Shifting perspective on indexicals

Mark Bowker


The debate over the meanings of indexical expressions has relied heavily on the method of counterexamples. This paper challenges that method by showing that purported counterexamples can often be explained away by appeal to perspective shifts. For these counterexamples to establish anything about indexical reference, we must identify the conditions under which theorists can legitimately appeal to perspective shifts. Some tests for semantic content are considered and it is argued that none of them can tell us when appeal to perspective shift is admissible. The paper then considers how we should proceed if we become convinced that there is no way to identify the content of indexical expressions, offering reasons in favour of a nihilist conception of character over an epistemicist or pluralist conception.

Publication history
Table of contents

The debate over the referents of indexicals has relied heavily on the use of counterexamples. One theorist presents a rule for identifying the referent of an indexical in context, a second presents a counterexample in which that rule seems to take us to the wrong referent and presents an alternative rule, a third presents an counterexample to that rule, and so on. This paper will argue that reliance on counterexamples faces a significant problem. Counterexamples invite us to agree that some theory misidentifies the referent of an indexical as used in a particular context. Even when we are inclined to agree, however, we may well be mistaken.

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