Friday, February 16: Carlos Cisneros

Please join us this Friday as Carlos Cisneros from the Linguistics Department presents more work on indiscrimnacy.

Date and time: Friday, February 16, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Dissecting indiscriminacy (and free chioce)


Indiscriminatives (depreciatives in Haspelmath 1997) are a crosslinguistic class of indefinite equivalent in meaning to English ‘just any’.  Haspelmath observed their strong relationship to free choice items crosslinguistically, calling them ‘semantic enrichments [of free choice meaning] by implicature’.  They are often derived from free choice items by means of special intonation and/or minor morpho-syntactic modification.  They are characteristically defined by their interaction with negation, which results in the denial that the indiscriminative’s restrictor serves as a sufficient condition for satisfaction of some predicate by an individual.

(1) It’s not that just any horror film should get nominated for an award.

In (1), the speaker denies that the predicate should get nominated for an award is satisfied by merely having the condition of being a horror film.  In this denial, the speaker also asserts that an individual must have some other quality besides being a horror film, thereby representing some proper subset of horror films yet to be suggested.  To my knowledge, there is no attempt in the literature to develop a semantic/pragmatic account of indiscriminative meaning.

The difficulty of approaching an semantic treatment of indiscriminative meaning is tied to the problem of free choice item semantics.  Outside of negation, both classes of items display the properties of anti-episodicity (aversion to episodic environments) and quantificational variability (a modal form of universal quantification which favors distributive over collective readings) (Giannakidou 2001).  There is a large literature on the semantics of free choice items, especially any, with much debate about their most proper, general treatment (Dayal 1998; Menendez-Benito 2010; Chierchia 2013; among many others).  But most of these approaches have neglected early insights that relate the meaning of free choice items to a greater systematic phenomenon in language.  Fauconnier (1975) noted the meaning similarity between any and the quantifying superlatives of English.  Konig (1991) later noted that quantifying superlatives are anti-episodic, in the same vein as free choice items.  Although it has not yet been discussed, quantifying superlatives also display quantificational variability and a strong resemblance to indiscrimatives while under negation.  Therefore, the meaning of free choice items, their link to indiscriminatives, and a larger set of phenomena including quantifying superlatives should result from a common set of semantic principles.

In this talk, I will draw on further data from my studies on minimal sufficiency just (Coppock & Beaver 2014) to argue that free choice items and quantifying superlatives both involve minimal sufficiency scales.  These are scalar inferences similar to downward entailment in which propositional strength is ranked according to the sufficiency of alternative individuals in their satisfaction of the same predicate.  Free choice items and quantifying superlatives both assert the truth of the strongest proposition, entailing the truth of all weaker propositions.  Free choice items additionally involve a mechanism for making subdomain alternatives accessible to minimal sufficiency scales.  The two primary options for this mechanism are reanalysis of NPIs as presupposing minimal sufficiency scales, or derivation of free choice items by means of ‘non-specific free relative clauses’ (Haspelmath 1997, 1995).  I will demonstrate how the two mechanisms work with minimal sufficiency scales to derive the meanings and distributions of both free choice any and Cuevas Mixtec free choice items.  The major payoff of this approach is how simply a semantics of indiscriminatives follows from it.   Indiscriminative meaning is free choice meaning as it is made available to negation (by focus), thereby denying the truth of the strongest proposition on a minimal sufficiency scale.

Friday, February 2: Yimei Xiang [pt. II]

Please join us this Friday as Yimei Xiang (Linguistics, Harvard) presents work on exhaustivity in attitudes.

