Jumpstarting the Blog: Objecting to Sider’s Objectivism

Given that it’s been over a year since we’ve had any posts, I’ve decided to try to jumpstart the blog again. Here goes…

While reading Sider’s Writing the Book of the World, I noticed a strange dialectic circularity. One of Sider’s main theses is that structure is objective: it’s ‘out there in the world’ in some metaphysically heavy sense. But, Sider then goes on to give an account of objectivity in terms of structure. Given this circularity, it’s possible to find a reductio.

Sider claims that structure is not subjective (i.e. structure is objective). I take this to mean that sentences about structure are not subjective. Without loss of generality, let’s take the following sentence about structure:

(S): ‘being negatively charged’ is structural

Sider wants to claim:

(O): (S) is not subjective

He goes on to give the following account of subjectivity: “A sentence is subjective…if and only if it’s truth-value depends on which of a range of equally joint carving candidates is meant by some term in the sentence, where the candidate that we in fact mean was selected in a way that is not arbitrary, but reflects something important about us, such as our values” (59). Combining this account of subjectivity with (O) gives us:

(O’): It’s not the case that the truth value of (S) depends on which of a range of equally joint carving candidates is meant by some term in (S), where the candidate that we in fact mean was selected in a way that is not arbitrary, but reflects something important about us, such as our values.

This roughly amounts to saying that in order for facts about structure to be objective, they must ‘carve at the joints’ — in other words, facts about structure must themselves be structural. But that’s a condition that far too easy to meet. For instance, take a simple expressivist view of structure. Roughly, to say ”being negatively charged’ is structural’ is simply to express some mental attitude A towards ‘being negatively charged’. I think we can all agree that, pretheoretically, this is a subjective account of structure. But, if Sider’s account of subjectivity is correct, an expressivist account of structure is consistent with the claim that (S) is objective. Accepting (O’) amounts to expressing attitude A towards ‘is structural’; this is all we need to accept (O’), because the terms in (S) do not have ‘a range of equally joint carving candidates’ — by our own lights, ‘structural’ is joint-carving. So, either Sider must reject his account of objectivity or accept that expressivism about structure is consistent with structure being objective. I take it that he will choose the former.

Thoughts?

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2 Responses to Jumpstarting the Blog: Objecting to Sider’s Objectivism

  1. rosud says:

    After thinking about this a bit more, I’m not sure this objection should trouble Sider. Here is the reason. We’ve shown that an expressivist account of structure is consistent with (S) being objective; as we’ve said, that is unintuitive. But that’s simply a reason to not be an expressivist about structure — not a reason to give up Sider’s account of objectivity. An expressivist account of structure is unable to fill the theoretical role that structure was introduced to play: one of the reasons to posit structure was to be able to make sense of intuitions about objectivity. However, the ‘objection’ still shows that an expressivist account of structure can make sense of claims that structure is objective. If we can get over the awkward intuitions that come along with this position, maybe such a position could be used in overcoming one big challenge to deflating the notion of structure (the claim that deflationary positions entail that (S) is subjective).

  2. umer says:

    Hey Rohan,

    it’s been a while since I’ve looked at Sider, but I’ll give it a shot. I suspect that an expressivist about structure is not pushed around much by this argument (whatever else we might say about the position), and that Sider does not have to revise his taxonomy much (though he might want to admit it’s incomplete!), basically because `subjectivity’ is a term of art. Roughly the argument above looks to me like

    1) If a sentence which appends the predicate `is structural’ to the subject is of the expressivist sort, then a sentence of that form (i.e., “`p” is structural’) is not subjective.

    2) A sentence of that form is subjective.

    3) It’s not the case that a sentence which appends the predicate `is structural’ to the subject is of the expressivist sort.

    If I wished to be an expressivist about structure, I’d challenge (2). It seems like the argument for (2) is

    a) A sentence of that form is either subjective or objective.

    b) It’s not the case that a sentence of that form is objective.

    c) A sentence of that form is subjective.

    The idea being that it is pre-theoretically intuitive to say that such sentences are subjective and intuitively abhorrent to say that they are objective. As to the first conjunct I respond: `subjective’ is, in Sider’s use and so in (1), a term of art, whereas it has a different and more intuitive meaning in (2) if we’re to find (2) intuitively compelling. The term is meant to capture one sort of dependence on speakers’ values, one which only applies if we’re already talking about sentences that express propositions rather than attitudes*—Sider says subjectivity is one species of nonsubstantivity (67), and nonsubstantivity only applies if we can talk about a sentence’s truth value and the meaning candidates of its terms.**

    As to the second conjunct: again, I can reply term of art. If it’s just too awful to accept that expressionist sentences are objective, I can instead reject (a)—the subjective/objective distinction marks an important distinction, but it’s only a distinction among sentences that express propositions, and so not one that is exhaustive among sentences. Expressivist sentences are neither objective or subjective then. (I don’t recall if Sider defines objectivity of sentences.)

    It doesn’t seem to me a cost if a taxonomy makes finer distinctions than our pre-theoretic intuitions—our intuitions (may) say some sentences don’t depend (just) on the world in the way that straightforwardly descriptive ones do, but it turns out there are several ways that can happen, and what Sider somewhat stipulatively calls subjectivity is just /one/ of those.

    Best wishes,

    Umer

    * Or however you’d prefer to distinguish the everyday sentences from the expressivist ones.

    ** Cf. (68) `As with conventionality, this sense of subjectivity must be distinguished from others. Consider the following toy semantic theories of aesthetic sentences:

    Expressivism: By uttering ‘x is beautiful’, a speaker communicates no proposition, but rather gives expression to a certain positive aesthetic attitude, A, to x.

    Indexicalism: ….

    Aesthetic sentences express attitudes, given the first semantics, and communicate
    propositions about attitudes, given the second. Either way, there is a straightforward kind of subjectivity. But the kind of subjectivity I have in mind is different. It is brought out by a third semantics… under this semantics, aesthetic sentences are not subjective in the straight-forward sense. Accordingly, they pass common tests for “objectivity”. For example, sentences about beauty make mind-independent claims….’

    I take it the other senses are other pre-theoretic senses `subjective’ can have, that the scare-quotes around `objectivity’ indicate he means objectivity in the pre-theoretic sense, not a sense directly related to the use of `subjective’ Sider is at that point legislating, etc.

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