In Defense of Common Content

Abstract

Sentences are often used by speakers to communicate thoughts about particular items. Call this de re communication. If a listener is to understand these uses, she must form interpretations of them that are sufficiently similar to the thoughts they express. This similarity between the thoughts on both sides should be anchored in some principled fashion in the content of the utterances. In this essay, I critically discuss a theory of de re communication and utterance content that Anne Bezuidenhout has recently developed in a series of articles.1 This theory, in the Relevance tradition of Sperber and Wilson,2 regards the significance of utterances as more pragmatic in nature than allowed by traditional accounts; further, it downplays logical considerations in explaining de re communication, choosing instead to emphasize its psychological character. Included among the implications of this approach is the rejection of what can be called common content, or utterance content that is held in common by speaker and listener. After describing this theory, I argue, first, that Bezuidenhout does not supply us with a sufficient reason to prefer her account of utterance content over more traditional alternatives, and second, that her account of de re communication supplies even more reason to reject the view of content to which she subscribes. In the end, it will be clear that she has no principled reason for rejecting common content. At bottom, her view and others like it fail because they flout the distinction between the logical and the psychological, thereby making it impossible for them to appreciate the roles that logical considerations play in utterance content and de re communication.

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