(Mis)communication and Context

July 1, 2021
Department of Philosophy, University of Tartu



Syracuse University
University of Tartu
Umeå University
University of Oslo

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The workshop is a one-day event that brings together five philosophers who work on issues raised by the role of context in communication. The workshop will take place entirely online. If you'd like to join in, then please register (by emailing the address on the right hand side of this page).

Timetable (all times are UK time)

11:00-12:10 Agreement information: identity display provocateur, or straightforward evidence about the content of a context-sensitive construction? (Alex Davies, University of Tartu)

12:10-12:20 BREAK

12:20-13:30 The Cognitive Context-Sensitivity of Generic Generalisations (Mark Bowker, University College Dublin)

13:30-14:25 LUNCH  

14:25-15:35 Negotiated contextualism and disagreement data (Martín Abreu Zavaleta, Umeå University)  

15:35-15:45 BREAK  

15:45-16:55 Understanding, Luck, and Communicative Value (Andrew Peet, University of Leeds) 

16:55-:17:05 BREAK  

17:05-18:15 Radical holism, shared content, and disagreement (Joey Pollock, University of Oslo)


Negotiated contextualism and disagreement data (Martín Abreu Zavaleta, Umeå University)

Suppose I assert "John is tall". According to negotiated contextualism, my assertion should be understood as a proposal to adopt a standard for the application of the word 'tall' such that the word 'tall' applies to John. Furthermore, according to negotiated contextualism, this is so in virtue of the semantic properties of the word 'tall'. Defenders of negotiated contextualism claim that this view is uniquely well-placed to account for certain disagreement data; for example, that if your standard for the application of the word 'tall' is more constraining than mine, you can sensibly assert "no, John is not tall" without thereby making an incompatible claim. In this talk, I offer a simpler explanation of the data: speakers can sensibly reject a given assertion provided that (i) they believe that the asserted sentence is false, and (ii) they believe that the asserted sentence should receive a uniform interpretation in their context and in the context in which the assertion was made. Along the way, I extract some methodological consequences for the use of empirical data in semantics and pragmatics.


The Cognitive Context-Sensitivity of Generic Generalisations (Mark Bowker, University College Dublin)

This paper introduces a notion of cognitive context-sensitivity. Cognitive context-sensitivity is intended to contrast with linguistic context-sensitivity. When a sentence is cognitively context-sensitive, the truth-value assigned to the sentence can vary with context, without any corresponding shift in the interpretation of the terms or structure of the sentence. The notion will be deployed to explain the context-sensitivity of generic generalisations.

Generic generalisations, or simply generics, are generalisations about kinds without a quantifier such as ‘All’ or ‘Often’ that specifies the extent of the generalisation. Examples include ‘Birds fly’, ‘Men are assertive’ and ‘Women are bossy’. Generics are context-sensitive. The intuitive truth-value of a generic can shift with context, even when the features of the kind are held fixed. ‘Indians eat beef’ seems false, for example, when uttered in

Context 1: ‘People throughout the world eat a variety of foods. The French eat croissants. Mexicans eat tortillas. Indians eat beef.’

The generic seems true, however when uttered in

Context 2: ‘Despite the cultural taboo prevalent in India, Indians eat beef, but it is less common than in Europe’.

Rachel Sterken has argued that the context-sensitivity of generics is best explained by assuming that generics include a context-sensitive quantifier. Sterken’s key evidence is that the context-sensitivity of generics (‘Ks are F’) is not mirrored in their adverbially-quantified variants (‘Normally/Generally/Typically Ks are F’). If the context-sensitivity of the generic stemmed from the context-sensitivity of the subject or predicate, however, we would expect that context-sensitivity to be reproduced by adverbially-quantified generalisations. Sterken takes this to show that the context-sensitivity of generics stems from the context-sensitivity of an implicit Gen operator.

This paper presents another explanation of the context-sensitivity of generics. Based on the work of Sarah-Jane Leslie, generics are understood as expressing default associations between kinds and properties. These associations are described as ‘default’ because they are activated when no quantifier activates an alternative mode of generalisation. The context-sensitivity of generics is then explained through the context-sensitivity of the mechanism of default association. Associations between kinds and properties are not stable throughout all contexts. In some contexts, we are disposed to associate a kind and property and in others we are not. The property eats beef is not associated with the kind Indians, for example, when we have been primed by Context 1 to focus on the characteristic eating habits of nations. In Context 2, however, when no such priming has been established, we are willing to associate the kind and property based on relatively few instances.

