Logic & Philosophy of Science Colloquium
"Context Shifting Arguments"
Here's an argument that that "I" is a context sensitive expression. Consider
simultaneous utterances, u and u', of "I am wearing a hat", one by Stephen and
one by Jason. Intuitively, these utterances might disagree in truth-value,
contingent upon who is or isn't wearing a hat. It is not unreasonable to
conclude that u and u' express distinct propositions, and differ in their truth
conditions. Since these semantic differences are not the result of ambiguity
(lexical or structural) or vagueness or ellipsis, it is customary to infer that
'I am wearing a hat' is a context sensitive sentence, because it harbors the
We call this sort of argument a Context Shifting Argument (CSA). All such
arguments take this form: we are asked to consider two utterances of a single
unambiguous non-vague, non-elliptic sentence. CSA proponents claim that
intuitions about these utterances reveal that they:
I1: say different things.
I2: express different propositions.
I3: have different truth conditions.
I4: and so, may differ in truth-value.
Obviously, these are variations with semantic import; the standard semantic
account is to infer that the sentence in question is context sensitive,
possibly because it harbors an indexical expression.
Philosophers have exploited CSA, e.g., to resolve the standoff between
epistemic falliblists and skeptics, to defend a brand of moral relativism, to
resolve Sorities and Liar paradoxes, to defend a conservative view about
psychological attitude attribution, to explain intuitions about quantifier
domain under specification, to provide a workable semantics for attributive
adjectives, and so on endlessly. In this paper I will review a number of
alleged and powerful cases of CSA. I will then briefly discuss conclusions
drawn from such cases. And lastly and most importantly, I will offer a two-part
objection of CSA. I first show that were its conclusions true, we should have
a range of intuitions that we do not. My diagnosis is that contexts of
utterances are systematically under-described in CSA. Only by under-describing
various contexts of utterance can an appearance of having singled out semantic
context sensitivity even arise. But when fully specified (in the relevant
respects) it is easy to see that CSA by itself does not provide semantically
Friday, January 24, 2003
Refreshments will be served