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Sarah-Jane Conrad, Klaus Petrus
1 The context thesis and its methodological impact
Philosophers of language and linguistics barely defend the view any longer that
solely the linguistic meaning of a sentence and the syntactic order of the words
it contains determine the truth-evaluable content of an utterance. The opinion
that context-dependence is a common and quite prevailing phenomenon which
is not limited to demonstratives and indexicals has gained considerable ground
over the past few years (e.g. Bianchi 2004; Preyer and Peter 2005, 2007; Recanati,
Stojanovic, and Villanueva 2010; Szabò 2005). The context thesis, i.e. the thesis
that quite a few or even all linguistic expressions are highly context-sensitive, is
thus widely accepted nowadays. Different conclusions have been drawn from this
insight, however.
Some take it to show that the basic concept of any theory of meaning – the
semantic content or what is said by an utterance, which is often equated with
the truth-evaluable and hence propositional content of an uttered sentence – is
actually a pragmatic concept. They support this claim by pointing to specific features of the communicative context that need to be taken into account in order to
specify what a speaker said by an uttered sentence. The concept of what is said
is thus pragmatically infected, and specifying truth-conditions can no longer be
seen as an exclusively semantic matter. On the contrary, pragmatics is necessary
to make the concept of what is said available at all, and its content constantly
changes relative to the communicative context. This very fact is taken to challenge the traditional project of a semantic theory, because pragmatic aspects
affect not only what a speaker meant by an uttered sentence – i.e. what he or
she communicates, possibly by means of an implicature (Grice 1989) – but also
the proposition expressed by the literal use of a sentence. As a consequence,
the semantics‐pragmatics distinction is not as clear‐cut as it may seem, and two
domains, traditionally separated from both a methodological and a conceptual
point of view, appear to be closely intertwined. Well-known names often cited in
relation to this view are, for instance, John Searle (1978), Charles Travis (1985),
Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1986), or Robyn Carston (2002).
Others, by contrast, say that this reaction to the context thesis is unduly
exaggerated. Although they readily acknowledge that context determines the
content of a truth-evaluable utterance in numerous cases, they hold that the
crucial question is how context adopts this role, and whether it is possible to
account for the manifold contextual influences within a semantic framework.
DOI 10.1515/9781501504327-001
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2 Sarah-Jane Conrad, Klaus Petrus
Given that one can provide a systematic analysis of the role context plays
and adapt the semantic theory accordingly in order to account for the different types of contextual influences, it is still possible, they maintain, to
define a semantic concept of what is said by an uttered sentence. This way,
the ­semantics-pragmatics distinction remains intact, and, more importantly, it
is still possible to defend a formal semantics despite the changes the context
thesis entails for our conception of semantics. Different authors such as Isidora
Stojanovic (2008), John MacFarlane (2009), Jeffrey King and Jason Stanley
(2005), Max Kölbel (2002), or François Recanati (2007) and many others defend
this view.
The bone of contention between these two main positions is the question of
how to conceive of context, that is, how to account for contextual influences in
determining what is said by an uttered sentence. On the one hand, we find the
claim that the influences context exerts are manifold and genuinely pragmatic
in nature; on the other hand, it is assumed that context and the role it plays in
determining what is said can be modelled within a semantic framework. Still if
the context thesis is taken on board and one acknowledges that context plays
a much greater role than traditionally assumed, this raises the question as
to what changes this implies with regard to the traditional view of language
and communication as well as with regard to the methodology used to approach
both areas. It is exactly to this very point that the authors contributing to this
­anthology set out to provide some answers.
All papers collected in this volume take the context thesis on board, opting
either for a more pragmatic or a more semantic reading of what is said, and
­evaluating the methodological consequences that follow from it for a theory of language and communication. It is important to stress the methodological perspective, because only too frequently the dispute over context has fed the suspicion
that the whole quarrel is merely about terminological aspects, thus bearing no
substantial weight (Borg 2007; Travis 2006). Although some conceptual incongruities indeed do blur the view, most disagreements are actually the result of
certain methodological decisions. These are often not made transparent and are
further obscured by quarrels about differing intuitions about extensively discussed examples like Tipper is ready or Fido is shaggy and their truth-evaluable
content (see e.g. Bach 2001; Borg 2004; Cappelen and Lepore 2005; Carston 2008).
