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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kripkenstein, Pt. 2: The Skeptical Solution

I've already turned in my paper on meaning skepticism, but I want to get a few more thoughts organized on KW's skeptical solution. As I've already argued, KW does not present meaning skepticism as a logically coherent possibility. Since I don't see a problem to be solved, I see no need to explore possible solutions. Still, it is worth looking at KW's skeptical solution for curiosity's sake, if nothing else.

I've already expressed dissatisfaction with KW's picture of what it means to follow a rule. In response to my paper, my professor disagreed with me about KW's attitude towards that picture. She thinks KW rejects the picture, perhaps as part of KW's skeptical solution to the paradox. I don't think that's right.

KW's skeptical solution is called "skeptical" because it does not challenge the skeptic's argument or conclusion. It accepts the stipulation that there are no facts about intended meaning: "There is no objective fact--that we all mean addition by "+", or even that a given individual does--that explains our agreement in particular cases. Rather our license to say of each other that we mean addition by "+" is part of a 'language game' that sustains itself only because of the brute fact that we generally agree." The point is that we were looking for justification in the wrong place, or perhaps justification of the wrong sort.

KW first challenged us to find a fact about our past usage which justified our present answer to "68 + 57." But, KW now says, we don't need any such fact to justify our claims about intended meaning. We use "+" in certain ways, and we generally agree about how to use it. There is no fact which could justify such agreement. There is simply agreement, and that is enough to give us license to say things like "I mean addition by '+.'"

As Kripke explains, he does not like KW's skeptical solution because it requires that we distinguish between the ordinary, everyday use of the word "fact" and a philosophical notion of objective or "superlative" facts. The skeptic is right that there are no facts of that peculiar philosophical sort, but there are facts of the matter, in our everyday way of talking. Of course, if this is the case, then why can't we answer the meaning skeptic by appealing to everyday facts?

The problem is, how can we understand the distinction KW draws between truth conditions and assertibility conditions? If we are licensed to assert that we mean addition by "plus," then how is that different from saying it is a fact (an "objective" or "superlative" fact, as KW provocatively puts it) that we mean addition by "plus?" If there are assertibility conditions, isn't it a fact that there are? And can't we say that fact justifies our ascriptions of meaning?

It seems KW is saying both that there is a fact of the matter about what we mean and also that there is no fact of the matter--there is a fact of the matter in so far as we are licensed to say that there is a fact of the matter, and whether or not we are licensed to say there is a fact of the matter is a matter of our agreement in the use of expressions. Since our agreement is a brute fact, then our justification does ultimately relate to facts. So perhap Kripke is right to express displeasure at KW's skeptical solution.

As I've already noted, I don't see a real problem for KW to solve, so the fact that his skeptical solution rests on an opaque distinction between truth and assertibility is not so disconcerting. Still, I must contend with my professor's question: Does KW accept the picture of rule-following which sustains the skeptical argument?

The answer must be yes. First, because KW's solution is, in fact, a skeptical solution. As Kripke says, KW's solution does not in any way challenge the skeptical argument. So how could KW reject the picture of rule-following which sustains that argument?

But, it might be argued, KW is certainly rejecting something of the skeptic's argument. KW's skeptical solution rejects the skeptic's claim that we need some kind of factual (or superlatively factual) justification for our attributions of intended meaning. So isn't KW saying that, no, we don't need to conform to our past intentions in order to follow a rule?

Recall the picture of rule following which sustains KW's skeptical argument: In order to follow a rule, you must follow the same rule you intended to follow in the past (by virtue of mental and external representations). You must conform to your past intentions. If KW now says there is no superlative fact of the matter about those past intentions, then isn't KW saying you don't have to conform to them in order to correctly follow a rule? Instead of conforming to our past intentions, we only have to conform to our community's standards of agreement. So KW has ultimately rejected the picture of rule-following which sustained the skeptic's argument.

If this is so, then KW's skeptical solution is not skeptical at all. And perhaps it could be read this way, but Kripke most certainly doesn't read it this way. If he did, he presumably wouldn't call it a "skeptical solution." But if this is not how Kripke reads KW's solution, then how does he read it?

Remember, KW says, "our license to say of each other that we mean addition by "+" is part of a 'language game' that sustains itself only because of the brute fact that we generally agree." The claim is not that we successfully follow a rule because we generally agree. Rather, it is that we are licensed to say we have successfully followed a rule because we generally agree. But when we say we have successfully followed a rule, we do not thereby mean we have just done what is generally accepted in our community. According to KW, we rather mean that we have intended to follow the same rule we have always followed. Indeed, there is an everyday sense to saying that, when we do addition, we follow the same rules we have always followed. KW does not challenge this sort of talk. Rather, KW says that what justifies such talk is not facts about our intended meaning, but facts about our general agreement. So, what it means to follow a rule is still a matter of conformity with past intentions. It's just not a matter which could, in principle, be resolved by appeal to extra-societal facts.

Kripke explains it in more detail:

When the community accepts a particular conditional [e.g., "if he means addition by '+', his answer to '68 + 57' should be '125'"], it accepts its contraposed form: the failure of an individual to come up with the particular responses the community regards as right leads the community to suppose that he is not following the rule. On the other hand, if an individual passes enough tests, the community (endorsing assertions [such as, "he means addition by '+'"]) accepts him as a rule follower, thus enabling him to engage in certain types of interactions with them that depend on their reliance on his responses. Note that this solution explains how the assertions [of the two sorts just mentioned] are introduced into language; it does not give conditions for these statements to be true.
There is therefore a bifurcation between what justifies the use of expressions and what make them true. What would make these assertions true is just what the skeptic says would make them true: facts about conformity to past intentions. Since there are no facts, there are no truth conditions. Yet, the language is justified for other reasons. So the picture of rule-following holds. What would make it true that so-and-so followed a rule are facts about past intentions. Since no such facts exist, KW is a skeptic about intended meaning. But this doesn't prevent KW from accepting the language of intentionality, because KW recognizes a wholly different justification for it. I thus conclude that KW does accept the original picture of what it means to grasp a rule.