, or he
needs to show that the twin would have chosen his own com-
munity.
The Fundamental Problem
The fact that it is not obvious that the person in our commu-
nity would have deferred to our community is merely one as-
pect of the most fundamental problem for the social externalist.
For just as we can ask whether the person in our community
would defer to the counterfactual community as Burge de-
scribes it, we can also imagine other communities that are more
or less similar. The basic problem is thus: the social externalist
needs to show that the person in our community and his twin
would not have deferred to the same understanding if they were
presented with the same choices. But as long as they are de-
fined as identical “from the inside” in the Putnamian sense—
that is, as long as they are supposed to have the same idiosyn-
cratic perspective on the worldit is not unreasonable to as-
sume that Putnamian twins would have deferred to the same
understanding. As shown, the crucial idea for Burge is the idea
of a person who has “assumed a general commitment or re-
sponsibility to the communal conventions governing the lan-
guage’s symbols” (Burge; 1979: p. 114). In accordance with
this assumption, if the person in our community and the twin
would have deferred to the same understanding, then it seems
that this understanding is the best candidate for capturing the
nature of their concepts.
It is important to bear in mind that this objection does not
depend on the idea of an entire alternative twin earth commu-
nity to which the speakers would defer. Consider again Burge’s
“mortgage” case. We may imagine a group of speakers in our
community who have chosen to understand “mortgage” in a
way that is fairly similar to the understanding of the person in
the first step of the thought experiment but is nevertheless dif-
ferent from our standard understanding. How can we be sure
that the person would not have deferred to these speakers? We
could then introduce the same group of speakers in the coun-
terfactual community in the third step of the thought experi-
ment and ask the same question about the twin.
This point is significant, since some might object that it is
not plausible to assume that the person with the partial under-
standing in our community and his twin would have deferred to
alternative twin earth communities. But this is to misunderstand
the problem. The crucial question is not whether the person in
our community and his twin would have deferred to the same
twin earth community. Rather, the crucial question is whether
there is some alternative understanding—described in one way
or another—that both would have chosen. From this wider per-
spective, Burge’s argument is unconvincing because it does not
establish that it is reasonable to assume that they would have
chosen different norms of meaning if they had been presented
with the same alternatives.
There are two ways the externalist could attempt to respond
to this objection. The first is to claim that how the person in our
community and his twin would have deferred if confronted with
all the relevant alternatives is not the crucial point; instead,
what is decisive is the fact that they defer to their respective
communities as described by Burge. The problem with this
response is that it is inconsistent with analyses of meaning and
understanding that assume that questions about concept posses-
sion must be answered on the basis of dispositional considera-
tions. To be sure, dispositional accounts of meaning and under-
standing have been developed in different ways (Kripke, 1982;
Guttenplan, 1994; McManus, 2000; Kusch, 2005), but for the
purposes here these further differences are not crucial. My aim
is merely to show that Burge’s argument is unconvincing, and
for this purpose it is sufficient that considerations about how a
person is disposed to apply a term in counterfactual contexts
seem relevant for questions of understanding. There is an im-
mediate, intuitive appeal to the idea that a person’s overall dis-
positions to apply a term are relevant for determining which
concept he expresses. If we can form a clear view of how a
person understands a term not only in actual cases, but also in
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relevant counterfactual ones, then it seems reasonable to as-
sume that his concept has an extension that matches both the
actual and cou n t e r f a c t ua l applications.7
This idea has been central in very many philosophical analy-
ses of concept possession, and not only classical accounts of
straightforward one-to-one applications of natural kind con-
cepts. To see this, we may consider again Peacocke’s above
analysis of implicit conceptions of a concept like the limit of a
series. For Peacocke, the crucial point is that if a person who
has an implicit conception of this concept were confronted with
its correct explanation and, given time to consider it, then he
would defer to this explanation and thereby show that our nor-
mative concept is the one that best matches his understanding.
Peacocke (1998) thinks that this idea is plausible in itself, but
we need not accept Peacocke’s specific analysis of implicit
conceptions in order to accept the more general idea that coun-
terfactual considerations about how a person is disposed to use
a concept should have an intuitive role in theories of concept
possession. The problem is that Burge does not confront this
idea in his arguments.
The other way the externalist can attempt to respond to the
dispositional challenge is to argue that even though a disposi-
tional approach to concept possession is correct, the person in
our community and his twin would not have accepted and de-
ferred to the same explanation of the term in question. To this
response I emphasize that I have not claimed that they would
have deferred to the same meaning. For the purpose of showing
that Burge’s argument is unconvincing, I merely needed to
point to the fact that it is not reasonably clear that they would
have deferred to different meaning explanations. It is simply
difficult to imagine the whole scenario, and especially difficult
to determine what the twin would have done. We do not seem
to have any robust intuitions about this.
