I mainly work on problems that live at the intersection between philosophy and linguistics.
Familiarity Inferences, Subjective Attitudes and Counterstance Contingency: Towards a Pragmatic Theory of Subjective Meaning (with Chris Kennedy)
Linguistics and Philosophy, forthcoming
[doi: 10.1007/s10988-022-09358-x] // [final draft] // [show abstract]
Subjective predicates have two interpretive and distributional characteristics that have resisted a comprehensive analysis. First, the use of a subjective predicate to describe an object is in general felicitous only when the speaker has a particular kind of familiarity with relevant features of the object; characterizing an object as tasty, for example, implies that the speaker has experience of its taste. Second, subjective predicates differ from objective predicates in their distribution under certain types of propositional attitude verbs. The goal of this paper is to argue that these features can be explained in a uniform way and within a broadly truth-conditional approach to semantic content, given a view of subjective language as an essentially pragmatic, context-sensitive phenomenon. Specifically, we propose that what renders an issue subjective in discourse is speakers’ awareness of counterstance contingency: contin- gency relative to information states that represent alternative pragmatic stances.
A recurring narrative in the literature on conditionals is that the empirical facts about negated ifs provide compelling evidence for the principle of Conditional Excluded Middle and sit uncomfortably with a large family of analyses of conditionals as universal quantifiers over possible worlds. I show that both parts of the narrative are in need of a rewrite. I do so by articulating an innovative conditional analysis in a bilateral semantic setting that takes inspiration from the Ramsey test for conditionals but distinguishes the classical Ramseyan question of what it takes to accept a conditional from the one of what it takes to reject a conditional. The resulting framework disentangles the empirical facts about negated conditionals from the validity of Conditional Excluded Middle but also shows how the principle can live happily in a strict analysis of conditionals, and in fact how it can co-exist with other non-classical principles such as Simplification of Disjunctive Antecedents without negative side effects.
It has been frequently observed in the literature that assertions of plain sentences containing predicates like fun and frightening give rise to an acquaintance inference: they imply that the speaker has first-hand knowledge of the item under consideration. The goal of this paper is to develop and defend a broadly expressivist explanation of this phenomenon: acquaintance inferences arise because plain sentences containing subjective predicates are designed to express distinguished kinds of attitudes that differ from beliefs in that they can only be acquired by undergoing certain experiences. Its guiding hypothesis is that natural language predicate expressions lexically specify what it takes for their use to be properly “grounded” in a speaker’s state of mind: what state of mind a speaker must be in for a predication to be in accordance with the norms governing assertion. The resulting framework accounts for a range of data surrounding the acquaintance inference as well as for striking parallels between the evidential requirements on subjective predicate uses and the kind of considerations that fuel motivational internalism about the language of morals. A discussion of how the story can be implemented compositionally and of how it compares with other proposals currently on the market is provided.
Perspectival Content and Semantic Composition (with Chris Kennedy)
Perspectives on Taste, edited by Jeremy Wyatt, Julia Zakkou, and Dan Zeman. New York: Routledge, 207–230, 2022
[doi: 10.4324/9781003184225-14] // [final draft] // [show abstract]
How is perspectival content grammatically encoded? Theories of perspectival meaning can be divided into two classes based on their answer to this question. On one side are “syntactic” analyses in which perspective-sensitive predicates have a distinct semantic type and the perspectival anchor is realized as a syntactic argument, as in standard contextualist approaches. On the other side are “non-syntactic” analyses which afford no special semantic type or syntactic argument structure to perspectival predicates, and instead capture perspective sensitivity at the level of assessment or use, as in relativist or pragmatic approaches. In this chapter, we respond to an empirical challenge for the latter approach from Sæbø (2009), who uses patterns of acceptability in complex complements of subjective attitude verbs to argue that only a syntactic analysis can accurately predict when perspectival content projects and when it does not. We begin by expanding on the data originally considered by Sæbø, and arguing that a syntactic account cannot be extended to cover the full pattern of projection. We then show that it is possible to augment the pragmatic theory of perspectival content articulated in Kennedy and Willer (2016, ms.) with a simple and intuitive compositional semantics, which accurately captures the full pattern of projection and flows naturally from a general view of how perspective-sensitive meaning updates a context.
