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Friday, August 11, 2006

King and Stanley on Truth-Conditional Pragmatics

Last night I read Jeffrey King and Jason Stanley's very interesting piece Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Role of Semantic Content. Jeff and Jason raise various concerns about certain forms of semantic minimalism and truth-conditional pragmatics. Let me try to re-formulate one of their concerns about one form of truth-conditional pragmatics in my own words.

Truth-conditional pragmatics distinguishes between the semantic content of a sentence relative to context and the speech act content of a sentence relative to context. The speech act content of a sentence relative to context is the content asserted by the speaker in that context. A sentence is true relative to a context c, on this account, iff the speech act content of the sentence at c is true at the index determined by c.

The worry now is this. Though the semantic content can be defined, it seems to play no significant role in the semantics. As we have just seen, it plays no role in the definition of truth-at-a-context. Admittedly, it does constrain what a sentence can be used to assert. But this feature of semantic content is pragmatic not semantic.

I think, however, that defenders of truth-conditional pragmatics may reply as follows. Consider the following analogy. One might worry that certain forms of eternalism run into similar trouble. Take, for instance:

(1) John is nice.

Given certain forms of eternalism, the semantic content of (1) relative to a context is the temporal content that John is nice (no time constituents). But the speech act content of (1) relative to a context is an eternal proposition, viz. the proposition that John is nice at t*, where t* is the time of speech. But now, one might ask, what role does the temporal content play in the semantics? Well, the eternalist will say, the temporal content does in fact play an important role in the semantics: it is the sort of content that tense operators operate on.

Perhaps defenders of truth-conditional pragmatics could reply in a similar way. Consider, for instance:

(2) France is hexagonal

Some defenders of truth-conditional pragmatics broadly defined (for instance, Soames in recent work) would say that the speech act content of (2) relative to a normal context is the proposition that France is roughly hexagonal. The semantic content of (2) is the content that France is hexagonal. Does the semantic content play a role in the semantics? Yes, it does. For 'strictly speaking' and 'loosely speaking' operate on the semantic content. As Lewis pointed out, 'Loosely speaking, France is hexagonal' is true under high standards of precision iff the semantic content of 'France is hexogonal' is true under low standards of precision.

Of course, this reply may not work in every case, but at least it is not obvious that the semantic content plays no role in the semantics just because it does not play a role in the formulation of truth-conditions for occurrences of sentences.


Jason Stanley said...


I'm not sure what you're suggesting is a proposal along the lines of truth-conditional pragmatics. Perhaps it is more a proposal along relativist lines (which is admittedly a somewhat similar view, as recent work by Recanati and Predelli suggests). If "strictly speaking" and "loosely speaking" operate on the semantic content, then "France is hexagonal" expresses a function from standards of precision to either truth-values or full propositions (presumably, because "hexagonal" expresses a function from standards to various hexagonality properties). I don't in the end agree with this proposal, but I don't see it as a version of truth-conditional pragmatics, but rather as a version of relativism. For example, I'm pretty sure Soames wouldn't treat the semantic content of "France is hexagonal" this way. Presumably, he would treat it as expressing a false proposition.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Jason,
You're right. The view is akin in spirit to relativistic semantics. And I am sure you're right that Soames would reject it.

But I still think it is similar enough to the move that Salmon and yourself would make with respect to tensed talk.

On your view (I think), the semantic content of "people will inhabit the moon" relative to a context is temporal. But eternalists like Salmon and yourself do not think the temporal content is asserted. So, you say that the assertoric content differs from the temporal content operated on by tense operators.

I think this form of eternalism is a kind of truth-conditional pragmatics, because it formulates the TRUTH-CONDITIONS for occurrences of sentences in terms of assertoric content (rather than semantic content). For example, an occurrence of "people will inhabit the moon" is true at c iff the assertoric content at c is true at the world determined by c. So, assertoric content (rather than semantic content) figures in the truth-conditions for occurrences of sentences (by "truth-condition" I here mean a rule for determining the truth-values of occurrences of sentences based on features of the index).

If I am right that this kind of eternalism is a form of truth-conditional pragmatics, then I think the following view is also a form of truth-conditional pragmatics.

The semantic content of "France is hexagonal" relative to context is just the content that France is hexogonal, but relative to many contexts the assertoric content will be the proposition that France is roughly hexagonal or maybe even the proposition that loosely speaking, France is hexagonal. So, the assertoric content is a pragmatic enrichment of the semantic content, and the semantic content is semantically significant because "strictly speaking" operates on it.

Anyway, just an interesting analogy.