Friday, December 01, 2006

Speakers as measuring devices

In his "Predicate Meets Property," Mark Wilson presents a challenge to the traditional (Frege-Russell) view of predicates expressing or being attached to properties. The challenge is to explain how the extension of the predicate (determined by the property or universal) changes when the usage of the predicate in the community changes. He has a few examples from non-technical usage and a few from the history of science to illustrate this point. E.g., how are the extensions of the predicate "is an electron" different when it was used in Thompson's time and then in the late 20th century. His idea is to make determining the extension of a predicate on a par with measurement in experiments. That is to say that he wants to view speakers as measuring devices of a sort. Measuring devices have a fairly limited range of circumstances in which they will give the correct results and they have an extremely limited range of things they can detect with any accuracy. This means including in descriptions of what speakers are meaning when they make their utterances parameters for, e.g. background conditions. I think I made this sound much less radical than it is. Anyway. I think that the move to viewing speakers as measuring devices fits with Marconi's model of referential competence. The focus in Wilson's article is not on the spooky reference relation; it is on the practice of speakers applying words to things. This description should make clear the connection to Marconi's work. His referential competence is the ability of speakers to apply words to things in accordance with the meanings they associate with the words. In particular, this seems like it could flesh out the further distinction Marconi draws within referential competence of application and recognition.

I've gotten excited about Marconi's book again (last time was September when we had a brief email correspondence) in part due to a post over at Philosophy of brains on Lexical Competence.


Justin said...

Uh, dude? You're posting about your outside philosophy reading during the last week of term. That might explain why people accuse you of having so much of a work ethic.

I think it's predicate meets property, btw.

Shawn said...

Thanks for pointing that out. I corrected the titular mistake. That's what I get for posting without double checking it.

As to posting on stuff unrelated to class during the last week of the term, it was procrastination. I got tired of doing more pressing work on the plane and it has been on my to read list for a while. Seriously, structured procrastination.

Maybe if I post about watching Veronica Mars it will undermine this "work ethic" accusation...