This is a general point that applies no matter how the thought
experiment is formulated. Consider, for instance, the suggestion
that the person in our community would defer to our under-
standing (and the twin to the counterfactual community) simply
because it is his actual community. One might seek to ground
this suggestion in general ideas about how a person can feel
attached psychologically to things in the actual world, so that
he would choose to have these things because they are the
things that they actually are. An analogy can make this idea
clearer: a person might be attached to his actual old car in a
way such that he would not prefer to have a new car even
though the old car is noisy, cramped and unreliable.
So why not suppose that the person in our community would
prefer to defer to our understanding for the same kind of reason?
According to this objection, the person in the “mortgage” case
(2 above) might not defer to an explanation of “mortgage” that
represents our understanding if he does not know that it is our
understanding. But the crucial point, some might suggest, is
that he would choose our understanding if he knew that it was
our understanding.
However, even if we grant to the externalist that the person
has this kind of knowledge the problem remains the same: in
order for Burge’s argument to be “intuitively compelling” as he
claims that it is, then it also has to be intuitively compelling that
persons with a partial understanding feel attached to the norma-
tive meaning in their linguistic communities in the same way
that we can feel attached to other things. But this is far from ob-
vious. In the “mortgage” case, it is not clear that the person in
our community case would experience a special attachment to
our correct definition of “mortgage”. We do not seem to be
emotionally or cognitively attached to the standard meaning of
language expressions in the way we are sometimes attached to
actual persons or things.8
It is important to bear in mind that this objection does not
require that we pick out the understanding that best matches
that of the person with the partial understanding. It is sufficient
that we can think of one alternative meaning explanation that
the person might choose to defer to. In the “mortgage” case we
may in fact use Burge’s description of the term’s meaning in
the counterfactual community as an alternative explanation. As
shown above, Burge imagines “our man constant in the ways
previously indicated and that ‘mortgage’ commonly applied
only to mortgages on houses” (Burge, 1979: p. 83).
The difference between this alternative explanation and our
standard understanding is that our standard concept applies not
only to loans to finance the purchase of houses, but also to
loans to finance the purchase all forms of real estate (including
property like land). As Burge characterizes the first step of the
thought experiment, this idea about real estate is very remote
from the person’s understanding. So suppose that the person
was asked to choose between the alternative explanation and
our standard understanding. It does not seem unreasonable to
assume that he would reason as follows: “This alternative way
of understanding ‘mortgage’ seems to capture my understand-
ing better than the comprehensive idea about real estate. I had
absolutely no idea that it is possible to have a ‘mortgage’ on
land. So it seems that my concept of mortgage, as I have under-
stood it, corresponds to this more narrow way of understanding
the term.”
Of course, the person might then choose to change his under-
standing so that it matches our standard understanding, but that
would not help the social externalist. The reason is that the
externalist is committed to making a distinction between a per-
son who defers to an explanation of a word on the basis of an
understanding he has, and a person who defers simply because
he thinks that an explanation is correct (regardless whether or
not he has a partial understanding). Consider as an example of
the latter case a person who is beginning to learn English and
who thinks for some time that “blue” means red. When he dis-
covers his mistake he will defer to the public meaning of “blue”
and change his beliefs about the term, but that does not mean
that he earlier expressed the concept blue by “blue”.
7There are w ell known chal lenges relat ed to the need of specifyi ng cases o
f
application that determine the nature of a person’s concepts (Loewer,1997;
McManus, 2000; Kusch, 2005). For instance, the concept I express by “dog”
can be dog even if I mistakenly apply “dog” to a cat that from a long dista nc e
looks to me like a dog. But the problem of specifying content-determining
applications in a non-circular way does not undermine the general idea tha t a
p
erson’s concepts are individuated both on the basis of relevant actual and
counterfactual behavior. It is this general ide a that Burge does not confront.
8What if Burge simply assumed that the persons in the thought experiment
would choose their respective actual communities? There are two obvious
problems with this strategy. First, if Burge’s premises are either question-
able or insufficiently justified, then social externalism based on partial un-
derstanding is not a very interesting philosophical theory. Secondly, if social
externalism based on partial understanding is going to describe a widespread
p
henomenon (that persons’ concepts are individuated “externalistically”) as
Burge clai ms th at the p o siti on do es, t hen t he as sumpt io ns Bu rg e makes mus t
correspond to how persons with a partial understanding would tend to be-
have in real life.
