ALEXANDER MILLER

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM

ABSTRACT. This paper is concerned with the relationship between the metaphysical doctrine of realism about the external world and semantic realism, as characterised by Michael Dummett. I argue that Dummett’s conception of the relationship is flawed, and that Crispin Wright’s account of the relationship, although designed to avoid the problems which beset Dummett’s, nevertheless fails for similar reasons. I then aim to show that despite the fact that Dummett and Wright both fail to give a plausible account of the relationship between semantic realism and the metaphysical doctrine of realism, the semantic issue and the metaphysical issue are importantly related. I outline the precise sense in which the evaluation of semantic realism is relevant to the evaluation of realism about the external world, a sense overlooked by opponents of Dummett, such as Simon Blackburn and Michael Devitt. I finish with some brief remarks on metaphysics, semantics, and the nature of philosophy, and suggest that Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism can retain their relevance to metaphysical debate even if we reject Dummett’s idea that the theory of meaning is the foundation of all philosophy.

1. INTRODUCTION

The idea, deriving from Frege, that a competent speaker’s understanding of the declarative sentences of his language consists in his grasp of their truth-conditions forms the departure point for Michael Dummett’s discussion of the debates in metaphysics between realists and their opponents.1 Dummett uses the Fregean idea to formulate a position I shall call semantic realism, and famously develops some arguments which attempt to establish the unacceptability of semantic realism.2 Those arguments will not be discussed in this paper. Rather, I shall be concerned with the prior questions: what is semantic realism?, and what exactly is the relationship between semantic realism about a particular subject matter and realism per se about that subject matter? Some philosophers doubt whether Dummett’s discussion of semantic realism has any relevance to metaphysical debates between realism and anti-realism, properly conceived. Simon Blackburn, for instance, writes:
There are many [debates between realism and anti-realism], although they each require their own geography, for the shoe may pinch in different places, in the theory of morals, of possibility, probability, cause, or mind. The only real villain of the matter is the belief that Synthese 136: 191–217, 2003. © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

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the philosophy of language, the imperial ‘taking with full seriousness the view of language as an instrument of social communication’, affords us a new overarching view of the issues, or even a set of arguments playing any useful role in their solution. (1989, 46)

Other writers are almost equally dismissive. Michael Devitt writes:
Not only are semantic doctrines not constitutive of the metaphysical issue of realism, they are . . . almost entirely irrelevant to the assessment of realism. (1991a, 50)

The aim of this paper is to investigate these charges, as well as the plausibility of Dummett’s own contentions about the relationship between realism per se and semantic realism. I will argue that semantic realism is relevant to realism per se, although the precise nature of the relationship has been misconceived by Dummett and overlooked by those philosophers, such as Blackburn and Devitt, who oppose him. Inter alia, I argue that Crispin Wright’s conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism is inadequate. My strategy will be as follows. I will concentrate initially on realism about the external world, and I will develop an austerely metaphysical characterisation of that realism. I will then investigate whether, and in what sense, the evaluation of semantic realism is relevant to the evaluation of realism, thus austerely characterised. I conclude with some brief general remarks on metaphysics, the theory of meaning, and the nature of philosophy.
2. REALISM ABOUT THE EXTERNAL WORLD

What is realism about the external world? Michael Devitt suggests the following characterisation:
Common Sense Realism: Tokens of most current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively exist independently of the mental. (1991b, 24)

There are thus two dimensions to realism about the external world: the existence dimension and the independence dimension. The realist asserts that tables, chairs, cats, the moons of Jupiter, and so on, exist; and that these entities exist objectively and independently of the mental. The table I am writing on exists and is not constituted by “our knowledge, by our epistemic values, by our capacity to refer to it, by the synthesizing power of the mind, by our imposition of concepts, theories, or languages” (1991b, 15). Nor is it made up of sense-data or mental states, whether as characterised by Descartes or by modern materialism. I am happy to accept this characterisation of realism about the external world, with one minor qualification. As stated, common sense realism is consistent with the following scenario: tables, chairs, cats, the moons

theories. by the synthesizing power of the mind. But rather than pursue this interesting question here. As such. the table I am writing on objectively exists independently of the mental. by our epistemic values. It is an interesting question whether we can say anything more about what is involved in an item’s “possessing a property objectively”. molecular constitution etc. it should be entirely acceptable to Devitt and those sympathetic to him. and they possess some of their properties objectively. Clearly. their possessing (or failing to possess) that property is constituted by “our knowledge. or languages”. is a view which allows that the table’s being black. So our new characterisation of common sense realism is the weakest position that anyone worth calling a realist about the external world is committed to. weight. but in every case. the more properties that fail to be possessed objectively. It is an interesting question how many of the properties we could allow to fail to be possessed objectively before realism is compromised: for instance. we can cash out the idea as follows: Common Sense Realism: Tokens of most current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively exist independently of the mental. Thus. shape. worth describing as realism? I do not need to pursue this question here. they possess some properties which may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. is constituted by facts about how it strikes humans. by our imposition of concepts. objectively exist independently of the mental. One way to do this would be as follows: Common Sense Realism: Tokens of most current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively exist independently of the mental. the weaker the version of realism. when I refer to the austere metaphysical characterisation of realism about the external world. but not its being square. A position such as this is hardly worth describing as realism about the external world. I will now outline a distinct view. . and their innermost nomological secrets may remain forever hidden from us. it is this final formulation that I’ll have in mind. are all in some sense constituted by us.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 193 of Jupiter and so on.3 Call this the austere metaphysical characterisation of realism about the external world. by our capacity to refer to it. semantic realism. Henceforth. but its colour.4 Note that this formulation of common sense realism is no less austerely metaphysical than the formulation which led to it. I suggest that we need to strengthen Devitt’s characterisation in order to preclude this type of scenario. and investigate what Dummett’s discussions of semantic realism can teach us about the plausibility of realism about the external world characterised in this austere metaphysical manner. and for every possible property which one of them might possess.

