15 February 2005 Semantics, Cross-Cultural Style
Edouard Machery, U.
of Pittsburgh (HPS)
817R, Cathedral of Learning
Abstract: Theories of reference
have been central to analytic philosophy, and two views, the
descriptivist view of reference and the causal-historical
view of reference, have dominated the field. In this research
tradition, theories of reference are assessed by consulting one’s
intuitions about the reference of terms in hypothetical situations.
However, recent work in cultural psychology (e.g., Nisbett
et al. 2001) has shown systematic cognitive differences between
East Asians and Westerners, and some work indicates that this extends
to intuitions about philosophical cases (Weinberg et al. 2001).
In light of these findings on cultural differences, an experiment
was conducted which explored intuitions about reference in Westerners
and East Asians. The experiment indicated that, for certain
central cases, Westerners are more likely than East Asians to report
intuitions that are consistent with the causal-historical view.
These results constitute prima facie evidence that
semantic intuitions vary from culture to culture. I argue
that this fact casts doubts on the philosophical enterprise of developing
a theory of reference as well as on several well-known metaphysical