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Discourse ContextualismA Framework for Contextualist Semantics and Pragmatics$

Alex Silk

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198783923

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198783923.001.0001

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(p.221) Appendix: Taxonomy

(p.221) Appendix: Taxonomy

Source:
Discourse Contextualism
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

Labels like ‘contextualism’ and ‘relativism’ have been used in a bewildering number of ways. This not only poses a challenge to the interested reader attempting a foray into the literature; it also creates the potential for dialectical confusion. Though the aim of this book has been to develop and defend a version of contextualism, it will be useful to distinguish a range of contextualist and relativist views. This can help situate the proposed view in the literature.

We can delineate a range of views in terms of their answers to the following questions concerning semantic content, asserted content, and truth-in-a-context. These questions are certainly not the only questions relevant for distinguishing overall theories. The following taxonomy is by no means complete, but it should be a start.1 To fix ideas I will couch the discussion in terms of the (positive form) gradable adjective ‘tall’ in a sentence such as (1).

(1) Alice is tall.

Assume that we are abstracting away from context-sensitivity regarding comparison classes, etc., and that we are only considering “relevant” contexts which are equivalent with respect to these contextual features.

First, is it part of the conventional meaning of the positive form ‘tall’ that the world of evaluation determines a particular degree standard of tallness? If so, then the semantic content of (1), given an abstract context, can be treated as (determining) an ordinary possible worlds proposition. As a matter of linguistic meaning, (1) expresses the same possible worlds proposition in every context (again, assuming we are holding fixed the usual contextual features like comparison class, set of paradigm/contrasting cases, etc.). Our linguistic dispositions, interests, etc. don’t affect the content or truth value of (1). I’ll call this option Realist Invariantism. (Epistemicism is a kind of realist invariantism.)

Answering ‘no’ to our first question yields some variety of contextualism or relativism. Note that accepting some variety of contextualism or relativism doesn’t itself require rejecting invariantism, even if it requires rejecting Realist Invariantism. Suppose the correct metasemantic view entails that every relevant context within a world determines the same degree standard of tallness. Although (1) would have a constant content and truth value across contexts in a world, this wouldn’t be built into the lexical semantics itself. Contextualists and relativists differ in how they answer the following further sorts of questions.

Does a particular contextually supplied standard figure in the semantic content of (1)? Contextualists answer ‘yes’. They claim that (1) is like sentences with paradigm context-sensitive expressions in having different semantic contents in different contexts. (1)’s contribution to the truth conditions of more complex sentences varies across contexts which determine different standards of tallness. Differences in the truth value of (1) in different contexts at a given world are traced to differences in semantic content in those contexts.

(p.222) We can subdivide contextualist views in terms of what sort of context determines the semantic content of (1). What I’ll call Utterance Contextualists say that the context of utterance supplies the relevant standard. Utterance Contextualists are contextualists of the familiar kind. By contrast, what I’ll call Assessment Contextualists interpret (1) with respect to an additional context of evaluation, and treat the standard operative in the context of evaluation as figuring in the content of (1).2 Hybrid views are possible as well. A hybrid view would treat the semantic content as determined by some function of both the context of utterance and the added context of evaluation.3

Consider the following toy scenario: Suppose that the context of utterance for (1) is one in which a low standard is accepted, but we are evaluating (1) in a context in which a high standard is accepted. Suppose also that Alice counts as tall with respect to the former low standard but not with respect to the latter high standard. Accordingly, (1) is true (at the actual world) according to Utterance Contextualism, but false (at the actual world) according to Assessment Contextualism.

Turning from contextualism, Relativism denies that any particular standard figures in the semantic content of (1). In one sense, relativists treat standards like possible worlds. No particular world figures in the semantic content of (2).

(2) Boston is in Massachusetts.