I’ll say that a sentence is undecidable if (a) we have no evidence either of its truth or its falsity and (b) we do not know a procedure which. Likewise. SEMANTIC REALISM What is semantic realism? In order to answer this question. Though we do not (we may suppose) have a proof that it is true. . though in certain effectively recognizable situations we acknowledge it as true. a sentence is decidable if either (a) we do have evidence either of its truth or its falsity or (b) we do know a procedure which. in others we acknowledge it as false. This is decidable. is guaranteed after finitely many steps to put us in a position in which we have evidence that it is either true or false. is guaranteed after finitely many steps to put us in a position in which we have evidence that it is either true or false. and in this case we have no proof that the conjecture is true. (c) “Julius Caesar was murdered in 55 BC”. we do know a procedure – Eratosthenes Sieve – the correct implementation of which will guarantee us a proof that the number in question is prime or a proof that it is composite. no evidence that he did not sneeze twice on the date in question. Dummett writes: [P is an effectively decidable statement] only when P is a statement of such a kind that we could in a finite time bring ourselves into a position in which we were justified either in asserting or denying P. if correctly implemented. (d) “109087655 is prime”. We have no evidence that he did sneeze twice on the date in question. 468) Following on from this. no proof that there is a counterexample. These characterisations of decidability and undecidability no doubt stand in need in clarification and defence. This is undecidable. (1978. the notion of proof plays the role of evidence. (b) “Julius Caesar sneezed twice on his nineteenth birthday”. 16) An undecidable sentence is simply one whose sense is such that. We have evidence – lots of it – to the effect that the sentence is true. In mathematics. This is decidable. and we do not know a procedure the correct implementation of which will guarantee us evidence one way or the other. we possess no effective means for bringing about a situation which is one or the other of the first two kinds.5 For the moment.194 ALEXANDER MILLER 3. and yet in others no decision is possible. and we do not know a procedure the correct implementation of which will guarantee us either a proof or a counterexample. I will merely give some examples of sentences of each type. but I shall not digress into that issue here. we need to introduce a couple of notions which loom large in Dummett’s work: the notions of decidability and undecidability. if correctly implemented. nor a proof that it is false. (1973. (a) Goldbach’s Conjecture: “every even number is the sum of two primes”. This is undecidable.

we may never turn up evidence either way. since you cannot have a proof of a sentence and yet that sentence be false. (f) “That lemon is bitter”.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 195 (e) “There is a malt whisky distillery somewhere in Alpha Centauri”. and the external world. I can now characterise semantic realism about the external world. but in other cases. and (e) show that we can have undecidable sentences about. In some cases. We’ll see in a moment that it is this fact which allows Dummett to formulate semantic realism about arithmetic. This is decidable. as it were. the truth-conditions of the relevant sentences are potentially evidence-transcendent: we do not know a method. (b). and for all we know. note that the claim that. it will be. and the external world. It does not entail that we know that Goldbach’s Procedure cannot be proved or refuted: it is consistent with our definition of undecidability that we turn up a proof or a counterexample fortuitously. Consider sentences that are intuitively about the external world. such as mathematics.. Semantic realism about the external world is thus the view that our understanding of at least some sentences about the external world consists in our grasp of their potentially evidence-transcendent truth-conditions. nor do we know a procedure the correct implementation of which will guarantee us evidence one way or the other. note that the notion of evidence that figures in the definitions does not have to be conclusive. In such a case. the correct application of which is guaranteed to yield evidence one way or the other. Likewise. the claim that (b) is undecidable does not entail that we know that we will never have evidence concerning whether Caesar sneezed twice on his nineteenth birthday: it is consistent with our definition of undecidability that we stumble across some evidence which points one way or the other. Second.g. the past. Goldbach’s Conjecture is undecidable entails only that we do not know a procedure which will guarantee us either a proof or a counterexample. This is undecidable. Semantic realism consists of the following claim: our understanding of undecidable sentences about the external world consists in our grasp of their truthconditions. I do know a procedure – “put it in your mouth as taste it” – the correct implementation of which will guarantee me evidence one way or the other. the notion of evidence may be less than conclusive: we can have evidence that Julius Caesar was murdered in 54 BC and yet later discover that he in fact died in 55 BC. and no evidence that there is not. A couple of points about decidability and undecidability are worth making at this stage. We have no evidence that there is such a distillery. . e. Even though (we may suppose) I have not tasted the lemon. the past. respectively. (a). First.

the intuitionist compares him with the sculptor or the imaginative writer. (1977. austerely metaphysical characterisation of realism. he writes. or ordinary life. at some point the metaphorical elements used in the presentation of their views are going to have to be replaced by formulations which convey the literal content of those views. that material objects are logical constructions out of sense-data? In each case. there is nothing wrong with the use of metaphorical language as such. but the non-pictorial content of the pictures is unclear (1991. Put this way. he denies that we can even have a literal. The need to choose between these pictures seems very compelling. or that they are independently existing immutable and immaterial objects? What does it mean to ask whether or not past or future events are there? What does it mean to say. I can . the geographer or the explorer. Dummett thus espouses the metaphor thesis: any attempt to formulate realism in austerely metaphysical terms results at best in pictures or metaphors. the greatest difficulty is [T]o comprehend the content of the metaphysical doctrine.196 ALEXANDER MILLER 4. and neither comparison seems very apt. both seem partly right and partly wrong: the mathematician has great freedom in devising the concepts he introduces and in delineating the structure he chooses to study. The disagreement evidently relates to the amount of freedom that the mathematician has. For example. in ordinary language. SEMANTIC REALISM AND REALISM : DUMMETT ’ S VIEWS I have now given basic characterisations of both realism about the external world and semantic realism. or deny. xxv) [Any metaphysical view] is a picture which has in itself no substance otherwise than as a representation of the given conception of meaning. Often. we have here two metaphors: the platonist compares the mathematician with the astronomer. whether in philosophy. the use of metaphor. How are we to make the disagreement into a definite one. What does it mean to say that natural numbers are mental constructions. the literal content of metaphors is so well-understood or so clear that there is no need to do this in practice: If Jones tells me that the head of department is a man of steel. First of all. can aid the search for insight and understanding. 383) Dummett also says that in evaluating realism. but he cannot prove just whatever he decides it would be attractive to prove. however. 10). Of course. whose non-pictorial or non-metaphorical content is unclear. literature. Often. But if two parties are attempting to engage in an argument. of the attempt to give an austere metaphysical characterisation of realism about mathematics (platonism) and what stands opposed to it (intuitonism): How [are] we to decide this dispute over the ontological status of mathematical objects[?] As I have remarked. How are the two views related? Dummett himself espouses an extreme view of how they are related. and how can we then resolve it? (1978. we are presented with alternative pictures.

what I’ll call the constitution thesis: the literal content of realism consists in the content of semantic realism. Dummett believes that to avoid this sort of danger in the case of debates between realists’ and their opponents we need a cashing out of the literal content of the imagery which figures in attempts to give a metaphysical characterisation of realism. the literal content of realism about the external world is constituted by the claim that our understanding of at least some sentences concerning the external world consists in our grasp of their potentially evidence-transcendent truth-conditions: Realism rests upon – or better. and this means that it is a dispute concerning the kind of meaning which these statements have (1978. However. consists in – an adherence to a truth-conditional semantics for our language. Dummett sees this as his fundamental contribution to philosophy: The whole point of my approach to [disputes between realism and its opponents] has been to show that the theory of meaning underlies metaphysics. Thus. That was certainly not my intention: I meant to apply a new technique to such wholly traditional questions as realism about the external world and about the mental. We get this courtesy of a second thesis. understanding.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 197 argue with him without spelling out the literal content of the metaphor. the literal content of the argument needs to be spelled out before we can usefully engage in argument: otherwise we may simply find ourselves at cross purposes (Jones responds to my claims about the head’s meagre accomplishments with a description of his expansive girth). (1979. 146) Dummett clearly intends the debate within the theory of meaning to capture. the metaphysical “debate”. questions which I continue to believe I characterised correctly. but that the resulting topic has little to do with traditional disputes concerning realism. but only because the literal content is already well-understood by both of us. rather than displace. 218) The “debate” in metaphysics between realism and its opponents can thus become a debate within the theory of meaning: should we characterise speakers’ understanding in terms of their grasp of potentially evidencetranscendent truth-conditions? The “debate” thus becomes a debate about truth. xl) . if Jones tells me that the head of department is a giant among men. or range of problems. In his valedictory lecture he writes: The opinion is sometimes expressed that I succeeded in opening up a genuine philosophical problem. If I have made any worthwhile contribution to philosophy. (1993. I think it must lie in having raised this issue in these terms. 468) Moreover. (1978. and meaning: The dispute [between realism and its opponents] concerns the notion of truth appropriate for statements of the disputed class.

