Rule Following, Response Dependence and McDowell’s Debate with Anti-Realism
Miller (Alexander)
Source: European Review of Philosophy, Vol. 3
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The objectivity of meaning has been characterised by Crispin Wright as the claim that "we can, by appropriately rigorous explanations and sufficiently distinctive paradigms, lay down so specific a content for a statement that its truth-value is settled quite independently of the result of any investigations which we may carry out to settle it; and any correspondence between the truth-value and our findings about it, if we bother to investigate, is utterly contingent on our capacity to keep track of our antecedent semantic obligations".
  2. Elsewhere, Wright has characterised belief in the objectivity of meaning as the belief that "there is in our understanding of a concept a rigid, advance determination of what is to count as its correct application". And elsewhere as the notion that "the meaning of a statement is a real constraint, to which we are bound, as it were, by contract, and to which verdicts about its truth-value may objectively conform, or fail to conform, quite independently of our considered opinion on the matter". Wright equates belief in the objectivity of meaning with platonism about meaning.
  3. According to Wright, the later Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations contain the resources for the destruction of such platonism, and hence also for the destruction of the view that meanings are, in the relevant sense, objective.
  4. John McDowell, on the other hand, sees the objectivity of meaning, thus defined, not as a component of an objectionable philosophical conception of meaning, but rather as an essential facet of the everyday notion of meaning: "the idea of ratification independence is itself just part of the idea of meaning's normative reach". So McDowell thinks that the objectivity of meaning can be discarded only on pain of discarding our intuitive notion of meaning and its normative reach. But McDowell also describes himself as rejecting platonism about meaning. So he cannot identify platonism about meaning (which he wishes to reject) with the objectivity of meaning (which he wishes to retain);
    • Understanding is a grasp of patterns that extend to new cases independently of our ratification, as required for meaning to be other than an illusion (and - not incidentally - for the intuitive notion of objectivity to have a use); but the constraints imposed by our concepts do not have the platonistic autonomy with which they are credited in the picture of the super-rigid machinery.
    • It is wrong to suppose that platonism is implicit in the very idea that meaning and intention contain within themselves a determination of what counts as accord with them.
  5. But this is puzzling. What can the "platonistic autonomy" alluded to in Wittgenstein's picture of the "super-rigid rail" consist in, if not the objectivity of meaning as characterised by Wright? How, in other words, can McDowell reject platonism without thereby also rejecting the objectivity of meaning?
  6. In this paper I want to do nothing more than sketch, in very bare outline, a framework within which an answer to this question might be given. By sketching an alternative to Wright's anti-realist construal of response- dependence, I will suggest that there is a notion of platonism about meaning which is, plausibly, the proper target of the rule-following considerations, but whose rejection nevertheless leaves scope for the retention of the objectivity of meaning.

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