(2) expresses the same proposition in contexts in different worlds; it is just that this proposition is true at worlds in which Boston is in Massachusetts and false at worlds in which Boston isn’t in Massachusetts. Similarly, relativists claim that (1) has the same semantic content across contexts. To a first approximation, the semantic content of (1) is the set of pairs of worlds w and overall standards s such that Alice’s degree of tallness in w is at least as great as the degree standard of tallness s(tall). A particular degree standard is used in determining the truth value of the content of (1), but doesn’t itself figure in that content.

We can subdivide relativist views in terms of how they define a monadic truth predicate, or a notion of truth-in-a-context. (Note that this question is not equivalent to the question of how one might define an object-language monadic predicate ‘true’.) Though we can assess whether sentences (in context) are true or false at certain worlds given certain standards, we can also assess whether they are simply true, or true simpliciter. One option, following Kaplan (1989: 522, 547), is to say that an ordinary factual sentence is true in a context iff its content in the context is true at the world of the context (§4.3). By extension, what I’ll call Utterance Relativists say that the standard relevant for determining whether (1) is true simpliciter is the standard operative in the context of utterance.4 Utterance Relativists treat the overall standard parameter like the world parameter in the circumstance of evaluation. By contrast, what I’ll call Assessment Relativists assess (1) for truth with respect to an added context of evaluation.5

Suppose again that (1) is uttered in a context in which low standards are accepted, and is evaluated in a context in which high standards are accepted. Utterance Relativists say that (1) is true iff Alice’s actual height is at least as great as slow(tall), whereas Assessment Relativists say (p.223) that (1) is true iff Alice’s actual height is at least as great as shigh(tall). Utterance and Assessment Relativists agree that no particular degree standard figures in the content of (1). They disagree on whether evaluations of truth simpliciter are made with respect to the standards of the context of utterance or the standards of an added context of evaluation. Note that Utterance Relativism and Assessment Relativism share Contextualism’s burden of providing an account of how standards are determined as a function of context (cf. §3.6).

It is important to distinguish questions about the compositional semantic values of sentences from questions about what utterances of those sentences assert in context (see §4.3, Ch. 4 nn. 24, 28). It is in principle open to the contextualist to deny that the proposition that is the semantic content of (1) is also asserted by an utterance of (1). However, such a move would presumably be based on general views about the relation between semantic content and asserted content (see SOAMES 2005). The distinction between semantic content and asserted content becomes more interesting in relativist semantics. Even if no particular degree standard figures in the semantic content of (1), this leaves open whether some particular standard figures in the asserted content. What I’ll call Relativist Pragmatics answers ‘no’. What I’ll call Non-Relativist Pragmatics answers ‘yes’.

Relativist semantics which accept a Non-Relativist Pragmatics can treat the asserted content of (1) as an ordinary possible worlds proposition—the possible worlds proposition that results from saturating the semantic content with a particular standard from the relevant context. For the Utterance Relativist this would be the proposition that Alice’s height is at least as great as slow(tall). For the Assessment Relativist, it would be the proposition that Alice’s height is at least as great as shigh(tall). Though relativists accepting a Non-Relativist Pragmatics agree with contextualists about the asserted content of an utterance of (1), they differ on the compositional semantic question of what contribution (1) makes to the semantic contents of larger constructions.

Relativist Pragmatics revises the standard picture of assertion to accommodate more finegrained asserted contents. On a standard Stalnakerian model, an assertion updates the context by intersecting the previous context set with the asserted content to yield a new context set. Relativist Pragmatics enriches the representation of context to be a set of pairs of worlds and standards, those combinations of worlds and standards that are compatible with what has been accepted in the conversation. With this enriched notion of context set, one can retain the standard force rule for assertions in terms of set-intersection. Successfully asserting (1) removes from the context set those world-standard pairs 〈w, s〉 such that Alice’s height in w is less than s(tall). In asserting (1) one proposes, among other things, that we be a group with respect to whose standards Alice counts as tall. Relativist Semantics and Pragmatics treats standards and assertions of (1) fully analogously to possible worlds and assertions of ordinary factual sentences.6

(p.224) This leaves us with the following taxonomy of views. (I use the toy scenario described above to characterize the views’ commitments about content and truth value. I continue to assume that we are only considering contexts which supply the same comparison class, set of paradigm/contrasting cases, etc.)

