Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

Kripke, Hohwy and Dispositions

Posted by Sam D on July 4, 2005

In his paper, “A Reductio of Kripke-Wittgenstein’s Objections to Dispositionalism about Meaning” in Minds and Machines (13: 257–268, 2003), Jakob Hohwy claims that Kripke’s argument that there can be no straight solution is invalid by reductio; That if Kripke is right, and we cannot ascribe truth to a statement about meaning using dispositions, then we cannot say that anything is true in virtue of a disposition. Since it seems that we can, e.g.: ‘the cup is fragile’ is plausibly true because of the cup’s disposition to be fragile, then Hohwy claims, Kripke must be wrong.

This is as good a time as any to make the point that this sort of objection illicitly presumes that Kripke is wrong. It does this by presupposing a correspondence theory of truth that plausibly is incorrect if Kripke is right, is true. From the outset, Hohwy makes this assumption: “for surely what makes it true to say that a particular cup is fragile is that it has the dispositional property of fragility” . This statement would be admissible, but only if we could say, with confidence, that ‘The cup is fragile’ is true in virtue of the disposition of the cup to be fragile, rather than an agreement of the kind that Kripke proposes in his skeptical solution. If Kripke were right, it would be that we agree that ‘The cup is fragile’ is true, much in the same way that ‘68 + 57 = 125 (and not 5)’ is true because we agree that it is. Kripke’s solution hinges on the idea of assertability conditions, and whatever else can be said about Hohwy’s objection, it is clear that is presupposes the issue at hand and begs the question against him. The argument laid bare here is as follows:
1. If Kripke is right, then the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth must be wrong
2. The ‘correspondence theory’ of truth is right.
3. Therefore Kripke is wrong.
Premise number two in the above is far too controversial to include with so little justification. Nor is premise number one adequately defended, as is certainly plausible that correspondence with the facts is a good reason to feel that we can assert that a statement is true. No where in Kripke’s work is it even implied that speakers could no longer even assert that something was true in virtue of it’s correspondence with the ‘facts’

To establish this would involve a greater study of truth-conditions that can be justified or accommodated comfortably, in this essay, but it is unnecessary, as there is a much simpler way to neutralise Hohwy’s objection. For we are talking about meaning here, not truth. It is plausible to assert that ‘The cup is fragile is true’ in virtue of the cup’s actual disposition to be fragile. But this is not the same thing as saying that it is the disposition of the cup that gives our statements about it meaning. It would be grossly implausible to assert that the meaning of a statement about the cup is conferred by the disposition of the cup. To parallel this with regard to a speaker: What would be required, by Hohwy’s argument, to make the statement ‘S means X’, true? Presumably, it would be a disposition in that speaker S to mean X. The phrasing of this is vitally important. We can say that they have a disposition to respond in a certain way. What would make our statement ‘S has a disposition to mean X’ true? Hohwy might want to say that it is true because they do actually have that disposition. But this is exactly what is trying to be established. Hohwy ‘s argument aims to show that we do have dispositions to mean things, but has to presuppose their existence to even get off the ground. Furthermore it is impossible to show that they did have this disposition without appealing to the meaning of X, which means that this objection is no defence against the sceptic. Thus we cannot use this justification without again begging the question against Kripke.

But showing that Hohwy has failed to defend dispositionalism is not enough for a sufficient reply to this argument.
Hohwy’s claim that if we cannot say ‘that a speaker means something in virtue of their dispositions’ is true, then we cannot say that anything is true in virtue of it. How do we keep talk of cups having dispositions to be fragile, and at the same time lose dispositions giving meaning? The answer is in assertability conditions. It seems that we can assert “cups are fragile is true in virtue of their disposition to be fragile”, because correspondence with what is agreed in the community to be a ‘fact’ and a declarative sentence is an acceptable assertability condition, an acceptable move in the language game. Note that we are not saying it is true, simply that it is assertable.
But we cannot so easily make the same move with regard to a speaker and their meaning. We cannot assert that “S means X in virtue of disposition X is true” because disposition X does not seem to meet the requirements we have for an account of meaning, mainly because it is controversial to claim that such a disposition exists in the first place. If this were a safe and accepted move in the language game then this essay would probably not exist. Kripke’s account allows for some statements to be asserted as true in virtue of the correspondence with dispositions of the objects to which these statements pertain, but not others, depending on the particulars of the language game.

It is clear then that Hohwy’s objection to Kripke fails for two main reasons. The first is that despite its apparent novelty, it falls into the same trap that most dispositional accounts do, in terms of defending themselves from circularity. The other, and more fundamental is that is does not establish the some of the premises on which it is based.


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