James R. Shaw

About Me

I'm an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh where I came after completing my PhD at Harvard in 2009.

My main areas of research are in the philosophy of language and philosophical logic, specifically on the topics of truth and semantic defect. I am slowly working on a book on the former topic.

I have dabbled in a few other areas including formal epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind, and the history of analytic philosophy. I've posted papers on some of these topics here.

Contact Research Courses


"Anomaly and Quantification", forthcoming in Noûs
Abstract | Online First | Penultimate Draft

I argue for two theses about semantically anomalous utterances (more commonly called "category mistakes") like "sequestered slaps reel evergreen rights". First, semantic anomaly generates a unique form of semantically enforced quantifier domain restriction. Second, the best explanation for why anomaly interacts with quantifiers in this way is that anomalous utterances are truth-valueless. After arguing for these points, I trace out two consequences these theses have in semantics and logic. First, I argue they motivate a trivalent semantics on which truth-valueless material has an unsual positive role to play in the compositional semantics of truth-evaluable utterances. Second, I argue that the interaction of anomaly with quantifiers generates a unique form of classical inference failure, and also provides special motivations for reconceptualizing our logical consequence relations.

"Truth, Paradox, and Ineffable Propositions"
(2013) Philosophy & Phenomenological Research 86 (1):64–104
Abstract | Penultimate Draft

I argue that on very weak assumptions about truth (in particular, that there are coherent norms governing the use of "true"), there is a proposition absolutely inexpressible with conventional language, or something very close. I argue for this claim "constructively": I use a variant of the Berry Paradox to reveal a particular thought for my readership to entertain that very strongly resists conventional expression. I gauge the severity of this expressive limitation within a taxonomy of expressive failures, and argue that despite its strength there is nothing incoherent about admitting its existence. The argument forms part of a project of clarifying precisely what trade-offs are required to secure the kinds of expressive power truth theorists typically want, in the process showing that the admission of very strong expressive limitations may ultimately prove to be the lesser of two evils.

"De Se Belief and Rational Choice"
(2013) Synthese 190 (3):491–508
Abstract | Penultimate Draft

The Sleeping Beauty puzzle has dramatized the divisive question of how de se beliefs should be integrated into formal theories of rational belief change. In this paper, I look ahead to a related question: how should de se beliefs be integrated into formal theories of rational choice? I argue that standard decision theoretic frameworks (e.g., Causal and Evidential Decision Theory) fail in special cases of de se uncertainty, like Sleeping Beauty. The nature of the failure reveals that sometimes rational choices are determined independently of one's credences in the kinds of "narrow" de se propositions that Sleepy Beauty has set in relief. Consequently, in addition to pinpointing a failure of standard decision theoretic frameworks, this result casts doubt on a large class of strategies for determining principles for the rational updating of de se beliefs in cases like Sleeping Beauty, and also calls into question the importance of making such a determination at all.

"The Morality of Blackmail"
(2012) Philosophy & Public Affairs 40 (3): 165–196
Abstract | Penultimate Draft

Blackmail raises a pair of parallel legal and moral problems, sometimes referred to as the "paradox of blackmail". It is sometimes legal and morally permissible to ask someone for money, or to threaten to release harmful information about them, while it is illegal and morally impermissible to do these actions jointly. I address the moral version of this paradox by bringing instances of blackmail under a general account of wrongful coercion. According to this account, and contrary to the appearances which give rise to the paradox, threatening the release of harmful information to constrain another's actions is almost never morally impermissible unless it is likewise impermissible to carry out one's threat. To defend this claim I identify a special wrong that arises in the paradoxical cases of threatened information release. The account also resolves a number of other puzzles about blackmail—for example, why profiting from a threat in blackmail can sometimes be impermissible, even though accepting identical payment from an independent offer to retain the same information can be permissible.

Drafts (e-mail for unlinked papers)

"Epistemic Expressivism, Attitudes, and Evidence" with Adam Marushak

We argue that the embeddability of modals under certain preferential attitudes presents serious obstacles for expressivism about epistemic modality. Existing expressivist accounts can't pair with received semantics for preferential attitudes without generating bizarre truth-conditions (or no truth-conditions at all). The best ways of adjusting an expressivist semantics for modals, or the semantics for preferential attitudes, don't seem to resolve the same basic problem. Moreover, the data cuts away at some motivations for expressivist positions, revealing that Yalcin's (2007) treatment of epistemic contradictions doesn't safely generalize to preferential attitudes. The data intriguingly also militates against orthodox descriptivist views on which modals describe features of mental states. This privileges a descriptivist semantics on which epistemic modals are habitually used to describe non-mentalistic bodies of evidence. Such a semantics yields simple, plausible predictions for the semantics of epistemics in preferential contexts without any changes to existing semantics for attitude reports, readily overcoming the relevant problems for expressivist views. In the process, it provides a strikingly simple, and fully general, explanation of data from epistemic contradictions.

