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Semantic deference is a phenomenon where the referents of linguistic expressions in an ordinary speaker’s vocabulary are determined by the use of the expressions by a group of experts about the relevant subject matter. For example, the meanings of terms such as ‘elm,’ ‘beech’ and so on for an ordinary speaker are partly determined by what botanists in her community say about the relevant tree kinds. Traditionally, the phenomenon has been taken to motivate semantic externalism, according to which meanings “ain’t in the heads” (Putnam 1975) of individual speakers. Those who challenge this tradition, however, attempt to provide a fully internalist-descriptivist account of semantic deference. On the internalist proposal, semantic deference is a matter of each individual’s cognitively associating a description such as [whatever thing that the experts are talking about when they use ‘C’] with the referential expression ‘C’ (Jackson 1998). In this paper, I argue that the internalist-descriptivist account faces the problem of contingency: different speakers can, problematically, come to mean different things by using the same term, by identifying different groups as meaning-determining “experts.” To respond to this problem, one needs to invoke communal linguistic norms that dictate which group of experts speakers should defer to, given the subject matter (cf. Ball 2020). I argue that implementing this strategy requires adopting some form of semantic externalism in the end.



Dr. Ryo Tanaka is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy based at the University of Tokyo, Japan (JSPS postdoctoral fellow, History and Philosophy of Science Lab). He specializes in philosophy of language in the analytic tradition and also works in related areas such as philosophy of mind, ethics, as well as the Western early modern treatment of these topics. He is currently working on the research project entitled, “Moral obligation to explicate the semantic rules of one’s language.” He has published his work in journals such as The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Contemporary and Applied Philosophy (Japanese).