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Basic Disagreement, Basic Contextualism and Basic Relativism


In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the philosophy of language over the merits,

limits and future perspectives of various approaches to the problem of meaning and communication

that focus on the role of linguistic context. However, a noticeable problem that has been pivotal in

motivating some developments of this trend has been so far under-explored. The problem in a

nutshell is: whats the nature of disagreement? Given that linguistic disagreement data has been

recently advanced as one of the main motivations for some of these contextual approaches in

relation to the so-called phenomenon of faultless disagreement (more on this phenomenon later),

the intellectual pressure to answer this question has accordingly increased.

The aim of this paper is to show that a very natural and intuitive notion of disagreement

cannot but lead to criticizing these proposals as positive philosophical explanations of faultless

disagreement (more on this notion later). So much the worse for the natural and intuitive view of

disagreement some would say; so much the worse for these approaches others would say. As

often happens in philosophy, one persons modus tollens is another persons modus ponens. Though

we are in this case more sympathetic with the modus ponens reaction, we are content to shed light

on the difference between different philosophical projects that, we think, in the current debate on

faultless disagreement have not been properly kept distinct. We also wish to establish the

conditional conclusion that if the natural and intuitive view of disagreement is correct, then

mainstream approaches to semantic content (i.e. contextualist and relativist approaches) that make

use of the notion of context cannot offer a positive philosophical explanation of faultless

disagreement and are ultimately committed to a revisionary approach with respect to semantics tout


In 1 we introduce two distinctions (normative vs empirical and revisonary vs descriptive)

that are useful for characterizing a philosophical project. These distinctions give rise to four
different possible projects on the problem of faultless disagreement. In 2 we lay out a basic and

intuitive view of doxastic disagreement and we show why this view poses a problem to any basic

form of contextualism and relativism for any descriptive approach to faultless disagreement. We

then argue (3) that a revisionary approach to faultless disagreement is a natural option by means of

a semantic blindness hypothesis, but that such an approach sits badly with the methodology usually

adopted by supporters of these semantic outlooks.

1 Normative vs empirical and revisonary vs descriptive philosophical projects

1.1 Two distinctions: normative/empirical and descriptive/revisionary

So, before moving on, lets make clear which projects we are targeting. We do not want to criticize

contextualist or relativist proposals because they are inadequate qua empirical semantic theories; on

this fact we want to remain neutral though we will raise some doubts on this. Our aim is different:

we want to criticize these proposals as philosophical explanations of certain types of disagreement,

namely those disagreements that have been called faultless disagreements (Klbel 2003). So,

before entering the details of our critique, it is necessary to provide an elucidation of what we take a

philosophical explanation to be.

We can distinguish two different projects: one that aims to investigate the normative

connections that underlie our use of language; and another one that means to discover general

principles which can be employed to account for some linguistic data. Contemporary empirical

semantics clearly falls into the second category: the aim is to explain some linguistic data by means

of a compositional formal semantics together with pragmatic principles that connect the formal

apparatus to our linguistic activity. Take for example the case of taste discourse (which will be our

leading example). Philosophers of language and linguists have pointed out that we have linguistic

data like:

Nicholas: Omelettes are better than sausages.

Angela: No. Sausages are better than omelettes!

A moment reflection on the scenario depicted by this example suffices to realize that these disputes

have the appearance of faultless disagreement: when it comes to disputes of inclination it seems that

it is possible that both opinions are in good standing and subjects arent at fault. The business of

empirical semantics is to explain why exchanges of this type are felicitous by means of the

resources of formal semantics and pragmatics. Now, how is this connected to the former project of

investigating the normative connections that underlie our use of language? Of course, the whole

point is to clarify the phrase investigating the normative connections. It is not the purpose of this

paper to hold that there is a univocal reading of that phrase; rather, we want to advance our own

interpretation that we believe is firmly entrenched in the philosophical tradition. When it comes to

disagreement, we inquire into the nature of disagreement in a given area of discourse because we

want to understand how we deploy our concepts in these disputes and whether this deployment is

rational: whether the engagement in the dispute is characterized by a stance that is justified by the

relevant information. This latter question involves a normative dimension that is absent in the

empirical semantic project. Like the empirical semantic project also the normative project pays

attention to the linguistic use because to do so is a useful strategy to get a grip on how we deploy

our concepts. However, the normative project, as opposed to the empirical project, aims at

explaining why we disagree in a certain way and what the justification of our attitudes is.1

