The Normativist Approach to Modality

Beyond those debates that focus on existence questions, metaphysical debates often revolve around metaphysical modal questions, including, for example, debates about what the conditions are for persons to be identical, whether works of art are essentially tied to their artist or historical context, or what sorts of change a statue could survive.

I argue, however, that it is a mistake to think of metaphysical modal claims as aiming to describe modal features of this world, or other possible worlds—features that the metaphysician aims to discover. This ‘descriptivist’ assumption leads to formidable and familiar metaphysical and epistemological problems of modality. I argue that metaphysical modal claims instead serve a fundamentally normative function—of making explicit the semantic rules our terms have (or those we think they ought to have) in particularly useful ways. Adopting the modal normativist approach makes a difference to how we adjudicate among competing metaphysical theories, to what methods we will see as appropriate for resolving metaphysical disputes, and to what questions we think are answerable. It also ensures that metaphysical modal questions, like existence questions, can be answered ‘easily’, using only straightforward conceptual and empirical work. Thus these metaphysical modal questions, like the existence questions above, can be ‘deflated’ and the methods for answering them can be demystified. 

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Wedberg Lecture series 2017 by Amie Thomasson

Wedberg Lectures 2017: Lecture 1

Wedberg Lectures 2017: Lecture 3