Annals of Ethics
Online ISSN : 2434-4699
Noncognitivism, shapelessness, and disentanglement
The semantics of thick terms
Yoshiyuki Yokoro
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2017 Volume 66 Pages 189-


  In his essay “Non-Cognitivism and Rule-Following”, John McDowell argues that the extensions and applications of such thick terms and concepts as courageous or selfish cannot be determined without the understanding of a particular perspective based on such noncognitive states as evaluative attitudes or emotions. This distinctive feature of thick terms─it is called ‘shapelessness’─is often thought as a challenge to moral noncognitivism, according to which moral values or judgments can be explained by noncognitive states of mind with regard to their corresponding natural properties. The reason is that it seems follow from the shapelessness of thick terms that the two components of their concepts, i.e. descriptive and evaluative components, are ‘entangling’, but noncognitivists, including Simon Blackburn as their representative, try to disentangle them.   My aim in this essay is twofold. First, I organize and reconstruct McDowell’s ‘anti-disentangling argument’ and Blackburn’s response to it for simplicity’s sake. I then argue that McDowell fails in refuting noncognitivism in general because his argument restricts it unduly, while Blackburn’s pragmatic or semantics- free explanation of the shapelessness is also insufficient because it cannot ensure the default evaluative component of thick terms. Second, I argue that the feature of shapelessness can be explained as a semantic phenomenon in term of the nonindexical context-sensitivity of thick terms, in virtue of which such evaluative terms have the same content in any contexts, while their extensions are sensitive with regard to moral standards from ethical sensibilities of the context. By the use of this interpretation of shapelessness, noncognitivists can successfully disentangle the components of thick concepts into two entirely separate ones fulfilling different semantic roles. Thus the nonindexical contextualism I advocate not only makes clear the nature of thick terms and concepts but also offers a new and different semantic ground for noncognitivism from the traditional model.

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© 2017 The Japanese Society for Ethics
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