Given this understanding of the normative project, there is no principled reason why the two

projects should be in opposition or mutually exclusive. An inquiry into the semantics of an area of

discourse aimed at making sense of the linguistic data for disagreement could provide valuable, if

not decisive, insights into the normative question of the nature and rational basis of disagreement.

Moreover if we believe in a close relationship between linguistic questions and normative questions

i.e. if we believe (as for example Dummett thought) that an explanation of the meaning of
Wright (2012) adopts a similar distinction.
expressions in a given area of discourse can solve some traditional philosophical questions related

to that area then the connection between the empirical project and the normative one is not only

possible, but actually to be expected. One aim of this paper is to show that current contextualist and

relativist semantics arent of help when the purpose of inquiry is that of providing a normative

explanation of disagreement. This conclusion is of course consistent with drawing different morals:

either further work has to be done for linking these empirical projects to the normative project, or

the project of linking the empirical with the normative is in fact doomed to fail, or else, current

contextualist and relativist empirical semantics have to be rejected as solutions to the philosophical

problem of faultless disagreement.

A final distinction. The empirical/normative opposition is orthogonal to another opposition

that is the descriptive/revisionary. A philosophical project is descriptive when it delivers just a

description of a targeted area of investigation that matches with our ordinary representation of it.

Alternatively, a philosophical project is revisionary when it delivers a description of the area of

investigation that does not match with our ordinary representation of it.2

With respect to the problem of faultless disagreement, a descriptive project must deliver a

description of the relevant area of discourse where disputes are taken at face value as real and

rationally sustainable and not to be imputed to error or ignorance or other deficiencies on subjects

part. By contrast, a revisionary project on the problem of faultless disagreement calls for a revision

of some traits of the relevant area of discourse; disputes are approached with the intent of resolving

or, in effect, dissolving them.

Dummett (1976: 66) has famously argued, for example, that part of our inferential practice must be revised: some

classically valid inferential principles (double negation elimination, excluded middle and classical reductio) cannot be

redeemed on a semantics grounded on the central aspects of our use, aspects that are constitutive of the meaning of

logical expressions. According to Dummett, these principles cannot be justified if we assume a molecular theory of

meaning, which rests on a connection between meaning and knowledge of meaning. Hence, our acceptance of these

principles can be subject to legitimate philosophical criticism.

1.2 Four projects

From the previous distinctions it follows that both empirical and normative projects could either be

descriptive or revisionary. There are, in the history of philosophy, plenty of instances of these type

of projects. To illustrate how an empirical project could be revisionary just think of how epistemic

contextualists3 such as DeRose (2012) have advanced the semantic blindness hypothesis: according

to some epistemic contextualist we, qua ordinary speakers, feel that the skeptical argument based on

closure4 poses a threat to knowledge because we are blind to the fact that its conclusion does not

contradict our ordinary claims to knowledge. Semantics advanced by these epistemic contextualists

are thus revisionary because they impute an error to ordinary speakers.

As an instance of normative revisionism take for example Richard Rortys discussion of

progress (Rorty 1979, esp. Ch. 7). Rorty holds that our ordinary idea of progress with respect to, for

example, ethical questions, is just a retrospective projection of our categories. Although he wouldnt

endorse the claim that such a projection is erroneous, he thinks there is no fact of the matter that

could sanction the superiority of our perspective over any other one, contrary to what we usually

think about political or ethical progress.5

As for the descriptive empirical project, most present-day relativist semantics are a luminous

examples of such kind of project: they intend to deliver a description of the truth-conditions that

underlie our actual linguistic use. So, for example, Egan, Hawthorne & Weatherson (2005) and

MacFarlane (forthcoming) are examples of descriptive empirical projects for the semantics of
For a minimal definition of the contextualist position see infra 2.1.
A skeptical argument based on closure runs as follows:

P1. I dont know that that Im not a bodiless brain in a vat (BIV), being stimulated to have just those

experiences I would be having if I werent a BIV.