This is obviously part of the reason why Burge requires that
the person in the thought experiment has a minimal under-
standing. Burge’s idea is that a person with a minimal under-
standing has our concept if he is deference-willing and if his
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understanding matches our standard reasonably well. The
problem for Burge is that even if we grant that these two condi-
tions are met in the “mortgage” case, it is not unreasonable to
assume that the person would think that the alternative explana-
tion better matches his understanding and that he therefore
would think that his present concept corresponds to this expla-
nation.
We can strengthen this objection further by imagining that
the person was confronted by a group of speakers who under-
stood “mortgage” in the alternative way. The suggestion would
then be that this would make him even more confident that he
has an alternative concept, that the fact that a group of speakers
has a similar understanding would make it even more probable
that he would think that his use of term belongs within what
Wittgenstein would call a “language-game” that does not corre-
spond to the standard definition in a dictionary. Again, the pre-
sent argument does not require that this is obvious. For the
purpose of showing that Burge’s argument is unconvincing, it
is sufficient to point to the fact that we do not have robust in-
tuit-tions about this. Further arguments are needed, but Burge
has not provided any.
This fundamental uncertainty about the preferences of the
persons in the thought experiment relates in particular to the
fact that it is possible for “twin earth” thought experiments to
have an important role in philosophical arguments as long as
we restrict our assumptions to how the counterfactual commu-
nity actually is. It is quite a different matter when we also have
to determine, on the basis of these assumptions, how the twin in
the counterfactual community would have acted if confronted
with yet another counterfactual understanding. In order to de-
termine this, we need to determine how the twin would have
thought about himself, his understanding and his community in
this even more hypothetical situation. The thought experiment
becomes so complex that it seems overwhelmingly difficult to
make robust interpretations without ramifying further substan-
tial and theoretical assumptions.
This issue is not at all confronted in Burge’s arguments for
social externalism based on partial understanding. What Burge
appeals to in his defense of the third step of the thought ex-
periment is the idea that an understanding that is not coextend-
sional with our understanding cannot correspond to our concept:
“The word ‘arthritis’ in the counterfactual community does not
mean arthritis. It does not apply only to inflammations of
joints” (Burge, 1979: p. 79). As shown above, critics of Burge
have argued that the person with the incorrect understanding of
“arthritis” in our community possesses the standard concept of
the counterfactual community because it directly matches his
understanding. This objection cannot succeed in cases of partial
understanding, but I have argued that Burge faces a further
problem related to deference-willingness: in order to make it
reasonably clear that the twin would have chosen to defer to the
standard in his community, then this standard must be defined
to approximate his understanding. But then it is not unreason-
able to assume that the person in our community would have
deferred to this understanding as well.
More generally, it is not implausible that the person in our
community and his twin would have deferred to the same un-
derstanding if they were presented with the same choices. And
if they would, then a reasonable “wide” interpretation of the
externalistic assumption about deference-willingness implies
that they have the same concept. But then social externalism
based on partial understanding is false. The social externalist
could retreat to a “narrow” conception of deference-willingness,
but at the cost of adhering to a problematic and counterintuitive
conception.
Conclusion
Social externalism based on partial understanding escapes
the standard objection to the argument for social externalism
based on incorrect understanding. But social externalism based
on partial understanding faces another problem related to the
assumption about deference-willingness to normative meaning.
Burge claims that the person with a partial understanding of a
term in our community has our concept since he is willing to
defer to our correct understanding, and that his counterfactual
twin has another concept since he lives in a community where
the term has another standard meaning.
I have argued that in order for this argument to be convincing,
it has to be reasonably clear that deference-willingness should
not be understood as a wider dispositional attitude, or that the
person in our community and his twin would not have deferred
to the same understanding if they were presented with the same
choices. The main problem for Burge is that this is not reasona-
bly clear. Burge rests the main part of his defense of social
externalism on what he thinks of as the immediate appeal of the
three steps of the externalistic thought experiment. In this way
Burge accepts the widespread view that philosophical thought
experiments can support substantial philosophical conclusions
if we have strong intuitions about how they should be inter-
preted. The problem is that we do not have such intuitions
about some of the crucial assumptions social externalism based
on partial understanding requires. The externalist needs to pre-
sent further substantial arguments for these assumptions, but
there are good reasons for being skeptical about the possibility
of finding such arguments.
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