  • Realist Invariantism: (1) semantically expresses an ordinary possible worlds proposition. The semantic and asserted content of (1), given any context (of utterance or assessment), is the proposition true at those worlds w such that tallw(Alice)sw(tall), where sw is the overall standard determined by the evaluation world w. (1) is true simpliciter iff tall@(Alice)s@(tall).

  • Utterance Contextualism: The semantic (and asserted) content of (1) depends on the overall standard determined by the context of utterance. The semantic (and asserted) content of (1) is the proposition true at those worlds w such that tallw(Alice)slow(tall). This proposition is true.

  • Assessment Contextualism: The semantic (and asserted) content of (1) depends on the overall standard determined by the context of evaluation. The semantic (and asserted) content of (1) is the proposition true at those worlds w such that tallw(Alice)shigh(tall). This proposition is false.

  • Utterance Relativism + Non-Relativist Pragmatics: No particular standard figures in the semantic content of (1): the semantic content of (1) is the set of world-standard pairs 〈w, s〉 such that tallw(Alice)s(tall). Whether (1) is true simpliciter depends on the standard determined by the context of utterance. The asserted content of (1) is the possible worlds proposition that results from saturating the semantic content with the standard determined by the context of utterance: the asserted content of (1) is the proposition true at those worlds w such that tallw(Alice)slow(tall). (1) is true.

  • Assessment Relativism + Non-Relativist Pragmatics: No particular standard figures in the semantic content of (1): the semantic content of (1) is the set of world-standard pairs 〈w, s〉 such that tallw(Alice)s(tall). Whether (1) is true simpliciter depends on the standard determined by the context of evaluation. The asserted content of (1) is the possible worlds proposition that results from saturating the semantic content with the standard determined by the context of evaluation: the asserted content of (1) is the proposition true at those worlds w such that tallw(Alice)shigh(tall). (1) is false.

  • Relativist Semantics + Pragmatics: No particular standard figures in the semantic or asserted content of (1). Contexts can be represented by sets of pairs of worlds and overall standards, those compatible with what is taken for granted for the purposes of conversation. So, the semantic and asserted content of (1) is the set of world-standard pairs 〈w, s〉 such that tallw(Alice)s(tall).

Discourse Contextualism is a version of Utterance Contextualism.

Notes:

(1) See KÖLBEL 2002, 2003, MACFARLANE 2007b, 2009, RECANATI 2007, SCHAFFER 2011 for alternative taxonomies. I will assume that declarative sentences have a single complete semantic content and asserted content in context.

(2) Cf. CAPPELEN 2008, WEATHERSON 2009.

(3) Cf. MACFARLANE 2008.

(4) See Ch. 4 n. 27 and the discussion in §4.3.

(5) See e.g. MACFARLANE 2003, 2014. I am sympathetic with MacFarlane’s (2014: 89 n. 24) claim that many self-labeled relativists don’t take a stand on the sorts of philosophical issues that would distinguish (what I’m calling) Utterance Relativism and Assessment Relativism.

(6) I regard Richard’s (2004, 2008) and Stephenson’s (2007b) “relativism,” Yalcin’s (2007, 2011, 2012a, 2012b) “expressivism” or “nonfactualism,” and Swanson’s (2012a, cf. Moss 2015) “constraint semantics,” among others, as being in this camp. Compare also the dynamic semantic accounts in VELTMAN 1996, WILLER 2013. I won’t subdivide versions of Relativist Semantics + Pragmatics regarding the question of monadic truth since this notion plays no role in the formal semantics or pragmatics, even if it might conceivably play a role in some other aspect of the overall theory (e.g. concerning norms for assertion). Yalcin (2011: 327–30) explicitly rejects the postsemantic project of defining a notion of truth-in-a-context for epistemic modals, and distinguishes his “nonfactualism” from “relativism” on this basis.