Research Group in Analytic Philosophy

Language and Reality. Themes from Michael Devitt

Barcelona 3-4 September 2018


Seminari de Filosofia

4th floor Montalegre 6, Barcelona





September 3rd


10-11.15         Stathis Psillos  (U. of Athens, Greece): Against Verificationist Realism

11.45-13         Ana Maria Crețu (U. of  Edinburgh): Can Multiple Grounding Fix Psillos’ Causal Descriptivism?

15.15-16.30    Carl Hoefer (ICREA/UB) & Genoveva Martí (ICREA/UB): Selective Scientific Realism
                       and Reference to Theoretical Unobservables

16.45-18         Edouard Machery (U. of Pittsburgh): Experimental Semantics at 15


Conference dinner



September 4th


10-11.15         Åsa Wikforss (U. of Stockholm): Why the Qua-problem is a Serious


11.45-13         Cedric Boeckx (ICREA/UB): What is Innate about Language?

15.15-16.30    Andrea Bianchi (U. of Parma): Reference and Causal Chains

16.45-18         Michael Devitt (CUNY): No Place for Intentions in Speaker Meaning




Organizers: Genoveva Martí, José Martínez-Fernández and Iñigo Valero


Sponsors: MINECO (FFI2015-70707-P), Logos, Departament de Filosofia (UB) Facultat de Filosofia (UB).



Attendance is free, but please send a message to gmarti@ub.edu if you plan to attend.





Andrea Bianchi: “Reference and Causal Chains”


Around 1970, both Keith Donnellan and Saul Kripke produced powerful arguments against description theories of proper names. They also offered sketches of positive accounts of proper name reference, highlighting the crucial role played by worldly historical facts that may be unknown to the speaker. Building on these sketches, in the following years Michael Devitt elaborated his well-known causal theory of reference. As I have argued elsewhere, however, contrary to what is commonly assumed Donnellan’s and Kripke’s sketches point in two rather different directions, by appealing to historical or causal facts of different sorts. In this paper, I shall discuss and criticize Devitt’s causal theory, which messes up things, I’ll argue, by mixing, so to speak, Donnellan’s and Kripke’s sketches.


Cedric Boeckx: “What is Innate about Language?”


I will discuss the 'innateness' claim that is central to modern linguistics and cognitive science, and evaluate its plausibility in light of what we have come to know about the "biological endowment". Considerations from the philosophy of biology literature will be helpful in this context. Whereas linguists have often been quick to point out the limitations of what the "environment" can provide, they have been less cautious in placing their bets on "the genes".




Ana Maria Crețu: “Can Multiple Grounding Fix Psillos’ Causal Descriptivism?”


Psillos (1999, 2012) puts forward a theory of reference that can provide grounds for the realist’s claim that there is stability and continuity of reference of natural kind terms through theory change. Psillos’ causal descriptivism combines causal and descriptive elements to ensure successful mechanisms of both reference fixing and reference transmission. Drawing on an historical case study of particle identification, in particular the identification of the positron, I argue that Psillos’ theory fails to account for at least some cases of reference-fixing in science. I will then investigate the extent to which causal descriptivism might benefit from Devittian multiple grounding to overcome the challenges posed by the aforementioned historical case study. 




Michael Devitt: “No Place for Intentions in Speaker Meaning”


The paper rejects two popular appeals to intentions in theorizing about speaker meaning.

(A) In virtue of what does a speaker using a name or demonstrative refer to x? A popular answer is: because he intends to refer to x. I have four objections. (1) This answer, unlike another popular one – because he has x in mind – is too intellectualized to be even a good starting point. (2) It is theoretically incomplete: In virtue of what did the speaker intend to refer to x? (3) Once completed it is redundant. (4) It is misleading.

(B) What explains the speaker meaning of a sentential utterance? A central idea of Gricean “intention-based semantics” is that this meaning is constituted by the speaker’s intention to communicate a certain content to an audience. I follow Chomsky, in thinking that “under innumerable quite normal circumstances…people mean what they say or write, but there is no intent to bring the audience…to have certain beliefs or to undertake certain actions.” The basic act of speaker meaning is one of expressing a thought. There is no theoretical motivation for the stronger requirement that the speaker be intending to communicate that thought to an audience.




Carl Hoefer & Genoveva Martí: “Selective Scientific Realism and Reference to Theoretical Unobservables”


Although a realist stance toward fundamental physics is not yet warranted in general, realism about some of the entities and kinds postulated by current quantum physics is already justified. In many cases, these are entities — such as protons and electrons — that have remained in the ontology of physics across one or more revolutionary overhaul of the theoretical picture of the micro-world, with clear referential continuity.  We will discuss what grounds belief in these entities that we consider are “here to stay”, and how reference to these kinds works; then we will discuss whether the conditions for such referential stability are already met for more recent theoretical entities, such as black holes, the Higgs boson, and [various sorts of] “dark matter”.




Edouard Machery: Experimental Semantics at 15”


In this talk I will discuss the 15 years long debate about the promises and limits of experimental semantics as well as Michael Devitt’s central role in it. 




Stathis Psillos: “Against Verificationist Realism”


 Michael Devitt has argued that scientific realism is a metaphysical thesis asserting the mind-independence of the world, without the concept of truth appearing at all (nor being implicated) in it. More specifically, he has claimed that qua metaphyiscal thesis, scientific realism states that tokens of most commonsense, and scientific, physical types objectively exist independently of the mental. Though I do not disagree with either the existence or the independence dimensions of realism, I doubt that the latter can be adequately captured without commitment to a non-epistemic conception of truth. In this talk, I will argue that verificationist versions of realism might well allow for the existence dimension though they compromise the independence dimension. To block verificationist realism, a broader conception of mind-independence is required, and in particular one that allows for a divergence between what exists in the world and what is licenced as existing by (even an ideal) verificationist procedures and methods.



Asa Wikforss: “Why the Qua-problem is a Serious Problem”

Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny have posed a challenge to the Kripkean idea that natural kind terms have their meaning fixed through a type of ostensive definition, along the lines of proper names. The challenge derives from the difference between individuals and kinds. An individual object instantiates any number of kinds, including any number of natural kinds. How, then, can pointing to the samples serve to fix the term to the relevant kind? This familiar problem is often called the qua problem (Devitt & Sterelny 1987). In response, Devitt and Sterelny appeal to the psychological element in reference-fixing. They suggest that something about the mental state of the speaker helps determine what is the relevant nature of the sample. In the talk I will have a closer look at the problem, as well as some suggested solutions to it, including Devitt and Sterelny’s own. I shall argue that the qua problem poses a more serious challenge than has generally been recognized, both to the Kripkean account of natural kind terms, and to the standard idea that this account extends to mental content.