"Paradoxical Mentality"

A familiar lesson of Kripke (1975) is that truth-talk is risky: useful talk about truth can court the danger of being used in circumstances that would render it paradoxical. I argue the opposite holds of thought. We may be capable, in some sense, of becoming cognitively related to paradoxical propositions. But in a more important sense it is impossible get into a paradoxical mental state, even accidentally, because there is no such thing. The simplest and most tempting arguments for the existence of paradoxical mental states rely on controversial assumptions about the the role of propositions in the semantics of attitude reports. Ironically, the strongest reasons to reject those assumptions arise in scrutinizing alleged cases of contingent paradoxical mentality. In the first part of my paper, I bring out the contested assumptions in a way that clarifies the metaphysical preconditions of genuinely paradoxical mental states: they require the existence of certain very peculiar forms of mental reflexivity. In the second part, I argue using features of special kinds of suppositions that the relevant forms of mental reflexivity don't exist. The argument drives us to embrace interesting asymmetric accounts of linguistic and mental liar-like phenomena, a fact that presents a prima facie challenge for almost all existing accounts of semantic paradox.

"De Re Belief and Cumming's Puzzle"

[This is one of two 'companion' papers with "A Puzzle about Binding and Coreference".] Cumming (2008) uses a puzzle about belief ascription to argue against a Millian semantics, and in favor of a semantics on which names are assigned denotations relative to a shiftable variable assignment. But a generalization of Cumming's puzzle involving definite descriptions shows that its solution shouldn't appeal to the influence of any shiftable parameters on overt referring expressions. As such the puzzle actually strengthens, rather than weakens, the Millian position. Instead, I argue, the force of the puzzle is to place special constraints on our accounts of de re belief ascription. To help bring out the nature of those constraints, I connect aspects of Cumming's puzzle to more familiar problems about belief ascription raised by Quine. I then defend three theses making up a skeletal account of de re belief ascription that promises to cope naturally with the variants of Cumming's puzzle, and integrate them into a broader theory of de re ascription.

"A Puzzle about Binding and Coreference"

[This is one of two 'companion' papers with "De Re Belief and Cumming's Puzzle".] Standard theory has it that the denotations of anaphors like herself are obligatorily constrained by an antecedent. I note that in science fiction cases, this thesis seems in tension with the intuition that Jane hits herself has at least four readings, even if the antecedent Jane has (at most) two. I argue that we can't explain the judgments here by appeal to semantic underspecification, covert syntactic material, pragmatic modulation, implicature, or metaphysical theses about existence and persistence. I then sketch my preferred resolution: to treat all "broadly referring" expression types—including names, indexicals, and (most strikingly) syntactically or semantically bound variables—as exhibiting an extraordinary form of context sensitivity in the face of semantic indeterminacy. I conclude by discussing an unusual connection: how this thesis would harmonize with, and bolster, a broadly Stalnakerian treatment of attitude reports I have defended elsewhere.

"Semantics for Semantics"

I argue that a formal theory of truth, of the sort usually developed to cope with paradox, should also act as a compositional semantics for semantic vocabulary, and that providing such a theory faces an under-appreciated problem. Foundational programs in the philosophy of language, as well as some basic empirical data, require a special "benign" reflexivity in uses of semantic vocabulary that forces their compositional semantic values to be highly non-standard. In particular their semantic values cannot be modeled using extensions. This shows that standard model-theoretic semantics has an inadequate structure to capture the compositional behavior of a very important class of natural language predicates. In the process, this result also rules out a wide range of formal theories of truth (including Tarskian and Kripkean) as structurally inadequate. I explore how our compositional theories must be liberalized to accommodate the peculiarities of semantic terms and extract some important lessons from this liberalization.

"What is a Truth-Value Gap?"

