Starting from the traditional puzzle of disjunctive antecedents, I develop a truthmaker semantics for conditionals that extends (rather than replacing) standard possible worlds semantics. The main innovation is the notion of a truthmaker in play: this notion is cognitive, rather than metaphysical, and can be defined in a purely syntactic way.
Forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Language (abstract | draft)
On a traditional view, the semantics of natural language makes essential use of a context parameter, i.e. a set of coordinates that represents the situation of speech. In classical semantic frameworks, this parameter plays two key roles: first, context contributes to determining the content of utterance; second, it is crucial for defining logical consequence. I point out that recent empirical proposals about context shift in natural language (in particular, context-shifting semantics in the style of Anand and Nevins 2004) are incompatible with the traditional view of context. At the same time, there is increasing cross-linguistic support for this brand of context shift. Hence I suggest that context has no place in semantic theory proper. We should revert back to so-called multiple-indexing frameworks that were developed by Montague and others, and relegate context to the postsemantic stage.
Disjunctions embedded under epistemic modal expressions like "possible", "likely", and "certain" routinely give rise to scalar inferences to the effect that both disjuncts are possible.
These scalar effects are usually classified and treated differently. The effects generated by possibility modals are labeled "free choice inferences", those generated by other modals "distributive inferences". Distributive inferences are routine predictions of standard accounts of implicature, while free choice inferences are notoriously problematic. We show that a probabilistic semantics for modals can easily predict all these effects via the same mechanism and without making controversial assumptions.
Philosophers usually treat "will" as a tense; conversely, most linguists treat it as a modal, and specifically as a universal quantifier over worlds. The different accounts are designed to satisfy different theoretical constraints, apparently pulling in opposite directions.
These constraints are jointly satisfied by a novel modal account of "will". On this account, "will" is a modal but doesn't work as a quantifier. Rather, the meaning of "will" involves a selection function similar to the one used by Stalnaker in his semantics for conditionals. The resulting theory yields a plausible semantics and logic for "will" and vindicates our intuitive views about out attitudes towards future-directed claims.
Our theorizing about counterfactual reasoning is dominated by two family of accounts. One is the well-known comparative closeness view, which exploits possible worlds semantics. The second is the interventionist view, which is part of the causal models framework developed by computer scientists, in particular Judea Pearl. Common lore and existing literature have it that the two views can be easily fit together. I argue that, on the contrary, transplanting causal-models-inspired ideas in a possible worlds framework yields a substantially new semantics, which generates a new logic. The difference is ultimately grounded in different algorithms for handling inconsistent information, hence it touches on issues that are central to a theory of contrary-to-fact suppositions.
We develop a new semantics for the English auxiliary "will" that exploits a Stalnaker-style, single-world selection function. Unlike existing theories, the resulting analysis succeeds in satisfying three desiderata: it accounts for the modal character of "will", it predicts its peculiar lack of scope interactions, and it vindicates intuitive judgments about the probabilities of "will"-claims.
How can expressivists make sense of the practice of communication? If communication is not a joint enterprise aimed at sharing information about the world, why do we engage in communication the way we do? Call this "the problem of communication". Starting from basic assumptions about the rationality of speakers and the nature of assertion, we argue that speakers engaging in conversation about normative matters must presuppose that there is a unique normative standard on which the attitudes of conversational participants ought to converge. This gives the beginning of a solution to the problem of communication on behalf of expressivists.
Know-how and expressivism are usually regarded as disjoint subjects, belonging to distant provinces of philosophy. I argue that, despite obvious differences, these debates have structural similarities that run deep. In particular, one can make major moves on one side by mirroring moves made on the other. Semantic and conceptual tools developed by expressivists can be exported to the know-how debate and put to use in deflecting an influential line of argument about know- how. Moreover, expressivism provides the resources to create a new framework for thinking about know-how. This framework is nonfactualist (it validates the idea that knowing how to do something is different from knowing a fact) but overcomes problems that vitiate more classical nonfactualism.
Classical counterfactual semantics validates an inference pattern that is disconfirmed in natural language. The solution is to alter the algorithm we use to handle inconsistency: rather than checking all maximally consistent fragments of a premise sets, as in Krazter's semantics, we selectively 'filter out' some of the premises. The resulting semantics is interestingly related to the semantics for counterfactuals emerging from Judea Pearl's causal models framework in computer science: in particular, filtering is a possible worlds semantics counterpart of Pearl's interventions.
On a popular view dating back to Russell, descriptions work syntactically and semantically like quantifiers. Against this view, I argue that descriptions can behave syntactically and semantically like variables. The claim that descriptions are variables is not new: what I offer is a new way of defending it. I argue that we should recognize a new reading of descriptions under attitude reports, which I call "singular opaque". The existence of this reading cannot be explained on the traditional Russellian view, and demands a switch to the variable view.
According to the orthodox account developed by Kaplan, indexicals like "I", "you", and "now" invariably refer to elements of the context of speech. This essay argues that the orthodoxy is wrong. "I", "you", and the like are shifted by certain modal operators and hence can fail to refer to elements of the context. More precisely, indexicals are syntactically akin to variables. They can be free, in which case they work, roughly, on the Kaplan model. But they can also be bound: this happens, in a systematic fashion, when they are in the scope of epistemic modals or attitude verbs. The new view vindicates a broadly Fregean perspective on referential expressions, and suggests a new picture of the interaction between context and linguistic meaning.
I argue that all English indexicals are shiftable. I propose a semantics that accounts for embeddings of indexicals under non-metaphysical modals like might or believe. The central idea is that indexicals are variables: epistemic and doxastic modals are able to shift them by shifting the value of the assignment function. So all epistemic and doxastic modals turn out to be Kaplanian monsters. I close by arguing that the monstrous account has empirical advantages on the classical semantics for attitudes in the Kaplan tradition, and in particular on the recent version of it proposed by Percus and Sauerland.
The standard theory of de re attitude reports in semantics is a descendant of Kaplan's descriptivist theory in "Quantifying In". This theory lives side by side with a Lewis-inspired theory of de se reports, on which all clauses denote centered propositions and attitude verbs like "believe" work as binders of pronouns. The resulting picture has a number of shortcomings. These difficulties can be overcome by switching to a new semantics for variables and variable binding. On the new theory, all variables are equipped with two layers of syntactic indices. The second layer of indices tracks what modes of presentations are associated to each referential expression. The semantics of these indices is controlled by a new dedicated assignment, which is systematically shifted by attitude verbs.