The received wisdom on ability modals is that they differ from their epistemic and deontic cousins in what inferences they license and better receive a universal or conditional analysis instead of an existential one. The goal of this paper is to sharpen the empirical picture about the semantics of ability modals, and to propose an analysis that explains what makes the can of ability so special but that also preserves the crucial idea that all uses of can share a common lexical semantics. The resulting framework combines tools and techniques from dynamic and inquisitive semantics with insights from the literature of the role of agency in deontic logic. It explains not only why the can of ability, while essentially being an existential modal operator, sometimes resists distribution over disjunction and interacts with its duals in particular and hitherto unnoticed ways, but also has a tendency to license free choice inferences.
This paper offers a unified semantic explanation of two observations that prove to be problematic for classical analyses of modals, conditionals, and disjunctions: (i) the fact that disjunctions scoping under possibility modals give rise to the free choice effect and (ii) the fact that counterfactuals license simplification of disjunctive antecedents. It shows that the data are well explained by a dynamic semantic analysis of modals and conditionals that uses ideas from the inquisitive semantic tradition in its treatment of disjunction. The analysis explains why embedding a disjunctive possibility under negation reverts disjunction to its classical behavior, is general enough to predict less studied simplification patterns, and also makes progress toward a unified perspective on the distinction between informative, inquisitive, and attentive content.
Folklore has it that Sobel sequences favor a variably strict analysis of conditionals over its plainly strict alternative. While recent discussions for or against the lore have focussed on Sobel sequences involving counterfactuals, this paper draws attention to the fact that indicative Sobel sequences are just as felicitous as are their counterfactual cousins. The fact, or so I shall argue here, disrupts the folklore: given minimal assumptions about the semantics and pragmatics of indicative conditionals, a textbook variably strict analysis fails to predict that indicative Sobel sequences are felicitous. The correct lesson to draw from Sobel sequences is that their felicity challenges classical implementations of the variably strict and of the plainly strict analysis alike. In response to this challenge I develop a dynamic strict analysis of conditionals that handles indicative Sobel sequences with grace while preserving intuitive constraints on the semantics and pragmatics of their members. A discussion of how such an analysis may handle the challenge from reverse Sobel sequences is provided.
Metaethical noncognitivists have trouble arriving at a respectable semantic theory for moral language. The goal of this paper is to make substantial progress toward demonstrating that these problems may be overcome. Replacing the predominant expressivist semantic agenda in metaethics with a dynamic perspective on meaning and communication allows noncognitivists to provide a satisfying analysis of negation and other constructions that have been argued to be problematic for metaethical noncognitivism, including disjunctions. The resulting proposal preserves some of the key insights from recent work on the semantics of expressivism while highlighting the widely neglected early noncognitivists’ sympathies to the kind of dynamic story I intend to tell here. A comparison between the advertised dynamic semantic story and current proposals that treat expressivism as a pragmatic rather than semantic theory about moral language is provided.
Dynamic Foundations for Deontic Logic
Deontic Modality, edited by Nate Charlow and Matthew Chrisman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 324–354, 2016
[doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198717928.003.0012] // [final draft] // [show abstract]
Several authors have observed that the tools and techniques developed within the field of nonmonotonic logic provide a fruitful framework for the theoretical study of deontic discourse and reasoning. The prominent sources of inspiration for the resulting work in deontic logic are the classical nonmonotonic analyses of reasoning with defeasible generalizations. But while the study of reasoning with defaults may help us understand the nature of prima facie obligations, it arguably does not generalize to address other major sources of nonmonotonicity in deontic discourse and reasoning: the violability of obligations and the sensitivity of obligations to epistemic uncertainty. I demonstrate that the tools and techniques developed within the field of dynamic semantics provide a more comprehensive foundation for deontic logic, the underlying observation being that the semantics of deontic ought is sensitive to the presence or absence of epistemic possibilities in discourse and reasoning. The nonmonotonicity of deontic thought and talk, so the key message of this paper, can be illuminated in terms of the familiar nonmonotonicity of epistemic thought and talk that finds a natural articulation in dynamic semantics.