P2. If I dont know that Im not a BIV, being stimulated to have just those experiences I would be having if I

werent a BIV, then I dont know that I have hands.

C. So, I dont know that I have hands.

We have analyzed the problem of ethical progress in connection with contemporary relativist proposals in

Coliva&Moruzzi 2012.
English expressions for epistemic modality.

Finally, the descriptive normative case. We understand this category simply as the traditional

philosophical task of saying what we ought to think with respect to a certain philosophical notion.

Take for example the notion of knowledge: a descriptive normative project lays down the principles

that are constitutive of knowledge and claims that these principles are the ones we ought rationally

to deem as correct and abide by.

Our focus will be on philosophical projects on faultless disagreement, namely those disputes

of inclination (in ethics, aesthetics or taste discourse for example) where it appears that when two

thinkers disagree on a non-objective matter of opinion it is possible that neither of them has made a

mistake or is at fault (Klbel 2003: 53). In such cases we have linguistic data like (Omelettes)

together with, after reflection, the appearance of faultless disagreement. Faced with these, obviously

different kinds of data, one can pursue four different projects6:

P1) Empirical revisionary project: to revise the appearance of faultless disagreement, by

appealing only to further linguistic data and hypotheses;7

P2) Empirical descriptive project: to maintain that the appearance of faultless disagreement

is correct, by appealing only to further linguistic data and hypotheses;8

P3) Normative revisionary project: by appealing to conceptual reflections, to revise the

appearance of faultless disagreement, and to deem the dispute as not rationally sustainable;9

P4) Normative descriptive project: by appealing to conceptual reflections, to maintain that

Each project is relativized to an area of discourse.
Cappelen (2008) is a clear example of revisionary empirical project: by appealing to the semantic blindness hypothesis

the author holds that the appearance of faultless disagreement is an illusion.

Klbel (2007) illustrates how truth-relativism or a sophisticated form of contextualism can be seen as cases of

descriptive projects.
Rovane (2012) exemplifies a conceptual revisionary project: by claiming that there is no coherent account of faultless

disagreement, she argues that we should rationally give up the idea that in disputes of inclination opposite views are

the appearance of faultless disagreement is correct and that the dispute is rationally


Normative projects could be undertaken with the help of empirical ones, so P1 and P3, and P2 and

P4 arent respectively mutually exclusive; while P1 and P2, and P3 and P4 are.

So lets go back to the accounts mentioned before that focus on the role of linguistic context.

Some philosophers have advanced these accounts as ways to explain the phenomenon of faultless

disagreement. The question we want to address is: which one of the four projects mentioned before

can these accounts successfully pursue? To answer this question we will lay down in the next

section (2) what we take to be the constitutive conditions for having a disagreement and, after

introducing the barebones of these accounts, we will present an argument that threatens the

possibility for these accounts to successfully engage in a descriptive project regarding faultless

disagreement. In section 3, we also cast doubt on the idea that these accounts can provide a

satisfactory revisionary explanation of faultless disagreement, consistent with their underlying


2 Basic disagreement and the lost disagreement problem

In this section we formulate a simple and intuitive view on disagreement (2.1) and present two

basic forms of semantic theories that make use of the notion of context: one where the context plays

a content-determining role (which we label basic contextualism, see infra 2.2); and one where

the context plays a circumstance-determining role (which we label basic relativism, see infra

2.3). We then formulate a problem (the lost disagreement problem) for both positions. We will

then consider some possible replies to the problem in the following section.

Wright (2006) can be read as case of normative descriptive project: by appealing to the notion of super-assertibility,

Wright tries to offer an anti-realist framework that can accommodate the idea that a dispute can be faultless and

rationally sustainable.
2.1 Basic disagreement

Though we do not want to provide a full analysis of the notion of disagreement, we submit that a

genuine disagreement must meet two conditions. Two subjects disagree only if:

Basic Disagreement

i) (Incompatibility condition) they accept incompatible contents,11 i.e. their truth-values are

mutually exclusive12, and

ii) (Aboutness condition) the acceptance of these contents concern the same circumstances,

i.e. they are meant to be true at the same circumstances.