Dummett argues for the metaphor thesis as follows. First. Neither metaphor seems. two pictures. mathematical objects are rather creations of the human mind. the intuitionist compares him with the sculptor or the imaginative writer. in its application to realism about the external world. exist. nor one more apt than the other: the activities of the mathematician seem strikingly unlike those either of the astronomer or the artist. between two ontologies of mathematical objects. at first sight. (1978. such as numbers. independently of us. Consider platonism and intuitionism as putative metaphysical positions within the philosophy of mathematics. and neither comparison seems very apt. in a realm of reality which we do not inhabit but which those of us who have the skill are capable of observing and reporting on. The platonist metaphor assimilates mathematical enquiry to the investigations of the astronomer: mathematical structures. how the pictures are to be used? (1978. Dummett thinks that this distinction. are objects which have no spatial or temporal location and they would have existed even had there been no minds to think about them. objections to the metaphor thesis. One objection is that Dummett’s arguments for the metaphor thesis are unconvincing. the geographer or the explorer.198 ALEXANDER MILLER Dummett’s views on the relationship between realism and semantic realism can be summarised as follows: attempts at purely metaphysical characterisations of realism result at most in metaphor. makes no literal sense: [W]e have here two metaphors: the platonist compares the mathematician with the astronomer. like galaxies. I shall outline examples of both types of objection in turn. after all. What basis can exist for deciding which metaphor is to be preferred? How are we to know in which respects the metaphors are to be taken seriously. xxv) We are. and any literal content which these characterisations possess consists in the claim that our understanding of sentences concerning the disputed subject matter consists in our grasp of potentially evidence-transcendent truth-conditions. The constructivist metaphor assimilates mathematical activity to that of the artificer fashioning objects in accordance with the creative power of his imagination. According to mathematical platonism. is simply false. 229) . being asked to choose between two metaphors. SEMANTIC REALISM AND REALISM : OBJECTIONS TO DUMMETT ’ S VIEWS Objections to Dummett’s views on the relationship between realism per se and semantic realism concern both the metaphor thesis and the constitution thesis. According to mathematical intuitionism or constructivism. especially apt. 5. Another objection is that the metaphor thesis. mathematical objects.

(1973. 666) But it is difficult to see how it could: the striking differences between the mathematical realm and the realm of everyday common-sense and scientific objects would by themselves suggest the possibility that a nonmetaphorical formulation of realism about the latter could be given even though a metaphorical formulation was the best we could get in the case of the former. Nothing in Dummett’s writings on the topic goes beyond the bald assertion that this is the case. he faces the following task: show that there is an element in the formulation of common sense realism the meaning of which resists literal clarification and which is thus essentially metaphorical. and their innermost nomological secrets may remain forever hidden from us. in its use of ‘objective’. Indeed. Realism says nothing semantic at all beyond. this claim has been widely disputed. and move on to consider the constitution thesis.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 199 Dummett provides no argument to the effect that the distinction between a platonist and a constructivist ontology cannot be drawn in literal terms. Recall the formulation from Section 2: Common Sense Realism: Tokens of most current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively exist independently of the mental. Recall that according to this thesis the literal content of realism about the external world is given by the claim that (some) sentences concerning the external world have potentially evidencetranscendent truth conditions. in effect. the metaphor thesis. What does a platonist take the number 17 to be. we are justified in proceeding on the assumption that the metaphor thesis is false. Would it follow from this that the same is true of the metaphysical dispute between realism about the external world and its opponents? Dummett clearly thinks that it does: The dispute between phenomenalism and realism about the external world would have been much better conducted if both sides had conformed it more to the model of the dispute between intuitionism and platonism in the philosophy of mathematics.6 Let’s put the metaphor thesis to one side. As noted above. and that these questions cannot be given literal answers. and what does the constructivist propose in opposition to this? Suppose that Dummett is right. Michael Devitt is perhaps Dummett’s most vociferous critic in this respect: What has truth to do with Realism? On the face of it. a semantic doctrine. making the negative point that our semantic capacities do not constitute the world (1991b. 39). Realism about the external world becomes. At any rate. but on the face of it there is nothing metaphorical about it. seems simply false. This is no doubt somewhat vague. . If Dummett wants to hold on to the metaphor thesis in the face of this. and they possess some properties which may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. In the absence of argument. as applied to realism about the external world. But it is not hard to have some sympathy with this claim. nothing at all.

. 51) Devitt’s main criticism of the constitution thesis is this: the literal content of realism about the external world is not given by semantic realism. narrow inlets of perception. (1987. requires the objective independent existence of common-sense physical entities. non-material. For the metaphysical issue is not one about meaning. if it is also held that what occurs in God’s mind is not dependent on our ability to verify it. is not in itself incompatible with [semantic] realism. The point is well made by Brian Loar: [T]he idealist thesis that reality is entirely mental. . and from all that I have perceived. . .7 We can see Devitt’s point most clearly if we reflect that semantic realism is consistent with Berkeleyan idealism about the external world. In sum. Consider Berkeley’s theory that the truth about ordinary objects is a matter of perceptions in the mind of God. stinted. chairs. that “all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth. And for me to pretend to determine. as different from one another. have not any subsistence without a mind” (Berkeley 1710. since semantic realism is consistent with an idealist metaphysics of the external world. which is then taken . . then the theory is [semantic] realist in the relevant sense. (1710. existence of a purely mental realm of sense-data could subscribe to [semantic realism]. . Realism . to the metaphysical issue which they are alleged to settle. This is immediately replaced by a formulation in terms of truth. It is consistent with even this metaphysics for the “external” world that some sentences concerning it have potentially evidence. except that it is [at least in part potentially beyond the reach of our best investigative efforts]. . He could believe that physical statements are true or false according as they do or do not correspond to the realm of sense-data. (1991a. An idealist who believed in the . as part of a theory of meaning. §81) . . He writes Does [semantic realism] entail Realism? It does not. the moons of Jupiter and so on are nothing but ideas in the minds of spirits. 81) And indeed. Semantic Realism concerns physical statements and has no such requirement: it says nothing about the nature of the reality that makes those statements true or false. Berkeley is himself quite explicit in his commitment to a form of semantic realism: That there is a great variety of spirits of different orders and capacities. by my own few. the view that tables. . innumerable sorts of ideas or sensations. The School starts with a properly metaphysical statement of the issue. Whatever the merits of the various theories of meaning then proposed. whose faculties both in number and extent are far exceeding those the Author of my being has bestowed on me.transcendent truth-conditions. mere talk of truth will not yield any particular ontology (1983. what ideas the inexhaustible power of the Supreme Spirit may imprint upon them were certainly the utmost folly and presumption – since there may be. in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world. cats. whatever anyone’s opinion on the matter: we have no “incorrigible knowledge” of sense-data. I see no reason to deny. for aught I know. as colours are from sounds. .200 ALEXANDER MILLER The way that the realism issue is posed by the British School founded by Dummett is mistaken. 77). the theories are [almost] irrelevant . §6). .

