Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Sensitive Kind

This is a more developed rambling about a topic I posted on recently over at Certain Doubts.

Consider the following situation-schema (instances of which are familiar from various areas, including theory of knowledge, ethics, gradable adjectives, epistemic modals, disputes of taste ...):

Two people give (apparently) different verdicts on two cases which prima facie you might think they should have given the same verdict on. (In the extreme, the two cases might be the same case. But it could also just be that the properties on which you would expect the verdict to supervene are held constant between the cases.) Yet we have an intuition that (we are tempted to express by saying that) neither person is wrong. Furthermore, we think we are dealing with a truth-apt discourse.

Responses to this situation can be grouped together into (at least) three families:
1. Responses which deny that we are dealing with a truth-apt discourse.
2. Responses which maintain that one person's claim was false but try to make this less counter-intuitive (e.g. by talking about assertability and/or the pragmatic communication of some truth through the utterance of a literal falsehood).
3. Responses which take seriously both truth-aptness and the intuition that (there is some sense in which) neither person is wrong, by arguing for some sort of hitherto unexpected sensitivity to some parameter.

I am interested in attempting to map the various options within the third family. A bewildering array of terminology (and terminological disputes) lurks here, so I'd like to propose a systematic approach.

The idea that defines the third family is that the truth of an utterance can be in some way sensitive to the value of some parameter or other. But there are two dimensions in which views within the family could vary: along a source axis and along a type axis.

The source of the mooted variation in truth-value may be something about the subject-matter, something about the utterer or something about the assessor of the utterance's truth-value. The type may be either variation in content (which could in turn amount to variation in sense or variation in reference) or variation in truth-value without variation in content.

This gives six views:

SSC, Subject-sensitivity of content
SST, Subject-sensitivity of truth-value
USC, Utterer-sensitivity of content
UST, Utterer-sensitivity of truth-value
ASC, Assessor-sensitivity of content
AST, Assessor-sensitivity of truth-value

A few comments on these positions:

i. 'Sensitivity of truth-value' is short for 'sensitivity of truth-value without sensitivity of content'.
ii. ‘Sensitivity’ strikes me as a better word to use than (say) ‘variability’ because we want to capture the thought that change in the source is what explains the change in content and/or truth-value, not just that the two co-vary. We want the idea to be that content and/or truth-value are sensitive - responsive - to changes the parameter we're interested in.
iii. ‘Subject’ means ‘subject-matter’ (we don’t want to restrict ourselves to cases where there is ‘a subject’ – e.g. a person).
iv. US_ and AS_ are usually assumed to be talking about sensitivity to utterer’s or assessor’s context. SS_ might be talking about sensitivity to a subject’s context but other interpretations are also plausible.
v. If we don’t intend to talk about subject’s context, though, SS_ risks becoming trivial unless we are careful to restrict attention to unexpected kinds of subject-sensitivity.
vi. SS_ must be understood as sensitivity to how/what the subject-matter is, not to how it is thought of, or else it’ll be a form of US_ or AS_. (You might think that SS_ could give rise to US_, though: if we accept SS_ and think that subject matter contributes to fixing utterance context, won't we end up with US_? I don't think so - because US_ is meant to be the view that it is facts about the utterer('s context) which explain the pattern of variation. Whereas in the envisaged scenario what's really doing the explanatory work is facts about the subject-matter.)
vii. As far as I can tell, the term ‘contextualism’ might with some precedent be used to refer to various of the six positions, provided the sensitivity in question is to someone or other’s context. I take the standard contemporary view to be that contextualism in epsitemology amounts to a form of USC.
viii. 'Relativism' likewise has many different uses, but seems currently to be frequently used to refer to forms of AS_ (and perhaps more usually AST).
ix. ‘Invariantism’ could refer to a denial of sensitivity of any of the various kinds, so will also have many uses (content-invariantism vs truth-invariantism; invariantism wrt assessor, invariantism wrt utterer, etc.).

1 comment:

Carrie Jenkins said...

PS: I ought to add that I think 'insensitivism' would be a better word to use than 'invariantism'.