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Barry Smith

False Modesty

As part of his quietism, John McDowell has long advocated a certain modesty in the theory of meaning. It should not and need not explain what it is for words and sentences to have the meanings that they do. Instead, a theory of meaning for a language must take for granted its speakers' abilities to use sentences of the language with the meanings described. Michael Dummett has argued that as an account of what it is to grasp these meanings the account is circular, and his fundamental charge is that it offers us no insight into what it is to grasp the meanings of sentences. McDowell rejects his objections on grounds that Dummett wants, per impossible, an account of what it is to speak a language given from outside language and content. I show that without endorsing Dummett's demands one can still press his objections and that we can and should try to explain what it is for our words to have the meanings they do. The recommended modesty is false.