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01/07/2013

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Jennifer Nagel

Hi Steve,

What an excellent idea for a conference!

I'm inclined to resist your suggestion that "little or nothing is known about the meaning and use of epistemic terms in languages other than English" -- my own impression is that actually quite a lot is known about the meaning and use of these terms in other languages (not least by the language's native speakers and philosophers). But that's of course all the more reason to have an international conference where this knowledge can be shared.

I'm also not sure your point about Japanese would defeat the interesting version of the universality hypothesis. We've also got multiple verbs for reporting propositional attitude ascriptions in English (knows that P, is aware that P, sees that P, recognizes that P...), and this doesn't rule out a common core concept (let's say, the concept of the most general factive mental state). From what I understand from the work of people like Rie Hasada, "shiru" ( 知る) used in the resultative aspect, is taken to be the default word for the most general such state in Japanese. I don't doubt that there are contexts in which other verbs are more appropriate (as in English), and it may even be the case that there are two verbs sharing the generality that matters to epistemology. The most vocal advocates of the Universality Theory (Anna Wierzbicka and Cliff Goddard) allow that some languages have two different words (or "exponents") for one of their "universal semantic primes"; it's conceivable that Hasada is wrong to suggest that "shiru" is the lone exponent of the universal KNOW in Japanese.

To focus on the most general state is not to suggest that epistemologists can't be interested in more specific factive mental states, in the properties of, say, "noticing that P" versus "being aware that P", but just to suggest that the most general condition shared by noticing that, being aware that, seeing that, etc. is of special interest, and indeed a general organizing focus of epistemology.

One thing that does seem to be universal is the distinction between factive and nonfactive verbs. It's also said to be universal that factive verbs alone directly embed questions (he knows when the party is; she knows who is invited.. etc). I'd love to have really firm cross-linguistic evidence for that latter point--the evidence I have so far all points in the direction of universality, but it's not as extensive as I'd like. Bringing together linguists and philosophers from a variety of backgrounds looks like a great way to gather evidence on universality (and I'd have an open mind about which way that evidence will end up going).

In any event, I love the idea of opening more cross-cultural channels of communication in epistemology. Kudos to you and your organizing committee for setting this up.

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3QD Prize 2012: Wesley Buckwalter