Truth-value gaps have received very little attention from a foundational perspective, a fact which has rightfully opened up gap theories to charges of vacuousness. This paper develops an account of the foundations of gap-like behavior which has some hope of avoiding such charges. I begin by reviewing and sharpening a powerful argument of Dummett's to constrain the options that gap theorists have to make sense of their views. I then show that within these strictures, we can give an account of gaps by drawing on elements of a broadly Stalnakerian framework for assertion and using gaps to track an amalgamation of assertoric effects. The discussion reveals that we may need special resources in our theories of assertion to posit gaps, that gaps may be unusable in characterizing the structure of mental states, and that gaps may have heterogeneous linguistic sources that result in equally heterogeneous projective and inferential behavior.

"The Combinatorics of Conscious Experience"

This paper investigates the "combinatorics" of conscious experience: the question of what rearrangements of conscious experiences are metaphysically possible. It defends the claim that we have a certain limited access to facts about conscious combinatorics merely by reflecting on our experiences. It also argues that this access reveals that some combinations of cognitive and phenomenal states are so irrational as to be metaphysically impossible, so that if cognitive phenomenology exists, certain recombinations of conscious experiences are also impossible. This would result in an apparent asymmetry between the combinatorics of mental and non-mental entities, which the physicalist is surprisingly better poised to account for than the dualist. These arguments employ more reliable versions of the a priori, introspective methodology that is familiarly employed by the dualist. As such, they may reveal that the methodology that has for centuries been championed by dualists can interestingly be turned against them.

"Epistemic Paradox and the Limits of Knowledge"

Caie (2012), drawing on Burge (1978), argues that a form of epistemic paradox drives paracomplete theorists to accommodate rationally required indeterminate beliefs. I defend a more moderate position on which the case requires only agnosticism. Part of the defense involves identifying a controversial, and undefended, tacit premise in Caie's reasoning that the moderate position is untenable. After doing so, I conclude by noting that even the moderate position I defend shares a striking consequence with Caie's view: omniscience becomes metaphysically impossible, an epistemic limitation which would complement that from Fitch's Paradox.

"Agreement and Circumstance in the Philosophical Investigations"

I give a reading of Wittgenstein's rule-following sections, with special attention to the role that human agreement plays in them. The crux of the reading involves treating the rule-following block as addressing a pair of logically distinct, but complementary questions: one question that mingles metaphysical and epistemological considerations, and another question roughly within metasemantics. It is argued that, despite their complementarity, the two questions are treated with significantly different methodologies. The attribution of this thoroughgoing bipartite structure resolves a number of internal tensions in the text, in particular restoring harmony between Wittgenstein's explicit metaphilosophy and his seemingly transcendental appeals to human agreement. I argue that Wittgenstein's remarks on human agreement actually reveal a surprising attentiveness to, and plausible treatment of, a blurring of the semantics/metasemantics distinction arising in Wittgenstein's treatment of metasemantic questions. Along the way, I contrast aspects of my reading with those of Dummett, Kripke, Wright, McDowell, Goldfarb, Fogelin, and Baker & Hacker.

"A Procedural Semantics for Truth"

This paper develops a particular formal implementation of truth-proceduralism: the view that the meanings of semantic terms like "true" are given by special kinds of rules for making stepwise assignments of semantic properties to utterances. The paper formulates and deploys new evolving semantic dependence relations making use of supervaluations that are specially tailored to the truth-proceduralist program, and integrates tools, such as generalized quantifiers, suited to capturing general semantic claims in a trivalent setting. The non-standard assignment of semantic properties embodied by the procedural conception of truth interacts with the characterization of semantic dependence to create the need for a special analog of a consistency result, which is proved. The paper then explores the extent to which the resulting system is adequately able to state particular and general facts about its own semantic structure, including its own logic.

  • 2013-2014
  • 2011-2012
    • Spring
      -Metaphysics & Epistemology Core (Proseminar)
      -Philosophy of Language
    • Fall
      -Games, Decisions, and Rational Choice
      -Problems of Philosophy
  • 2010-2011
    • Spring
      -Metaethics and the Philosophy of Language (with Karl Schafer)
      -Problems of Philosophy
    • Fall
      -Problems of Philosophy
      -Philosophy of Language
  • 2009-2010
    • Spring
      -Mental Content: De Re and De Se
    • Fall
      -Problems of Philosophy
      -Philosophy of Language
  • E-mail

    james [at] jshaw.net


    Department of Philosophy
    1001 Cathedral of Learning
    University of Pittsburgh
    Pittsburgh, PA 15260

    Office Phone



    1009E Cathedral of Learning

    Office Hours

    Tuesday 1-3PM