Genoveva Marti and Edouard Machery on reference and experimental philosophy.
Note: This is part of a series of PTV discussions involving contributors to Machery and O’Neill (eds.), Current Controversies in Experimental Philosophy (2014)
According to descriptivist theories of reference, when a given word refers to a given individual, it’s because the individual satisfies a description associated with the word. (For example, on this view, “Barack Obama” refers to Barack Obama because Barack Obama satisfies a certain description: he is the 44th president of the United States, etc.) By contrast, according to causal theories of reference, what makes it possible for a word to refer is that it is part of a chain of communication that leads back to the introduction of the word as a name for its referent. (For example, on this view, “Barack Obama” refers to Barack Obama just because Barack Obama was given that name by his parents.)
In this conversation, Machery and Marti debate the implications of empirical studies, conducted by Machery and others, that explore folk judgments about reference. After an overview of the main theories of reference, they discuss studies by Machery et al. on cross-cultural differences in so-called “metalinguistic judgments” (10:14). These studies, Machery argues, suggest that North Americans’ intuitions about reference are in line with a causal theory of reference, whereas East Asians’ intuitions are in line with a descriptivist theory. Marti raises doubts about the relevance of such studies for semantic theorizing (19:11), and Machery responds (27:52). Then they discuss whether Marti’s critique amounts to a call for reform in theorizing about reference (30:39), debate whether metalinguistic judgments reflect an implicit theory of proper names (36:12), and revisit their 2009 Analysis exchange (44:27).