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Carl G. Hempel Lecture Series

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Carl G. Hempel Lecture Series

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Aboutness

Stephen Yablo

Aboutness has been studied from any number of angles. Brentano made it the defining feature of the mental. Phenomenologists try to pin down the aboutness-features of particular mental states. Materialists sometimes claim to have grounded aboutness in natural regularities. Attempts have even been made, in library science and information theory, to operationalize the notion.

But it has played no real role in philosophical semantics. This is surprising; sentences have aboutness-properties if anything does. Aboutness is the first book to examine through a philosophical lens the role of subject matter in meaning.

A long-standing tradition sees meaning as truth-conditions, to be specified by listing the scenarios in which a sentence is true. Nothing is said about the principle of selection--about what in a scenario gets it onto the list. Subject matter is the missing link here. A sentence is true because of how matters stand where its subject matter is concerned.

Stephen Yablo maintains that this is not just a feature of subject matter, but its essence. One indicates what a sentence is about by mapping out logical space according to its changing ways of being true or false. The notion of content that results--directed content--is brought to bear on a range of philosophical topics, including ontology, verisimilitude, knowledge, loose talk, assertive content, and philosophical methodology.

Written by one of today's leading philosophers, Aboutness represents a major advance in semantics and the philosophy of language.

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Mere Possibilities

Metaphysical Foundations of Modal Semantics

Robert Stalnaker

It seems reasonable to believe that there might have existed things other than those that in fact exist, or have existed. But how should we understand such claims? Standard semantic theories exploit the Leibnizian metaphor of a set of all possible worlds: a proposition might or must be true if it is true in some or all possible worlds. The actualist, who believes that nothing exists except what actually exists, prefers to talk of possible states of the world, or of ways that a world might be. But even the actualist still faces the problem of explaining what we are talking about when we talk about the domains of other possible worlds. In Mere Possibilities, Robert Stalnaker develops a framework for clarifying this problem, and explores a number of actualist strategies for solving it.

Some philosophers have hypothesized a realm of individual essences that stand as proxies for all merely possible beings. Others have argued that we are committed to the necessary existence of everything that does or might exist. In contrast, Mere Possibilities shows how we can make sense of ordinary beliefs about what might and must exist without making counterintuitive metaphysical commitments. The book also sheds new light on the nature of metaphysical theorizing by exploring the interaction of semantic and metaphysical issues, the connections between different metaphysical issues, and the nature of ontological commitment.

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Speech Matters

On Lying, Morality, and the Law

Seana Valentine Shiffrin

To understand one another as individuals and to fulfill the moral duties that require such understanding, we must communicate with each other. We must also maintain protected channels that render reliable communication possible, a demand that, Seana Shiffrin argues, yields a prohibition against lying and requires protection for free speech. This book makes a distinctive philosophical argument for the wrong of the lie and provides an original account of its difference from the wrong of deception.

Drawing on legal as well as philosophical arguments, the book defends a series of notable claims—that you may not lie about everything to the “murderer at the door,” that you have reasons to keep promises offered under duress, that lies are not protected by free speech, that police subvert their mission when they lie to suspects, and that scholars undermine their goals when they lie to research subjects.

Many philosophers start to craft moral exceptions to demands for sincerity and fidelity when they confront wrongdoers, the pressures of non-ideal circumstances, or the achievement of morally substantial ends. But Shiffrin consistently resists this sort of exceptionalism, arguing that maintaining a strong basis for trust and reliable communication through practices of sincerity, fidelity, and respecting free speech is an essential aspect of ensuring the conditions for moral progress, including our rehabilitation of and moral reconciliation with wrongdoers.

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Surviving Death

Mark Johnston

In this extraordinary book, Mark Johnston sets out a new understanding of personal identity and the self, thereby providing a purely naturalistic account of surviving death.

Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, "something in death that is better for the good than for the bad." Yet, as Johnston shows, all existing theological conceptions of the afterlife are either incoherent or at odds with the workings of nature. These supernaturalist pictures of the rewards for goodness also obscure a striking consilience between the philosophical study of the self and an account of goodness common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism: the good person is one who has undergone a kind of death of the self and who lives a life transformed by entering imaginatively into the lives of others, anticipating their needs and true interests. As a caretaker of humanity who finds his or her own death comparatively unimportant, the good person can see through death.

But this is not all. Johnston's closely argued claims that there is no persisting self and that our identities are in a particular way "Protean" imply that the good survive death. Given the future-directed concern that defines true goodness, the good quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind. Every time a baby is born a good person acquires a new face.

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