Pervasive context: the problems and the solutions

Peking University

Dates: Saturday 24th - Sunday 25th October 2015 Master classes: Friday 23rd October 2015

Location: Peking University, Beijing, China

This conference will examine the problems of pervasive context-sensitivity in natural language, from both a philosophical and a psychological perspective. Some indicative questions which may be explored at the conference include:

  1. What exactly is 'the problem of pervasive context-sensitivity'? Is there a single problem to be studied here or are there different phenomena in play across different cases? Similarly, is there one mechanism which should handle all instances of context-sensitivity or do natural languages contain different ways of accommodating different types of context-sensitivity?
  2. Are the kinds of thought experiments Charles Travis has famously used in arguing for pervasive context-sensitivity robust? In light of recent scepticism about the role of intuitions as data for philosophical theories, are Travis-cases open to challenge in this regard? Are there intercultural differences in intuitions about Travis-cases (of the sort that have been argued for in experimental work on reference; see Machery et al. 2004, Nisbett et al.2001)?
  3. In what ways do contemporary theories of context-sensitivity agree or disagree with each other? Are there any surprising points of consensus? What exactly are the different theories disagreeing about?

Conference Programme: Day 1 (24/10/2015)

Time Event Title
08:30-09:00 Registration  
09:00-10:30 Paper 1 (Emma Borg)  Explanatory roles for minimal content
10:30-11:00 Coffee break  
11:00-12:30 Paper 2 (Stephen Crain)  The basic meanings of logical words
12:30-14:00 Lunch  
14:00-15:30  Paper 3 (Nat Hansen)  Cross-cultural context sensitivity
15:30-16:00 Break  
16:00-17:30 Paper 4 (Robyn Carston)  Lexical innovation, polysemy, and the lexicon
19:00 Conference dinner  


Day 2 (25/10/2015)

Time Event Title
09:00-10:30 Paper 6 (Chuang Ye) The meaning of hidden indexicals and the character of Kaplanian indexicals
10:30-11:00 Coffee break  
11:00-12:30 Paper 7 (Teresa Marques)  Retractions
12:30-14:00 Lunch   
14:00-15:30 Paper 8 (Guillermo Estuardo Del Pinal) Prototypes, compositionality, and conceptual components
15:30-16:00 Break  
16:00-17:30 Paper 9 (Francois Recanati) Semantic entry points for speaker's meaning
17:30 Conference ends  
19:00 Dinner  



Minimal content, communication and acquisition

Emma Borg

A common objection to semantic minimalism is that the truth-evaluable, propostional contents that it posits as attaching to all well-formed sentences are explanatorily redundant: such contents might be theoretically possible but they have no useful role to play. In this talk, I try to answer this challenge by revisiting the classic distinction between what is said and what is (merely) implied. I suggest that (contrary to contextualist predictions) we find that there is a clear explanatory role here for minimal contents to play. Thus consideration of our linguistic practices surrounding assertion provides one kind of answer to the charge of explanatory redundancy. Finally, I conclude by sketching some implications of this finding for developmental claims.

The basic meanings of logical words

Stephen Crain

The basic meanings of logical words (e.g., existential indefinites, disjunction, conjunction) are often hidden from view. They are obscured by pragmatic inferences and by scope ambiguities. For example, disjunction implies 'exclusivity' in ordinary affirmative sentences; Ted ordered sushi or pasta implies (but does not entail) that Ted did not order both sushi and pasta. In addition, disjunction yields both surface scope and inverse scope readings in negative sentences. Interestingly, adult speakers of English prefer the surface scope readings of negated disjunctions (Ted didn't order sushi or pasta) whereas adult speakers of Mandarin prefer the inverse scope readings of the corresponding sentences, so the meaning assigned by Mandarin speakers can be paraphrased using a cleft structure - It is sushi or pasta that Ted didn't order. Despite different scope preferences across languages, scope ambiguities do not arise in certain linguistic environments. To cite just one example, if either negation or disjunction is introduced covertly, then only a surface scope reading is generated. For example, disjunction does not appear overtly in the elided VP in the sentence Ted ordered sushi or pasta, but Bill didn't. In this case, the elided VP (Bill didn't) generates two entailments: (a) that Bill didn't order sushi, and (b) that Bill didn't order pasta. The same entailments hold in Mandarin. The linguistic contexts that cancel scope ambiguities also cancel the implicature of exclusivity that is associated with disjunction in affirmative sentences. In short, placing logical words in particular linguistic contexts clears the decks for inspection of their basic meanings. This talk will describe a range of tests that linguists use to determine the basic meanings of logical words.

