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Interpreter relativism vs assertion insensitive semantics

Conference contribution
Authors Alexander Almér
Published in Workshop: Pragmatics, semantics and systematicity, May 8, 2009, University of Stockholm
Publication year 2009
Published at Department of Philosophy
Language en
Keywords content, context, interpreter relative truth conditions
Subject categories History and Archaeology, Linguistics, Theoretical philosophy


Recently, contextualism has been challenged for not being able to account for certain linguistic data having to do, e.g., with disagreement about taste and retraction of epistemic modals. The evidence alluded to typically shows that speakers assess utterances made by others or themselves as true, false, wrong, agreeable etc., in a fashion contradicting the predictions of standard contextualism. Contextualism predicts that taste/epistemic modal sentences express different propositional contents in different contexts of utterance by taking the taste standard / information salient in the context of utterance as a semantic value. There is evidence that we frequently assess such assertions for truth or correctness independently of which information is salient in the utterance situation, building instead on which information is relevant at the context of assessment. Moreover, linguistic intuition tells us that nothing is wrong with such utterance insensitive assessments. The contextualist seems to face the challenge of either assuming that competent speakers don’t fully grasp the truth conditions of epistemic modals and taste judgments or abandon contextualism. Recently, this evidence has been adduced in favor of a new brand of semantic relativism, which does not trace the variation in truth to contextual variation in content, but to contextual variation in truth assignment to the same content. The most influential version of this new relativism defines truth for assertion so that the same assertion varies in truth with context of assessment rather than context of utterance. An alternative non-standard contextualist analysis of utterance insensitive assessments assumes that such assessments do not express concern with the proposition expressed (and asserted) by the utterance but rather a relevantly related proposition made salient in the context of assessment. A further alternative position construes the semantics of utterances relative to a context of interpretation: an utterance expresses/asserts a set of propositions relative to an interpreter, which might or might not be in a different context than the original asserter when making the interpretation/assessment. In my talk, which is based on joint work with Gunnar Björnsson, I compare the content-relativistic notion that an utterance expresses different propositions relative to different contexts of interpretation with our notion that insensitive assessments target propositions made salient in the context of assessment, rather than the original proposition asserted. For some domains of discourse, these non-standard contextualist theories are close competitors about providing the best account of insensitive assessments. I argue that our notion requires less modification of the common sense notion that what one asserts one is supposed to believe.

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