social externalist can salvage the claim that mental content is relevant to communicative success is by adopting an account which divorces communicative success from the practical aims of communication. This account gives highly implausible diagnoses as to the success and failure of communicative exchanges. This is the second horn of the dilemma. In contrast, certain internalist views of mental content, which deny that subjects can share thought content, do not face the dilemma. They can endorse a view which both gives plausible diagnoses as to the success of communicative exchanges and gives mental content a central role in facilitating communicative success. Thus, if my argument succeeds, it has a surprising result: those who wish to maintain a plausible account of communicative success must give up on the idea that we speak the same language.

3.30: Orestis Palermos and Adam Carter (University of Edinburgh),
"Group Knowledge, Testimony and Peer-Disagreement"

Mainstream and social epistemologists have recently turned their focus on the concept of group knowledge; the idea that groups can acquire and possess knowledge by means over and above those exhibited by individual epistemic agents. We consider this phenomenon to be of central importance with potentially several far-reaching applications. In this occasion, we only examine two of them: 1) We explore the way group knowledge might be related to testimonial knowledge and how this relation provides further insights with respect to understanding the latter, 2) We investigate how peer disagreement should be studied when the two sides of some epistemic dispute are not individual but groups agents.

4.50: Simon Prosser (St. Andrews),
"Shared Modes of Presentation"

A popular family of theories characterises singular modes of presentation (MOPs) in terms of mental files, symbols in a Language of Thought, or other such ‘atomistic’ notions. While views of this general kind offer clear enough criteria for sameness or difference of MOP in intrapersonal cases, it is often felt that they offer no such criteria in interpersonal cases, and thus no account of what it would be for two individuals to think of an object under the same MOP. I shall suggest that there is in fact a natural way to extend such theories to the interpersonal case. This relies on two key ideas. Firstly, that for two individuals to think of an object under the same MOP, their token MOPs must stand in the same kind of epistemic relation to one another as token MOPs in corresponding intrapersonal cases – a relation that involves what John Campbell has called ‘trading on identity’. Secondly, that token MOPs stand in just such relations when there is a shared language, wherein speakers defer to one another regarding reference.