Necessity and linguistic rules

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Amie Thomasson has argued against descriptivism about modality, which starts from the idea that modal statements serve to track features of the world and that these features explain the truth-values of modal claims. Thomasson objects that descriptivists cannot satisfactorily explain how modal features fit into the naturalistic picture of the world and that they cannot account for our apparent capacity to acquire modal knowledge. On Thomasson’s alternative to descriptivism (called ‘normativism’), the function of modal claims is to facilitate communication about certain semantic rules. I argue that it is not obvious that the semantic rules that Thomasson takes to be expressed by modal truths really exist. Moreover, I defend a specific version of descriptivism–essentialism–against Thomasson’s objections. Essential truths play a central role in the best explanations of many facts about the world. That includes the explanations delivered by our best scientific theories once these theories are correctly interpreted philosophically. In this way, essences earn their keep in a naturalistic view of the world. Furthermore, the abductive methods by which we confirm our explanatory theories also support certain theses about essences. This allows essentialists to explain knowledge of essences and modal knowledge.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalInquiry (United Kingdom)
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


  • Modality
  • essence
  • essentialism
  • necessity
  • semantic rules


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