Sterken’s data about adverbially-quantified generalisations is then explained as follows. Neither the predicate nor the subject in ‘Indians eat beef’ is context-sensitive. In both contexts, the subject refers to the kind Indians and the predicate refers to the property of beef-eating. The context-sensitivity of generics is explained cognitively by the context-sensitivity of the association itself. Adverbially-quantified generalisations do not express default associations, however. The role of the quantifier is precisely to shift from this cognitively default mode of generalisation to an alternative mode of generalisation defined by the quantifier. Adverbially-quantified generalisations are therefore unaffected by this cognitive context-sensitivity.


Agreement information: identity display provocateur, or straightforward evidence about the content of a context-sensitive construction? (Alex Davies, University of Tartu)

Suppose there’s a policy P. It turns out that whether you will agree with P can be shaped by who you are told agrees with P. If you are a Democrat, and you are told that Democrat legislators support P, then you’ll be more likely to support P than if you weren’t told this. If you are a Democrat, and you are told that Republican legislators support P, then you’ll be less likely to support P than if you weren’t told this; and vice versa (for Republican, rather than Democrat, assessors of P). Moreover, not only will your attitude toward P be affected by this agreement information, but your interpretation of P itself will be affected by this agreement information. Political psychologists who are aware of these findings interpret them as evidence of deference to favoured elites: your desire to resemble your favourite elite is what causes you to switch attitude and interpretation in light of the relevant agreement information. In this paper, I investigate an alternative interpretation: agreement information is nothing more, and nothing less, than evidence about the likely content of the relevant policy. Analogy: if a Dane agrees with a particular utterance of “He’s short” and a Brit disagrees with this utterance, you can use information you have about Danes and Brits to narrow down the likely contents of this utterance. If you know his height, the agreement information may well shape your attitude toward the utterance as well. But, crucially: you won’t be doing this because you want especially to be like a Dane or a Brit. I distinguish this sort of explanation from the identity-based explanation favoured by political psychologists. I describe an empirical basis upon which the two explanations could be distinguished.


Understanding, Luck, and Communicative Value (Andrew Peet, University of Leeds)

Does utterance understanding require reliable (i.e. non-lucky) recovery of the speaker’s intended proposition? There are good reasons to answer in the affirmative: the role of understanding in supporting testimonial knowledge seemingly requires such reliability. Moreover, there seem to be communicative analogues of Gettier cases (often referred to as ‘Loar cases’) in which luck precludes the audience’s understanding the utterance, despite recovering the intended proposition. Yet, there are a some major problems for the view that understanding requires such reliability. Firstly, there are a number of cases in which understanding seems to occur in a lucky way. In light of these cases I argue that we need to narrow down the precise sense in which understanding precludes luck – the anti-luck condition attached to linguistic understanding is importantly different to anti-luck conditions typically applied to knowledge. The second problem is more interesting, and becomes even more pressing in light of my response to the first. Megan Hyska has recently argued that, assuming understanding precludes luck, we get a communicative analogue of the value problem for knowledge. i.e. why is it better to meet the other conditions for understanding in a reliable way than in a lucky way? It is natural to assume that we can simply port over our favoured responses to the epistemic value problem in response to Hyska’s challenge. I argue that, due to the difference between epistemic and communicative luck (discussed in response to the first problem), this cannot be done. The epistemic and communicative value problems will require different solutions. I close by sketching the beginnings of an alternative answer to the value problem for communication.


Radical holism, shared content, and disagreement (Joey Pollock, University of Oslo)

Traditional accounts of disagreement require that different subjects can often entertain the same propositional contents. For example, the simplest case of disagreement is one in which two subjects discover that they take opposing attitudes to the same content. For many views of mental content, this ‘shared content’ approach (or some more sophisticated version of it) may seem like an obvious choice. However, for the radical holist, this framework is problematic: the holist claims that different subjects cannot, in practice, share thought and utterance content.

I have two aims in this paper. The first is to sketch an account of agreement and disagreement for the holist: this account treats both agreement and disagreement as graded notions. My second aim is to show that the structure of the holist’s account should be attractive to all philosophers who work on disagreement, regardless of their metasemantic commitments. I will argue that there is an important variety of disagreement (and agreement) between subjects that cannot be adequately characterised by appeal to shared (or overlapping) content. Instead, all parties to the debate should endorse accounts of these phenomena that appeal to a holistic account of linguistic and conceptual understanding. An upshot of this argument is that all disagreements are merely verbal to some degree.

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July 1, 2021, 11:00am +03:00

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National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
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