Factive verbs and ‘might’

In CIA Leaks, Kai von Fintel and Thony Gillies raise a problem for heterodox theories about ‘might’. (Actually they raise several, but I’m only going to deal with one of them here.) Their primary target is what I called ~ (T) theories, but the argument they raise is interesting to consider from all heterodox perspectives.

The problem concerns embedding of ‘might’-clauses under factive attitude verbs. They argue as follows:

  1. S realises that p presupposes that p.
  2. This presupposition is carried over when the sentence is used as the antecedent of a conditional. So, for instance, If S realises that p, then q presupposes that p.
  3. But, on standard heterodox propopsals, we can properly say If S realises that it might be that p, then q, even though it isn’t true that it might be that p.
  4. So heterodox proposals are false.

Here is the example they use to make the case.

Bond planted a bug and some misleading evidence pointing to his being in Zuurich and slipped out. Now he and
Leiter are listening in from London. As they listen, Leiter is getting a bit worried: Blofeld hasn’t yet found the misleading evidence that points to Bond’s being in Zurich. Leiter turns to Bond and says:

(34) If Blofeld realizes you might be in Zurich, you can breathe easy—he’ll send his henchman to Zurich to find you.

Now the problem is that for the heterodox theorist, “You might be in Zurich”, as uttered by Leiter to Bond, expresses (relative to Bond), a proposition that is true iff for all Bond knows, Bond might be in Zurich. Just how it does this will differ for different heterodox theorists, but so far they all agree. But that isn’t the case; since Bond knows he is in London. So (34) should sound defective, since it contains a presupposition failure. But it isn’t defective, so heterodoxy is mistaken.

Before we look at how heterodox theorists might respond to this case, it’s worth looking thinking about how orthodox contextualists might respond to it. The simplest idea is to say that in It might be that p, there is a hidden variable X. The value of X is set by context. And the sentence expresses the proposition that for all X knows, p is true. (Perhaps we might use some epistemic relation other than ‘knows’, but that’s not relevant here.)

Now, and this is crucial, the variable X might be either free or bound. If there is nothing around to bind it, as in a simple utterance of It might be that p, then it will be free. And typically if it is free, X denotes a group consisting of the speaker and perhaps those in the same conversation. But when the might-clause is embedded under a propositional attitude ascription (factive or not), the variable X will be bound to the subject of the attitude ascription. So in Y believes that it might be that p, the value of X will simply be Y. So in Blofeld realises you might be in Zurich, the value of X is Blofeld. And hence the embedded might claim is true, since that claim is simply that for all Blofeld knows, Bond is in Zurich. Which, in the story, is true.

The reason for going through all of this is that the theorist who accepts (T) but not (U) can say exactly the same thing. There is a variable X in the structure of the sentence uttered. This variable is either free or bound. When it is bound, we tell exactly the same story as the orthodox theorist tells. But, we insist, when it is free, the value of X is sometimes set by contextual features of the hearer as well as of the assessor. In the standard case, X is a group consisting of the speaker, the hearer, and perhaps some people who get in the group in virtue of their proximity to the speaker or hearer.

So we end up saying the same thing about (34) as the orthodox theorist. The content of “You might be in Zurich”, as embedded in (34), is quite different to the content those words would have if uttered as a standalone sentence, because the value that a key variable takes is different. For us, the value that variable takes differs for different assessors, but that’s completely irrelevant to the explanation of (34).

For the theorist who accepts (U), and rejects (T), things are a little more interesting. Such a theorist will typically reject the presence of a variable like X in the structure of what is said. So they cannot appeal to the kind of explanation that we’ve offered (twice over) for how (34) may be acceptable. The solution is to simply reject the generalisation about factive verbs.

Let’s start with some seemingly distant examples, in particular examples about fiction. It seems that (5) doesn’t have any false presuppositions.

(5) Watson realised that private detectives were (in late 19th Century London) better at solving murder mysteries than police.

I’ll leave off the parenthetical in what follows. Now I take it that it simply isn’t true that private detectives were better at solving murder mysteries than police. But it doesn’t matter; this was true in the fiction and that’s what is relevant. Note that neither (6) nor (7) has a false presupposition.

(6) Had Watson realised earlier that private detectives were better at solving murder mysteries than police, he would have liked Holmes more than he did.
(7) Had Watson realised earlier that private detectives were better at solving murder mysteries than police, the early chapters of the book would have been more interesting.

What’s interesting about (7) is that it’s clearly meant to be a claim about this world. When we say (6), it’s naturally interpreted as making a claim about the world of the Holmes fiction. But that’s not how we interpret (7); what matters is that the book would have been more interesting to us.

Note that this isn’t anything particular to do with subjunctive conditionals. Imagine that we are settling down to watch a new adaptation of the Holmes stories that we are told won’t be particularly faithful to the books in detail. I might properly say (8).

(8) If Watson realises that private detectives were better at solving murder mysteries than police, the early scenes will be more interesting.

The lesson we take away from sentences like (8) is that the generalisation about factives and presupposition that von Fintel and Gillies rely upon isn’t strictly true. When the subject of the attitude ascription is in another possible world, all that is presupposed is that the proposition they believe is true in their world. We should all agree to that restriction to the principle.

But now it is easy to see the way out of the argument for the proponent of the centred world view. The crucial thing about Watson isn’t, such a theorist will say, that he’s in another possible world. The crucial thing is that some propositions that are false relative to us (e.g. the proposition that private detectives were better at solving murder mysteries than police) are true relative to him. The true generalisation seems to be that S Vs that p, where V is factive, presupposes that p is true relative to S. And that’s true in the cases that von Fintel and Gillies describe. So it’s not true that the centred world theorist should predict that these utterances have false presuppositions. And that’s all to the good, because of course they don’t.

2 Replies to “Factive verbs and ‘might’”

  1. Brian,

    I think there’s some more wiggle room for the relativist. (Apologies if I’m saying anything obvious.) Kai and Thony assume that relativists and contextualists ought to agree that the LF of epistemic modal claims looks like this:


    Where B supplies the domain that the modal quantifies over. I’m guessing that the disagreement between U+~T relativists and T+~U contextualists will be over at which stage in the semantics B receives its final interpretation. For contextualists, presumably B will receive a final interpretation at the context of utterance (square brackets are the semantic value function):

    [B] at c = λw.{w’: w’ is compatible with the c-relevant information}

    For relativists, B won’t receive a final interpretation until assessment happens, so that (`a’ is a variable over points of assessment):

    [B] at c = λa.{: it is compatible with what is known at a that locates a}

    This allows the relativist to maintain that [might(B)(p)] is invariant with respect to contexts.

    This is pretty consonant with the stuff you say in this post. You might well think that what happens when epistemic modal claims are embedded under factives (or attitude verbs generally) is that the subject of the attitude ascription provides a point of assessment that ends up saturating the `a’ slot of [B] when semantic evaluation occurs with respect to the context of utterance. So the following sentence…

    S realizes might(B)(p)

    …presupposes that there is a p-world in the S-relevant B.

    I don’t know what to say about fictional cases, but I’m inclined to hold onto the generalization that factives presupposes the truth (simpliciter) of their complements. The story I’ve outlined shows one way this might be accomplished. (It also turns out to be useful for dealing with embeddings under tense and other kinds of operators.)

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