An Intention-Based Semantics for Imperatives
Draft, Uploaded on 10 October 2016 (+Abstract)
I argue that imperative clauses semantically encode directive force, and that performing a directive act is a matter of producing an utterance with the aim of getting one’s addressee to form an intention to comply. By implementing these ideas in a formal-semantic theory, I show how to make sense of the ways in which imperatives can combine with declaratives in conjunctions, disjunctions, and conditionals. The resulting theory predicts a range of data about imperative inference, including both the badness of Ross’s paradox and the goodness of free-choice inferences. It also shows these inferential data to be an indirect, linguistic manifestation of the coherence norms that govern belief and intention. Finally, I explain the illocutionary variability of imperatives by appealing to a theory of indirect speech acts. The resulting view is a self-standing semantic and pragmatic theory of imperative clauses, but also a case study in the attempt to explain the semantic facts by grounding them in facts about the intentions, beliefs, and practical rationality underlying communication. I hope to show that this research program—Intention-Based Semantics—is of more than programmatic interest; it can also yield independently motivated explanations of nuanced semantic phenomena.
Semantics without Semantic Content
Draft of 23 December 2016 (+Abstract)
I argue that the semantic values of sentences aren't propositions, but properties of propositions. My main argument for this view is that it better makes sense of the place of semantic composition in cognitive architecture. Compositional semantics, I argue, is the study of one part of humans' modular linguistic competence, whereas our capacity to work out what people are referring to when they use so-called "context sensitive" expressions is non-modular, and so post-semantic. Although others, including Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, Kent Bach, Robyn Carston, Stephen Schiffer, and Stephen Neale, have defended similar views before, no one has showed how to implement this idea in a formal compositional semantics. I show how to give such a theory here, while sticking quite close to standard textbook semantics.
We Talk to People, not Contexts
Draft of 16 March 2017 (+Abstract)
According to context-directed theories, to perform a communicative act is to do something whose constitutive aim is to change the context. I argue that context-directed theories can't account for many actual cases of communication, run together a variety of important distinctions, and shouldn't be thought of as harmless idealizations. Addressee-directed theories of communication, of the kind originally defended by Grice, do a better job of accounting for the full range of human communication. According to these theories, performing a communicative act is a matter of doing something with the intention of changing an addressee's private mental states, in part by making this intention known. Theories of this kind can also make sense of context-change in much the same way that they make sense of other ways in which we use communication to further our extra-communicative goals.
Convention and Metasemantic Explanation
Down for Revision (+Abstract)
I argue that metasemantics can be divided into two branches. Constitutive metasemantics is concerned with what grounds or constitutes the semantic facts, whereas causal metasemantics is concerned with how the semantic facts come about and persist. In general, then, metasemantics is the study of explanations of the semantic facts. Once we draw this distinction, it can be seen that not all theories of linguistic convention, when construed as answers to metasemantic questions, are in competition. Whereas the theories of Millikan and Skyrms are best understood as answers to causal questions, the theory of Lewis is an attempt to answer a constitutive question. Moreover, I argue that Lewis's answer is a bad answer to this question, since it fails to account for the fact that humans often communicate in the face of ignorance of one another's linguistic abilities. I propose an alternative view on which public semantic facts are grounded in overlapping communicative dispositions.
Wittgenstein's Influence on Austin's Philosophy of Language
Coauthored with Elmar Unnsteinsson; Draft (+Abstract)
Many philosophers have assumed, without argument, that Wittgenstein influenced Austin. More often, however, this is vehemently denied, especially by those who knew Austin personally. We compile and assess the currently available evidence for Wittgenstein’s influence on Austin’s philosophy of language. Surprisingly, this has not been done before in any detail. On the basis of both textual and circumstantial evidence we show that Austin’s work demonstrates substantial engagement with Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. In particular, Austin’s 1940 paper, ‘The Meaning of a Word,’ should be construed as a direct response to and development of ideas he encountered in Wittgenstein’s Blue Book. Moreover, we argue that Austin’s mature speech-act theory in How To Do Things With Words was also significantly influenced by Wittgenstein.
Commands Backed by Threats
Coauthored with Rachel McKinney; Down for Revision (+Abstract)
Much work in both the philosophy of language, in social and political philosophy, and in the philosophy of law assumes that the force of a command necessarily derives from the speaker's authority. We argue that this badly underplays the diversity of speech acts that go under this heading. In particular, we argue that many commands are backed by implied indirect threats rather than by anything that might be called authority, and that, in fact there is a diverse range of directive acts that may play the roles that commands have been taken to play. What distinguishes species within the genus of directives, on our view, are the different reasons that the speaker offers the hearer for complying with the directive—a view that can be implemented in different ways by different semantic and pragmatic theories.
Speech Acts: The Contemporary Theoretical Landscape
Coauthored with Daniel Fogal and Matt Moss. Forthcoming in New Work on Speech Acts, Oxford University Press. (+Abstract)
An opinionated overview of the contemporary literature on speech-act theory. This is the introductory chapter of the forthcoming OUP volume, New Work on Speech Acts, edited by Daniel Fogal, Daniel W. Harris, and Matt Moss.