At times, these discussions seem to dominate the debate as a whole, because
so far no criterion has been available to decide the issue for good (Lötscher
and Conrad 2015). This proves to be particularly problematic when such rather
superficial disputes override or even conceal more systematically anchored questions. Being aware of this, it is all the more worth giving special attention to the
­methodological aspects of the debate.
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Introduction 3
It goes without saying that the papers assembled in this volume do not come
to a unanimous conclusion about the consequences one must draw from the
context thesis. On the contrary, the anthology collects a variety of stances, which
stand in tension with each other and thus indicate that different lessons can be
learnt from the context thesis. Nevertheless, the papers cohere insofar as they
all challenge and elaborate on established notions and methods that pertain to
meaning, context and analysis. By doing so, they show that the context thesis
provokes a fundamental shift and invites us to reconsider core concepts of philosophy of language as well as the methods applied by the theories of language
and communication. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that we find ourselves
confronted with a Contextual Turn, which, in the wake of the Pragmatic Turn,
deeply changes our view of the philosophy of language.
The different papers collected in this anthology suggest questioning three,
ultimately connected assumptions of the philosophy of language. The first
assumption relates to the status of referential semantics and, from a methodological point of view, to its power to explain truth-conditional meaning. This
assumption has come under attack by the context thesis. Connected with the first
assumption and thus owing to the predominant status of referential semantics,
the second assumption gives priority to assertive sentences when language use is
under consideration. The question it raises is whether the context thesis changes
our understanding of language use from a methodological point of view, and
what conclusions need to be drawn from this. According to the third assumption,
philosophical analysis amounts to nothing more than semantic or conceptual
analysis, granted by the metaphysical and epistemological foundations provided
by referential semantics. Since the context thesis threatens to undermine the
project of semantic or conceptual analysis, the question is whether this type of
analysis can still be defended, and if so, how.
As the following overview shows, most of the authors address more than
just one of the above-mentioned assumptions. They generally have one specific
focus, however, and this allows a grouping of the different articles on whether
they draw on reference, truth and meaning, or whether they foreground language
use or semantic analysis.
2 The Contextual Turn and the case for reference,
truth-conditions and meaning
The context thesis ultimately attacks referential semantics in its traditional
form as the bedrock of semantic theories. Referential semantics has been the
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4 Sarah-Jane Conrad, Klaus Petrus
paramount approach to clarifying the concept of meaning for a long time,
although it has been seriously challenged from various sides since its heyday (see
e.g. Brandom 1994; Chomsky 2000; Wittgenstein 1953). All the same, referential
semantics is still central in many theories of meaning because of the explanatory
role it plays with regard to the truth -conditions of an uttered sentence: referential
semantics allows connecting the concepts of meaning and truth by holding that
the propositional or truth-evaluable content of an uttered sentence is ultimately
related to reference and predication. The content expressed by an uttered
sentence can be equated with what is said. If the truth-evaluable content is exclusively related to reference and predication, prima facie no pragmatic or communicative information is needed in order to determine the truth-conditional content
of an uttered sentence. As a consequence, what is said and what is meant by an
uttered sentence can be distinguished from a conceptual point of view and classified as being either semantic or pragmatic. Both assumptions together smoothly
open the door to formal semantics.
Given the pervasive nature context plays not only regarding demonstratives
and indexicals, but rather regarding lexical items in general, one might ask if
referential semantics loses its explanatory power and if it has to be abandoned
altogether or at least so massively improved that it becomes capable of capturing
the manifold forms of context-influences. We also need to ask if it makes sense to
defend the concept of semantic content any longer, and, if we do so, how it can
be preserved. The context thesis ultimately raises some fundamental questions
about how to conceive best of meaning and how to interpret the relation between
meaning and truth. It is these very questions that lie at the centre of attention
of the papers by Christopher Gauker, Kepa Korta and John Perry, Silvan Imhof,
Nikola Kompa and Anne Bezuidenhout.