The Incompatibility condition and the Aboutness condition constitute together what we call Basic

disagreement. Basic disagreement is, in our opinion, a necessary feature of every genuine semantic

disagreement. Our formulation of the lost disagreement problem depends on the acceptance of

Basic disagreement. We know that Basic disagreement has been challenged (MacFarlane 2007;

MacFarlane ms, ch.6; Lopez De Sa 2008; Sundell 2011; Marques forthcoming-a). However, we

submit that Basic disagreement is a fundamental feature of a genuine conflict of opinions.

Following Baker (forthcoming) we can distinguish three disagreement-based strategies for arguing

against relativism and contextualism: i) a strategy starting from loaded principles (i.e. principles

that are neutral towards the theories on the market); ii) a strategy based on minimal principles that

should supposedly be acceptable for any theory; iii) a strategy challenging the very possibility that

any other candidate relativist principle regarding disagreement can adequately fulfill the required

role and underwrite the correct verdicts in paradigm cases of faultless disagreement. Whereas

Baker follows strategy (ii) the one with the minimalist notion of disagreement - we follow

strategy (i). Our challenge to contextualism can be thus methodologically represented as follows:

The relevant attitude here is full belief we leave aside cases of degrees of belief.
We limit ourselves to acceptance and denial of the same content, though matters can get complicated when a

different content is accepted and rejected.

contextualist and relativist approaches cannot successfully pursue a descriptive project on faultless

disagreement by appealing to an intuitive and simple view of disagreement (Basic disagreement).13

One final remark: we are assuming a notion of disagreement that is doxastic. That is to say, the

conflict that Basic disagreement captures is analyzed in terms of an incompatibility between belief

attitudes. In contrast to this assumption, some recent literature (Dreier 2009; Huevenes 2011,

forthcoming; Marques forthcoming-a) suggests that it might be promising to account for the

appearance of disagreement (at least in some cases) by means of a non-doxastic notion, for example

in terms of preference instead of belief. Let us then state a few points on these proposals. First, none

of these proposals articulates precisely what non-doxastic disagreement would amount to. So, until

a clear characterization is given, it is difficult to assess the interest of a non-doxastic account of

faultless disagreement. Second, the main motivation for these proposals is that it seems difficult for

relativism and contextualism to stabilize a doxastic notion of disagreement. However, it is

dialectically ad hoc to argue that it follows that we must replace a doxastic notion with a non-

doxastic one. For our orthodox notion of Basic disagreement is intuitive and simple whereas no

clear non-doxastic account is available as yet. Until we lack a decently articulated proposal

regarding non-doxastic disagreement, it is much more plausible to infer that relativism and

contextualism fail to account for the notion of disagreement. Finally, a doxastic notion of

disagreement fits more naturally areas of discourse that are taken to be truth-apt; for, if discourse is

truth-apt, it is plausible to assume that utterances express propositions (whether classical or non-

Baker (forthcoming) formulates a dilemma for strategy (i): either it is a problem for accounting disagreement in

itself for relativism and contextualism or these theories can provide an alternative notion of disagreement. Hence he

argues that any challenge to contextualism and relativism based on strategy (i) is dialectically ineffective since

either presupposes a notion of disagreement unfriendly to these theories or it leads to a more general problem for

these theories that is conceptually antecedent to the problem of accounting for some linguistic data. Our response is

simple and straightforward: we employ strategy (i) because we do think that contextualism and relativism do have a

general problem for accounting of disagreement. Moreover in Coliva&Moruzzi ms we argue that it is not

dialectically ineffective to use our loaded Basic disagreement principle since we argue against alternative construals

of disagreement that might be sympathetic to relativism and contextualism.

classical) with truth-conditions and thus that the correct attitude underscored by these utterances is

one pointing to the truth of the proposition expressed, namely the attitude of belief.14

So, if ones proposed account of disputes of inclination doesnt meet requirements (i) and (ii)

of Basic disagreement, it incurs in what we will call the Lost disagreement problem. Obviously

such a problem is a powerful challenge to all descriptive projects mentioned so far. For, trivially, if

they cant solve it, they wont be able to fulfill their advertised task that is to say, the task of

respecting the appearance of faultless disagreement.