A dynamic semantics for iffy oughts offers an attractive alternative to the folklore that Chisholm’s paradox enforces an unhappy choice between the intuitive inference rules of factual and deontic detachment. The first part of the story told here shows how a dynamic theory about ifs and oughts gives rise to a nonmonotonic perspective on deontic discourse and reasoning that elegantly removes the air of paradox from Chisholm’s puzzle without sacrificing any of the two detachment principles. The second part of the story showcases two bonus applications of the framework suggested here: it offers a response to Forrester’s gentle murder paradox and avoids Kolodny and MacFarlane’s miners paradox about deontic reasoning under epistemic uncertainty. A comparison between the dynamic semantic proposal made in this paper and a more conservative approach combining a static semantics with a dynamic pragmatics is provided.
A dynamic semantics for epistemically modalized sentences is an attractive alternative to the orthodox view that our best theory of meaning ascribes to such sentences truth-conditions relative to what is known. I demonstrate that a dynamic story about might and must offers elegant explanations of a range of puzzling observations about epistemic modals. The ﬁrst part of the story provides a unifying treatment of disputes about epistemic modality and disputes about matters of fact while at the same time avoiding relativism or an overly weak pragmatics. The second part of the story extends what has been said to cover some further relevant data, including retraction, the interaction between epistemic modality and tense, and embeddings of epistemically modalized sentences under attitude verbs. A comparison between the suggestion made in this article and current versions of the orthodoxy is provided.
Every adequate semantics for conditionals and deontic ought must offer a solution to the miners paradox about conditional obligations. Kolodny and MacFarlane have recently argued that such a semantics must reject the validity of modus ponens. I demonstrate that rejecting the validity of modus ponens is inessential for an adequate solution to the paradox.
Schulz has shown that the suppositional view of indicative conditionals leads to a corresponding view of epistemic modals. But his case backfires: the resulting theory of epistemic modals gets the facts wrong, and so we end up with a good argument against the suppositional view. I show how and why a dynamic view of indicative conditionals leads to a better theory of epistemic modals.
In contemporary discussions of the Ramsey Test for conditionals, it is commonly held that (i) supposing the antecedent of a conditional is adopting a potential state of full belief, and (ii) Modus Ponens is a valid rule of inference. I argue on the basis of Thomason Conditionals (such as “If Sally is deceiving, I do not believe it”) and Moore’s Paradox that both claims are wrong. I then develop a double-indexed Update Semantics for conditionals which takes these two results into account while doing justice to the key intuitions underlying the Ramsey Test. The semantics is extended to cover some further phenomena, including the recent observation that epistemic modal operators give rise to something very like, but also very unlike, Moore’s Paradox.
Heidegger’s treatment of the topic of truth in Being and Time is confronted with many criticisms. Of special importance is the thesis that Heidegger is unable to provide a general analysis of the truth of a statement; furthermore, the claim is influential that when being concerned with Dasein’s disclosedness Heidegger does not succeed in plausibly dealing with the topic of truth. This paper offers a new approach to Heidegger’s conception as presented in Being and Time and defends it against well-known criticisms. It also reveals various positive impulses of this conception for the problem of truth and the philosophy of language.
The question of how, if at all, we can make sense of subjective judgments and content from a broadly truth-conditional perspective on natural language meaning has occupied a prominent place in the literature on philosophy of language and linguistics over the last twenty years or so. This is a (subjective) guide to the most important issues and results in the field.
