Semantics, cross-cultural style

Edouard Machery, Ron Mallon, Shaun Nichols, Stephen P. Stich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

464 Scopus citations


Theories of reference have been central to analytic philosophy, and two views, the descriptivist view of reference and the causal-historical view of reference, have dominated the field. In this research tradition, theories of reference are assessed by consulting one's intuitions about the reference of terms in hypothetical situations. However, recent work in cultural psychology (e.g. Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: holistic vs. analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291-310.) has shown systematic cognitive differences between East Asians and Westerners, and some work indicates that this extends to intuitions about philosophical cases (Weinberg, J., Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2001). Normativity and epistemic intuitions. Philosophical Topics 29(1&2), 429-459.) In light of these findings on cultural differences, an experiment was conducted which explored intuitions about reference in Westerners and East Asians. The experiment indicated that, for certain central cases, Westerners are more likely than East Asians to report intuitions that are consistent with the causal-historical view. These results constitute prima facie evidence that semantic intuitions vary from culture to culture, and the paper argues that this fact raises questions about the nature of the philosophical enterprise of developing a theory of reference.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)B1-B12
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2004


  • Causal-historical theory
  • Cultural differences
  • Descriptivism
  • Kripke
  • Proper names
  • Reference
  • Semantic intuitions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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