2.2 Basic contextualism

Call basic contextualism for E the view according to which the semantic content of the expression

E is sensitive to the context of use.15 Basic indexical contextualism seems the right semantic theory

for certain uses of some expressions, consider for example:


Mario: I am Italian

Nicholas: I am not Italian

It is clear that in these cases the semantic content of I is the speaker of the context.16 Kaplan

(1989) has famously taught us how to treat these cases.

Moreover there are cases of expressions belonging to areas of discourse of taste, aesthetics

and ethics where such an analysis has been considered as a live option. As we have mentioned in

Of course, this latter point is ineffective against those who have sympathy for expressivist analyses of the relevant

area of discourse (e.g. Dreier 2009). Yet, we are concerned with contextualists and relativists who take it for granted

that the targeted area of discourse is truth-apt.

We use the expression basic because the position can be enriched with other principles. The position is equivalent

to what is also known, following MacFarlane (2009), as indexical contextualism. We consider more complex variants

of contextualism in Coliva-Moruzzi ms.

The rule needs some qualifications that are not relevant for the present discussion see Predelli (1998).
the former section, the pressure for this position is to account for faultless disagreement. Lets go

back to our example:


Nicholas: Omelettes are better than sausages.

Angela: No. Sausages are better than omelettes!

Basic contextualism analyses better as indexed to the some contextual parameter of the context of

use. A natural candidate is the standard of taste of the speaker. A well-known problem for this

proposal is that it seems unable to account for the feeling of disagreement since the latter exchange

is interpreted as equivalent in content to:


Nicholas: Omelettes are better w.r.t. my standards than sausages.

Angela: No. Sausages are better w.r.t. my standards than omelettes!

The propositions expressed in (Omelettes-contextualist) explain the appearance of faultlessness

since, presumably, the idea is that in normal circumstances each speaker judges correctly relatively

to his/her own standards.17 However, the problem with (Omelettes-contextualist) is that Nicholas

and Angela seem to talk past each other since they are expressing two different comparative

properties that give rise to compatible propositions: Nicholas is expressing the property being

better w.r.t. Nicholas standards whereas Angela is expressing the property being better w.r.t.

Angelas standards. Basic contextualism thus faces the Lost disagreement problem, because it

This assumption is by no means obvious. It could be held that the appearance of faultless disagreement is systemically

connected to an opacity condition with respect to the question of which standards are salient in the context. However,

contextualists seem to assume that even in the presence of an appearance of faultless disagreement the salient standards

are always transparent to the speaker.

cannot account for (i) the Incompatibility condition of Basic disagreement.18

The Lost disagreement problem for contextualism has been invoked by relativist semanticists

as the master argument against contextualism (Klbel 2004, MacFarlane 2007, Lasershon 2005,

Stephenson 2007).

2.3 Basic relativism

Call basic relativism for E the view according to which the extension (but not the semantic

content19) of the expression E is sensitive to the context where the context can be the context of

use of the expression or also the context from which an utterance is assessed (context of

assessment). In other words, the context plays the role of determining the circumstances of

evaluation for determining the extension of the expression. The distinctive feature of basic

relativism is that it ascribes to the context a circumstance-determining role, whereas basic

contextualism ascribes to the context a content-determining role. According to basic relativism an

utterance can express a proposition that can correctly receive different assessments. Another way of

expressing the same thought is to say that the extension of the truth-property is relative to contexts.

It has been argued that basic relativism can provide the basis for formulating the right

semantic theory for certain uses of some linguistic expressions. Consider for example:

The problem is not avoided if we switch from individualistic to communitarian basic contextualism: if both

propositions expressed by the speakers involve the same standard (i.e. the standard of the conversation) then the

incompatibility condition is met but faultlessness is lost.