for Berkeley. one would expect debates between realists and their opponents generally to assume the form of a debate between those who accept semantic realism and those who reject it. But this is not in fact the case. That is. but for our present purposes the important point is this: in neither case is the debate between the realist and her opponent happily characterised as a debate between an advocate and an opponent of semantic realism. For example. 1). they are uniformly and systematically false since there are no moral properties corresponding to predicates like “bad” (Mackie (1973)). we have the following argument against the constitution thesis. the literal content of a realist metaphysics about the external world is not constituted by semantic realism. therefore. whether potentially evidencetranscendent or not. Historically. or non-cognitive sentiment (Ayer (1946). sentences about “external” objects are analysed in terms of ideas and sensations (1710. Error-theoretic and noncognitivist opposition to realism face many well-known difficulties (see Wright (1992. . feeling. Blackburn (1984). In short. if the literal content of any realistic metaphysical position simply consists in the relevant form of semantic realism. Gibbard (1990)). Since. as can be illustrated by considering realism concerning moral states of affairs and properties. it follows from the passage just quoted that we understand those sentences in such a way that their truth is potentially evidence-transcendent. but rather to express an emotion. There are other objections to the constitution thesis (see especially Wright (1986. §3). one characteristic form of opposition to realism about a particular subject matter is the denial that there are truth-conditions of the appropriate type. This type of opposition to realism can take a number of forms. 1992)). semantic realism is consistent with Berkeleyan idealism. one would expect the canonical form of opposition to realism to be precisely the denial of semantic realism. A non-cognitivist (or expressivist) about morals would say that although there are no moral properties corresponding to predicates like “bad”. Is Mad Frankie Frazer a bad man? Does Mad Frankie Frazer instantiate the property of moral badness? An error theorist about morals would say that although sentences such as “Mad Frankie Frazer is bad” are genuinely truth-conditional. chap.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 201 It does not require much licence to see this as expressing a commitment to semantic realism as we have characterised it. The literal content of a realist metaphysics about the external world cannot be constituted by a position which is consistent with Berkeleyan idealism. moral discourse avoids the metaphysical error imputed to it by the error-theorists since moral sentences do not even have truth-conditions: the function of an utterance of “Mad Frankie Frazer is bad” is not to state a fact or claim that a truth-condition obtains.

Consider the cases of morals and comedy. If this is the case. Dummett’s emphasis) However. they nevertheless ought to have been so cast. be objectively established as true. 467. kinds of moral realism [or realism about comedy] which do have the consequence that moral [or comic] reality may transcend all possibility of detection. It seems that in these cases a moral realist or a realist about the comic would not have to claim that the truth-conditions of the relevant sentences are potentially evidence-transcendent. even allowing that Dummett’s way of characterising the metaphysical debate is appropriate in the case of the issue about the external world. this is not in fact how Dummett responds. cognitivism and non-cognitivism: In the disputes about realism that interested me. no doubt. Then.202 ALEXANDER MILLER Dummett could respond to the doubt this casts on the constitution thesis by replying that although historical debates between realists and their opponents are not happily cast as debates between advocates and opponents of semantic realism. As Wright puts it: There are. Putting the above-noted concession of Dummett’s to one side.g. e. 9) . If there is a debate between realism and one style of opposition which is more fundamental than the debate between advocates and opponents of semantic realism. However. (1992. . (1993. [T]he dispute between the [non-cognitivist] and the “moral realist” is not one of those to which my comparative method was meant to apply: the issues in that dispute are different and prior to it. there are other cases where it seems straightforwardly besides the point.. in favourable circumstances. Controversy between [non-cognitivists] and [cognitivists] in ethics was therefore not an example of that kind of dispute. the constitution thesis requires at least some serious modification or qualification. He responds rather by conceding that the debate between advocates and opponents of semantic realism is less fundamental than that between. But it is surely not essential to any view worth regarding as realist about morals [or comedy] that it incorporate a commitment to that idea. it is clear that the response to the effect that realism ought everywhere to be characterised as semantic realism is implausible. The realist and her opponent can agree that statements ascribing comic quality or moral value do not have evidence-transcendent truth-conditions. Put on one side the worry expressed above concerning the compatibility of semantic realism with Berkeleyan idealism concerning the external world. it is difficult to see how one could plausibly hold that the literal content of any realistic metaphysical position simply consists in the relevant form of semantic realism. . Dummett’s concession suggests that the relation between realism and semantic realism must be looser than that postulated in the constitution thesis. . this concession has implications for the constitution thesis which Dummett fails to note. the opponent of realism did not question [cognitivism]: it has been common to both disputants that statements of the kind in dispute can.

(Wright 1986. But if the constitution thesis were true. Thus.9 Likewise. but there should still be scope for the formulation of. and debate about. there ought to be scope to debate a realist view of a certain subject matter even when sentences concerning that subject matter are always decidable. consider elementary arithmetic: the subject matter of quantifier-free arithmetical statements. we could not so much as formulate a realist view of that subject matter. since semantic realism is a view about what our understanding of undecidable sentences consists in and there are no undecidable sentences in the area at hand. The upshot of this is that we need other vehicles via which realism can be characterised. doubt is again cast on the constitution thesis. there are other subject matters for which this is not a useful characterisation. To the extent that we think that there should be scope for such a debate. only by allowing that truth can transcend evidence can substance be given to the idea that truth is not in general of our creation but is constituted by correspondence with autonomous states of affairs. For example.. That opinion would have the consequence that. These are decidable in the relevant sense. SEMANTIC REALISM AND REALISM : WRIGHT ’ S VIEWS In the previous section I argued that Dummett’s views on the relationship between semantic realism and realism are unacceptable: the metaphor .THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 203 Intuitively. a sensible version of realism about “That remark was funny” or “That deed was wrong” does not have to view facts about funniness or wrongness as potentially evidence-transcendent. e. the implication is that the constitution thesis is unsatisfactory. and there appear to be good reasons why each of these theses should be doubted. if the constitution thesis were true.g. So although semantic realism may provide a useful vehicle for characterising realism about some subject matters. If the literal content of any realist view concerning a certain subject matter simply consists in the relevant form of semantic realism. the thesis of realism would have no content. . Thus. this would seem to be precluded. elementary arithmetic. 3) Intuitively.8 Again. . when restricted to the domain of states of affairs over which human cognitive powers are sovereign. This point can be generalised as follows: [I]t is very far from obvious that . both realist and opposing views of the area. we could not have a metaphysical debate about the subject matter of. to summarise our discussion of Dummett’s views on the relationship between realism and semantic realism: Dummett adheres both to the metaphor thesis and the constitution thesis. there would be no scope for the formulation of a view opposing semantic realism.10 6.

