Papers on Temporal Externalism


“We Live Forwards but Understand Backwards: Linguistic Practices and Future Behavior”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly  80 (1999) pp. 157-177.   (PDF)


Abstract:  Ascriptions of content are sensitive not only to our physical and social environment, but also to unforeseeable developments in the subsequent usage of our terms.   The paper argues that the problems that may seem to come from endorsing such ‘temporally sensitive’ ascriptions either already follow from accepting the socially and historically sensitive ascriptions Burge and Kripke appeal to, or disappear when the view is developed in detail. If one accepts that one’s society’s past and current usage contributes to what one’s terms mean, there is little reason not to let its future usage to do so as well.




“Temporal Externalism, Deference and Our Ordinary Linguistic Practice” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 86 (2005) 379-94.  (PDF)


Abstract: Temporal externalists argue that ascriptions of thought and utterance content can legitimately reflect contingent conceptual developments that are only settled after the time of utterance. While the view has been criticized for failing to accord with our “ordinary linguistic practices”, such criticisms (1) conflate our ordinary ascriptional practices with our more general beliefs about meaning, and (2) fail to distinguish epistemically from pragmatically motivated linguistic changes. Temporal externalism relates only to the former sort of changes, and the future usage relevant to what we mean reflects reason-driven practices that are rational for us to defer to.



“Temporal Externalism and Epistemic Theories of Vagueness”  Philosophical Studies, Vol. 117, No.1-2, (January 2004), pp.79-94. (PDF)


Abstract: ‘Epistemic’ theories of vagueness notoriously claim that (despite the appearances to the contrary) all of our vague terms have sharp boundaries; it’s just that we can’t know what they are. Epistemic theories are typically criticized for failing to explain (1) the source of the ignorance postulated, and (2) how our terms could come to have such precise boundaries. Both of these objections will, however, be shown to rest on certain ‘presentist’ assumptions about the relation between use and meaning, and once these assumptions are rejected, the possibility of a new sort of ‘normative epistemicism’ will emerge.



"Temporal Externalism, Constitutive Norms, and Theories of Vagueness" In Tomas Marvan  (ed.), What Determines Content? The Internalism/Externalism Dispute, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press (2006), pp. 221-242.  (PDF)


Abstract: Another paper exploring the relation between Temporal externalism and Epistemicism about Vagueness, but with slightly more emphasis on the role of constitutive norms relating to our concept of truth.


 "Temporal externalism, conceptual continuity, meaning, and use", Inquiry, 63:9-10, 959-973, 2020 . (PDF)


Abstract: Our ascriptions of content to past utterances assign to them a level of conceptual continuity and determinacy that extends beyond what could be grounded in the usage up to their time of utterance. If one accepts such ascriptions, one can argue either (1) that future use must be added to the grounding base, or (2) that such cases show that meaning is not, ultimately, grounded in use. The following will defend the first option as the more promising of the two, though this ultimately requires understanding the relation between use and meaning as ‘normative’ in two important ways. The first (more familiar) way is that the function from use to meaning must be of a sort that allows us to maintain a robust distinction between actual and correct use. The second sort of normativity is unique to theories that extend the grounding base into the future. In particular, if meaning is partially a function of future use, we can see our commitment to the ‘determinacy’ of meaning as a practical commitment that structures our linguistic practices rather than a theoretical commitment that merely describes them.

 "Construction and continuity: conceptual engineering without conceptual change", Inquiry, 63:9-10, 909-918, 2020 . (PDF)


Abstract: A ten-page introduction to a special issue of Inquiry on the subject of semantic externalism and conceptual change.  The first half of this introduction focuses primarily on Temporal externalism and how it allows one to understand conceptual engineering in a way that it is both a creative process of conceptual construction and an enterprise that does not necessarily change the meanings of the terms involved.

Semantic Norms and Temporal Externalism PhD Thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1996. (PDF)


Abstract: We typically understand an individual’s thoughts and utterances in a way that ties their contents to the make-up of her physical environment and the linguistic usage of her community. This practice has frequently been taken to be in tension with the intuition that the content of one’s thoughts and utterances must ultimately be explained in terms of facts about one’s own attitudes and behavior. This perceived tension is manifested in cases where the individual’s own beliefs and usage purportedly underdetermine or even misidentify what she is standardly treated as referring to by her terms. I argue that the individual’s beliefs only seem to underdetermine or misidentify the referents of her terms in these cases if one presupposes a comparatively impoverished conception of what her beliefs are. The beliefs an individual speaker associates with a given term extend far beyond the handful of sentences she would produce if asked to list such beliefs. Speakers have an implicit, but rich, understanding of their language as a shared temporally extended practices about which they can be mistaken. Once this implicit understanding of language is factored in, our practice of tying what an individual means to her physical and social environment turns out to be justified by consistency requirements upon the individual’s own beliefs.

Indeed, our implicit understanding of language justifies more than merely tying a speaker’s thoughts and utterances to her social and physical environment. Our implicit understanding of languages as temporally extended practices turns out to justify our important, but seldom noticed, habit of reading present conceptual developments back into the thoughts and utterances of our past selves and our ancestors. We can both endorse a picture of linguistic norms that is methodologically individualistic and allow that future use (as with communal use) contributes to what we mean by our terms. External factors are relevant to what we mean because we implicitly take them to be so, and our practice of incorporating physical, social and temporal factors into our understanding of others reflects our often deep commitment to a picture of language as a shared practice extending through time.