A plea for radical contextualism

Synthese 194 (3):963-988 (2017)
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Abstract

Extant contextualist theories have relied on the mechanism of pragmatically driven modulation to explain the way non-indexical expressions take on different interpretations in different contexts. In this paper I argue that a modulation-based contextualist semantics is untenable with respect to non-ambiguous expressions whose invariant meaning fails to determine a unique literal interpretation, such as ‘lawyer’ ‘musician’ ‘book’ and ‘game’. The invariant meaning of such an expression corresponds to a range of closely related and equally basic interpretations, none of which can be distinguished as the literal interpretation. Moreover, what counts as a literal interpretation as opposed to a non-literal one is arguably vague. The nonuniqueness of the literal interpretation and the vagueness in the literal/non-literal divide doubly challenge a modulation-based semantics, for modulation is supposed to operate on a unique literal interpretation to generate a clearly non-literal interpretation. Lastly I contend that non-ambiguous expressions which lack determinate literal interpretation are amenable to a Radical Contextualist semantics, according to which the invariant meaning of such an expression directs its interpretation to congruent background information in context. Thereby, these expressions exhibit semantically driven context sensitivity without displaying indexicality.

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Minyao Huang
Cambridge University

References found in this work

Demonstratives: An Essay on the Semantics, Logic, Metaphysics and Epistemology of Demonstratives and Other Indexicals.David Kaplan - 1989 - In Joseph Almog, John Perry & Howard Wettstein (eds.), Themes From Kaplan. Oxford University Press. pp. 481-563.
Metaphors We Live By.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson - 1980 - University of Chicago Press.
Literal Meaning.François Recanati - 2002 - Cambridge University Press.

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