and what makes it actually true. as implicitly characterised by the opinions of writers.204 ALEXANDER MILLER thesis and the constitution thesis are both implausible. 4–5) and [I]f there ever was a consensus of understanding about "realism". in whatever area of philosophy. a loose weave of separable presuppositions and attitudes. by assigning them conditions of potentially evidence-transcendent truth is to grant that. I’ll briefly consider Crispin Wright’s account of the relationship. So Dummett’s [semantic] realist is committed to a distinction between what confers acceptability upon such a statement. for example. for most philosophical audiences. (1992. with claims about potential evidencetranscendence which any sensible moral realist would baulk at. And it turns out that semantic realism. To allow that the meaning of statements in a certain discourse is fixed. is a syndrome. According to Wright The fact is that realism. have questioned its connection with any natural or intuitive understanding of the term ‘realism’. as characterised by Dummett. depending on the world. [Semantic] realism as Dummett understands it is consequently one natural semantical preparation for the idea that our thoughts aim to reflect a reality whose character is independent of us. In this section. we require some clarification or precisification of the views held by anyone calling themselves a realist. It turns out that viewing the sentences of a discourse as having potentially evidencetranscendent truth-conditions is only one of a number of ways of characterising realism: much of Wright’s recent work is devoted to finding plausible formulations of these other ways in which one might clarify and precisify one’s commitment to a realist view of a subject matter. or ethics. for example. as a philosophical term of art. even if willing to allow that Dummett’s debate concerns a fundamental issue in the philosophy of language.so much so that a philosopher who asserts that she is a realist about theoretical science. there is no commitment to the idea that semantic realism gives the only way of providing the required clarification. gives us one way of providing the required clarification or precisification: Some critics. has probably. 1) Wright thus replaces Dummett’s metaphor thesis with the much more modest assertion that due to the multifarious range of views that would deem themselves “realist”. accomplished little more than to clear her throat. (1993b.12 Wright’s approach is thus superior to Dummett’s insofar as it does not involve saddling the moral realist. (1993a. the truth or falsity of such statements may be settled beyond our ken. in the light of whatever standards inform the discourse to which it belongs. Wright thus weakens Dummett’s constitution thesis: the literal content of realism . it has undoubtedly been fragmented by the pressures exerted by the various debates . as Dummett’s [semantic] realist suggests. who regard themselves as realists. But the connection is easy to see. 5–6)11 However.

But it is precisely this sufficiency claim which the objection concerning Berkeleyan idealism jeopardises. only one of which is semantic realism as formulated by Dummett. though not necessary. Wright may object that I have misrepresented his view: he is not claiming that semantic realism itself is sufficient for realism. is still conceived of as sufficient for the expression of a form of realism.transcendent truth-conferrers for those statements. 55) However.conferrers for those statements. it is clear that the addition of (b) introduces nothing that a Berkeleyan idealist needs to disagree with: on a Berkeleyan account of the content of statements about the external world. According to Wright.does on occasion deliver up undetectable truth. Wright’s replacement of the metaphor thesis with a simple call for clarification and precisification is perfectly reasonable. He writes: Realism about a given discourse . this understanding . but rather that semantic realism in conjunction with another – existence – claim is sufficient for a version of realism.13 But on the disjunctive conception of realism. and (b) that the world on occasion exploits. Given this. but it seems to me that his weakening of the constitution thesis does not evade all of the difficulties faced by the original. that concerning consistency with Berkeleyan idealism. So semantic realism in conjunction with the existence claim (b) is consistent with a version of Berkeleyan idealism. since we can realize realism in all sorts of other ways: for instance by arguing that the subject matter satisfies cognitive command. is simply the combination of views (a) that the proper account of our understanding of its statements is evidence-unconstrained truth-conditional. it does not evade the first difficulty raised above. so to speak. But the resulting position – at least as far as its con- . stronger version of that thesis. Semantic realism ought therefore to be sufficient for the expression of realism. how can espousing it possibly be sufficient for the expression of a realist view? The objection which damaged Dummett’s constitution thesis is thus equally damaging to Wright’s weaker conception of the relationship between semantic realism and realism. to be a realist it is not necessary to be a semantic realist. So we could have a Berkeleyan idealist who accepted both (a) and (b). it is again difficult to see how that conjunction could be sufficient for the expression of a realist view. each of the disjuncts. or that the states of affairs in which it trades have wide cosmological role.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 205 is now given by a disjunction of views. as I claimed above. If semantic realism is consistent with Berkeleyan idealism. that it resists a “Euthyphronic” treatment. In particular. (1989. Thus. . the “mind of God” may indeed yield evidence. Wright rejects Dummett’s metaphor thesis and weakens the constitution thesis. At this point. .

to constitute the metaphysical component of a realistic worldview. 7. or acquire knowledge about that world is to that extent less than fully satisfactory. What is a worldview? A worldview consists of at least a metaphysics (an account of what there is and its nature in general). a realist metaphysics which cannot be integrated into a plausible realistic worldview is to that extent rendered unattractive. There are thus two ways in which a realist metaphysics can be attacked: directly. what realists are ultimately interested in defending is a realistic worldview. An account of the nature of the world which renders it difficult to see how we could think. A plausible worldview is a worldview in which each of the components is itself plausible. However. an epistemology (an account of how we can possess knowledge of the objects and properties included in the metaphysics). I suggest that we view Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism along these lines. In Section 2 I sketched a metaphysical position. for our purposes. Take common-sense realism. To elaborate. What about the semantic component? What constitutes the fact that a certain . Plausibly. via an argument that it cannot be integrated into a plausible realistic worldview. common-sense realism. and in which the components are at least mutually compatible. A successful argument that a realist metaphysics cannot be integrated into a plausible realistic worldview would thus establish that that metaphysics was unsatisfactory. what would this tell us about realism about the external world? In this section. via pointing out some inadequacy within the metaphysics itself. then. is the proper conception of the relationship between semantic realism and realism about the external world? How exactly does the plausibility or implausibility of semantic realism impact upon the plausibility or implausibility of realism about the external world? If we had cogent arguments against semantic realism. is a plausible worldview which has common-sense realism as its metaphysical component. talk.206 ALEXANDER MILLER ception of the relationship between semantic realism and realism per se is concerned – is no more plausible than Dummett’s. What. as I defined it in Section 2. or indirectly. and that Wright’s account of the relationship between semantic realism and realism is open to essentially the same central objection as Dummett’s. and a semantics (an account of how we can talk and think about the objects and properties included in the metaphysics). SEMANTIC REALISM AND REALISM : THE PROPER CONCEPTION I have argued that Dummett’s metaphor thesis and constitution thesis are both implausible. I will attempt to sketch some answers to these questions. A plausible realistic worldview.