Christopher Gauker identifies two phenomena, namely open texture and
schematicity, as two embarrassing indeterminacies for referential ­semantics.
As regards the phenomenon of open texture, the author claims that there are
specific terms for which neither the objects referred to nor the past uses determine whether or not they can be applied to a given object. Hence, we are in
some sense confronted with a blank space in the relationship between the word
under consideration and the objects it can refer to. The second indeterminacy
relates to specific terms that can be used in many different ways. This suggests
interpreting their meaning as being merely schematic. Gauker takes both phenomena as a stepping-stone to arguing in favour of a non-referential semantics.
The methodological lesson to be learnt from the Contextual Turn is therefore
that referential semantics as an explanatory role model for semantics needs
to be abandoned. The pressing question then, of course, is if a non-referential
semantics still provides a basis for defining truth and validity, and if the project
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Introduction 5
of a formal semantics can still be saved – a question the author answers in the
Kepa Korta and John Perry hold that the lesson to be learnt from the Contextual Turn is that a useful concept of what is said needs to capture everything that
enters the process of utterance interpretation on the part of the hearer. The objects
of the analysis are therefore not uttered sentences, but utterances. Despite this
fundamental shift in perspective from language to communication and interpretation required by the context thesis, Korta and Perry emphasise that some specific worries turn out to be ill-founded, among others the worry that the concept
of what is said might not be available without taking genuinely pragmatic processes into account. This worry is fed by the assumption that saturation, also
known as “completion”, belongs to the mandatory processes of utterance interpretation. According to the two authors, different levels of analysis need to be
distinguished. As a consequence, it is possible to identify at one level a truthevaluable proposition that is not in need of any saturation.
Silvan Imhof takes a close look at John Searle’s Speech Act Theory, a pragmatic theory of language that includes a strong context thesis. According to
Searle, context is necessary to determine the truth-conditions, or more generally,
the conditions of satisfaction of a speech act. Despite his strong context thesis,
Searle also defends the view that the meaning of every speech act can be captured by a sentence that has a semantic content. The semantic content of a sentence is related to reference and predication, and thus seemingly not affected by
context. The assumption that the semantic content is invariable and independent
from context is vital to Searle’s Speech Act Theory for methodological reasons:
the autonomy of the semantic content allows Searle to claim that the analysis
of speech acts amounts to the analysis of the meaning of the sentence uttered
to perform a specific speech act. Imhof’s reconstruction of Searle’s framework
shows, however, that the semantic content is dissipated by the strong context
thesis, which is why Searle loses the methodological foundation on which he has
built his Speech Act Theory.
Nikola Kompa also addresses the question of how the Contextual Turn
affects the methodological status of type meaning as an explanatory feature of
successful communication. Type meaning describes the conventionalised core
meaning of a sentence that directs its use. The context thesis suggests, however,
that pragmatic derivations are in any case necessary. Therefore type meaning is
not sufficient to explain successful communication. Since the necessary pragmatic derivations vary from one context to another, type meaning seems to lose
its explanatory power as a basis for language mastery and successful communication altogether. Kompa discusses possible strategies that aim to defend the
theory of type meaning. She presents alternative ways of conceiving of it such
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6 Sarah-Jane Conrad, Klaus Petrus
as Augustín Rayo’s grab-bag-model, but finds all of them wanting for different reasons. Eventually she concludes that the context thesis shows that any
semantic theory needs empirical input, and accordingly suggests a change in
perspective by introducing elements of cognitive science into the philosophy of
Anne Bezuidenhout, too, addresses the question of what framework is most
suitable to account for the different types of contextual influences. She also
believes that there is a need for a major shift in paradigm from the philosophy
of language to cognitive science, because a theory of meaning can simply not
account for the understanding of everyday language use. Instead, we had better
avail ourselves of a framework from cognitive science. Championing a Relevance
Theory stance, Bezuidenhout suggests interpreting context psychologically, so
that it refers to the mutual cognitive environment of the persons involved in a
conversation. This is a position that can be aligned with a Chomskyan internalist
view of language. Bezuidenhout contrasts this type of context with the conception of a formal context as suggested by Stefano Predelli (2005), and she demonstrates how cognitive environments are constrained, and how such constraints
can smoothly enter the analysis of indexicals.
