How to theorize about subjective language: a lesson from ‘de re’

Linguistics and Philosophy 45 (3):619-681 (2022)
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Subjective language has attracted substantial attention in the recent literature in formal semantics and philosophy of language Subjective meaning: alternatives to relativism, De Gruyter, Berlin, pp 1–19, 2016; Lasersohn in Subjectivity and perspective in truth-theoretic semantics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017; Vardomskaya in Sources of subjectivity, Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, IL, 2018; Zakkou in Faultless disagreement: a defense of contextualism in the realm of personal taste, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt a. M., 2019b). Most current theories argue that Subjective Predicates, which express matters of opinion, semantically differ from ordinary predicates, which express matters of fact. We will call this view “SP exceptionalism”. This paper addresses SP exceptionalism by scrutinizing the behavior of SPs in attitude reports, which, as we will argue, significantly constrains the space of analytical options and rules out some of the existing theories. As first noticed by Stephenson :487–525, 2007a; Towards a theory of subjective meaning, Ph.D. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 2007b), the most prominent reading of embedded SPs is one where they talk about the attitude holder’s subjective judgment. As is remarked sometimes :327–352, 2009; Pearson in J Semant 30:103–154, 2013a), this reading is not the only one: embedded SPs may also talk about someone else’s, non-local, judgment. We concentrate specifically on such cases and show that non-local judgment is possible if and only if SPs are used within a DP that is outside main predicate position and that entire DP is read de re. We demonstrate that the behavior of SPs in attitude reports does not differ from that of ordinary predicates: it follows from general constraints on intersective modification and intensional quantification Ways of scope taking, Springer, Dordrecht, pp 183–215, 1997; Musan in On the temporal interpretation of noun phrases, Garland, New York, 1997; Percus in Nat Lang Semant 8:173–229, 2000; Keshet in Good intensions: paving two roads to a theory of the de re/de dicto distinction, Ph.D. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 2008). We argue that this unexceptional behavior of SPs in fact has unexpected consequences for SP exceptionalism. Precisely because SPs have been argued to be semantically different from ordinary predicates, not all theories correctly predict these less-studied data: some overgenerate :691–706, 2007; Sæbø 2009) and some undergenerate Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung, vol 11, pp 433–447, 2007; Pearson 2013a). Out of the currently available theories, only relativist accounts :643–686, 2005; MacFarlane 2014; Bylinina in J Semant 34, 291–331, 2017; Coppock in Linguist Philos 41:125–164, 2018) predict the right interpretation, and only that interpretation. We thus present a novel empirical argument for relativism, and, more generally, formulate a constraint that has to be taken into consideration by any view that advocates SP exceptionalism.



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