Work in Progress
The following papers are drafts. Please do not cite or quote without permission. Comments welcome!
John MacFarlane, “How to Resist Epistemicism”, unpublished. [preprint]
According to epistemicists, there is a precise height which separates people who are tall from those who are not tall, though we can never know what it is. This view has struck many as preposterous, but it is harder to resist than one might think. For what seems most hard to accept about it—that vague words like ‘tall’ impose unknowable semantic boundaries—is also a commitment of alternative, nonclassical semantic theories. To resist epistemicism, we need two things: an argument that vague terms cannot impose unknowable semantic boundaries, and a sketch of a viable alternative—a theory of meaning that does without unknowable boundaries. I attempt to provide both.
Unpublished comments and conference papers
These are papers I’ve given as talks but not (yet) worked up for publication.
John MacFarlane, “Replies to Andy Egan, Mark Schroeder, and Elizabeth Harman”, unpublished. [preprint] (Presented at the Author Meets Critics Session on Assessment Sensitivity at the Central Division APA, 2016 )
John MacFarlane, “Is Logic a Normative Discipline?”, unpublished. [preprint] (Presented at the Bergen conference on the Normativity of Logic in 2017. )
Various philosophers, including Kant, Frege, and more recently Hartry Field and Greg Restall, have held that logic is in some interesting sense a normative discipline. Field, in particular, has argued that we need a normative characterization of logical validity in order to understand what proponents of alternative logics are disagreeing about. I discuss what one needs to say in order to sustain an interesting version of this claim, and I consider whether Field gives good reasons for accepting it.
John MacFarlane, “Epistemic Modals: Relativism vs. Cloudy Contextualism”, unpublished. [preprint] (Presented at the Chambers Philosophy Conference on Epistemic Modals in 2010. )
This paper describes the problems faced by standard contextualism about epistemic modals, and compares the solutions offered by relativism and what I call the “cloudy contextualism” of von Fintel and Gillies (“‘Might’ Made Right”). Do we have reason to favor one solution over the other? Two kinds of reasons might be relevant. First, one view might be more empirically adequate than the other. In exploring this kind of reason, I look at some objections von Fintel and Gillies have raised to the empirical adequacy of relativism, and argue that they are unpersuasive. Then I counter with some objections to the adequacy of cloudy contextualism. Second, even if both views did an equally good job explaining the phenomena, one might prefer one for systematic reasons; in this vein, von Fintel and Gillies say that cloudy contextualism is “less radical” than relativism. This kind of consideration is harder to assess, but I point out some important ways in which relativism is less radical than cloudy contextualism.
John MacFarlane, “Comments on Lasersohn”, unpublished. [preprint]
Comments on Peter Lasersohn’s paper “Relative Truth, Speaker Commitment, and Control of Implicit Arguments” from the 2006 Rutgers Semantics Workshop. (Note: Lasersohn’s paper has changed slightly since these comments were written.)
John MacFarlane, “In What Sense (If Any) Is Logic Normative for Thought?”, unpublished. [preprint] (Presented at the 2004 Central Division APA symposium on the normativity of logic. I think there is a lot that is wrong or confused in this paper, but also some things that are right. I hope to return to this project in the future. )
Logic is often said to provide norms for thought or reasoning. Indeed, this idea is central to the way in which logic has traditionally been defined as a discipline, and without it, it is not clear how we would distinguish logic from the disciplines that crowd it on all sides: psychology, metaphysics, mathematics, and semantics. But it turns out to be surprisingly hard to say how facts about the validity of inferences relate to norms for reasoning, and some philosophers have concluded that the whole idea is confused. In this talk I will survey a space of possible “bridge principles” connecting logical facts with norms for reasoning. After discussing some considerations relevant to choosing between these bridge principles, I will defend two of them. I will then consider the implications of various choices of bridge principle for the long-standing debates about the roles of relevance, necessity, and formality in our notion of logical consequence. The methodological aim of the talk is to provide an alternative to the usual brute appeals to our “intuitions” about logical consequence in these fundamental debates.
