What is the Acquisition Argument?
Miller (Alexander)
Source: Alex Barber (ed.) Epistemology of Language (OUP 2003)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Semantic realism, as I shall understand it in this paper, is the combination of the views
    1. that sentential understanding is constituted by grasp of truth-conditions and
    2. that the notion of truth which figures therein is essentially epistemically unconstrained.
  2. In a single slogan, understanding a sentence consists in some cases in grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions. For example, a semantic realist about the past holds that our understanding of "Caesar sneezed 15 times on his 19th birthday" consists in grasp of its truth-condition, where this is capable of obtaining even though there is no guarantee that we will be able, even in principle, to recognise that that is so.
  3. Semantic realism, thus characterised, has come under attack from Michael Dummett and his supporters. Dummett has at least two distinct arguments against semantic realism: the acquisition argument and the manifestation argument. In short, these arguments go as follows.
    1. If our understanding of some sentences of a given discourse is constituted by grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions, how could we have acquired that understanding, given that our training in the use of sentences is a training to respond to situations which we are, necessarily, capable of recognising to obtain when they obtain?
    2. And if our understanding of some sentences of a given region of discourse is constituted by grasp of potentially recognition-transcendent truth-conditions, how could we manifest that understanding in our use of those sentences, given that the situations to which we respond in our uses of those sentences are, necessarily, situations which we are capable of recognising to obtain when they obtain?
    In this article, my focus will be on the first of these arguments, the acquisition argument.
  4. Before beginning the discussion of the acquisition argument, I would like to enter some caveats.
    1. Firstly, I will not be concerned with the question whether semantic realism constitutes the essence of any metaphysical view worth calling realist, nor even with whether evaluating semantic realism provides an interesting way of evaluating realist / anti-realist disputes in metaphysics.
    2. Secondly, I am not concerned with the relationship between semantic realism, as characterised above, and realism characterised in terms of unrestricted adherence to the principle of bivalence.
    3. Thirdly, although I will utilise some claims about the nature and plausibility of Dummett's manifestation argument, I will not, apart from that, be concerned with other arguments that might be developed against semantic realism, such as Crispin Wright's arguments from rule-following and normativity.
    4. Fourthly, I will not be concerned with the plausibility or otherwise of semantic anti-realism conceived as a positive meaning-theoretic proposal.
  5. I will proceed as follows.
    1. In §2 I outline what I shall call the strong acquisition argument.
    2. In §3 I quickly remind the reader of the response to the acquisition argument which utilises the notion of a truth-value link, and also of why that response apparently fails.
    3. I then, in §4, outline John McDowell's "M-realist" response to the acquisition argument and explain why anti-realists have been untroubled by that response.
    4. In §5 I explain why, in the light of considerations concerning the compositionality of truth-conditions, anti-realists more or less concede that the strong acquisition argument, as it stands, is a failure.
    5. In §6 I argue that given the cogency of the compositionality response, anti-realists' ought also to concede that McDowell's M-realism effectively undermines the strong acquisition argument.
  6. By the end of §6, then, it is clear that the strong acquisition argument, as it stands, is a failure. In the rest of the paper I investigate whether there is some other version of the acquisition argument potentially more harmful to semantic realism. In order to do this,
    1. in §§7-8 I look at Dummett's manifestation argument, as developed and presented by Wright.
    2. It emerges in §9 that this argument, what I call the strong manifestation argument, is, like the strong acquisition argument, apparently conceded by anti-realists to be a failure.
    3. In §10 I argue that this concession is only apparent: anti-realists develop what I call the weak manifestation argument which, in the presence of a certain conception of implicit linguistic knowledge, has the same force as the strong manifestation argument.
    4. In §§11-12 I sketch a response to the weak manifestation argument.
    5. In §13 I investigate the prospects for a weak acquisition argument.
  7. I conclude that it is by no means clear whether the anti-realist can mount a weak acquisition argument, but that even if he can, the argument can be neutralised by the semantic realist.

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