3 The Contextual Turn and the case
for language use
As mentioned in the introductory part, the second assumption of philosophy of
language relates to language use. Specific forms of language use are given priority
within the referential framework, namely those that belong to the class of assertive sentences. If, however, referential semantics loses its overriding explanatory
role within semantics, we must ask how this affects our analysis of language as
such. Stefano Predelli and Damon Horowitz both address this question.
Stefano Predelli studies the case of expressive devices. For this purpose he
develops a language fragment as part of a radical nonfactualist language – i.e. a
language fragment that consists of non-descriptive terms. Predelli’s contribution
to the study of a non-truth-conditional language shows that context-dependence,
regarded with fear and reluctance by proponents of traditional semantic frameworks, actually provides a convenient stepping-stone to a better understanding
of natural languages in general. Once the phenomenon of context-dependence
is properly understood and incorporated in our semantic theory, this knowledge
can be used to expand the semantic framework and integrate non-descriptive
­elements of natural languages, for instance expressive devices. This is another
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Introduction 7
lesson to be learnt from the Contextual Turn: it broadens our view of how
­language and its use work.
Damon Horowitz challenges the basic assumption shared by the Literalists
and the Contextualists. Both of the opposing camps claim that truth‐conditions
are objectively fixed and determinate. Literalists explain this by relating the
truth-conditional content to the conventional meaning of the sentence uttered,
whereas Contextualists assume that the content of an utterance is sensitive to
context and must accordingly be determined not only by semantics, but also by
pragmatics. Neither Contextualists nor Literalists, however, are able to explain
the truth-conditional content of metaphors systematically, but relate this phenomenon exclusively to pragmatics. Horowitz shows that after shifting the framework towards what he calls Hermeneutic Contextualism, the truth‐conditional
content of metaphors can be systematically determined. According to his
Hermeneutic Contextualism, the truth-conditional content of metaphors essentially depends on the interpreter of an utterance and is thus closely tied to the
subject and her interpretation.
4 The Contextual Turn and the case
for analysis
As stated by the third assumption related to philosophy of language, the context
thesis questions the status of conceptual and semantic analysis fundamentally.
In accepting the strong context thesis, we need to ask what objects are actually
available for analysis. This problem is addressed by Dominik Aeschbacher, Dan
Zeman, and Štefan Riegelnik, who provide different answers.
Dominik Aeschbacher deals with the question of whether conceptual analysis can be defended as a method for doing philosophy given the context thesis.
Conceptual analysis is based on the so-called “golden triangle” which relates
modality, apriority and meaning. As these three aspects are connected, conceptual analysis simply uncovers knowledge that is a priori and necessary in
nature, and associated with the meanings of the particular expressions used.
In the light of the context thesis, however, the semantic assumptions underlying conceptual analysis become questionable, and the different types of
context-sensitivity threaten the whole endeavour. Aeschbacher shows that
a modified version of a two-dimensional semantic framework in the spirit of
David Chalmers and Frank Jackson is quite capable of countering possible problems related to the context thesis. Thus conceptual analysis can be defended
against contextual challenges.
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8 Sarah-Jane Conrad, Klaus Petrus
Dan Zeman puts the methodological value of the Binding Argument as an
argumentation scheme to the test and subverts its power. According to defenders
of the Binding Argument, context-dependent sentences like It is raining must be
given an indexicalist reading, which means that we are required to assume that
the sentence has variables in its logical form. In consequence, alternative analyses
of the sentence, no matter whether they are semantic or pragmatic, have to be
refuted. The Binding Argument thus seems to provide a methodological bedrock
argument that makes it possible to decide what type of semantic theory to favour.
Zeman shows that the Binding Argument fails to make good on this promise,
because it can be blocked at different stages and alternative explanations for the
phenomena at stake can be given. As a consequence, neither is the debate between
truth-conditional semantics and truth-conditional pragmatics finally settled nor
are we required to opt for a specific type of truth-conditional semantics.
