April 13: Will Starr

The Semantics and Philosophy of Language Workshop is very happy to welcome Will Starr (Cornell) for our second talk of the quarter.

DATE: Friday, April 13, 2012
TIME: 11:30-1:20pm
PLACE: Cobb 107

“A preference semantics for imperatives”

While there is a long tradition in philosophy dedicated to understanding the meaning of imperative sentences, e.g. ‘Dance!’, recent research by linguists has made its own advances. In this paper, I argue that three observations about English imperatives are problematic for approaches from both traditions. In response, I offer a new analysis according to which the meaning of an imperative is identified with the characteristic effect its uses have on the agents’ attitudes. More specifically, I propose that an imperative changes what the agents’ take to be preferred. Using preferences rather than previously proposed structures achieves a desirable theoretical unity. Work on rationality in decision theory and artificial intelligence relies heavily on the idea that preference is key to understanding how rational agents decide what to do. This unity is essential for bridging the gap between a semantics for imperatives and an explanation of how imperatives are used to inform what we do. It also provides a more precise way of articulating Grice’s fundamental insight that pragmatics and rationality are deeply interconnected. I will conclude by describing how this approach can be used not only to understand the relationship between imperatives and modals.