Basic semantic relativism constitutes, so to say, the semantic barebones of two theories: non-indexical contextualism

and truth relativism (see MacFarlane 2005 for the distinction - content relativism is here left out of the picture).

Whereas MacFarlanes taxonomy is based on the opposition between context of use sensitivity and context of

assessment sensitivity, our taxonomy is orthogonal to that opposition since it is based on the alternative between context

dependence without preservation of content and context dependence with preservation of content. We use the label

basic not because the position is itself entrenched in the literature, but because it provides the barebones of theories

that are well entrenched in the literature. One prominent way to put some flesh on these barebones is MacFarlane's

(2005) truth-relativism that we discuss in Coliva&Moruzzi ms.

(Italian debt)

Mario: Italian debt is under control

Angela: Italian debt is not under control.

Temporalists, such as Prior (1957, 2003) and Kaplan (1989), have argued that the content

semantically expressed in the utterances of (Italian debt) does not include reference to times. To

exemplify: if Mario utters on September 9 2013 at 10am Italian debt is under control he

expresses the proposition that Italian debt is under control, and not the proposition that Italian debt

is under control at 10am of September 9 2013 or so the temporalists argue.

In particular, there are cases of expressions belonging to areas of discourse of taste,

aesthetics and ethics where such an analysis has been considered an open option to account for

faultless disagreement. Lets go back to our example:


Nicholas: Omelettes are better than sausages

Angela: No. Sausages are better than omelettes!

Like basic contextualism, basic relativism holds that better has to be relativized to some

contextual parameter of the context of utterance or of assessment (e.g. the taste standard of the

speaker); but whereas the basic contextualist relativization involves a change of semantic content,

basic relativism predicts a change in extension without a change in semantic content. The advantage

of this analysis is that it explains that appearance of disagreement by attributing to speakers the

expression of incompatible propositional contents (condition (i) of Basic disagreement). The

appearance of faultlessness is also accounted for because, like in the contextualist case, the idea is

that in normal circumstances each speaker judges correctly relatively to his/her own standards.

However, the basic relativist proposal suffers from a problem analogous to the one
underlined for basic contextualism. According to basic relativism, in (Omelettes) the exchange has

to be interpreted as equivalent to:

(Omelettes-relativist)Nicholas [using his standards as part of the circumstances]: Omelettes

are better than sausages.

Angela [using her standards as part of the circumstances]: No. Sausages are better than


Basic relativism analyses better as pointing to the circumstances that include the judges

standards. In (Omelettes-relativist) Nicholas and Angela are taking different circumstances as

relevant for evaluating the (common) propositional content involved in the dispute and the assertion

made. This latter fact prevents the satisfaction of condition (ii) (the Aboutness condition) of Basic

disagreement (cf. Francn 2010). To see the point, take the following example:

Consider Jane (who inhabits this world, the actual world) and June, her counterpart in

another possible world. Jane asserts that Mars has two moons, and June denies this very

proposition. Do they disagree? Not in any real way. Janes assertion concerns our world,

while Junes concerns hers. If June lives in a world where Mars has three moons, her denial

may be just as correct as Janes assertion. (MacFarlane 2007: 23)

Just as there is no disagreement between two speakers in two different worlds accepting and

rejecting the same proposition, disagreement is lost also in the (Omelettes-relativist) scenario.20
It may seem ironic that we mention MacFarlane for supporting our lost disagreement objection, since it implies that

MacFarlane would then be portrayed as arguing against his own view. Of course, MacFarlane does not argue

against his own view nor do we intend to suggest this. Rather, his example is meant to show that an appropriate

account of disagreement must not appeal only to the propositional contents of the speech acts but must be

connected to the notion of context. Or so he argues. We discuss his proposal in Coliva&Moruzzi ms. We quoted

MacFarlane because we think he has underlined an intuitive difficulty that any relativist treatment faces in relation
3 Semantic Blindness

