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Michael Dummett on anti-realist theory of meaning


To: Lisa H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Michael Dummett on anti-realist theory of meaning
Date: 30 June 2006 11:00

Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your email of 24 June, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What do you understand by Michael Dummett's idea of an anti-realist theory of meaning? Give an example illustrating how such a theory of meaning would be applied to one particular class of statement.'

The first thing to be clear about is that we are talking about a theory of meaning rather than a theory of knowledge. The question that a philosopher like Michael Dummett is asking is, 'What is involved in understanding a statement - regardless of our knowledge of the truth or falsity of that statement?'

Clearly, it must be possible to understand a statement prior to knowing whether it is true or false, otherwise language would be completely useless.

For example, Susie says to me, 'I have toothache'. This gives me information, leading to knowledge. I can see that Susie is holding her jaw, but there could be various explanations. I know that she has made an appointment at the dentist, but again there is more than one explanation. I don't know whether Susie has a toothache or not unless she tells me.

This seems to pose a problem for an anti-realist theory of meaning, according to which the conditions for the application of a term must always be such as to enable the meaning of that term to be conveyed from teacher to learner. E.g. 'This is what is called a "tree".'

The anti-realist, however, will say that it is part of the 'criterion' for the application of a term like 'toothache' that the sufferer not only behaves in characteristic ways but also vocalises, verbally or non-verbally. The concept of 'toothache' involves a total package which includes pain behaviour, characteristic cries and verbal behaviour.

A realist (at least by my definition) doesn't have to object to this, however. This is because we are dealing here at the level of applying concepts, like 'tree' or 'toothache'. The clash between realism and anti-realism arises when we make statements about the past or future, or about generality.

Where realism and anti-realism split apart is over statements, e.g. like, 'There was a tree standing here one hundred thousand years ago.' Knowing what a 'year' is and what a 'tree' is doesn't give the 'rules' which a teacher can convey to a learner for correctly using that statement. You can be right or wrong about using the term 'tree' but there will never be an occasion when you recognize that you are 'right' or 'wrong' in making the statement about the tree that existed so long ago.

Or consider your concept, 'mermaid'. Provided a suitable definition can be found for 'mermaid', both realist and anti-realist would agree that if you found a woman stranded on the beach with a fish tail instead of legs that this would be an example of a 'mermaid'. However, the realist will be happy to say, 'Either there existed mermaids a hundred thousand years ago or not,' while the anti-realist (of Dummett's persuasion) will refuse to 'understand' this assertion of the law of excluded middle, on the grounds that there are no circumstances which we can recognize whenever they obtain, which would verify or falsify the claim about mermaids existing so long ago. Yes, you might find a hundred thousand year old mermaid skeleton, but this is a matter of chance. Understanding the statment implies knowledge of circumstances which can be recognized *whenever* they obtain.

You raise the question of the 'truth' of statements about fiction (e.g. the film Splash. Here, I don't see any particular problem for realism or anti-realism). The thing about a book or a film is that, unlike the universe, or all times past and future, it is fully surveyable. You can go through each frame of the film to decide whether a Ford Mustang appears in it, or whether Tom Hanks says, 'XYZ' somewhere in the script. There is, however, an issue about how we understand the 'truth' of such statements. One easy way to explain this is simply to add the qualification, 'In the film Splash...'. In the film splash Tom Hanks falls in love with a mermaid. That's true. But it is not true that Tom Hanks ever fell in love with a mermaid. It is only true in the film.

All the best,