A Puzzle about Context and Communicative Acts
Forthcoming in Protosociology (+Abstract)
A context-directed theory of communicative acts is one that thinks of a communicative act as a proposal to change the context in some way. I focus on three influential examples: Robert Stalnaker’s theory of assertion, Craige Roberts’ theory of questions, and Paul Portner’s theory of directives. These theories distinguish different categories of communicative acts by distinguishing the components of context that they aim to change. I argue that the components of context they posit turn out not to be distinct after all, and that these theories therefore collapse the taxonomic distinctions that they set out to draw. Although it might be possible to avoid this problem by devising a more adequate theory of the nature of context, I argue that it should be taken as a reductio of context-directed theories.
Intentionalism versus The New Conventionalism
Croatian Journal of Philosophy 16 (2), 2016, 173–201. (published version) (+Abstract)
Are the properties of communicative acts grounded in the intentions with which they are performed, or in the conventions that govern them? The latest round in this debate has been sparked by Ernie Lepore and Matthew Stone (2015), who argue that much more of communication is conventional than we thought, and that the rest isn’t really communication after all, but merely the initiation of open-ended imaginative thought. I argue that although Lepore and Stone may be right about many of the specific cases they discuss, their big-picture, conventionalist conclusions don’t follow. My argument focuses on four phenomena that present challenges to conventionalist accounts of communication: ambiguity, indirect communication, communication by wholly unconventional means, and convention acquisition.
The History and Prehistory of Natural Language Semantics
Forthcoming in Innovations in the History of Analytic Philosophy, edited by Christopher Pincock and Sandra Lapointe (under contract with Palgrave Macmillan) (+Abstract)
Contemporary natural language semantics began with the assumption that a sentence’s meaning could be captured as a single truth condition. This assumption has eroded over time, as attention to context-sensitivity, presupposition, conventional implicature, expressive meaning, and non-declarative clause types has led semanticists to posit distinct, mutually-irreducible dimensions of meaning, all intimately tied to the dynamics of conversation. I attempt to explain why the history of semantics has taken this trajectory by examining its pre-history, by which I mean the period when the tools and methodology of semantics were developing, but before the primary aim of semantics was to understand natural language itself. I argue that the assumption that sentence meanings are truth conditions resulted from an explicit idealization, by pre-historic figures including Frege, Tarski, and Carnap, away all aspects of meaning that get in the way of a one-to-one relation between sentences and truth condition. This idealization was appropriate to the primarily logical, mathematical, and philosophical goals of the pre-historic period. Once the goal of semantics was to explain natural language itself, however, the idealization became a mere distortion.
New Work on Speech Acts
Volume Co-edited with Daniel Fogal (Uppsala) and Matt Moss (Columbia), under contract with Oxford University Press (+Abstract)
This volume will bring together fourteen papers and an introductory survey on contemporary aspects and applications of speech-act theory by leading linguists and philosophers of language. The following essays will be included:
Daniel Fogal, Daniel W. Harris, and Matt Moss: The Contemporary Speech-Act-Theoretic Landscape (Introduction)
Elisabeth Camp: Insinuation, Inexplicitness, and the Conversational Record
Nate Charlow: Clause-Types, Force, and Normative Judgment in the Semantics of Imperatives
Mitch Green: A Refinement of the Force/Content Distinction
Peter Hanks: Types of Speech Acts
Rae Langton: Blocking as Counter-Speech
Mary Kate McGowan: On Covert Excercitives: Speech and the Social World
Sarah Murray and Will Starr: Force and Conversational States
Geoff Nunberg: The Social Life of Slurs
Paul Portner: Commitment to Priorities
Craige Roberts: Speech Acts in Discourse Context
Jennifer Saul: Dogwhistles, Political Manipulation, and Philosophy of Language
Robert Stalnaker: Dynamic Pragmatics
Matthew Stone and Ernie Lepore: Explicit Indirection
Seth Yalcin: Expressivism by Force
Review of Imagination and Convention: Distinguishing Grammar & Inference in Language, by Ernie Lepore and Matthew Stoneforthcoming in Philosophical Review
Review of Metasemantics: New Essays on the Foundations of Meaning, edited by Alexis Burgess and Brett ShermanAustralasian Journal of Philosophy 95 (1), 2017, 190–3.
Review of Meaning: A Slim Guide to Semantics by
Paul ElbourneMind 124 (495), July 2015, 908–11.
Speech Act Theoretic Semantics
Dissertation, Defended April 2014
Supervisor: Stephen Neale
I defend the view that linguistic meaning is a relation borne by an expression to a type of speech act, and that this relation holds in virtue of our overlapping communicative dispositions, and not in virtue of linguistic conventions. I argue that this theory gives the right account of the semantics–pragmatics interface and the best-available semantics for non-declarative clauses, and show that it allows for the construction of a rigorous compositional semantic theory with greater explanatory power than both truth-conditional and dynamic semantics.