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

Published/Forthcoming

"Magidor on Anomaly and Gaps"
Forthcoming in Inquiry, Symposium on Ofra Magidor's Category Mistakes
Abstract | Draft

This symposium contribution considers two of the more central objections that Magidor (2013) presents against the view that anomalous utterances sometimes express 'partial propositions' that are truth-valueless at some worlds. The first is a Williamsonian logical argument that such propositions entail the possibility of true contradictions. The second is an argument that positing partial propositions is unhelpful in accounting for infelicity judgments connected with anomaly. I contend that the Williamsonian argument, without significant supplementation, begs the question against its target. And I argue that any concerns that partial propositions cannot account for the aberrations of anomaly are based on a misleading conception of how extension-level semantic defect influences felicity judgments. The paper concludes by conceding that Magidor is nonetheless correct in stressing that appeals to partial propositions face noteworthy foundational challenges, as well as empirical challenges in application to anomaly in particular.

"Semantics for Semantics"
Forthcoming in Relevance of the Liar, Bradley Amour-Garb (ed.), Oxford University Press
Abstract | (Ante?)Penultimate Draft

This paper investigates the relevance of liar sentences, and semantic circularity more generally, to compositional semantic theorizing. The paper begins by explaining our need for a compositional semantics for semantic vocabulary like "true". It then details a distinctive challenge for compositional theories accommodating semantic circularity. The challenge is to explain, consistently with linguistic productivity facts, relatively stable truth-value judgments concerning two classes of virtuous semantic circularities. I argue that we cannot explain the productive speaker judgements concerning the two classes using a theory that gives "true" an extension assignment as part of its semantic value, owing to a special kind of explanatory circularity. After giving this argument, I explain what shape semantic theories would need to take to avoid the circularity. Intriguingly, the theories in question accommodate a very unusual form of context-sensitivity, unlike that found in (say) ordinary indexical pronouns or gradable adjectives. Theories with precisely this unusual form of sensitivity have been exploited to avoid problems arising from the vicious semantic circularity of the liar. Thus, exploring the conditions for accommodating semantic circularity within a compositional framework privileges a particular kind of approach to the liar paradox, notably advocated by Haim Gaifman.

"De Re Belief and Cumming's Puzzle"
(2015) Analytic Philosophy 56 (1):45–74
Abstract | Penultimate Draft

[This is one of two 'companion' papers with "Time Travel, Anaphora, and Attitudes".]
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. I use Cumming's puzzle to showcase the virtues of a rival, broadly Stalnakerian, treatment of attitude ascriptions that safeguards Millianism. I begin by arguing that Cumming's solution seems unable to account for substitutivity data that helps constitute the very puzzle he uses to motivate his account. Once the substitutivity data is acknowledged, the puzzle actually seems to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Millian position. I then argue that the real 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 intensionality.

"Anomaly and Quantification"
(2015) Noûs 49 (1):147–76
Abstract | 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.

"What is a Truth-Value Gap?"
(2014) Linguistics & Philosophy 37 (6):503–34
Abstract | Penultimate Draft

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.

"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)

"Epistemics, Emotives, and Evidence" with Adam Marushak
Abstract

In the flurry of recent work on the semantics of epistemic modals, it has been noted that they embed under preferential attitude verbs known as emotive doxastics. We argue that these embeddings provide an extremely rich source of constraints on the semantics of epistemic modals. After presenting the data, we run through several prominent semantics for modals, focusing first on broadly expressivist positions before transitioning to contextualist forms of descriptivism. We note how pairing each theory we consider with various semantics for emotive doxastics yields highly problematic truth-conditions or entailments, or sometimes no predictions at all. The process in turn uncovers an increasingly complex data set, with no current theory poised to account for all of it. Some of this data is particularly important because of how it pressures us to reconceive influential lessons drawn from modal embeddings under verbs expressing familiar attitudes of acceptance (Hacquard (2006), Yalcin (2007)). After discussing these issues, we sketch a novel kind of contextualist semantics that is capable of accommodating all the data. We conclude with some recommendations for how expressivists and descriptivists should adjust their compositional frameworks along with their philosophical underpinnings, if our conclusions are on the right track.

"Paradoxical Mentality"
Abstract

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.

"Time Travel, Anaphora, and Attitudes"
Abstract

[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.

"The Combinatorics of Conscious Experience"
Abstract

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"
Abstract

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"
Abstract

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"
Abstract

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.

  • 2014-2015
  • 2013-2014
    • Spring
      -Metaphysics & Epistemology Core (Proseminar)
      -Games, Decisions, and Rational Choice
    • Fall
      -Truth
      -Philosophy of Language
  • 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

    Address

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

    Office

    1009E Cathedral of Learning

    Office Hours

    By Appointment