Featured Philosopher: Dan López de Sa

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Dan López de Sa is ICREA Research Professor at Univeristat de Barcelona, after visiting ANU, St Andrews, NYU, and Columbia. He works in metaphysics (truthmaking, grounding, response-dependence), the philosophy of language (vagueness, contextualism, slurs), and metaethics (values, disagreement, relativism).  He also has an increasing interest in topics around gender, race, sexuality, love, and the law.

Significant Verbal Disputes and So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations”

Dan López de Sa

[What follows is a brief version of a longer paper I am currently working on. Many thanks to Meena for the opportunity to post it here.]

Significant verbal disputes

To claim that a certain dispute is verbal is often regarded as implying some sort of deflationism about the issue in consideration—particularly when the dispute was not overtly and explicitly verbal, i.e. overtly and explicitly mentioning the word in dispute. It turns out that the dispute is “merely verbal”, “just about words.” And hence less serious, important, worth of disputing about.

As many have emphasized, this attitude is, in general, misguided. Some disputes are indeed verbal and significant. Here some illustrations by David Chalmers:

Sometimes words matter. For example, if we are arguing over whether a law has been violated, one often needs to settle the meaning of relevant words. Questions about what falls into the extension of ‘marriage’ and ‘murder’ may in some sense be verbal, but the answer to these questions may also make a serious difference to people’s lives. In cases where words have fixed connotations and associations, too, verbal issues often have serious practical import. This applies especially when those connotations are normative. What counts as ‘torture’ or as ‘terrorism’ might be, at one level, a verbal issue that a philosopher can resolve by distinguishing senses. But in a rhetorical or political context, words have power that transcends these distinctions. If the community counts an act as falling into the extension of ‘torture’ or ‘terrorism’, this may make a grave difference to our attitudes toward that act. As such, there may be a serious practical question about what we ought to count as falling into the extension of these terms. (Chalmers 2011, 516-17)

Some verbal disputes are thus verbal but not merely so. This is so because there are issues where, given how things are, how a given expression is to be used turns out to have significant consequences. In the form of a slogan: significant verbal disputes are verbal disputes where words do matter. As the examples illustrate, this is can be so both with respect to the descriptive question concerning how a word is in fact used but also, and importantly for our purposes, with respect to the normative question concerning how a word should be used. Such normative questions concerning which words should be paired with which concepts constitute what can be called terminological ethics. This goes beyond conceptual ethics—provided this is understood as the project concerning which concepts should be used for some particular purposes. To illustrate, it may well be that for purposes in connection with inclusion, one should use not one but two different concepts of gender, one concerning gender as class and the other concerning gender as identity (Jenkins 2016). This is a claim in conceptual ethics. A further question concerns which of these two, if any, should be the one paired with words like ‘woman’. This can give rise to further significant verbal disputes in terminological ethics.[1]

Recently, David Plunkett (2015) and Amie Thomasson (2017) have illustrated, in my view quite compellingly, how in philosophy there are verbal disputes to be had—which are, also, significant. Words like ‘art’, ‘free’, ‘race’, ‘person’, ‘knowledge’, ‘good’, among many others, are words that, arguably, do matter, in the envisaged sense. So contending that some debates in philosophy are, in fact (perhaps appearances notwithstanding) or should be seen as, verbal disputes need not deflate their significance—provided the relevant words do matter.

(Some verbal disputes are merely verbal, of course—in philosophy as well as elsewhere. As such, they may trigger some clarifications and distinctions. But once these are in place, any further dispute can be dismissed—precisely because, in these cases, words don’t really matter: nothing of significance hinges on how the word is to be used. This may provide an illuminating model for dismissivism with respect to some particular debates in metaphysics: according to some, with respect to debates on composition or the persistence of objects, verbal disputes are merely so, as the relevant words don’t really matter, in the appropriate sense.[2]) 

So-Called “Metalinguistic Negotiations

As I said, I see Plunkett (2015) and Thomasson (2017) as showing how there are significant verbal disputes to be had in philosophy—negotiations in terminological ethics as to how words that matter should be used. In the papers, however, they contend that some debates in metaphysics are to be seen as involving so-called metalinguistic negotiations.[3]

Not every negotiation about words qualifies as a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense, as these are specific forms of expressing the disagreement in language—in sharp contrast with disputes that are overtly and explicitly verbal.

Drawing on earlier work with Tim Sundell (Sundell 2011, Plunkett & Sundell 2013), Plunkett characterizes metalinguistic negotiation as a dispute about what a word should mean involving a metalinguistic usage of a term, that is

one where a speaker uses a term (rather than mentions it) to express a view about the meaning of that term, or, relatedly, how to correctly use that term. (Plunkett 2015, 834).

This is the key element: in their metalinguistic negotiations, the word is used rather than mentioned.

Plausibly, there are uncontroversial enough cases of a metalinguistic usage of a term. The clearest examples probably are those where the speaker communicates views on the existent aspects of the context that are relevant for the value of context-dependent expressions such as ‘tall’, as when one utters:

(1)      Feymann is tall.

pointing to Feymann in a conversation that wonders about what counts as tall around here.