Date and time: Friday, February 2, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Complete and true: attitudes held of questions


Attitudes (e.g., knowledge, memory, emotion, and so on) held of questions must be complete and true. For example, the sentence “Jenny knows who left” has two conditions: a Completeness condition, that Jenny knows an answer that completely addresses the question “who left”, and a false answer (FA-)sensitivity condition, that Jenny has no false belief relevant to “who left”. Completeness is standardly equivocated to exhaustiveness. For example, a complete answer of “who left” should exhaustively specify all the individuals who left. Adopting this assumption, recent works on question embedding treat the FA-sensitivity condition as a scalar implicature of Completeness and derive it via exhaustification (Klinedinst & Rothschild 2011, Uegaki 2015, Cremers 2016, Theiler et al 2016).
However, investigating into mention-some readings of questions with existential modals (e.g., “Who can chair the committee?”), I argue for a non-exhaustive definition of Completeness that unifies mention-some and mention-all readings of questions (Fox 2013). Further, drawing on observations validated experimentally, I argue against the exhaustification-based account of FA-sensitivity: the FA-sensitivity condition is much stronger than what it can be defined as in any exhaustification-based account. It is concerned with all the relevant false answers, including those that can never be complete. This generalization also suggests a non-trivial prediction against the reducibility view: to recover all the relevant false answers, questions under attitudes must be able to supply partitions; hence, attitudes held of a question cannot be reduced to attitudes held of one answer of this question.

Friday, January 26: Yimei Xiang [pt. I]

Please join us this Friday as Yimei Xiang (Linguistics, Harvard) presents work on questions.

Date and time: Friday, January 26, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: A hybrid categorial approach to question composition


Questions have been defined as lambda abstracts (as in categorial approaches), sets of propositions (as in Hamblin-Karttunen Semantics), or partitions of possible worlds (as in Partition Semantics). Recently, categorial approaches are less commonly used due to their technical difficulties: they cannot capture the existential semantics of wh-words, suffer type-mismatch in composing multi-wh questions, and cannot account for question coordinations. However, a few facts suggest that question denotations should be able to supply not only propositional meanings but also predicative and nominal meanings. For example, in the sentence Susan mostly knows who formed the committee, the adverb mostly quantifies over the set of committee members, which has to be recovered based on the nominal short answers of the embedded question. Moreover, wh-words have a strictly more limited distribution in free relatives (FRs) than in questions, which suggests that wh-FRs are  formed out of wh-questions: in languages with wh-FRs, any wh-word that can be used in FRs can also be used in questions, but not the other direction (Caponigro 2003). These facts leave lambda abstract the only possible denotations of questions.

To revive categorial approach, this talk proposes a novel hybrid categorial approach to compose questions. This approach carries forwards the merits of traditional categorial approaches in tackling short answers and predicative wh-constructions, and moreover overcomes their technical problems.

Friday, January 19: Julian Grove

Please join us this Friday as Julian Grove from the Linguistics Department presents more work on presuppositions.

Date and time: Friday, January 19, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Presuppositions as scope-takers


According to satisfaction-based accounts of presupposition, an expression’s presuppositions project out of a context surrounding the expression only if that context doesn’t satisfy (i.e., entail) the presuppositions. For example, the existence presupposition triggered by ‘his children’ in (1)

(1) If John has children, then his children are bald.

doesn’t project because the context provided by (1) itself is taken to include the information satisfying this presupposition contained in the antecedent.

One apparent difficulty for a standard satisfaction framework, like the one of Heim (1983; 1992), is that presuppositions are always assessed against their local contexts, which are determined through semantic compositional rules by the immediate syntactic contexts of their triggers. For example, apparently neither (2) nor (3) has presuppositions.

(2) Mary believes John read the book, and she believes he regrets reading it.

(3) John read the book, and Mary believes he regrets reading it.

But Heim (1992) predicts, based on the semantics alone, that the second conjuncts of (2) and (3) presuppose that Mary believes John read the book, not that he in fact read it; hence, while (2) should be presupposition-free, the same status for (3) requires extra explanation. Intuitively, we would like to say of the presuppositions in (3) that they are assessed, not in the local context provided by Mary’s beliefs, but against the common ground. It is as though they have QR’d:

[John read the book, and [“I’m the presupposition triggered by ‘regret’! Satisfy me here!”]_i [Mary believes he t_i regrets reading it]]

In this talk, I argue that the scope-taking behavior of presuppositions falls out naturally from a treatment of them in terms of graded monads. This treatment follows the work of Shan (2001; 2005) and Charlow (2014), who use (non-graded) monads in analyzing various other linguistic phenomena that appear to exhibit scopal side-effects. As a result, presuppositions can be handled through run-of-the-mill compositional principles (like functional application) enriched with a small set of operations for handling presupposition. I present analyses, within the monadic framework, of presupposition filtering in discourse-update and conditionals. Finally, I argue that allowing presuppositions to take scope allows for a natural response to Geurts’s (1996) “proviso problem”.

