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Mark Richard: Conceptual evolution

Lecture by Mark Richard (Harvard), organized by the Department of Theoretical Philosophy

In this talk, I’ll sketch a picture of meaning --I won’t much distinguish between concepts and meanings --on which they are something like biological species: Species are abstractions from the biological history of a population lineage; meanings are abstractions from the semantic history of a lineage of collections of speakers in actual and potential communication. On this picture, meanings, like species, enjoy a certain amount of variation across the individuals that constitute them, a sort of allelic variation that is an element in meaning change. I’ll argue that among the virtues of the picture it makes sense of some Quinean theses about analyticity and the a priori.

Not unsurprisingly, thinking of meanings in this way leads to a linguistic version of the species problem: just as it is difficult to give an adequate criterion for what sort of changes mark the birth and death of a species, so it seems difficult to say what sort of changes in meaning are actually changes of meaning --changes (putting it linguistically) in which a word means one thing at one time, another thing at another. I discuss the obvious solution to the linguistic analog to the species problem: a word changes its meaning when there is change in (the rule that determines) its contribution to truth conditions. I think the answer may be correct as far as it goes. But because of the slack, between any notion of meaning (like the one I defend in this talk) on which grasp of meaning is what anchors linguistic competence and the notions of reference and truth, the answer does not get us all that far to a crisp criterion of meaning change. But I think this is a virtue --there is no crisp criterion of that notion to be had.

When & where?

11 June 2015, 3.15 - 5 pm
Room Omega, Faculty of Philosophy

Last modified:26 May 2015 10.24 a.m.