You Might be a Relativist If…

At the end of my Conditionals and Indexical Relativism paper, there is a throw-away reference to the possibility that indexical relativism might be the right theory for various pronouns in modern language. ‘Modern language’ only because for traditional (i.e. spoken) languages contextualism seems to capture all the data. This post is a start on making that a bit more plausible.

I’m interested in uses of ‘you’ in written work where the writer has no way of knowing how broad the audience is. One notable feature of such uses is that it is very common to use epistemic modals scoping over the pronoun, so you often see things like “You might”, as e.g. here, or “You probably”, as, e.g. here. I’m particularly interested in the latter uses. What, you’re probably thinking right now, could they mean?

The indexical relativist has a simple answer. ‘You’ is a pronoun, so it likes to be a context-sensitive device of direct reference. Its standing meaning is that it refers, in a context, to the addressee in that context. But who, in these written uses, is that addressee? On a contextualist theory, it is hard to even give a coherent answer to that. The relativist is going to say that a context-of-assessment provides an addressee, and relative to that context-of-assessment, the semantic content of ‘you’ is that addressee. (This is the person called the ‘judge’ when discussing relativism about taste claims.) Relative to any such context, the speaker is saying that the addressee probably has some property. (I think this means probably given the speaker’s evidence, which raises tricky questions about relativism about epistemic modals, but we’ll leave that for another day.)

What could the contextualist say? The problem is that there is no particularly salient individual to denote. So we might think that the sentence will be defective. But of course it isn’t defective, so we have to find a contextually supplied denotation.

Let’s also note a semantic constraint on interpretations of ‘you’. Consider a sentence like Your cellphone is more powerful than you probably know. It seems to be permissible to write that iff, given your evidence, the preponderance of readers are such that their cellphone is more powerful than they know. More generally, it is OK to write “You probably are F” just in case (given the writer’s evidence it seems that) the vast preponderance of readers are F. That’s more or less what you should expect on a relativist theory. But how can a contextualist account for it.

First try: ‘you’ somehow contributes the content all readers, so “You probably are F” expresses the proposition All readers are probably F. But such sentences are assertable even if the writer is sure that not all of her readers are F.

Second try: ‘you’ somehow contributes the content the typical reader, so “You probably are F” expresses the proposition The typical reader is probably F. But then in cases where the typical reader is F, but several readers are not, it should be OK to say “You are F”. But that sounds, to my ear, pretty bad.

Third try: ‘you’ plurally denotes the readers taken as a group. This has the nice advantage that it makes the pronoun a device of direct reference, as pronouns generally are. But it fails for three reasons. First, I think in languages where singular and plural second person pronouns are distinguished, it is possible to use the singular pronoun (and singular morphology) in these uses. (If I’m wrong about this, it would be interesting to know.) Second, it is possible to say “You probably are F” in cases where F is not a property of pluralities, such as the cellphone case above. Third, even in cases where F could be a property of pluralities, it is possible to say “You probably are F” in cases where a group’s being F requires everyone in the group to be F, and as we saw above this doesn’t match the data.

So I think the indexical relativist is on pretty strong ground here. There is just one feature of the construction that I don’t quite understand. Say that the writer knows (a) that a good friend of theirs will read the article, and (b) that friend is not F. The relativist says that the writer is, inter alia, saying to their friend that they are probably F. I think the solution here for the author to say that they aren’t making a contribution (in writing) to the conversation with their friend, so they aren’t saying anything to her. But this is a little awkward.

On a more positive note, it should be stressed how bad non-indexical theories look here. Imagine a non-indexicalist about ‘you’. (Imagine because I don’t think any philosopher has this view. Even dedicated non-indexicalists are usually indexicalist about explicit indexicals.) Such a philosopher has to say that there is a proposition the speaker (context-of-assessment-independently) expresses, and this proposition is true relative to some judges and false relative to others. But what on earth could that proposition be? This sounds like a terrible position to hold, so indexicalism should be right.

I also think indexical relativism is right for temporal indexicals in recorded work (like answering machines or graffiti) but that’s for another day.

2 Replies to “You Might be a Relativist If…”

  1. Isn’t there a scope ambiguity in the first try? “All readers are probably F” can either mean that it is probable that all readers are F (which is generally false) or that for each reader, it is probable that she is F (which sounds almost exactly like what I imagine the person is trying to say).

    Another, more conservative version would be to say that the single act of writing produces many token utterances, in each of which the word “you” contributes just the single individual reading the word at that time. Thus, there are many assertions, not just one. “You are F” then makes many true claims and a few false ones. “You are probably F” has some sort of epistemic modal force, but sounds plausible if the author knows that most readers will have F, so that knowing of someone just that they are a reader will give the author reason to believe strongly that this person is F.

  2. Ah, I should have been more careful on the scopes. The thought was that if ‘you’ is taken to be a quantifier phrase, we’ll get the wrong scope readings, but I don’t think I used the best sentences to make the point. Perhaps here’s a better way to put the point. The following two sentences seem to have the same assertion conditions.

    (1) Probably, you are F
    (2) You are probably F

    But in (1) at least, it is very hard to see how the quantifier that is the meaning of ‘you’ could take wide scope. But it needs to take wide scope in order to get the right interpretation.

    I’m not sure the more conservative proposal is different to the indexical relativist proposal. If we take ‘utterance’ to be a technical term, there is a sense in which it is the same proposal, with a different usage of the term ‘utterance’. But perhaps we can say something stronger than this. Say that S writes “You are F”. I am reading this, and am not F, though I know that a few readers are.

    On the ‘many speech acts’ view, I should be able to say “She’s saying something true there, but she isn’t saying it to me.” But that sounds wrong. The proposition she asserts relative to another context isn’t as available as it should be, if it is one of many utterances S is making.

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