Also, there are conversations where, by using a expression, the speaker aims to set a certain aspect of the context that is relevant for the value of that context-dependent expression that was previously undefined, or to alter it in certain ways—be this the relevant respect, the standard of precision, or others.

(2a)    This knife is sharp.

Cooperative conversational partners will tend to accommodate, collectively succeeding in setting or altering the relevant aspect of the context as to make (2a) true (see Lewis 1979). Unless, of course, the issue is controversial, in which case the disagreeing party may object:

(2b)    No, it’s not sharp enough.

If what is at stake in the conversation is which kind of food is to be prepared, after both cooks have jointly tried out one of the new knives. This is a case where a verbal dispute gets expressed by a metalinguistic dispute, in their sense.

But metalinguistic negotiations should cover the expression of disagreements about which of alternative concepts should a word be paired with.[4] Plunkett and Sundell illustrate with a case borrowed from Ludlow where, with respect to racehorse Secretariat making it to the list of the fifty greatest athletes of the twentieth century, people may express their disagreement with:

(3) a.  WTF. Secretariat is not an athlete. He’s a horse!

  1. So what? He is an athlete. And one of the best.

I am happy to grant that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, this (or some other similar case) will indeed constitute a negotiation in terminological ethics as to how the word should be used. The problem is that it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic negotiation in their sense. Because it is controversial that it will be a metalinguistic dispute in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves a metalinguistic usage of the term in their sense. Because it is controversial that it involves using as opposed to mentioning the relevant expression.

The reason is that, with the right kind of emphasis and background information, sentences in (3) seem similar to

(4) a.  We don’t eat tom[a:]tos here, we eat tom[ei]tos.

  1. I haven’t deprived you of my talk; I’ve spared you it.

Which is the right account of the linguistic phenomenon exhibited in (4) is controversial—particularly concerning precisely the issue of whether (or how) it involves use, mention, or both, of the relevant expressions. In particular, on one proposal,

The material falling in the scope of the ‘not’ is mentioned (metarepresented, quited, echoic) rather than used (Carston 1996, 312).

I don’t have yet a view on the matter, myself. Maybe the right view has it that, on the contrary, expressions are used rather than mentioned in (4). Or maybe it turns out that cases like (3) are relevantly different than those in (4). So maybe it turns out that (3) constitutes a metalinguistic negotiation, after all.

Interesting as the issue is in itself, it depends on the best account of complex linguistic phenomena concerning the expression of disagreement. Vindicating the significance of some verbal disputes—in philosophy as well as elsewhere—depends only on the nature of the disagreement, not their linguistic expression.[5]


Belleri (2016): “Verbalism and metalinguistic negotiation in ontological disputes”, Philosophical Studies, DOI: 10.1007/s11098-016-0795-z

Burgess & Plunkett (2013): “Conceptual Ethics I”, Philosophy Compass 8(12): 1091–1101.

Carston (1996): “Metalinguistic negation and echoic use”. Journal of Pragmatics 25, 309–330

Chalmers (2011): “Verbal Disputes”, Philosophical Review 120: 515-566

Jenkins (2016); “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman”, Ethics 126: 394–421.

Lewis (1979): “Scorekeeping in a Language Game,” Journal of Philosophical Logic, 8: 339–359.

López de Sa (2015): “Expressing Disagreement”, Erkenntnis 80, 153–165

Plunkett (2015): ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’, Inquiry 58, 828-874

Plunkett & Sundell (2013): ‘Disagreement and the Semantics of Normative and Evaluative Terms’, Philosophers’ Imprint 13/23, 1-37

Sundell (2011): ‘Disagreement about Taste’, Philosophical Studies 155, 267-288

Thomasson (2017): “Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation”, Analytic Philosophy, 57(3), 1–28

[1] I take my labeling to be itself a move in terminological ethics in order to vindicate the significance of significant verbal disputes. For an alternative usage, see Burgess & Plunkett (2013).

[2] As I understand it, (Belleri 2016) argues that it is conceivable that the dispute between endurantism and perdurantism could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. As I am suggesting to construct it, dismissivism can very well accept this. After all, arguably it is conceivable that every merely verbal dispute whatsoever could in principle be seen as involving a significant verbal disagreement. Just conceive of a context where it turns out that something of significance depends on how the expression is to be used—imagine the world is taken by some aliens are disposed to kill whoever drinks in a martini glass.

[3] And prominently so, notice both titles: ‘Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and The Methodology of Philosophy’ (Plunkett 2015) and ‘Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation’ (Thomasson 2017) (my underline).

[4] “[A] metalinguistic dispute can target the most general aspects of the meaning of a term (whatever that amounts to on one’s specific theory of language). Using Kaplanian terminology, a key part of this basic point is this: a metalinguistic dispute (including a metalinguistic negotiation) might target the basic character of a term.” (Plunkett 2015, 840).

[5] For more on the importance of distinguishing disagreements from their linguistic expression, see López de Sa (2015).

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