a sentence’s having the meaning that it has consists in its having a certain truth. and a speaker’s understanding that sentence in a particular way consists in his having grasped the relevant truth-condition. But. Thus. What would follow if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism turned out to be compelling? In order to have a plausible worldview. the realist about the external world would face the challenge of embracing one of the following options: (a) Defuse Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism: argue. this truth-condition – there being a malt whisky distillery somewhere on Alpha Centauri – is one whose obtaining. it follows that our understanding of the sentence “There is a whisky distillery somewhere on Alpha Centauri” consists in grasp of a potentially evidence-transcendent truth-condition. or that a certain speaker understands that sentence in the way that he does? One influential type of answer to these questions is given by the Truth-Conditional Conception (TCC) of meaning and understanding. a cogent argument against semantic realism would establish that common-sense realism could not be combined with the TCC to form (part of) a realistic worldview. in other words. common-sense realism in combination with the TCC yields semantic realism. According to the TCC. Thus. if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism appeared to be successful. or failing to obtain. as we have just seen. . may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. and their innermost nomological secrets may remain forever hidden from us. Thus.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 207 sentence means what it does.condition. we would have to either give up common-sense realism. our grasp of the sentence “There is a whisky distillery somewhere on Alpha Centauri” consists in our grasp of its truth-condition. and they possess some properties which may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. and suppose that the property of containing a malt whisky distillery is one of the properties Alpha Centauri’s having or failing to have may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. According to the TCC. In general. or give up the TCC. Suppose that Alpha Centauri is one of the tokens covered in the first part of the characterisation. that common-sense realism can in fact mesh with TCC to form (part of) a plausible realistic worldview (McDowell (1981. 1987)). How so? Recall that we settled in Section 2 on the following characterisation of realism about the external world: Common Sense Realism: Tokens of most current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively exist independently of the mental.14 I suggest that Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism can be viewed as attempting to establish that common-sense realism cannot be conjoined with the TCC to form a plausible realistic worldview.

The alternative taxonomy suggested by Dummett’s early work is tied up with the idea that realism is to be identified with the TCC. option: (c) Give up common-sense realism. It is worthwhile pausing to reflect on the limited significance of Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism. would not establish the unacceptability of realism about the external world. also Wright (1993a). but hold on to TCC subject to the condition that the notion of truth which it takes as central is not potentially evidence-transcendent (see in particular the preface to Dummett (1978). They could do so only in conjunction with a cogent argument to the effect that there could be no alternative to the TCC.208 ALEXANDER MILLER (b) Find an alternative semantic theory to TCC. it is just that the realist misconceives the notion of truth which figures therein. appendix to chapter 5). passim). On my construal of the situation. although he does attempt to rebut objections to the TCC and to raise objections for alternative semantic views such as causal theories of reference (e. Dummett nowhere attempts to provide such an argument. And the taxonomy I have proposed sits better with Dummett’s considered opinion (and Wright’s view) to the effect that it is the antirealist who has the best claim to the TCC: according to Wright and the later Dummett there is nothing wrong with the TCC as such. So the most that Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism can establish is that the common-sense realist requires an alternative theory of meaning to the TCC in order to have a plausible realistic worldview. as we saw. an idea which we have good reason. antirealist.15 Of course. to reject. given Dummett’s numerous claims in his early work that opposition to realism takes the form of proposing an assertibility-conditional alternative to TCC?16 But there is actually nothing strange here. even if completely successful. even if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism are cogent there is simply no refutation of realism as .. This taxonomy of the options perhaps sounds strange: how could finding an alternative to the TCC be a task for the realist. Dummett himself is inclined towards the following. Dummett’s arguments. Edgington (1981)). in the absence of a general argument to the effect that such an alternative is impossible. Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism. simply leave the common-sense realist with the challenge of finding such an alternative. even if successful. Dummett (1973). and show that Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism do not challenge the idea that the alternative theory can mesh with common-sense realism to form (part of) a realistic worldview (Devitt (1991b). Again.g.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 209 such. or Wright’s disjunctive conception of the nature of realism. The falsity of those theses thus does not endanger the importance of Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism for the issue of realism about the external world. 8. Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism thus have genuine significance. merely the provision of a challenge which the realist is obliged to meet. Realism about the external world together with the truth-conditional conception of understanding yield semantic realism. LIMITATIONS AND GENERALISATIONS OF THE PROPER CONCEPTION My conception of the relationship between semantic realism and realism about the external world is thus free from whatever objections beset the metaphor or constitution theses. then. This.g. e. albeit limited.. it would . and if it precluded an austerely metaphysical characterisation of. it follows that we cannot apply that conception unless we have an austerely metaphysical characterisation of the realism which is at issue. And in some cases an austerely metaphysical characterisation may appear hard to come by. is the proper conception of the relationship between realism about the external world and semantic realism. But it may also appear to have some damaging limitations. this significance is independent of the metaphor thesis and the constitution thesis. the dispute over realism concerning the future and that over realism concerning the past – there did not seem to be any objects in question (1993. for the metaphysical debate between realism about the external world and its opponents. and he also has doubts as to whether it can be provided for realisms concerning the past and future. If Dummett were right about this. so if semantic realism is unacceptable.. But In some cases – e. the realist about the external world faces the challenge of finding an alternative to the truth-conditional conception if he is to have a plausible realistic worldview. realism concerning the past. We have already seen that Dummett has doubts as to whether such a characterisation can be provided for realism in mathematics. 465). Because on my conception the significance of semantic realism derives from the implications of its evaluation for the attempt to combine a metaphysical theory with a semantic theory in a plausible realistic worldview. our inclination is to attempt to frame it – as we did in the case of realism about the external world – as a thesis concerning the existence and nature of a range of entities. In giving an austerely metaphysical characterisation of a realist view in a particular area. importantly. and.g.

