Relatively speaking

Puzzles about sentences containing expressions of certain sorts, such as predicates of personal taste, epistemic modals, and ‘know’, have spawned families of views that go by the names of Contextualism and Relativism. In the case of predicates of personal taste, which I will be focusing on, contextualist views say that the contents of sentences like “Uni is delicious” and “The Aristocrats is hilarious” vary somehow with the context of utterance. Such a sentence semantically expresses different propositions in different contexts, depending on what standard or perspective (or whose standard or perspective) is implicitly adverted to. According to relativist views, the propositional content of such a sentence is fixed, but what it takes for that proposition to be true varies somehow with the context, depending on the relevant standard or perspective. I will argue that such views are neither well supported by the data nor well motivated by the puzzles themselves. Even so, there is an element of truth in each. I will sketch an alternative view, dubbed Radical Invariantism, according to which the appearance of context sensitivity is illusory. Rather than impute either kind of context sensitivity to these sentences or to their contents, Radical Invariantism says that these sentences are distinguished by what they don’t do. Because they are not explicitly relativized, they leave a certain semantic slack. They fall short of fully expressing a proposition, instead expressing merely a “propositional radical.” We can explain away the appearance of semantic context sensitivity pragmatically, by taking into account facts about how, and under what conditions, speakers who use or encounter these sentences manage to pick up the slack. This can occur in either of two ways. Speakers either take a certain standard or perspective as understood, or else they treat the sentence as if it expresses a standard- or perspective-independent proposition even though it does not..
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