Verbal Disputes

The kitchen in the Ertegun house is one floor above the ground. Suppose a person from the UK says ‘the kitchen is on the first floor’ and a person from the US replies ‘the kitchen isn’t on the first floor, it’s on the second floor’. I hope you agree that there’s something defective about this dispute; the disputants are, in some sense, “not really disagreeing”.

That’s the easy case, where the disputants use some expression in the dispute in different ways (in our example, the expression ‘first floor’). But in many cases, even where plausibly the disputants use all of the relevant expressions in the same way, a similar feeling of defectiveness remains (on “semantic externalist” theories, pop- ular amongst philosophers of language, in most cases disputants will manage to converge on the same meanings). For example, suppose person A says ‘the works written between the years 1100 and 1200 constitute an impressive canon’ and person B replies ‘no they don’t, canons consist only of works by a single author’. Even granting that there is a determinate fact about what the English expression ‘canon’ means, so that it’s either true or false that canons can consist of works by more than one author, there remains a feeling that there is something defective about the dispute between persons A and B. In some sense the dispute is “merely one about the meaning of some expression” or “verbal”, but it’s surprisingly hard to get clear on exactly how to cash this idea out, and to make precise just what this idea of a verbal dispute consists in.

On 20-21 May 2015, Ertegun house hosted a two day conference on the topic of verbal disputes. The goal was to bring together philosophers working on issues in philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and metaphysics, that bear on the general topic. We were able to bring in speakers from institutions in the UK, the US, and even Australia, and had attendees coming from all over the UK and mainland Europe. The conference was a huge success, and wouldn’t have been possible without the generous funding from the Ertegun programme. I’m extremely grateful to Mica and Ahmet Ertegun for the funding, and to Kelly and Bryan for all of their help with organizing the conference.

For more information about the conference, check out the conference web-site at . Also, Professor Greg Restall, one of the speakers at the conference, has recently written a blog post about the conference (complete with pictures!). The post is available on his website at

Trevor Teitel