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Conference Information

Full Title: Contextual Indefiniteness and Semantic Theory

Location: Paris, France
Start Date: 19-Apr-2017 - 20-Apr-2017
Contact: John MacFarlane
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting Description: In truth-conditional semantics it is standard to talk of a context as determining a speaker, addressee, a reference time, referents of demonstratives and indexicals, a “modal base” of possibilities, quantifier domains, similarity metrics or selection functions for conditionals, reference classes and cutoff points for gradeable adjectives, and much else.

But there is reason to wonder whether semanticists have become too comfortable with this formalism. In the cases that initially motivated the introduction of contexts (speaker, place, time, demonstrated objects), speakers and hearers will normally have mutual knowledge of the values of the relevant contextual parameters. When they don’t - for example, when the hearer is not sure which of several dogs the speaker meant to be referring to in using “that dog” - it is a defect in communication (which is not to say that the hearer cannot gain information from the speaker in such cases). However, semanticists routinely posit contextual parameters whose settings cannot possibly be mutually known between speakers and hearers: for example, delineation functions for gradable adjectives or similarity metrics for counterfactual conditionals.

The purpose of this workshop is to assess whether it is problematic to posit contextual parameters whose settings are not mutually known (even in normal cases of successful communication), and to consider the upshots. Is it plausible to think of definitions of truth at a context as theories of meaning when the relevant contextual parameters are not known in common between speakers and hearers? How do such definitions figure in explanations of communication? If it is problematic to posit inscrutable settings for contextual parameters, what are the upshots for the abundant work in semantic theory that seems to posit them? Are there ways of reconceiving this work without throwing away its insights? Is it time to rethink the way formal semantic theory relates to the use of language?
Linguistic Subfield: Philosophy of Language; Pragmatics; Semantics
LL Issue: 28.226

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