“Supervaluationism”: the word

I’ve got progressively more confused over the years about the word “supervaluations”. It seems lots of people use it in slightly different ways. I’m going to set out my understanding of some of the issues, but I’m very happy to be contradicted—I’m really in search of information here.

The first occurrence I know of is van Fraassen’s treatment of empty names in a 1960’s JP article. IIRC, the view there is that language comes with a partial intended interpretation function, specifying the references of non-empty names. When figuring out what is true in the language, we
look at what is true on all the full interpretations that extend the intended partial interpretation. And the result is that “Zeus is blue” will come out neither true nor false, because on some completions of the intended interpretation the empty name”Zeus” will designate a blue object, and others he won’t.

So that gives us one meaning of a “supervaluation”: a certain technique for defining truth simpliciter out of the model-theoretic notions of truth-relative-to-an-index. It also, so far as I can see, closes off the question of how truth and “supertruth” (=truth on all completions) relate. Supervaluationism, in this original sense, just is the thesis that truth simpliciter should be defined as truth-on-all-interpretations. (Of course, one could argue against supervaluationism in this sense by arguing against the identification; and one could also consistently with this position argue for the ambiguity view that “truth” is ambiguous between supertruth and some other notion—but what’s not open is to be a supervaluationist and deny that supertruth is truth in any sense.)

Notice that there’s nothing in the use of supervaluations in this sense that enforces any connection to “semantic theories of vagueness”. But the technique is obviously suggestive of applications to indeterminacy. So, for example, Thomason in 1970 uses the technique within an “open future” semantics. The idea there is that the future is open between a number of currently-possible histories. And what is true about is what happens on all these histories.

In 1975, Kit Fine published a big and technically sophisticated article mapping out a view of vagueness arising from partially assigned meanings, that used among other things supervaluational techniques. Roughly, the basic move was to assign each predicate with an extension (the set of things to which it definitely applies) and an anti-extension (the set of things to which it definitely doesn’t apply). An interpretation is “admissible” only if it assigns an set of objects to a predicate that is a superset of the extension, and which doesn’t overlap the anti-extension. There are other constraints on admissibility too: so-called “penumbral connections” have to be respected.

Now, Fine does lots of clever stuff with this basic setup, and explores many options (particularly in dealing with “higher-order” vagueness). But one thing that’s been very influential in the folklore is the idea that based on the sort of factors just given, we can get our hands on a set of “admissible” fully precise classical interpretations of the language.

Now the supervaluationist way of working with this would tell you that truth=truth on each admissible interpretation, and falsity=falsity on all such interpretations. But one needn’t be a supervaluationist in this sense to be interested in all the interesting technologies that Fine introduces, or the distinctive way of thinking about semantic indecision he introduces. The supervaluational bit of all this refers only to one stage of the whole process—the step from identifying a set of admissible interpretations to the definition of truth simpliciter.

However, “supervaluationism” has often, I think, been identified with the whole Finean programme. In the context of theories of vagueness, for example, it is often used to refer to the idea that vagueness or indeterminacy arises as a matter of some kind of unsettledness as to what precise extensions are expressions pick out (“semantic indecision”). But even if the topic is indeterminacy, the association with *semantic indecision* wasn’t part of the original conception of supervaluations—Thomason’s use of them in his account of indeterminacy about future contingents illustrates that.

If one understands “supervaluationism” as tied up with the idea of semantic indecision theories of vagueness, then it does become a live issue whether one should identify truth with truth on all admissible interpretations (Fine himself raises this issue). One might think that the philosophically motivated semantic machinery of partial interpretations, penumbral connections and admissible interpretations is best supplemented by a definition of truth in the way that the original VF-supervaluationists favoured. Or one might think that truth-talk should be handled differently, and that the status of “being true on all admissible assignments” shouldn’t be identified with truth simpliciter (say because the disquotational schemes fail).

If you think that the latter is the way to go, you can be a “supervaluationist” in the sense of favouring a semantic indecision theory of vagueness elaborated along Kit Fine’s lines, without being a supervaluationist in the sense of using Van Fraassen’s techniques.

So we’ve got at least these two disambiguations of “supervaluationism”, potentially cross-cutting:

(A) Formal supervaluationism: the view that truth=truth on each of a range of relevant interpretations (e.g. truth on all admissible interpretations (Fine); on all completions (Van Fraassen); or on all histories (Thomason)).
(B) Semantic indeterminacy supervaluationism: the view that (semantic) indeterminacy is a matter of semantic indecision: there being a range of classical interpretations of the language, which, all-in, have equal claim to be the right one.

A couple of comments on each. (A) of course, needs to be tightened up in each case by saying which are the relevant range of classical interpretations quantified over. Notice that a standard way of defining truth in logic books is actually supervaluationist in this sense. Because if you define what it is for a formula “p” to be true as it being true relative to all variable assignments, then open formulae which vary in truth value from variable-assignment to variable assignment end up exactly analogous to formulae like “Zeus is blue” in Van Fraassen’s setting: they will be neither true nor false.

Even when it’s clear we’re talking about supervaluationism in the sense of (B), there’s continuing ambiguity. Kit Fine’s article is incredibly rich, and as mentioned above, both philosophically and technically he goes far beyond the minimal idea that semantic vagueness has something to do with the meaning-fixing facts not settling on a single classical interpretation.

