Disagreement and the semantics of normative and evaluative terms

David Plunkett, Tim Sundell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

289 Scopus citations


In constructing semantic theories of normative and evaluative terms, philosophers have commonly deployed a certain type of disagreement-based argument. The premise of the argument observes the possibility of genuine disagreement between users of a certain normative or evaluative term, while the conclusion of the argument is that, however differently those speakers employ the term, they must mean the same thing by it. After all, if they did not, then they would not really disagree. We argue that in many of the cases in which this argument is deployed, the conclusion not only fails to follow from the premises, but is very likely false. Disagreements between speakers who do not mean the same things by their words are common, genuine, and not easily distinguished from ordinary disagreements over the truth of literally expressed content. We make this case by developing the notion of a metalinguistic negotiation, an exchange in which speakers tacitly negotiate the proper deployment of some linguistic expression in a context. Metalinguistic negotiations express disagreements over information that is (a) conveyed pragmatically (rather than via literal semantic content) and (b) about what (and how) concepts should be deployed in the context at hand. We argue that neither of these features poses any obstacle to metalinguistic negotiations serving to express genuine, substantive disagreements that can be well worth engaging in. Contrary to what has been widely assumed in the literature, many normative and evaluative disputes-among ordinary speakers and even among philosophers themselves-may be of exactly this type, a conclusion with important consequences for both the subject matter and the methodology of metanormative theory.

Original languageEnglish
Article number23
JournalPhilosophers Imprint
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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