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The Semantics of Existence and Nonexistence
A Reader on the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher


The concept of a dialogue is considered in general terms from the standpoint of its referential presuppositions. The semantics of dialogue implies that dialogue participants must generally have a collective intentionality of agreed-upon references that is minimally sufficient for them to be able to disagree about other things, and ideally for outstanding disagreements to become clearer at successive stages of the dialogue. These points are detailed and illustrated in a fictional dialogue, in which precisely these kinds of referential confusions impede progress in shared understanding. It is only through a continuous exchange of question and answer in this dialogue case study that the meanings of key terms and anaphorical references are disambiguated, and a relevantly complete collective intentionality of shared meaning between dialogue participants is achieved. The importance of a minimally shared referential semantics for the terms entering into reasoning and argument in dialogue contexts broadly construed cannot be over-estimated. Where to draw the line between referential agreement and disagreement within any chosen dialogue, as participants work toward better mutual understanding in clearing up referential incongruities, is sometimes among the dialogue’s main points of dispute.



The questions at issue in this discussion of Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment include the scope and limits of narrow versus wide meaning, the role of attempting to successfully refer as opposed to successfully referring in determining where meaning resides and how thought functions in relation to the meanings of words and sentences. Twin Earth is supposed to challenge the Fregean thesis that intensional sense (Sinn) determines extensional reference (Bedeutung), and that meanings are ‘in the head’. Putnam in ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’ (1975) concludes emphatically that the Twin Earth thought experiment definitively shows that meanings are not in the head. It is argued here in a previously unexplored criticism that there are several senses in which meanings can appropriately be said to reside in the intending thinker’s head, especially under available interpretations of the metaphysics of and identity conditions for intending mental acts and their intended objects. The thought experiment loses force if it is said that the identity requirements for a ‘simultaneously’ intending mental act involving ‘Water’ imply achieved reference to H20 on Earth and to XYZ on Twin-Earth. Then the intending mental acts on Earth and Twin-Earth involving the thought ‘Water’ will not in fact, despite superficial appearances, belong even to the same relevant general types or kinds of psychological events.


Michael Dummett’s interpretation of Frege’s theory of sentence meaning is supposed to open the door to slingshot argument objections, reducing truth-conditional semantics to the absurdity of implying that every true sentence has the same truth-maker. Dummett’s account has further been alleged to conflict with Frege’s criticism of synonymous meaning, according to which any two sentences with the same truth value express the same thought in the sense of designating the same objectified truth value, the True or the False. I defend Dummett’s interpretation of Frege, emphasizing the unique semantic analysis of sentence meaning it provides by interposing the fixing of truth-conditions as mediating between a sentence’s sense and its reference to respective reified truth values. The distinction blunts the force of slingshot arguments in a characterization of truth conditions generally, and of truth-making states of affairs in particular for the Fregean truth value reference of true sentences. The solution thereby vindicates Dummett’s clarification of Frege’s theory of sentence meaning and the individuation of propositions or Fregean Gedanken. My conclusion is that Dummett interprets Frege correctly, and that Frege’s analysis of sentence meaning avoids the counterintuitive consequences of slingshot argument reasoning for any kindred correspondence theory of truth.