Abstract

In ‘Reference, Inference and the Semantics of Pejoratives’, Williamson criticizes Dummett for equating mastery of a slurring term with the disposition to use specific rules for the introduction and elimination of the term. Williamson’s argues that non-racists understand racist terms even though they are not disposed to behave in accordance with the rules in question. He adds :

Since understanding of the word ‘Boche’ is presumably sufficient for having the concept that ‘Boche’ expresses, it follows that a willingness or disposition to reason according to Dummett’s rules is equally unnecessary for having that concept (Williamson 2009 : 9)

I will argue against the premise that understanding a word is sufficient for having the associated concept. Some concepts are context-dependent in the sense that subjects not in the right context can’t deploy them. The character/content distinction applies to the words that express such concepts : Non-racists arguably know the character of a racist term (they understand the term), but they can’t access its content through that character because they’re not in the right context. That is an instance of ‘limited accessibility’ (a well-known characteristic of indexical thought).

More precisely, I will defend the view that slurring terms express response-dependent concepts, in virtue of which they apply to the individuals who provoke certain (emotional) reactions in the concept’s users. Just as you can’t think of an object as ‘that thing’ unless you stand in the right perceptual relation to the thing in question, you can’t think of an object as an X (where ‘X’ is a slur) unless you have the right kind of emotional relation to that kind of object. Still, every competent speaker understands the term, even if they can’t deploy the concept the term expresses : every competent speaker knows that, in a context where the emotional response is shared, the term denotes the individuals who provoke the response.