The Jowett Society (Friday - Week 1, HT20)

Philosophical Society

Tradition teaches us that a precondition on successful communication is that interlocutors share mutual knowledge of the meanings of expressions of a language. Semantics characterizes what competent speakers know, and expect others to know, about the meanings of expressions of their language (Lewis (1969), Schiffer (1972), Higginbotham (1992)). Yet, often there are instances of successful communication without prior knowledge of linguistic conventions. The phenomenon of lexical innovation presents just one such kind of case. In response, increasingly influential efforts to account for our capacity for sharing conventional (semantic) information through linguistic communication but without presupposing prior knowledge of this linguistic meaning invoke a Dynamic Meaning Hypothesis. The core idea is that meanings—or the linguistic conventions that fix them—are dynamic, constantly changing, and are potentially (re-)negotiated by the members of the linguistic community even during the course of a single conversation (e.g. Armstrong, 2016, Capellen, 2018, Carston 2002, Davidson, 1986, Haslanger 2012, Ludlow 2014, Plunket and Sundell 2013). Agents can come to update—or (re-)negotiate—existing linguistic conventions: not only can they do so by introducing new expression-meaning pairings on the fly (as in lexical innovation), but they can completely change the standing meaning of an extant expression, or adjust the background conventions in a way that broadens or narrows the extension determined by the earlier standing meaning. We, however, disagree, and shall argue that meanings are non-negotiable. The kind of negotiation the dynamic meaning hypothesis posits cannot, normally, affect or change the meaning of a word, nor can it secure a mutually shared semantic content of the sort that standard theories of communication presuppose.


After the talks all are invited to socialise and continue discussion over drinks in the Ryle Room. If you would like to join for dinner after the drinks reception, please email