Knowing linguistic conventions

  • Carin Robinson


A linguistic convention is a principle or norm that has been adopted by a person or linguistic community about how to use, and therefore what the meaning is of, a specific term. Examples of such norms or principles are those expressed by propositions that express the laws of logic or those that express implicit definitions. Arguments about the epistemic status of linguistic conventions, very broadly, fall into two camps: the one holds that the basis of linguistic conventions is objective and that, therefore, such conventions are genuinely truth-bearing. Knowledge of such conventions is therefore knowledge of the objective truth of such conventions. This camp might be labelled ‘realist’. The other holds that there is no known basis to linguistic conventions and that conventions are, to the best of our knowledge, not objective, but invented. Their truth is stipulated by the relevant speaker or linguistic community. Such truth is, consequently, trivial and knowledge of such conventions simply knowledge of the stipulation. This camp might be labelled ‘anti-realist’. These are three standard accounts of the epistemic status of linguistic conventions, which all play into the first camp: (1) knowledge by intuition, (2) inferential a priori knowledge and (3) a posteriori knowledge. I give reasons why these accounts should be rejected. I then argue that linguistic conventions, if conceived of as trivial truths, are knowable non-inferentially a priori. Such an epistemic account provides support for the second camp. In this regard, I marshal support from some recent work by Wright and Hale.

South African Journal of Philosophy 2014, 33(2): 167–176

Author Biography

Carin Robinson
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 0258-0136