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Papers on Semantic Holism


“Externalism, Metasemantic Contextualism and Self-Knowledge”, in Goldberg, (ed.) Externalism, Self-Knowledge and Skepticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 228-247. (PDF)


Abstract: This paper examines some of the interactions between holism, contextualism, and externalism, and will argue that an externalist metasemantics that grounds itself in certain plausible assumptions about self- knowledge will also be a contextualist metasemantics, and that such a contextualist metasemantics in turn resolves one of the best known problems externalist theories purportedly have with self-knowledge, namely the problem of how the possibility of various sorts of ‘switching’ cases can appear to undermine the ‘transparency’ of our thoughts (in particular, our ability to tell, with respect to any two occurrent thoughts, whether they exercise the same or different concepts). 


“Meaning Holism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 15, 2014 (updated Sept 2020). (Link)


Abstract: A general introduction to the issues surrounding the question of semantic holism. 


“Descriptive Atomism and Foundational Holism: Semantics between the Old Testament and the New” in Gerhard Preyer, (ed): Protosociology, Vol 21: Compositionality, Concepts and Representations, 2005, pp. 7-21. (PDF)


Abstract: While holism and atomism are often treated as mutually exclusive approaches to semantic theory, the apparent tension between the two usually results from running together distinct levels of semantic explanation. In particular, there is no reason why one can’t combine an atomistic conception of what the semantic values of our words are (one’s “descriptive semantics”), with a holistic explanation of why they have those values (one’s “foundational semantics”). Most objections to holism can be shown to apply only to holistic version of descriptive semantics, and do not tell against any sorts of holistic foundational semantics. As Davidson’s work will be used to illustrate, by clearly distinguishing foundational and descriptive semantics, one can capture the most appealing features of both holism and atomism.


“Moderate Holism and the Instability Thesis”, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, October 1999, pp. 361-369. (PDF)


Abstract: Mental or semantic holism can be roughly characterized as the doctrine that the meanings of one’s sentence or the contents of one’s beliefs are a function of (are determined by) their relations to all of one’s other sentences and beliefs.  Holistic theories of meaning and content are typically criticized for (among other things) leaving the ideas of translation, disagreement and change of mind problematic.  However, such criticisms are more properly directed at an “instability thesis” which, while often taken to be a consequence of holism, can be separated from it.  A ‘moderate’ holist need not be committed to the instability thesis, and can thus avoid many of the problems traditionally associated with holism.  


"Fodor on Concepts and Modes of Presentation" Paper presented to the APA Central Division Meeting, Chicago IL, April 2006, Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, New Orleans, March 2008. (PDF)


Abstract: While Jerry Fodor is well known for his criticisms of non-atomistic theories of concepts and intentional content, it has recently been argued that Fodor's theory of concepts is ultimately subject to precisely the same objection that he finds fatal to holistic theories. I'll argue here that while there is a way for Fodor to avoid this charge, the same strategy can be employed by defenders of some, if not most, of the holistic theories that he attacks.

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