The Creative Interpreter: Content Relativism and Assertion

Noûs 42 (1):23 - 46 (2008)
Abstract
Philosophers of language and linguists tend to think of the interpreter as an essentially non-creative participant in the communicative process. There’s no room, in traditional theories, for the view that correctness of interpretation depends in some essential way on the interpreter. As a result, there’s no room for the possibility that while P is the correct interpretation of an utterance, u, for one interpreter, P* is the correct interpretation of that utterance for another interpreter. Recently, a number of theorists have, for separate reasons, argued in favour of a radically different view of communication – a view in which the interpreter and her context play what should be thought of as a content-creating role. According to such views, natural languages contain what I’ll call interpretation sensitive terms: terms the correct interpretation of which varies across interpreters (or, more generally, contexts of interpretation).3 An interpretation sensitive sentence can have one content relative to one interpreter and another content relative to another interpreter. This paper is a development and (partial) defence of the view that interpretation sensitivity is ubiquitous in natural language. I call the view that there are interpretation sensitive terms content relativism. Before starting the discussion of content relativism, it is worth pointing out that recent attempts to develop semantically motivated versions of truth relativism should be seen as part of this trend of giving the interpreter a more active role
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