In the last contribution of this volume, Štefan Riegelnik deals with one of the
most fundamental questions brought up by the Contextual Turn, namely with the
question of where to draw the demarcation line between semantics and pragmatics for establishing two distinct domains of analysis. Riegelnik claims that there
is no way of settling the issue in principle. He argues that this has to do with the
fact that the distinction is problematic in itself. If there are semantic as well as
pragmatic elements in an utterance, the presumption of a semantic-pragmaticdivide calls for an explanation of the unity of utterances. In other words, we need
to answer the question of how semantic and pragmatic parts relate so as to form a
unified utterance. Without an answer to this question, it is problematic to uphold
the semantics-pragmatics distinction and hence mistaken to study semantic or
pragmatic properties in isolation. According to Riegelnik, this is the methodological upshot of the Contextual Turn.
The papers gathered in this volume all render the methodological assumptions transparent that are challenged by the context thesis, and they point out
how this attack could be countered. By doing so, they identify a number of problems that are entailed from a methodological point of view, and they show that
different lessons can be learnt from the Contextual Turn regarding both semantics and the (semantic) framework they consider the most suitable to handle the
context thesis. Although the question of whether the philosophy of language can
still make a stand in the face of the context thesis is not answered unanimously,
all the authors address some systematic as well as methodological shortcomings
and put them into sharp relief against the context thesis.
The work for this anthology was supported by the Swiss National Science
Foundation (project No. 114812). Special thanks go to Adrian Häfliger, Nathalie
Lötscher, and Jonas Pfister as well as Christopher C. Pfisterer for their philosophical and Jonna Truniger for her linguistic support.
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Introduction 9
Bach, Kent. 2001. You don’t say? Synthese 128 (1–2). 15–44.
Bianchi, Claudia (ed.). 2004. The semantics/pragmatics distinction. Stanford: CSLI
Borg, Emma. 2004. Minimal semantics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Borg, Emma. 2007. Minimalism versus contextualism in semantics. In Gerhard Preyer & Georg
Peter (eds.), Context-sensitivity and semantic minimalism, 546–571. Oxford: Clarendon
Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making it explicit. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Cappelen, Herman & Ernie Lepore. 2005. Insensitive semantics. A defense of semantic
minimalism and speech act pluralism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Carston, Robyn. 2002. Thoughts and utterances. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Carston, Robyn. 2008. Linguistic communication and the semantics/pragmatics distinction.
Synthese 165 (3). 321–345.
Chomsky, Noam. 2000. New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Grice, Herbert Paul. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
King, Jeffrey & Jason Stanley. 2005. Semantics, pragmatics, and the role of semantic content.
In Zoltan G. Szabò (ed.), Semantics versus pragmatics, 111–164. Oxford: Oxford University
Kölbel, Max. 2002 Truth without objectivity. London: Routledge.
Lötscher, Nathalie & Sarah-Jane Conrad. 2015. Minimalismus, Kontextualismus, Relativismus.
In Nikola Kompa (ed.), Handbuch Sprachphilosophie, 279–288. Stuttgart: Metzler.
MacFarlane, John. 2009. Nonindexical Contextualism. Synthese 166 (2). 231–250.
Preyer, Gerhard & Georg Peter (eds.). 2005. Contextualism in philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon
Preyer, Gerhard & Georg Peter (eds.). 2007. Context-sensitivity and semantic minimalism.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Recanati, François. 2007. Perspectival thought: A plea for (moderate) relativism. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Recanati, François, Isidora Stojanovic & Neftalí Villanueva (eds.). 2010. Context-dependence,
Perspective and relativity. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Searle, John. 1978. Literal meaning. Erkenntnis 13 (1). 207–224.
Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford:
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Stojanovic, Isidora. 2008. What is said: An inquiry into reference, meaning and content.
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Szabò, Zoltan G. (ed.), Semantics versus pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Travis, Charles. 1985. On what is strictly speaking true. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15 (2).
Travis, Charles. 2006. Insensitive semantics. Mind & Language 21 (1). 39–49.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
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