At this point both basic contextualism and basic relativism could invoke the semantic blindness

hypothesis: speakers ignore the real workings of the semantics of their utterances and therefore take

themselves to disagree even if they are, as a matter of fact, just talking past each other. In fact both

basic contextualism and basic relativism predict that one of the conditions of Basic Disagreement is

not satisfied in the Omelettes scenario: according to basic contextualism speakers express contents

whose truth-values are not mutually exclusive, whereas basic relativism holds that speakers'

acceptances of the content express concern different circumstances. It thus then follows that in such

a scenario any expression of disagreement is at fault since at least one necessary condition for the

existence of a disagreement is not satisfied. The semantic blindness hypothesis explains this mistake

in the linguistic performance (e.g. Angela's utterance of No to express her rejection of what

Nicholas has asserted) by positing a misunderstanding of what has been actually expressed in the

linguistic exchange (basic contextualism) or of what circumstances are relevant for assessing the

correctness of the assertions (basic relativism).

Notice that such a move is compatible only with the empirical revisionary project. In fact the

descriptive projects (normative and empirical) are ruled out because they presuppose that the theory

does not contradict speakers' representation of the relevant area of discourse; normative revisionism

is ruled out too because the semantic blindness hypothesis is used to explain a pattern of use of

linguistic expressions, whereas a normative revisionist project aims to criticize this pattern as not

rationally sustainable. The semantic blindness hypothesis entails that disputes on taste are in fact

mistaken: were the speakers aware of the workings of the semantics for their utterances, they would

stop arguing and the dispute would no longer be rationally sustainable since they would realize that

they are just mistaken in thinking of disagreeing with each other.

Notice also the methodologically problematic consequence of turning to an empirical

revisionary project. For if we opt for this move, it becomes dubious that we can trust those semantic
to the notion of basic disagreement. Of course the relativist can revise the notion of basic disagreement, but then it

becomes controversial whether the new relativistic notion of disagreement is acceptable.

intuitions that are usually appealed to in order to motivate contextualism and relativism. So either

these theories can be independently motivated (for example by arguing in favor of the metaphysics

underwritten by contextualist semantics), or the semantic blindness hypothesis cuts the ground

underneath the very philosophical positions it is meant to be a defense of (cf. Baker 2012: 112-15).21

It might be replied that the data supporting contextualism and relativism come from a set of

intuitions that is distinct from the set for which semantic blindness is invoked. Contextualism, for

example, has been typically motivated by intuitions about the variability of truth-values of

utterances across different contexts (see Cappelen&Lepore 2005:17-38). The contextualist might

then argue that this set of intuitions provides evidence for a contextualist semantics for, say, taste

vocabulary independently of the disagreement data. As for the intuitions about disagreement the

contextualist might then hold that these are so hopelessly muddled to prevent ordinary speakers

from understanding properly the correct semantics for these expressions. To this objection we have

two replies. First, the semanticist who defends these theories should explain why intuitions about

disagreement are confused: do ordinary speakers have a cognitive shortcoming when they employ

the concept of disagreement? Or is the concept of disagreement itself ambiguous or, perhaps, even

incoherent? More has to be said to motivate the confusion hypothesis. Second, though it is a

common practice for linguists to hold similar semantic blindness hypothesis, contextualists and

relativists have nonetheless the burden of proof of showing that the unreliability of intuitions about

disagreement does not cast doubt on the reliability of the other set of intuitions that are supposed to

independently motivate the theory (such as intuitions about the variability in truth-value of

utterances in the case of contextualism).

However, the crucial question is another one: granting the semantic blindness hypothesis, is a

revisionary explanation of the disputes a palatable solution to the problem of faultless

disagreement? The price to pay (assuming the notion of Basic disagreement), to account for the

appearance of faultlessness, is to explain away the appearance of disagreement. Contextualists and

In fact Cappelen (2008) argues that semantics should not be based on intuitions about content because they are

relativists could, of course, reject Basic disagreement by claiming that the appearance of

disagreement could be explained by some kind of disagreement other than Basic disagreement (see

supra fn 16). It then becomes an open question which one is more worthy. However, if we grant

Basic disagreement there is no longer any clear advantage in an approach that focuses on the role of

context since the advertised advantage of vindicating a genuine sense of faultless disagreement

would be lost.