Friday, January 12: Mingya Liu

Please join us this Friday as Mingya Liu (Cognitive Science, Osnabrück University) presents work on conditionals and speaker commitment.

Date and time: Friday, January 12, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Speaker commitment of different dimensions: conditional connectives and polarity items


The meaning of conditionals and that of conditional connectives (CCs) such as English “if” has been long debated in the formal semantic literature. In the restrictor analysis, “if” does not have a distinctive conditional meaning on its own and if-clauses are used to restrict modal operators or generic frequency operators. This analysis of conditionals and CCs has inspired many insightful follow-up studies through which it becomes clear that the interpretation of conditional sentences is subject to a process of semantic and pragmatic modulation. What remains understudied, however, is the role of CCs in the modulation process. For example, CCs can contribute secondary – in recent terms, ‘non-at-issue’ – meanings concerning a ‘propositional attitude’ such as the speaker’s epistemic, deontic or emotional evaluation towards the antecedent. In my talk, I will focus on the two German CCs “wenn”/”falls” and argue that one of their essential contrasts can be modelled on a scale of epistemic commitment towards the antecedent, that is, ‘More committed <‘wenn’,‘falls’> Less committed’. I will report on several experiments for validating the analysis and also on the interaction between CCs and other expressions of speaker commitment, focusing on polarity items.

Friday, December 8: Klaus von Heusinger

Please join us this Friday as Klaus von Heusinger (Linguistics, University of Cologne) presents work on definiteness and indefiniteness.

Date and time: Friday, December 8, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: The comprehension of definite and indefinite noun phrases – towards a dual-process activation model


In this presentation, I argue that the comprehension of definite and indefinite noun phrases is best described within a dual-process model of referent activation. In a first process, a comprehender accesses the concept associated with the noun phrase’s descriptive material while, in a second process, the function of the noun phrase’s article guides the comprehender to select the denoted referent(s). Importantly, definite articles signal that there is a unique element that falls under the previously activated concept. In contrast, indefinite articles signal that there are (potentially) multiple referents for the previously activated concept. The dual-process model proposed here was tested in a visual-world eye-tracking experiment, where the different functions associated with definite and indefinite noun phrases are reflected at the level of a referent’s accessibility to a comprehender.

Friday, December 1: Ryan Simonelli

Please join us this Friday as Ryan Simonelli from the Philosophy Department presents work on the nature of propositions.

Date and time: Friday, December 1, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Propositions and the power to represent


The standard conception of propositions holds that propositions are the basic bearers of truth and falsity, and they bear these properties in virtue of representing things as being certain ways.  On the standard conception, a simple proposition is true if and only if thing that the proposition is about is the way that the proposition represents it as being.  In this talk, I argue that this standard conception of propositions precludes us from being able to explain how it is that a proposition represents as it does.  While some theorists, such as Trenton Merricks (2015) have embraced this consequence of the standard conception of propositions, I argue that it gives us ground to reject the standard conception and instead follow Peter Hanks (2011, 2015) and Scott Soames (2014, 2015) in adopting an act-based conception of propositions, one in which propositions are not the basic representers, but the basic types of representings.  On the act-based conception, propositions do not possess the power to represent, but rather, are the types of acts that we are able to perform in virtue of possessing this power ourselves.  After showing how the act-based conception of propositions resolves the problem of explaining propositional representationality that plagues the standard conception, I conclude by spelling out how we can think about the basic machinery of compositional semantics from an act-based perspective.

Friday, November 10: Matt Moss

Please join us this Friday as Matt Moss (Philosophy, New York University) presents work on proper names.

