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do imperatives license optimism for the viability of meta-normative non-cognitivism?

The latest issue of Analysis has an interesting symposium about Mark Schroeder’s Being For. Of particular interest to me was Andrew Alwood’s contribution, which develops a line of response to Schroeder that is broadly similar to one I’ve been working on quite a bit recently. (I will post a draft of a paper I have been working on for a while by the end of the week.)

Alwood’s suggestion, very roughly, is that we model a noncognitivist account of normative sentence-meaning on our account of imperative sentence-meaning. How is this supposed to help the noncognitivist with the Frege-Geach problem, as Schroeder has developed it? If Paul Portner’s work on imperatives is on the right track, then (i) imperative clauses have conventionalized directive force, (ii) clauses with conventionalized force can embed. In Alwood’s words:

The embedded imperative clause contributes to the meaning of the whole sentence. This inspires optimism that conventionalized force-indicators can meaningfully occur embedded without determining force-potential as they otherwise would.

I’m puzzled by this.

Talk of “conventionalized force-indicators” that “embed” makes it sound like Portner has argued that imperative clauses contain a syntactic element indicating conventionalized directive force. This is not Portner’s view (although Chung-hye Han defended a view like this in her 1998 dissertation). Portner’s view (see “The semantics of imperatives within a theory of clause types” [Proceedings of SALT 14, 2004] and “Imperatives and modals” [NALS, 2007]) is that major clause-types are conventionally associated with distinct kinds of force, but that this is not “written down anywhere in the grammar,” but rather “follows from general principles” linking semantic types to functional potentials. The sense in which imperatives have conventionalized directive force is precisely the sense in which indicative sentences have conventionalized assertoric force: conventionalized force is a function of the type of the semantic denotation of the clause.

If that is right, though, it’s not Portner’s work on imperatives, per se, that gives the noncognitivist a reason to be optimistic. It’s Portner’s work on the conventionalized connection between clause-type and force, in general, that is relevant.

But I have to wonder if there is really any reason for optimism here at all. Non-imperative, normative sentences do not carry any sort of distinctive syntactic marking. Certainly, they do not constitute their own clause-type; they are declaratives. There is an argument to be made (and I make it in my paper) that the noncognitivist is committed to the idea that the conventional force of a normative sentence is not assertoric. But, if a sentence’s clause-type determines the type of its semantic denotation, and the type of its semantic denotation determines its conventional force, then normative sentences have the same conventional force as non-normative declaratives. Yikes.

What’s the noncognitivist to do? I think the best move probably is to deny the idea that clause-type determines semantic type. A suggestive analogy. Nick Asher and Alex Lascarides have argued (“Indirect Speech Acts” [Synthese, 2001]) that the semantic object assigned by the grammar to an interrogative like (1) is distinct in type from the semantic object assigned by the grammar to an interrogative like (2).

(1) Can you pass the salt?

(2) Are you able to pass the salt?

The motivation for this is the idea that (1) has conventionalized directive and interrogative force (for which they offer some pretty compelling evidence in their essay), while (2) has only conventionalized interrogative force. The friendly suggestion to the noncognitivist is that normative sentences are more like (1) than (2): normative sentences have conventionalized non-assertoric (perhaps expressive) force, in addition to conventionalized assertoric force (which they have in virtue of their clause-type).

Of course, this stratagem raises a host of new (and, I think, rather troubling) questions. First, where is the linguistic evidence that normative sentences have conventionalized non-assertoric (perhaps expressive) force? (The evidence that Asher and Lascarides give re: (1) does not seem to me to extend to normative sentences.) Second, if normative sentences have conventionalized assertoric force (in virtue of their clause-type), what is it that they are in the business of asserting?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. That said, it does seem to me that Portner’s work paints a rather more complicated picture for noncognitivism than Alwood is letting on.

Categories: Language, Meta-ethics, Philosophy, Semantics, Syntax.

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2 Responses

  1. If this is a reason to be optimistic on behalf of the noncognitivist, it says a great deal about the current state of noncognitivism.

    At least, I won’t be holding my breath while proponents of noncognitivism try to generalize Asher and Lascarides’ arguments concerning (1) and (2).

    I should probably apologize for writing such unconstructive comments.

  2. I think there are some different reasons to be optimistic (or at least not pessimistic), and I even agree with Alwood that those reasons are supplied by imperatives. But the semantics of mood, per se, is probably orthogonal to this.

    If anything, I think it will push the noncognitivist into the sort of hybrid views defended by Boisvert and Copp.

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