Thus. Thus. Whereas Dummett’s account of the relationship between semantic realism and realism about the external world is straightforwardly generalisable. must find some alternative theory of meaning to the TCC. leads to semantic realism. my account cannot be generalised in the absence of either (a) or (b). my conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism can be applied in such . Now. having a member which is not the sum of two of its prime predecessors – may pass altogether unnoticed by human investigative activity.g.in any case where we do have an austerely metaphysical characterisation of the realist view and where that characterisation. The fact remains that that type of story can be told . How damaging is this limitation? The failure of (b) in the case of moral realism shows that evaluating semantic realism is likely to be of little help in evaluating the plausibility of a realistic worldview about morals which includes the TCC. are non-spatiotemporal. my account of the relationship between semantic realism and realism about the external world can only be applied to the case of some other sort of realism if (a) we are able to provide an austerely metaphysical characterisation of that sort of realism and (b) the austere characterisation together with the TCC leads to semantic realism. and some of their properties may pass altogether unnoticed by human investigative activity. Thus. when conjoined to the truthconditional conception of our understanding of mathematical statements. Consider again the case of realism about arithmetic. exist. just as in the case of common sense realism about the external world. the platonic realist. in conjunction with the TCC.210 ALEXANDER MILLER follow that my story about the relevance of semantic realism to the plausibility of a realistic worldview concerning the past simply could not be applied. And the failure of (a) in cases where we cannot provide an austere metaphysical characterisation of realism would ensure that my story about the relevance of semantic realism simply could not be told. And it is plausible that these features are present in many areas in which disputes have traditionally arisen between realists and their opponents. the set of even numbers exists. if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism are sound. yields semantic realism. Thus. But the limits imposed by these considerations should not be overestimated. and in particular what we might call platonic realism about mathematics: mathematical objects. is non-spatiotemporal. and some of its properties – e.. such as natural numbers and sets. platonic realism.as it was in the case of realism about the external world . in order to have a plausible realistic worldview. It follows from platonic realism together with the TCC that our grasp of “Every even number is the sum of two primes” consists in grasp of a potentially evidence-transcendent truth-condition.

Thus. then given the TCC.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 211 a way that the entitlement of platonic realism concerning mathematics to a certain sort of realistic worldview is challenged. And again.17 Similar considerations apply to realism about the past. it yields semantic realism: according to this conjunction our understanding of. must find some alternative theory of meaning to the TCC. So. This is no doubt not the only shape which realism about the past could assume. our understanding of statements concerning those objects will consist in grasp of potentially evidence-transcendent truth-conditions. In addition to this. in order to have a plausible idealistic worldview.. yields semantic realism. Thus. and their innermost nomological secrets may remain forever hidden from us. One form of realism about the past might be: Common Sense Realism about the Past: Tokens of some current observable common-sense and scientific physical types objectively existed independently of the mental a billion years ago. If facts about material objects far distant in space just are facts about perceptions in the mind of a spirit to which we have no guaranteed access. must find some alternative theory of meaning to the TCC. it can be applied to at least some important cases of realist views. the common-sense realist about the past.g. Berkeleyan idealism. in conjunction with the truth-conditional conception of our understanding of statements about material objects. To see this. despite the potential limitations of my conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism. in conjunction with the truth-conditional conception of our understanding of statements about the past. if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism are sound. in order to have a plausible realistic worldview. e. but it is one such shape. It is worth noting. it is relatively easy to see that Berkeleyan idealism. and they possessed some properties the fact of whose past obtaining may pass altogether unnoticed by human consciousness. and an intuitively attractive one. Thus. my conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism can be applied in such a way that the entitlement of common-sense realism concerning the past to a certain sort of realistic worldview is challenged. Thus. if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism are sound. too. . “There was intelligent life on Alpha Centauri a billion years ago” consists in grasp of a potentially evidence-transcendent truth-condition. that my approach to the relationship between realism and semantic realism in a sense has wider application than Dummett’s. recall that I argued above that Berkeleyan idealism is consistent with semantic realism. my conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism can be reapplied in such a way that the entitlement of Berkeleyan idealism to a certain sort of idealistic worldview is challenged.

465) According to such a view. constructivism. a Dedekindian view of the nature of mathematical objects.18 9. whether that set has a member which is not the sum of two of its prime predecessors is something that might elude our best investigative efforts. Dummett’s conception of the relationship – encapsulated in the metaphor and constitution theses – is unacceptable. it also admits of applications which are wider than Dummett’s. It is clear that this type of view. yields semantic realism. THEORY OF MEANING . So my conception of the relationship between realism and semantic realism can be reapplied in such a way that the entitlement of a Dedekindian view of the nature of mathematical objects to a certain sort of constructivist worldview is challenged. as its first if not its only task. just as on the platonic realist view. On this type of view. insofar as it can also be used to argue against certain sorts of worldviews which include idealistic or constructivist metaphysics. and because. AND THE NATURE OF PHILOSOPHY Dummett famously espouses a picture of philosophy in which its various branches are subordinate to the theory of meaning: [T]he theory of meaning is the fundamental part of philosophy which underlies all the others. and Wright’s looser conception of the relationship fails for similar reasons. Because philosophy has. Thus. they have properties independently of our capacity to recognize them. if Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism are sound. our understanding of “Every even number is the sum of two primes” consists in our grasp of its potentially evidence-transcendent truth-condition. those which in conjunction with the TCC yield semantic realism. Although this approach is more limited in some respects than Dummett’s. What is evaluated is the capacity of these types of realism to form part of a certain sort of realistic worldview. (1993. Dummett writes: [A] Dedekindian who maintained that mathematical objects are free creations of the human mind might nevertheless insist that. the deeper such analysis goes. once created.212 ALEXANDER MILLER Likewise. in the case of mathematics consider the analogue of idealism about the external world. the analysis of meanings. in conjunction with the truth-conditional conception of our understanding of mathematical statements. On my conception of the relationship. although the set of even numbers is a “free creation of the human mind”. the more it is dependent upon a correct general . the evaluation of semantic realism is relevant to the evaluation of a number of forms of realism. So. METAPHYSICS . must find some alternative theory of meaning to the TCC. in order to have a plausible constructivist worldview.

. (1973. 56–57. is prior to metaphysics. I cannot defend this claim here. and Joss Walker. Christopher Norris. The realism issue should be settled first.THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 213 account of meaning. My purpose in this paper has been to argue merely that even on this conception of philosophy. Duncan McFarland. and not epistemology. but no one is prior to the other. Dummett’s arguments against semantic realism still have an important role to play in evaluating the viability of a realistic worldview. (1991a. . nor Devitt’s horse and cart. Dummett’s view of the relationship between realism per se and semantic realism is of a piece with this picture: it follows from the metaphor and constitution theses that the metaphysical doctrine of realism. . To suppose that we can derive the right metaphysics from epistemology or semantics is to put the cart before the horse. Failing to do so is one of the most pervasive and serious abberations of the realism debate . are implausible. Is Devitt here suggesting that metaphysics should take the place of the theory of meaning in the picture of philosophy as a tree-like structure? Is Devitt suggesting that metaphysics is prior to semantics? The metaphor of the horse and cart certainly suggests so. or semantics. a model for what the understanding of an expression consists in. . is the appropriate metaphor: there is no simple relation of priority between metaphysics and semantics. 669) Dummett thus retains Descartes’ image of philosophy as a tree with multifarious branches (Descartes 1637) . If an image is wanted for the view of philosophy which goes along with the conception I have advocated it is rather that of Neurath’s boat: metaphysics and semantics are both planks in the boat. emphasis added). I have argued that these theses. But the conception of the relationship between realism per se and semantic realism which I have advocated in this paper suggests that neither Descartes’ tree. insofar as it makes literal sense. which is the search for such a model.19 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS For comments and discussion I am grateful to John Divers. and the view of Dummett’s which depends on them. but alters the Cartesian picture so that the theory of meaning. I thus reject the idea that the theory of meaning. is the foundation for all philosophy. and not epistemology as Descartes misled us into believing. But what is the proper conception of their relationship? Devitt writes: It is a mistake to start building a metaphysics from epistemology or semantics. just is a semantic doctrine. a conception which Dummett himself would no doubt repudiate. the theory of meaning. forms the trunk of the tree.