Date and time: Friday, November 10, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Covarying names


Predicativism about proper names predicts that a given name can vary in what individual it stands for across times or possible worlds — that names are not, as a matter of their semantic type, rigid. This follows from its treatment of bare singular occurrences of names as definite descriptions, where a given name “N” is analyzed as the x s.t. x bears-“N”. This in turn conflicts with broad consensus that names are rigid generally, and are so in virtue of their semantic type. Some predicativists (Elbourne 2005, Matushansky 2008) modify the view to make names rigid generally, but do so in a way that is methodologically problematic (Schoubye forthcoming). I consider these methodological problems prima facie reason for predicativists to reject the consensus about name rigidity. To do so, the predicativist needs good counterexamples — felicitous non-rigid occurrences of names — and an argument that predicativism best explains them.

Here I focus on examples where bare singulars receive a “covarying” or “relativized” reading (Gray 2012, Fara 2015). This is a reading where the bare singular does not pick out some one satisfier, but different satisfiers depending on the world or time of evaluation. The reading becomes available when it is presupposed that at most one individual satisfies a given bare singular at any point of evaluation — that is, when the bare singular acts as a role-type description in the sense of Rothschild 2007. I explain why we should predict bare singulars only get the non-rigid reading in peculiar contexts, and give cases where rigid and non-rigid readings are both available in the same context. I then survey a range of outstanding worries about this picture and its dialectical strength, and conclude by considering data that speak against classing names with descriptions, but rather with pronouns and “some”-indefinites (Coppock and Beaver 2015).References:

Coppock, Elizabeth and Beaver, David. 2015. “Definiteness and determinacy.” Linguistics and Philosophy 38 (5): 377-435

Elbourne, Paul. 2005. Situations and Individuals. MIT Press.
Gray, Aidan. 2012. Names and Name-bearing: An Essay on the Predicate View of Names. PhD dissertation, University of Chicago.

Matushansky, Ora. 2008. “On the Linguistic Complexity of Proper Names.” Linguistics and Philosophy 31 (5): 573–627.
Rothschild, Daniel. 2007. “Presuppositions and Scope.” Journal of Philosophy 104 (2):71–106.
Schoubye, Anders. Forthcoming. “The Predicative Predicament.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

Friday, October 27: Tamara Vardomskaya

Please join us this Friday as Tamara Vardomskaya from the Linguistics Department presents work on the sources of linguistic subjectivity.

Date and time: Friday, October 27, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Sources of subjectivity


Subjective expressions pose a problem for truth-conditional models of meaning: what does truth mean when expressions such as “Avocados are delicious” can be false for one speaker and true for another? A spate of recent linguistic and philosophical literature starting with (Lasersohn 2005) has offered various solutions to the problem, but most of them did not define what subjective expressions are, identifying them ad-hoc, “We know one when we see one.” This would predict that expressions are either subjective or not, but that is not actually the case – there are contexts where seemingly-subjective expressions are objective, and vice versa.
This talk, based on my dissertation research, uses findings from psychophysics and aesthetic research to offer a predictive model for when expressions are subjective. I argue that for an expression to be subjective, the perceptions and/or the categories that form its evidential basis must vary among speakers. For example, smells and tastes vary because people with different genes have differing smell receptors, while an expert would classify the features she sees in an artwork according to different criteria than an amateur would, but similarly to another expert.
I show how this model explains contextual shifts in subjectivity and provides clarity to other models, from expressivism to Lasersohn’s judge-index relativism to Kennedy and Willer’s counterstance contingency (2017). Subjective expressions reflect differences in how language maps to reality, but also reflect differences in how speakers can perceive reality itself, and thus play an important role in establishing norms of consensus and collaboration.

Friday, September 29: John Horty

Please join us this Friday as John Horty (Philosophy, University of Maryland) presents work on action and the semantics of modal statements.

Date and time: Friday, September 29, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Epistemic oughts in stit semantics


I begin by reviewing stit semantics, as well as an account of ought statements developed within that setting based on an ordering of action tokens. I then describe some problems that arise for this account when epistemic information is present, and propose one way of dealing with these problems by ordering action types, rather than tokens. This proposal provides further evidence, I hope, that the introduction of action types into stit semantics can be valuable.

A relevant paper can be found here: Action types in stit semantics