So there’s room for an understanding of “supervaluationism” in the semantic-indecision sense that is also minimal, and which does not commit itself to Fine’s ideas about partial interpretations, conceptual truths as “penumbral constraints” etc. David Lewis in “Many but also one”, as I read him, has this more minimal understanding of the semantic indecision view—I guess it goes back to Hartry Field’s material on inscrutability and indeterminacy and “partial reference” in the early 1970’s, and Lewis’s own brief comments on related ideas in his (1969).

So even if your understanding of “supervaluationism” is the (B)-sense, and we’re thinking only in terms of semantic indeterminacy, then you still owe elaboration of whether you’re thinking of a minimal “semantic indecision” notion a la Lewis, or the far richer elaboration of that view inspired by Fine. Once you’ve settled this, you can go on to say whether or not you’re a supervaluationist in the formal, (A)-sense—and that’s the debate in the vagueness literature over whether truth should be identified with supertruth.

Finally, there’s the question of whether the “semantic indecision” view (B), should be spelled out in semantic or metasemantic terms. One possible view has the meaning-fixing facts picking out not a single interpretation, but a great range of them, which collectively play the role of “semantic value” of the term. That’s a semantic or “first-level” (in Matti Eklund‘s terminology) view of semantic indeterminacy. Another possible view has the meaning-fixing facts trying to fix on a single interpretation which will give the unique semantic value of each term in the language, but it being unsettled which one they favour. That’s a metasemantic or “second-level” view of the case.

If you want to complain that second view is spelled out quite metaphorically, I’ve some sympathy (I think at least in some settings it can be spelled out a bit more tightly). One might also want to press the case that the distinction between semantic and metasemantic here is somewhat terminological—what we choose to label the facts “semantic” or not. Again, I think there might be something to this. There are also questions about how this relates to the earlier distinctions—it’s quite natural to think of Fine’s elaboration as being a paradigmatically semantic (rather than metasemantic) conception of semantic supervaluationism. It’s also quite natural to take the metasemantic idea to go with a conception that is non-supervaluational in the (A) sense. (Perhaps the Lewis-style “semantic indecision” rhetoric might be taken to suggest a metasemantic reading all along, in which way it is not a good way to cash out what’s the common ground among (B)-theorists is). But there’s room for a lot of debate and negotiation on these and similar points.

Now all this is very confusing to me, and I’m sure I’ve used the terminology confusingly in the past. It kind of seems to me that ideally, we’d go back to using “supervaluationism” in the (A) sense (on which truth=supertruth is analytic of the notion); and that we’d then talk of “semantic indecision” views of vagueness of various forms, with its formal representation stretching from the minimal Lewis version to the rich Fine elaboration, and its semantic/metasemantic status specified. In any case, by depriving ourselves of commonly used terminology, we’d force ourselves to spell out exactly what the subject matter we’re discussing is.

As I say, I’m not sure I’ve got the history straight, so I’d welcome comments and corrections.

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5 responses to ““Supervaluationism”: the word

  1. Dan López de Sa

    Very nice post, I totally agree.

    As to ‘vagueness as semantic indecision’, wouldn’t you think it better be reserved for something along the minimal Lewisian lines you mention, and then qualify the label for more committed elaborations thereof?

  2. Hi Dan… thanks!

    I definitely think it’d be worth hammering out some disambiguating terminology. How were you thinking “semantic indecision” should be used?

    Imagine that you started with the minimal Lewis characterization, and then put forward a metasemantic theory that said that two factors that make a theory intended are (a) categorization of clear cases and clear non-cases of predicates (b) respect for things that are treated as platitudes. From these you get something like the Finean combination of extensions/anti-extensions and penumbral truths fixing what the admissible interpretations are.

    It seems a bit odd to me if by adding this sort of metasemantic detail, you end up *not* being a semantic indecision theorist any more… after all, everyone has to say something or other at the metasemantic level, and “semantic indecision” suggests to me the idea that the meaning-fixing facts, whatever they are, leave stuff unsettled—but doesn’t build in what the nature of those meaning-fixing facts are. So it seems to me that this sort of person is a SI theorist with a lot of supplementary opinions. What do you think?

    I can see more reason for reserving “semantic indecision” for those theorists who’ve got a metasemantic conception of what they’re up to. And I think it’s not so clear whether Fine is a semantic indecision theorist in this sense… probably not, though as just indicated, there’s a way of reading some of his stuff in SI spirit.

  3. Thanks for the response!

    Yes, as you consider in the post, there might be room for uneasiness/negotiation wrt the semantic/metasemantic distinction.

    For ‘vagueness as semantic indecision’, I had in mind something very general/minimal akin to your (B), suggested to me by Lewis’ comments, along the lines of: whatever it is that in the thoughts, experiences and practices of language users determines the meaning of expressions, it fails to determine any single one entity as reference, from a given range of equally natural candidates.

    I guess there are different options, terminological and substantial, as to how to elaborate something like this vis-à-vis ‘semantic values’ and the rest. But this may be fine, right?

    What do you think?

  4. So as I understand your proposals, it’d be reserved for metasemantic views (all that stuff about “determining the meaning” is basically about that). And then, if someone had a view about meaning-determination of the kind I sketched, paralleling Kit Fine’s work, then they’d count as SI theorists too (i.e. very rich elaborations of the minimal idea still count as SI).

  5. Dan López de Sa

    One possible kind of “Fregean” view might be that whatever it is that in the thoughts, experiences and practices of language users determines the meaning of expressions, it does determine an entity at the level of sense, which in turn, for vague expressions, fails to determine any single one entity as reference, from a given range of equally natural candidates. Could this be described as “semantic”?

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