Monday, November 20, 2006

MM Benett: A Taxonomy of Dismissivist Positions?

It is a great pleasure to get this first LOGOS e-Reading Group on MetaMetaphysics started ;-)!

If I understand it right, Karen Bennett in her ‘Composition, Colocation, and Metaontology’ aims three different things: (i) to distinguish three different dismissivist positions; (ii) to argue against one possible way of implementing one possible “semanticist” position with respect to one particular debate; and (iii) to motivate a claim that is a consequence of, among others, the “epistemicist” position. In my view, it is not clear that she succeeds with respect to any of these three. In this post, however, I will focus just on (i).

Most think, I guess, that some disputes in metaphysics are genuinely ontological. In my view, the dispute between universalists and restrictivists wrt composition is a case at hand—and I think that the former are right :-)! Most think, I guess, that some disputes in metaphysics are genuine all the same, but of a semantic character. In my view, the dispute between defenders of the many and of the supervaluationist solution wrt the problem of the many is a case at hand—and, again, I think that the former are right :-)! Now some think that some apparent disputes in metaphysics are just merely apparent: in a certain sense—that need not be easy to specify (hopefully, we’ll have some discussion of this here!)—the views are just “variants of each other”, “equivalent”, or something along these lines. One candidate case at hand is of course the dispute between 3D/4D, and so it has been claimed to be by Sidelle 2002, Miller 2005, McCall & Lowe 2006, among many others. I take this to be characteristic of the attitude that Bennett aptly proposes to call dismissivism, see the introductory pages, the first remark at section 9 etc.

Unfortunately, this seems to be none of the three positions she considers:

(1) Antirealism is characterised as the position that ‘There are Fs’ does not have a determinate truth-value. This lacks the appropriate generality—which would be the candidate ‘F’ for the 3D/4D debate?— and anyway is something dismissivists need not endorse: more likely they would hold the views are all equally true, or equally false but having a shared true kernel or …

(2) Semanticism (although attributed also to Sidelle) is characterized as the position that the disputants assign different meanings to their terms. More plausibly, I take it, that they differ as to their views about the semantics of a certain disputed terms (this is in effect the case at the Martini example and with Hirsh 2005). But then the dispute is certainly genuine, nothing there to be dismissed!

(3) Epistemicism is characterized as the negation of the preceding plus the contention that there is little justification for believing either of the views. Again, on the face of it, a situation like does not look as one for dismissing inquiry, but rather precisely calling for further investigation! (Maybe the thought could be elaborated like: there couldn’t be justification for believing one as opposed to the other, given their… “equivalence”? This might be closer to dismissivism after all, but the required elucidation is still missing.)


Pablo Rychter said...


I think you are expressing here two related but different worries about Bennett’s “taxonomy”, which may be useful to distinguish. First, you seem to think that there is a rather imprecise view (shared by the three papers you mention (?)), which deserves being called “dismissivism” and such that it is not properly captured by any of the three precise views that Bennett characterizes. Second, at least the last two views characterized by Bennett (semanticism and epistemicism) do not deserve being called “dismissivism” but rather imply that the relevant disputes are genuine and worth pursuing. The two points are related (because the second, generalized, implies the first) but independent (because the first does not imply the second). I think the second point, if correct, would be more damaging for Bennett’s argument. (I do not think it is correct :).

Re the first point: I should double check this, but my impression is that a position like that Lowe and McCall (2006) may reasonably be thought to fall under either the “antirealist” or the “semanticist” brands of dismissivism. (The contended sentence may be “There are temporal parts”). And I have the impression that the same happens with other dismissivist views about the 3D/4D debate that you have in mind (those who think that the views are in some sense “equivalent”, etc). You say that these dismissivists are not antrealists (as characterized by Bennett) because they need not be committed with the idea that “there are temporal parts” lacks truth value. I am not sure about this and hope we can sort this out in this e-reading group. If the contended sentence is “there are temporal parts”, the moves you suggest amount to say that this sentence and its negation are both equally true, or both equally false but sharing a kernel of truth. And it is not clear how this view will make sense, if not as version of semanticism (according to which the sentence could be true in the “4D language” and false in the “3D language”). So prima facie, I would say that the dismissivist views about the 3D-4D debate you consider either fall under the antirealist or the semanticist brands as characterized by Bennett. I do not know exactly which of these two options is right (the problem I have in determining this is that t the 3D/4D debate is different from the two disputes Bennett discusses in some relevant respects. I will post on this later).

Re the second point: I also have some doubts about whether semanticism implies that the dispute is not genuine. I will post on this later. As for epistemicism, though the official formulation is as you state it, what she actually defends is an elaboration of the official formulation in the lines you suggest. The main aim of the paper is to show why, given the nature of the two debates she considers, there CANNOT be (or it is highly unlikely that there will be) a piece of evidence that decides the issues. But I agree with you that the official formulation in p. 5 does not look as discouraging the inquiry as to whether there are Fs (quite the contrary).

Dan López de Sa said...

Hi Pablo! Thanks for this, I think it helps.

