Fellow: Awarded 2012
Field of Study: Philosophy
Competition: US & Canada
Stephen Yablo is Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, where he has taught since1998. He began as a logician interested in the theory of truth, and its seeming implication that no language can fully express its own semantics. A brief, strange conversation with Alfred Tarski, the father of modern truth theory, led him to reconsider this and switch to metaphyics. Metaphysics, in the words of Wilfrid Sellars, is the study of “how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.” He earned his Ph.D. in this area at UC Berkeley, with a dissertation on identity and essence.
Yablo taught at Michigan for some years before moving to MIT. An NEH-funded research leave (1989) led to papers on imagination, possibility, color, and causal relations. His interests shifted during a year at the National Humanities Center. Kendall Walton had explained artistic representation as a kind of prop-based pretense (Mimesis and Make-Believe, 1990); the idea was then extended to figurative speech. Yablo extended it further, to speech that was not overtly figurative. This led to a series of “fictionalist” papers arguing that various philosophical puzzles—about the average taxpayer, say, or the number of planets, or the alternative universe where McCain wins the election—are not “deep” but reflect an over-literal take on the language involved.
He has been attempting in recent years to put the project on a more linguistically respectable footing, with presupposition and subject-matter shifts playing the role formerly assigned to make-believe. He divides his time between straight-ahead first-order philosophy and linguistically based metaphilosophical hand-wringing. Current interests include confirmation, verisimilitude, knowledge, vagueness, and (again) truth and paradox.
Yablo has given the Jacobsen Lecture at University College, London, the Gareth Evans Lecture at Oxford, the Hempels at Princeton, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford. Two volumes of collected papers have appeared: Thoughts (Oxford, 2008) and Things (Oxford, 2010). His Guggenheim project is a book tentatively entitled Aboutness.