Cross-cultural Context Sensitivity (with Jing Zhu [Sun Yat-sen])

Nathanial Hansen

We investigate whether there is cultural variability in context sensitivity. Contextualist theories claim that the content communicated by uses of sentences such as "S knows that P" or "The leaves are green" is shaped by a variety of features of the context of use. Given current theories of cultural effects on cognition, which attribute greater "orientation to context" to many cultures (paradigmatically East Asians) than to Westerners, we should observe different effects of context on communicated content among East Asians than among Westerners. Demonstrating such an effect would expand the scope of "context sensitivity" beyond the local conversational context.

The Meaning of Hidden Indexicals and the Character of Kaplanian Indexicals

Chuang Ye

In the kernel of Indexicalism is the idea that all or at least most context-dependent or context-sensitive phenomena can be explained by a strategy similar to that Kaplan uses in his theory. The feasibility of the strategy requires that the hidden indexicals posited by Indexicalist theories have the core features of typical indexicals in Kaplan's list. According to the argument developed in this paper, the standard form of the character of hidden indexicals suggested by Indexicalists couldn't have the fundamental semantic and cognitive (or epistemic) features of the character of any typical indexical. Hence, it is doubtful whether Indexicalist strategy for giving a syntax-based account of pervasive context-sensitivity through positing hidden indexicals is successful in that the alleged indexicals perhaps are not genuine indexicals.


Teresa Marques

Intuitions about retractions have been used to motivate truth relativism about certain types of claims. Among these figure epistemic modals, knowledge attributions, or personal taste claims. On McFarlane's prominent relativist proposal, sentences like "the ice cream might be in the freezer" or "Pocoyo is funny" are only assigned a truth-value relative to contexts of utterance and contexts of assessment. Retractions play a crucial role in the argument for assessment-relativism. A retraction of a past assertion is supposed to be mandatory whenever the asserted sentence is not true at the context of use and the context of assessment. If retractions were not obligatory in these conditions, there would be no normative difference between assessment-relativism and contextualism. The main goal of this paper is to undermine the claim that retractions reveal the normative difference between assessment-relativism and contextualism. To this effect, the paper offers a review of three important objections to the obligatoriness of retractions. Taken together, these objections make a strong case against the alleged support that retractions give to assessment-relativism. The objections are moreover supported by recent experimental results that are also discussed. This will satisfy a further goal, which is to undermine the idea that there is a constitutive retraction rule. The paper also discusses two ways to understand what such a rule would be constitutive of, and concludes with a suggestion of how to describe what retractions are.

Prototypes, compositionality, and conceptual components

Guillermo Estuardo Del Pinal

The aim of this paper is to reconcile two claims that have long been thought to be incompatible: (i) that we compositionally determine the meaning of complex expressions from the meaning of their parts, and (ii) that prototypes are components of the meaning of lexical terms such as fish, red, and gun. Hypotheses (i) and (ii) are independently plausible, but most researchers think that reconciling them is a difficult, if not hopeless task. In particular, most linguists and philosophers agree that (i) is not negotiable; so they tend to reject (ii). Recently, there have been some attempts to reconcile these claims (Prinz, 2002, 2012; Jonsson and Hampton, 2008; Hampton and Jonsson, 2012; Schurz, 2012), but they all adopt an implausibly weak notion of compositionality. Furthermore, parties to this debate tend to fall into a problematic way of individuating prototypes that is too externalistic. In contrast, I show that we can reconcile (i) and (ii) if we adopt, instead, an internalist and pluralist conception of prototypes and a context-sensitive but strong notion of compositionality. I argue that each of these proposals is independently plausible and that, when combined, provide a satisfactory account of prototype compositionality. The account of compositionality which I defend consists of imposing certain strong constrains on free modulation (in particular, this address certain well-known charges of over-generation).

Semantic Entry Points for Speaker's Meaning

Fran├žois Recanati

Contrary to a widespread idealization, grammatical meaning does not determine assertoric content, but merely constrains it. Speaker's meaning necessarily comes into play. In this talk, I am concerned with the extent of the phenomenon. When and where, exactly, does speaker's meaning come into play in fixing assertoric content?

Registration and Accommodation:

Anyone interested in attending this conference should email Professor Chuang Ye ( or Dr Qilin Li (

Contact us

Professor Emma Borg

Local organisers
Jumbly Grindrod

Guanglong Luo

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