|Abstract||Many years ago, when the world and we were young, in 1978 in fact, John Searle published in Erkenntnis 13: 207-24 (reprinted in Searle 1979: 117-36) a provocative article “Literal Meaning”. In the essay Searle considers the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ in circumstances in which the cat and mat are in the prototypical spatial relationship of one being snuggled up to the other, except that they are both floating freely in various orientations in outer space, in which there is no gravitational field with respect to which the cat is “above” the mat. Is the cat on the mat? Searle asserts that the notion of a literal meaning of ‘The cat is on the mat’ depends on assumptions like the existence of a local gravitational field in which ‘above’ and ‘below’ have an application. (What this amounts to in the ordinary, earth-bound case is that the assertion of ‘The cat is on the mat’ is true if and only if the cat is above and touching – in some typical fashion -- the mat beneath it. The earth’s local gravitational field provides a preferred spatial orientation; freely falling bodies fall “down”.) Searle’s thesis was that for: a large class of unambiguous sentences such as ‘The cat is on the mat’, the notion of the literal meaning of the sentence only has application relative to a set of background assumptions. The truth conditions of the sentence will vary with variations in these background assumptions; and given the absence or presence of some background assumptions the sentence does not have determinate truth conditions. These variations have nothing to do with indexicality, change of meaning, ambiguity, conversational implication, vagueness or presupposition as these notions are standardly discussed in the philosophical and linguistic literature. …[O]ur examples suggest that the assumptions are not specifiable as part of the semantic content of the sentence, or as presuppositions of the applicability of that semantic content… (1979: 125-6) 1..|
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