MLC Seminar

Speaker: Thom van Gessel
Title: Questions in Context
Time: 13:00 - 14:15
Location: Online, via Zoom

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Note that the talk will take place from 13:00 to 14:15 (in order not to clash with a previously scheduled event).



This talk is about two phenomena that both require a refinement of the traditional idea that meaning is given by truth conditions: indexicality and questions. Indexical expressions like ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘here’ or ‘now’ may cause the truth conditions of sentences in which they appear to vary between contexts of use. Questions pose a different challenge: because they are not true or false, their meaning cannot be given in terms of truth conditions.

I will show that indexicality and questions interact in interesting ways. According to the standard analysis, an expression is context-sensitive if what is said by it depends on the context. Questions can be context-sensitive in a different way too. For instance, what is asked by ‘Who am I?’ does not vary between contexts, but rather makes the context an object of inquiry. Another phenomenon unique to questions is that they can require indexical answers, while being non-indexical themselves: in some circumstances, the question ‘Where is the guide?’ should be interpreted as ‘Is the guide in front of us or behind us?’ rather than ‘What is the absolute position of the guide?’.

I show how to account for these observations by combining insights from two-dimensional semantics and inquisitive semantics. The resulting semantic framework can show how questions about facts like identity, which have been argued to be necessary, can be cognitively significant, and how questions that can be answered a priori can be about contingent facts.