think. chapters 1. If one prefers. Miller (1998) chapter 9. 4 I have deliberately adapted this final formulation of common sense realism to include Crispin Wright’s formulation of what he calls the “modest” ingredient in realism (Wright 1993a. 7 Devitt actually makes the point with regard to a distinct doctrine which he calls “Realist Truth”. see Shieh (1998). The point in the text is not that the realist has to say that the entities have some of the properties which they are believed to have. We could not then say that Goldbach’s Conjecture is undecidable: since there is no proof of Goldbach’s Conjecture. in some sense. This is just a terminological stipulation. Dummett (1978).. For example. according to Dummett. Introduction. the realist and the anti-realist disagree would then have be to characterised. Hale (1997). For critical discussion of these arguments. 5 My unwillingness to digress is justified by the fact that the precise characterisation of the notions of decidability and undecidability does not affect the points I go on to make concerning the relationship between realism per se and semantic realism. 11. then there is no disagreement between us. The class of sentences over which. the application of which will in a finite time yield either a proof or a counterexample. but perhaps we ought to say also that they must have some of the properties which tokens of that type are believed to have” (1991b. Dummett (1973). or can discover” (1991b. and we can grant him this for the sake of the argument. Devitt goes on to reject this addition to his characterisation of realism. although my disagreements with Devitt will become apparent as we proceed. Dummett (1991). 21. to say that a universally quantified statement is undecidable is to say that we do not know a procedure. 10. and Dummett 1993. Miller (2001).214 ALEXANDER MILLER NOTES 1 See e. 3 The point made here should not be confused with that Devitt considers when he says “We have said that the entities must be of common-sense and scientific types. Given this stipulation. Note also that the strengthening of Devitt’s characterisation suggested does not require us to adopt or argue for any particular position on the ontology of properties. the claim that a universally quantified statement is decidable can be stipulated to mean that there is either a proof or a counterexample. 2. but all of the points I make in the paper can be remade in terms of the latter characterisation if one prefers. if it exists and has its nature whatever we believe. he writes “an object has objective existence. chapters 1.b). 20. since we do not know such a procedure. see Miller (2002a. . 6 I am indebted here to Devitt (1991b). Note that as I am using the term ‘undecidability’. and the claim that it is undecidable would imply that it is true. but as the class of statements not known to be decidable. 21). 1). For an overview. they have at least some of them objectively. bur rather that whatever properties they have. chapter 13. it would follow that it is effectively decidable iff false. but I do not believe my emendation of his argument to apply to semantic realism as I have characterised it makes any essential difference.g. I prefer the former characterisation. see the Introduction to Wright (1993a). For a good discussion of the terminological choices. not as the class of undecidables. If the reference to the object’s nature is just a reference to (some of) its properties. Goldbach’s Conjecture is undecidable. 15. 14. emphasis added). 2 Dummett’s main arguments against semantic realism are the acquisition argument and the manifestation argument. Some of the things Devitt says suggest that he takes my proposed strengthening to be included tacitly in his characterisation of realism.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEMANTIC REALISM 215 8 In fact. of characterising realism about a particular subject matter. and Rosen (1995). This is of a piece with the Neurathian image. 4) talk of “natural semantical preparation” is replaced by talk of “essential semantic groundwork”. For a briefer overview. as Wright points out (1983. his conception of that relationship is still ultimately unsatisfactory. see Miller (1998). whilst Devitt is opposed to the idea that understanding is a matter of knowledge of truth-conditions or any other sort of conditions. Everything in the web can make a difference to everything else” (1991c. 15 Edgington wishes to identify understanding with grasp of assertibility-conditions. see Wright (1993c). given that the view so christened is just as close to Berkeleyan idealism as it is to common-sense realism about the external world. and the order-of-determination test – receive their most sustained development in Wright (1992). for reasons similar to those which undermine Dummett’s constitution thesis. independent. 18 In view of what I have said in this and previous sections. the much-quoted remarks in the early paper “Truth” (Dummett 1978. xx) the platonic and realist elements of platonic realism are. 17 Note that. Wiggins (1997). What is the relationship between these two formulations of semantic realism. I’ll argue below that although Wright is justified in attempting to “loosen up” the relationship between semantic realism and realism per se. strictly speaking. and arguments to the effect that the characterisation in terms of bivalence is not the primary one. regardless of whether they are decidable or undecidable. But this doesn’t affect the point made in the text about the relevance of arguments against semantic realism to the plausibility of their amalgam. there is a case for not talking about semantic realism at all. but not the only way. Perhaps a more neutral term such as “semantic transcendentalism” would be more apt. e. 16 See. So whence . 75). For example. and which is the more fundamental? I cannot pause to discuss this question here.g. 14 There are of course many different forms of the TCC: in addition to the works by Dummett cited in note 1. chapters 1 and 2. McDowell (1981) and (1987). are determinately either true or false. 19 Some of the things Devitt says on these issues suggest that he is confused about how he pictures philosophy. 9 Dummett himself points this out: “the dispute [between realism and antirealism] can arise only for classes of statements for which it is admitted on both sides that there may not exist evidence either for or against a given statement” (1978. as Quine told us long ago. 13 See note 12. 11 Note that elsewhere (1992. Dummett himself often formulates semantic realism in terms of unrestricted adherence to the principle of bivalence: semantic realism is the view that all sentences about the external world. see also Davidson (1984). For an introduction to Frege’s foundational version of the TCC. For some excellent discussion. they cannot stand in some linear relationship like that suggested by the metaphor of the horse and cart. see the Introduction to Wright (1993a). However. in response to some criticisms from Anthony Appiah concerning his views on the relationship between metaphysics and semantics he writes “Knowledge is a seamless web. Wright (1992) is devoted to the search for these other vehicles. 155). But if metaphysics and semantics are part of a web-like structure.. width of cosmological role. 10 I have characterised semantic realism about the external world as the view that our understanding of at least some sentences about the external world consists in our grasp of their potentially evidence-transcendent truth-conditions. 19). Semantic realism turns out to be one. 12 The “other ways” – in terms of what Wright calls cognitive command.

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