Epistemic modals are a prominent topic in the literature on natural language semantics, with wide-ranging implications for issues in philosophy of language and philosophical logic. Considerations about the role that epistemic might and must play in discourse and reasoning have led to the development of several important alternatives to classical possible worlds semantics for natural language modal expressions. This is an opinionated overview of what I take to be some of the most exciting issues and developments in the field.
Conference Proceedings Publications
A recurring narrative in the literature on conditionals is that the empirical facts about negated ifs provide compelling evidence for the principle of Conditional Excluded Middle and sit uncomfortably with a large family of analyses of conditionals as universal quantifiers over possible worlds. I show that both parts of the narrative are in need of a rewrite by articulating a bilateral update semantics for conditionals that distinguishes itself from previous frameworks by giving separate acceptance and rejection conditions for conditionals. The resulting framework shows that Conditional Excluded Middle is inessential for explaining the empirical facts about negated ifs but also how the principle can live happily in a strict analysis of conditionals.
Disjunctions scoping under possibility modals give rise to the free choice effect. The effect also arises if the disjunction takes wide scope over possibility modals; it is independent of the modal flavor at play (deontic, epistemic, and so on); and it arises even if disjunctions scope under or over necessity modals. At the same time, free choice effects disappear in the scope of negation or if the speaker signals ignorance or unwillingness to cooperate. I show how we can account for this wide variety of free choice observations without unwelcome side-effects in an update-based framework whose key innovations consist in (i) a refined test semantics for necessity modals and (ii) a generalized conception of narrow and wide scope free choice effects as arising from lexically or pragmatically generated prohibitions against the absurd state (an inconsistent information carrier) serving as an update relatum. The fact that some of these prohibitions are defeasible together with a binary semantics that distinguishes between positive and negative update relata accounts for free choice cancellation effects.
Across languages, subjective attitude verbs such as English find, differ from ordinary doxastic attitude verbs (such as English believe) in that they require their complement to be subjective in a particular way. The goal of this paper is to develop a semantics for subjective attitude verbs that predicts this fact but also captures the finer-grained differences between find-type and consider-type subjective attitude verbs that make the former more restrictive than the latter. We propose that in terms of their core, at issue content, such verbs are just like believe in expressing a doxastic attitude towards the prejacent. They differ in that they introduce a presupposition that their prejacent is contingent with respect to a distinct set of discourse alternatives that we label counterstances: alternative common grounds that differ only in decisions about how to resolve semantic underdetermination by the facts of the discourse situation. By distinguishing between two ways in which a prejacent may be counterstance contingent, we provide a formal characterization of the “two types” of subjectivity that emerges in the variable acceptability of predicates under find and consider. The larger theoretical significance of our proposal is that it supports a characterization of “subjective language” as an essentially pragmatic, context-sensitive phenomenon, which does not correlate with semantic type (pace Sæbø) but derives from speakers’ recognition of the possibility of counterstance.
The fact that counterfactuals in general license simplification of disjunctive antecedents is a familiar problem for the traditional Lewis-Stalnaker variably strict analysis of counterfactuals. This paper argues that recent semantic attempts to solve this problem in a variably strict setting do not address related simplification patterns and demonstrates that the data are well explained by a dynamic strict analysis of counterfactuals using ideas from the inquisitive semantic tradition.
Folklore has it that counterfactual Sobel sequences favor a variably strict analysis of conditionals over its plainly strict alternative. Recent discussions of the lore have focussed on the question whether data about reverse counterfactual Sobel sequences actually speak in favor of a dynamic revival of the strict analysis. This paper takes the discussion into a new direction by looking at straight indicative Sobel sequences. The observation is that a variably strict analysis fails to predict the felicity of these sequences given minimal semantic and pragmatic assumptions. A properly elaborated dynamic analysis of indicatives, in contrast, handles the data with grace.
Review of Suppose and Tell: The Semantics and Heuristics of Conditionals, by Timothy Williamson
Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2022.02.03, 2022