John MacFarlane, “What Is Modeled by Truth in All Models?”, unpublished. [preprint] (Presented at the 2000 Pacific Division APA.)
John Etchemendy has argued that the model-theoretic definition of logical truth fails as a conceptual analysis of that notion. I will argue that Etchemendy’s criticism cuts deeper than recent critics have conceded. Properly understood, it is directed against the underlying analysis of logical truth as truth on all possible semantic interpretations of a language’s nonlogical vocabulary, not against any particular mathematical realization of that analysis. The only way to block Etchemendy’s argument is to reject his assumption that the possible semantic values for singular terms in an extensional language are the actually existing objects. In fact, a version of his argument goes through even if we retreat to the weaker assumption that the possible semantic values for singular terms are the possibly existing objects. I defend the model-theoretic analysis by arguing that there is a sense of “possible semantic value” for which both these assumptions are false.
No longer in progress
This is a talk I gave at several places in spring 2004. I address three questions: (1) Why might one want to embrace relativism about truth? (2) How should the position be stated? (3) How can we make philosophical sense of relative-truth talk?
According to a standard account, “It might be the case that p” has an epistemic reading on which it is equivalent to “No one in group G knows, or is in a position to come to know in way W, that not-p,” where G and W are determined by the speaker’s intentions at the context of use. I present some data that the standard account cannot easily explain, and I use it to motivate a new account on which the truth of an utterance of “It might be the case that p” depends on the assesser’s epistemic state, not the utterer’s. The new account presupposes a framework for assessment-relative truth whose utility and coherence I have defended elsewhere. After explaining the framework, I show how the relativist semantics for epistemic modals not only explains the puzzle cases but yields a simpler treatment of the data that motivated the complexities in the standard contextualist semantics. Finally, I explain why one might expect epistemic modal operators to be assessment-sensitive.
John MacFarlane, “Three Grades of Truth Relativity”, unpublished. [preprint]
I argue that sentence truth must be relativized not just to contexts of use, but to what I call contexts of assessment. First I develop a semantic framework that clarifies the difference between circumstances of evaluation and contexts of assessment, and I explain the significance of the proposed relativization of truth by embedding the semantic framework in a general theory of assertion. I then argue that the relativization of truth to contexts of assessment is needed in order to give an adequate account of future contingents. I show how “true” and “actually” can be handled in the framework. Finally, I explore applications of the new framework to Lewis’s theory of accommodation and to evaluative relativism.
John MacFarlane, “Aristotelian Matter Unified”, unpublished. [preprint] (I was never happy enough with this paper to publish it, and it seems unlikely that I will return to it, though this is possible. With that caveat, I make it available it here because it has been cited by others. I believe this version dates from 2004, though most of it was written in the late 1990s. )
Many commentators have held, for powerful reasons, that no one thing can play both the roles Aristotle seems to assign to matter: the substrate of substantial change, from which a thing comes to be, and the subject of which form is predicated. I propose an interpretation of Aristotelian matter that allows it to play both roles.
John MacFarlane and Niko Kolodny, “Ought: Between Objective and Subjective”, unpublished. (Much of what was in this paper has been incorporated into our joint paper “Ifs and Oughts” and into Chapter 10 of Relative Truth and Its Applications. At some point we’d like to return to the project and produce a version of the paper we’re happy to share, but we don’t have one at the moment. )
Reflecting on the use of “ought” in deliberation has led many philosophers to assign it a “subjective” sense (ought, given the deliberator’s evidence). Reflecting on its use in advice has led others to assign it an “objective” sense (ought, given the facts). We argue that both sides have part of the truth. Attempts to resolve the conflict by “taking sides” one way or the other, or by taking “ought” to be ambiguous or indexical, cannot succeed. Only by recognizing that “ought” is assessment-sensitive, we argue, can we account for its dual role in deliberation and advice. We apply our theory to some paradoxes involving oughts and conditionals, and to a puzzle Allan Gibbard raised about truth and correct belief.