DISAGREEMENT AND THE SEMANTICS OF PERSPECTIVAL EXPRESSIONS
(Lise Meitner project no. M 2226-G24)
Disagreement is ubiquitous in everyday life. Sometimes it has negative effects, as when it is conducive to confrontation; sometimes it has positive effects, as when it brings about beneficial change. People disagree about many things and in many ways, too. Given our many worldviews and many aims in life, disagreement – with both its positive and negative aspect – seems unavoidable.
Another topic of crucial importance for us is that of semantic content. What do we mean when we utter sentences? How do we manage to communicate? What is the role of context in communication? All these questions involve, in one way or another, the notion of semantic content – a key notion in semantics.
This project investigates the intersection of these two notions. Disagreement has often played a significant role in various areas of philosophical inquiry. In recent years, disagreement has again surfaced as a central theme in semantics – in particular, in the debate surrounding the issue of the semantic content of a variety of natural language expressions. The project focuses on what can be called "perspectival expressions" (expressions for the interpretation of which appeal to perspectives is needed), such as "tasty", "beautiful", "good", the epistemic "might" and "know". In particular, it deals with two mainstream semantic views about such expressions - contextualism and relativism - by investigating recent contextualist answers to a challenge launched by relativists: the challenge from disagreement. In a nutshell, the challenge for contextualism is to explain disagreement in ordinary exchanges like “Avocado is tasty/No, it’s not.” The recent contextualist answers tackled vary from finding ways in which disagreement can be secured to rejecting the notion of disagreement used in the challenge.
By employing conceptual analysis as well as careful observation of disagreement-related linguistic phenomena, the chief goal of the project is to investigate those answers. This, in turn, will lead to a deeper understanding of the notion of disagreement itself, as well as the way in which it can be used in semantic arguments.
The expected outcome of the project consists in three papers and a monograph on the topic of disagreement in semantics, as follows:
PAPER 1: An investigation of the notion of “minimal disagreement” and an assessment of how it is used by contextualism, relativism and expressivism; an evaluation of each view’s capacity, in tandem with such a minimal notion, to distinguish between cases of disagreement and certain cases of misunderstanding. Provisional title: “Disagreement, Misunderstanding and the Semantics of Perspectival Expressions”.
PAPER 2: An investigation and assessment of the contextualist construal of disagreement as pragmatic; a categorization of the various options (disagreement at the level of presuppositions, at the level of implicatures, about the context the interlocutors are in, meta-linguistic etc.). Provisional title: “Contextualism, Disagreement, and the Pragmatic Strategy”.
PAPER 3: An investigation and assessment of the contextualist appeal to “disagreement in attitude”; an inquiry of what exactly such disagreement amounts to; an exploration of its various facets: preferential (having to do with one’s desires or preferences), practical (having to do with courses of action) etc. Provisional title: “Contextualism and Disagreement in Attitude”.
MONOGRAPH: The book is planned to have both an introductory character, elaborating on the nature of disagreement and the relativist challenge, as well as a polemical one, tackling the contextualist strategy described above. Thus, the expectation is that the monograph will clarify the notion of disagreement in semantics and further the debate between contextualism and relativism in significant ways. Provisionally titled Disagreement in Semantics: The Challenge from Disagreement and Its Answers, the book consists of an introduction, two parts and an epilogue. In the Introduction the scope aim of the book are made clear. Part I (“Setting Up the Challenge”) comprises two introductory chapters describing in detail the views dealt with (chapter 1, “Contextualism and Relativism”) and introducing the problem disagreement has been thought to raise for various semantic views, especially contextualism (chapter 2, “The challenge from disagreement”). Part II (“Answering the Challenge”) is the more polemical part, where extant contextualist answers to the challenge of disagreement are presented and scrutinized. Thus, the part comprises three chapters, one dealing with contextualist answers that appeal to less discussed uses of perspectival expressions (chapter 3, “Rejecting the intuition of disagreement"), another tackling the contextualist answers that treat disagreement in the relevant exchanges as pragmatic (chapter 4, “Pragmatic disagreement”) and the third investigating the contextualist answers that embrace the notion of “disagreement in attitude” (chapter 5, “Disagreement in attitude”). Finally, in the Epilogue I briefly discuss some problem relativism itself has with disagreement.
Workshop "Disagreement in Semantics"
University of Vienna
Participants: Torfinn Huvenes, Alexander Davies, Sanna Hirvonen, Julia Zakkou, Alexander Dinges, Marian Zouhar, Joanna Odrowąż-Sypniewska (speakers); TBA (commentators).