4 Conclusions

The upshot is then that both contextualism and relativism in their basic forms cannot redeem as

genuine the many disputes we continuously face in a subjective domain such as taste discourse

since these theories are committed to a revisionary stance. We want to be clear, though, that our

conclusion is not meant to be an unconditional and unqualified rejection of contextualism and

relativism. These theories might be supported by considerations that are different from the

phenomenon of faultless disagreement. Rather, the conclusion of our argument is conditional and

qualified: if we accept Basic disagreement, then both (basic) contextualism and (basic) relativism

cant make sense of it and hence they should end up being revisionary with respect to the

appearance of faultless disagreement. This conclusion justifies a thesis of explanatory limitation for

(basic) contextualism and (basic) relativism: unless further work is done in the contextualist and

relativist field, these theories do not seem to be able to pursue a descriptive project with respect to

faultless disagreement.

We started this paper by delineating the possible philosophical projects that can be pursed in

relation to the problem of faultless disagreement. We can now draw some conclusions with respect

to contextualism and relativism (in their basic forms). The (basic) contextualist and the (basic)

relativist have then two options for clarifying what philosophical project there are engaged in: either

they chose to pursue an empirical revisionary project or a normative revisionary one. If the former,

we have argued that they have a methodological problem. In fact if (basic) contextualism and

(basic) relativism have problems in making sense of disagreement (at least in relation to the
phenomenon of faultless disagreement), this outcome would sit badly with their usual

methodological stance, which consists in taking semantic intuitions at face value. We thus think that

contextualists and relativists can either argue that the unreliability of disagreement intuitions does

not cast doubt on the intuitions that can independently support their theories, or their revisionary

stance over faultless disagreement threatens the very reliability of the data that should provide

empirical support for their very theories. If, on the other hand, (basic) contextualists and (basic)

relativists opt for a normative revisionary project, they are committed to the view that disputes in

subjective areas of discourse are not rationally sustainable. As a consequence, speakers should give

up the idea that in disputes of inclination opposite views are incompatible and they should stop

arguing.22 The empirical and normative revisionary project could also be conjoined: empirical

semantics could then be used, along the lines of the Dummettian project, to call for a revision of a

trait of our subjective discourse that concerns our mode of reasoning and disputing. This is a line of

research that could be interestingly pursued but that is, so far, alien to current debates on

contextualism and relativism.

To sum up, we think that there is a challenge to be met by (basic) contextualists and (basic)

relativists who are prone to be engaged in a descriptive project on faultless disagreement, but that

there also new prospects for those theorists who are persuaded to move to a revisionary project on

faultless disagreement.

The prospect for the converted revisionists are, if the converted subscribe to an empirical

credo, to clarify the role that disagreement intuitions have with respect the evidential basis for their

theory and, if they subscribe to a normative credo, to assess the consequences for reasoning and

rationality in the targeted subjective domains.

The challenge for the obstinate descripitivists is the following. Either a different notion of

disagreement is canvassed perhaps one merely non-doxastic in character, related to the different

attitudes and commitments that people judging P and not-P from different contexts of evaluation

This view fits Rovane (2012) stance towards disputes on morality. However it is not clear what background semantic

theory Rovane would accept (though her view seems very much in line with some sort of subvaluationism).
would have ; or else, pending further work for contextualists and relativists on the rationality of

the targeted disputes and on the status of the semantic intuitions taken to provide an evidential basis

for these theories, the prospects for a contextualist or a relativist descriptive account of faultless

disagreement look bleak. An inquiry into a different notion of disagreement would, no doubt, be

reasonable, but Basic disagreement too is definitely a legitimate notion. With respect to that, the

relativist and the contextualist (at least when engaged in a descriptive project) seem to have very

little credible to say.23


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Our result is compatible with the idea that the concept of faultless disagreement is accounted for by a relativist

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invariantism, contextualism and relativism (a non-trivial question), nothing dictates that a descriptive project can be

somehow successfully pursued; it might be the case that not even an invariantist theory would be successful in pursuing

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