Presupposition has been a widely discussed topic in the philosophical and linguistic tradition since the beginning: Frege, in Über Sinn und Bedeutung (1892), claims that the use of a singular term presupposes the existence of the individual denoted. The Fregean example was that to give a truth value to the sentence
(1) Kepler died in misery
we need to take for granted the truth of the proposition
(1a) Kepler existed
Therefore, (1a) is a semantic presupposition of (1). Since the Fregean stance, analytic scholars have given the following definition: a sentence p semantically presupposes a sentence q if we need the truth of q in order to treat p as endowed with sense, that is, as either true or false. If the presupposition is lacking, then the sentence p lacks a truth value (i.e. is neither true nor false). Russell, in On Denoting (1905), launched a strong criticism of the Fregean theory of semantic presupposition, contrasting the Fregean view with a new “theory of definite descriptions”. From this perspective, every sentence is either truth or false, and the role of a proper name (or a description to which every proper name can be reduced, according to Russell) is to express an existence claim. This solution allows to give a truth value to sentences with non-denoting terms, like “The present king of France is bald”, which should be translated as “There is an individual who is at present King of France and he is unique and he is bald”; formally:
In this case, given that there is no individual who is presently the King of France, the sentence is false.
It was only in the 50s that ordinary language philosophy developed a new concept of presupposition. Starting with Strawson (1950) and with Austin (1962), the concept of presupposition was no longer linked to necessary conditions for the evaluation of the truth of a sentence, but was a necessary condition for the felicity or appropriateness of a speech act. With Stalnaker (1973) analytic philosophy abandoned the notion of semantic presupposition to treat presupposition as a propositional attitude. The theory changed its focus from the semantic level of sentences to the pragmatic level of utterances, therefore including the ‘cognitive context’ of the speakers background of beliefs, assumptions, presumptions, etc. In Stalnaker’s view the common ground of a conversation at a particular time is the set of propositions that participants in that conversation at that time mutually believe to be accepted as true and that, for that reason, they take for granted. Hence, in this perspective, a pragmatic presupposition is a prerequisite for appropriateness of assertions: an assertion of a sentence p is appropriate only if the common ground includes the presupposition q required by p, namely, q is believed as accepted as true by the interlocutors (Stalnaker, 2002).
In more recent times, several scholars have treated the problem of presuppositions within dynamic semantic theories, i.e. formal representations of language structure aimed at modelling the growth of information in the course of a discourse, like Update Semantics (Heim 1992) and Discourse Representation Theory (Kamp & Reyle, 1993). The passage from the level of singular utterances to the wider level of the discourse structure has shown us that the distinction between semantic and pragmatic presuppositions, that once seemed like a neat division, is not so tidy after all. On the one hand, presuppositions are considered an essential prerequisite for understanding the content expressed by an utterance and for the coherence of the semantic relations between the sentences that constitute a discourse. In this respect, therefore, they play a purely semantic role. On the other hand, the process of presupposition accommodation is highly sensitive to contextual factors like, for example, speakers’ willingness to maintain a cooperative attitude with their interlocutors. In this view, therefore, they can be considered a pragmatic phenomenon, related to contextual aspects.
When dealing with presuppositions, many theoretical problems and contrasts have to be tackled. Specifically, there are three main open questions in the current linguistic and philosophical debate:
(i) a first problem concerns what ‘presupposing’ means, i.e. what it is for a proposition to be taken for granted. The question at stake is to determine what are the mental states speakers have towards presuppositions; in particular, when new information is conveyed as presupposed and is accommodated within the common ground by the interlocutors (Stalnaker 2002, Gauker 2003).
(ii) A second major issue regards the role of presupposition triggers (i.e. all the lexical items and syntactic constructions that activate presuppositions). Besides a traditional taxonomy of presupposition triggers, there are now new attempts to better explain the mechanisms underlying the understanding of different categories of triggers and to provide a new classification (Abusch 2002, 2010).
(iii) Finally, a third central topic is the so called ‘presupposition projection problem’, namely, the problem of how complex sentences inherit the presuppositions of their components depending on the logical operator in use (Heim 1992, Geurts 1999).
|Key works||Common ground; presupposition triggers; presupposition projection; accommodation; global context; local context; presupposition failure.|
Stalnaker R (1973) Presuppositions. The Journal of Philosophical Logic 2:447-457
Stalnaker R (2002) Common Ground. Linguistics and Philosophy 25(5-6):701-721
Heim I (1992) Presupposition projection and the semantics of attitude verbs. Journal of Semantics 9(3):183-221
Abusch, D., (2010). “Presupposition triggering from alternatives”, Journal of Semantics,
Geurts, B., (1999). Presuppostions and Pronouns, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
- Assertion (654 | 100)
- Context and Context-Dependence (695 | 225)
- Discourse Representation (103)
- Implicature (237 | 99)
- Linguistic Communication (190)
- Linguistic Focus (47)
- Linguistic Force (35)
- Metaphor (691)
- Performatives (53)
- Relevance Theory (70)
- Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction (261)
- Speech Acts (601)
- Pragmatics, Misc (240)
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