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March 25th, 2008

Two Dogmas of Contextualism

There has been a lot of terminological confusion involving debates about contextualism and relativism in recent years. At various times I’ve tried to help clear this up, though I’ve probably only ever succeeded in further muddying the waters. Here is a slightly different version of the things I say in Conditionals and Indexical Relativism.

Traditional versions of contextualism, or at least the kind of contextualist theories that were mainstream views when I was in college, accepted the following two theses.

(U) The content of what is said by an utterance is the same relative to any assessors
(T) The truth value of something that is the content of an utterance is the same relative to any assessors

The first thesis says that whatever I say relative to assessor A1, I say relative to A2. The second thesis says that if I say that p, then whatever truth value p has relative to A1, it has relative to A2. Neither thesis was uniformly accepted – indeed Kaplan at times seems happy to ditch each of them – but they did, I think constitute a kind of mainstream view about context-sensitivity. So much so that I’ll call them the two dogmas of orthodox contextualism.

One of the great advances of John MacFarlane’s paper Non-Indexical Contextualism was noting that the two dogmas are indeed two. We can make this clear by looking at two different models for content, each of them taken from papers by Andy Egan.

The first is the centred worlds model for content. This is the idea that for some utterance types, any token of that type expresses the same content. But that content is a set of centred worlds, that is true at some centres and false at other centres in the same world. So we might think that the content of “Beer is tasty” is, roughly, the set of possibilia who have pro-attitudes to the taste of beer. More precisely, it is the set of world-centre pairs such that the agent at (or perhaps closest to) the centre has pro-attitudes towards the taste of beer. On this view, (U) will be maintained – what an utterance of “Beer is tasty” says is invariant across assessors. (Actually on the model I’ve sketched, it’s invariant across different utterances too, but that’s a separate point.) But (T) will fail, since whether that content is true for A1 and A2 will depend on what their attitudes are towards beer.

This kind of centred worlds model for content is what Andy has developed in these three papers.

The second model lets assessors get into the content-fixing mechanism, but says the content that is fixed is a familiar proposition whose truth is not assessor relative. This is easiest to explain with an example involving second-person pronouns. For some utterances of “Obama loves you”, the content of that utterance, relative to x, is that Obama loves x. Now whether Obama loves x is a simple factual question, and whether it is true isn’t assessor relative. But (if Obama loves some people and not others) whether the utterance is true or false depends on who is assessing it. So (U) fails, while (T) is true.

This is a view Andy has defended and that Josh Parsons has defended the possibility of.

In Conditionals and Indexical Relativism, I called the position that held onto (T) while rejecting (U) “indexical relativism”, and defended such a view about indicative conditionals. I called something similar to the view that rejected (U) while accepting (T) “non-indexical contextualism”. Following MacFarlane, I used that phrase for the combination of (T), ~ (U) and the view that whether a speaker’s utterance is true (relative to an assessor) is a matter of whether the proposition they express is true relative to their context.

I like the name “indexical relativism”, so I plan to keep using it. But I’m not sure what the best labels are for the various views that reject (T). I’m inclined to just describe them. After all (T) + ~ (U) and ~ (T) + ~ (U) aren’t much harder to write than “non-indexical contextualism”, “radical relativism” or whatever other names we might come up with. And they’re much easier to remember!

This was all basically set up for a couple of posts that are about to come on moral relativism and on epistemic modals, but it’s still necessary to go through this kind of scene-setting in order to locate various positions we might want to take.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

5 Comments »

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5 Responses to “Two Dogmas of Contextualism”

  1. Dan López de Sa says:

    Hi Brian!

    You say: “The second model lets assessors get into the content-fixing mechanism, but says the content that is fixed is a familiar proposition whose truth is not assessor relative. This is easiest to explain with an example involving second-person pronouns. For some utterances of “Obama loves you”, the content of that utterance, relative to x, is that Obama loves x.

    But it seems to me that the example involves the audience of the (extended) context of use playing a content-determining role, rather than the assessor of the linguistic exchange, who need not be part of it.

    As to the labels, just to be sure: your ‘indexical relativism’ is then what MacFarlane calls ‘expressive relativism’ (as opposed to ‘propositional relativism’) in ‘Making Sense of Relative Truth’ (p. 312), right?

  2. Brian Weatherson says:

    So I was thinking what was crucial to this example was that content is different relative to different assessors. If Daniels assesses the utterance, its content is Obama loves Daniels. If O’Leary assesses it, its content is Obama loves O’Leary. The content isn’t that Obama loves Daniels and O’Leary – relative to each context of assessment it expresses a proposition with just two people as constituents.

    That’s to say, I’m assuming that there is such a thing as the context of utterance. Either in that context Daniels is the addressee, or O’Leary is, but not both. So if the utterance expresses different propositions relative to different people, then it must be that the content is fixed in part by something other than the context of utterance.

    This possibly is just what MacFarlane calls “expressive relativism”. Perhaps that’s not a bad name too.

  3. Dan López de Sa says:

    As I was reading Andy’s, he was arguing for “audience-sensitivity,” not “assessor-sensitivity” (see section 7, specially fn. 29), but I take the point that in the limiting case, an absolutely unrestricted audience would include all possible assessors.

    I also assume that there is such a thing as the context of use, so that either in that context Daniels is the addressee, or O’Leary is, but not both. But I was thinking two different contexts of use could “overlap,” as it were, and in particular could share the initial author-related stages of producing a given token of an expression (like with an e-mail of “I’ll see you later as planned” sent to both Daniels and O’Leary). (This seems compatible with the Kaplan/Lewis view of contexts as spatiotemporally centered worlds, if one allows the regions to be extended enough.) Does this make sense?

  4. Errol Lord says:

    “I called the position that held onto (T) while rejecting (U) “indexical relativism”.”

    So (T)+~(U)= indexical relativism.

    “I called something similar to the view that rejected (U) while accepting (T) “non-indexical contextualism”.”

    And ~(U)+(T)=non-indexical contextualism.

    Aren’t there two names for the same view on your taxonomy?

    Perhaps the ‘something similar’ is doing the work here. I haven’t had the chance to read the paper. So, I don’t know the details of that yet.

  5. Brian Weatherson says:

    Oops, that’s a terrible typo. I mean rejected (T) while held onto (U) as non-indexical contextualism. I really shouldn’t have messed that up.

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