I fully agree: my worry concerning (i) are actually the sum of two (independent, right? the second does not entail the first one either) worries: (i.i) although there might be positions that are both dismissivist and antirealist, antirealism seems not necessary (nor, indeed, sufficient) for dismissivism; (i.ii) it is hard to see how semanticism and epistemicism would qualify as dismissivism.

Re (i.i), you might be right about McCall and Lowe 2006, I would have to re-read the paper. (BTW, what would people think about making it the next paper to be discussed here?). But I am pretty sure that there are possible versions of dismissivism that have it that the views are equally true, or equally false, would you dispute this?

Re (i.ii), I would be a bit puzzled if semantic disputes (about, say, which is the right analysis of a given word or concept—I found the "different languages" way of stating this potentially misleading) turn out not to be genuine disputes after all ;-). But I should wait until you elaborate. I take it that we agree regarding epistemicism, right? There might be an elaboration of it that does the work, but it is yet to be provided.

Pablo Rychter said...

Very briefly: once you identify a sentence disputed by the 3D and the 4D (a sentence like "there are temporal parts" or "this chair has temporal parts"), it is hard to make sense of the metaontological view that "both views are equally right, or equally wrong" (if not as a version of semanticism). The view would be that both the disputed sentence and its negation are equally right, or equally wrong. Don't you think so?
On the other hand, from your reply to my first comment I think I understand better why you think that semanticism is not dismissivism. I guess semanticism (as characterized by Bennett) should be understood as a view about disputes that do not qualify as "semantic" in your sense. I take it that the relevant disputes (that for which “semanticism” is defined) are not disputes about what "F" means, or about what is the nature of the Fs, etc. Rather, they are about whether the Fs exist or not. Thus, take a dispute about whether a Martini is such and such beverage or not, or a dispute about what persons are, etc. These are disputes in which, in a sense, the participants assign different meanings to “martini” and “person”. (They disagree about the correct “analysis” of the words or concepts). But they are not the kind of disputes for which “semanticism” is defined. They cannot be deemed as “verbal” disputes, and we cannot say the disputants are talking past each other. Does it make sense?
(About the difference between these two kind of disputes, there is an interesting paper by Sider “Criteria of personal identity and the limits of conceptual analysis”, which maybe we can discuss here).

Dan López de Sa said...

Re (i.i), I grant you (and Karen) that is not obvious how to elucidate dismissivism in an explicit and satisfactory way. Given this, it might turn out that, after all, for all tenable versions of it there are some relevant sentenes that lack truth-value. I am still a bit dubious about it, but might be easily wrong. Let's see how this goes as the discussion proceds...

Re (i.ii)—should I now say (i.ii.i) ;-)?)—I anticipated that there might be relevant unclarities going on, in my view partly due to stating things with the (unqualified) "different languages"/"talking past each other" picture. That is why I said that both in the Martini example and wrt Hirsh it does look as if there is a (genuine, not to be dismissed) semantic dispute—which in turn manifests itself in disagreement about which (non-meta-linguistic, sometimes perhaps existential) sentences one should accept. What do you think?

Dan López de Sa said...

ADDED. Just to be clear: the Martini example is offered as the main uncontroversial illustration of semanticism, and it is thus authorativative as to the characterization of "semanticism", do you agree?

Pablo Rychter said...

Ok. I think you are right wrt i.ii.i. I think we can state the point this way: if semanticism is true about a dispute over “there are Fs”, there is at least an issue about the meaning of “F” or the existential quantifier that should not be dismissed but rather clarified. But this seems consistent with Bennett’s characterization of semanticism. She says that some semanticists like Hirsch and Thomasson think that the relevant disputes “can be settled by appeal to ordinary language. Deciding who is right simply requires deciding which of the disputants is speaking ordinary English” (p. 3). So the view implies that there is an issue worth sorting out, an issue about ordinary English. You are right in this. The problem seems to be is that for Hirsch (and maybe also for Bennett, see p. 4) this issue is not “substantive”, in some sense. And this is what justifies the label “dismissivism”. But I agree with you that the view implies that there is an issue not to be dismissed (though not a “substantial” issue, according to the view –I myself do not know what to think about this latter qualification).

I also agree with you that the martini example is authoritative wrt the characterization of semanticism. But to clarify my previous comment: the martini example is not one in which the participants disagree explicitly about the meaning of “martini”, but rather one in which they disagree about the existential sentence “There is a martini over there”. The example illustrates the view only if it is so construed. For instance, only in this way can we say that the participants on the dispute are “talking past each other”.

Dan López de Sa said...

It does indeed look as an agreement. In the semantic cases typically there is an underlying semantic dispute, although the explicit focus might be in its manifestation vis-à-vis non-semantic sentences.

One sense in which this might be not 'substantive' is that it is a dispute which is semantic in character, and not metaphysical—perhaps, in some cases, contrary to initial appearances—. (If this is what is intended, the labelling might be perhaps slightly biased, granted ;-).)

Pablo Rychter said...

On re-reading the paper, I found another passage that confirms our idea that it follows from semanticism that there is something not to be dismiss: “although semanticists might think that there is something to fight about –namely, the meaning of the sentence `there are Fs in English –they do not think it is worth fighting very hard about”