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new draft: “What We Know and What To Do”

I’ve posted a new, much improved draft of an old paper at my academic webpage. Here is the abstract:

This paper discusses an important puzzle about the semantics of indicative conditionals and deontic necessity modals (should, ought, …): the Miner Puzzle (Parfit 1988; Kolodny & MacFarlane 2010). Rejecting modus ponens for indicative conditionals, as others propose, seems to solve a version of the puzzle, but it fails to solve a close variant of it. In fact, I prove that the puzzle arises for a variety of sophisticated analyses of the truth-conditions of indicative conditionals. A comprehensive solution requires rethinking the relationship between relevant information (what we know) and practical rankings of possibilities and actions (what to do). I argue that (i) relevant information determines whether considerations of value may be treated as reasons for actions that realize them, (ii) incorporating this normative fact requires a revision of the standard semantics for modals expressing weak deontic necessity (should, ought), but not for modals expressing strong deontic necessity (must, have to), (iii) an off-the-shelf treatment of weak deontic necessity, due in part to von Fintel & Iatridou (2008); Sloman (1970), which distinguishes “basic” and “higher-order” values, and interprets weak deontic necessity modals relative to both, is well-suited to this task. The prominence of normative considerations in our proposal suggests a more general methodological moral: semantic analysis of normative language demands that close attention be paid to the underlying normative phenomena.

Categories: Language, Meta-ethics, Papers, Philosophy, Semantics.

apparently the first iteration of this post was bizarre

And I unintentionally referenced Marilyn Monroe.

In lieu of all that, please enjoy some Joan Baez covering Pete Seeger.


Categories: Uncategorized.

Semantics and Philosophy in Europe 3!

Good news! I’ll be giving a paper (title: “Expressivism for Imperatives and Ought“) at SPE3 (the Propositional and Non-propositional Sentential Content session) in Paris in late May (conference info here). I attended SPE1 back in 2008 (also in Paris), and it was top-notch, so I’m really excited to be on the program. The session in which I’ll be presenting couldn’t be more ideal, given my interests. (Paul Portner will be giving the keynote!)

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find the abstract on my webpage, under the “Talks” heading.

Categories: Me, Meta-ethics, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semantics.

new paper: "on the linguistic basis for noncognitivism"

Finished this short (3,500 words) note last month, but just now getting around putting it on my papers page. I should note that the main substance of my views on noncognitivism is contained in a different, much longer, paper (“The Varieties of Expressivism”, also on my webpage). But this is maybe a nice, relatively easy, entrée.

Here is the abstract. I’ll be trying to expand this draft into a more substantial piece in the coming month or two, so comments are especially welcome.

Abstract: We clarify and expand on the connection, suggested by Andrew Alwood in his recent commentary (Analysis, 2010) on Mark Schroeder’s Being For (2008), between recent linguistic work on conventionalized illocutionary force and noncognitivism. We show one way to leverage this work in resolving a version of the embedding problem for noncognitivism. We also argue that it supplies some rather strong pressure for noncognitivists to abandon “pure” varieties of their meta-ethic for a “hybrid” variety. We close with some remarks on how to understand the relevance of imperatives to theorizing about the meaning of normative language.

On an unrelated note, I have also posted a pre-preprint of “Restricting and Embedding Imperatives” (Amsterdam Colloquium 2009, M. Aloni and K. Schulz Eds., pp. 223–233) on my webpage.

This probably makes me seem much more productive than I actually am ;)

Categories: Me, Meta-ethics, Papers, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semantics.

appeals to linguists

Something I often worry about is what sorts of appeals to “the linguists” or “linguistic research” are legitimate, and which are not. Here is a particular case, which I haven’t really thought about in a serious way yet, but which I have run into in some of my work lately on expressivism. (More likely than not that I’m retreading stuff that Seth Yalcin or Eric Swanson has written about before, so I hereby cancel any implication of originality.)


Categories: Language, Meta-ethics, Philosophy, Pragmatics.

restricting and embedding imperatives

The final version (for the Proceedings of the Seventeenth Amsterdam Colloquium) is posted on my webpage! Hopefully I will have a DOI to share soon.

Categories: Me, Papers, Semantics.

expressivism paper

Posted on my academic webpage. This is a first draft of what will ultimately be a biggish chunk of my dissertation. So feedback is welcome!

Categories: Language, Meta-ethics, Papers, Philosophy, Semantics.

do imperatives license optimism for the viability of meta-normative non-cognitivism?

The latest issue of Analysis has an interesting symposium about Mark Schroeder’s Being For. Of particular interest to me was Andrew Alwood’s contribution, which develops a line of response to Schroeder that is broadly similar to one I’ve been working on quite a bit recently. (I will post a draft of a paper I have been working on for a while by the end of the week.)

Alwood’s suggestion, very roughly, is that we model a noncognitivist account of normative sentence-meaning on our account of imperative sentence-meaning. How is this supposed to help the noncognitivist with the Frege-Geach problem, as Schroeder has developed it? If Paul Portner’s work on imperatives is on the right track, then (i) imperative clauses have conventionalized directive force, (ii) clauses with conventionalized force can embed. In Alwood’s words:

The embedded imperative clause contributes to the meaning of the whole sentence. This inspires optimism that conventionalized force-indicators can meaningfully occur embedded without determining force-potential as they otherwise would.

I’m puzzled by this.

Talk of “conventionalized force-indicators” that “embed” makes it sound like Portner has argued that imperative clauses contain a syntactic element indicating conventionalized directive force. This is not Portner’s view (although Chung-hye Han defended a view like this in her 1998 dissertation). Portner’s view (see “The semantics of imperatives within a theory of clause types” [Proceedings of SALT 14, 2004] and “Imperatives and modals” [NALS, 2007]) is that major clause-types are conventionally associated with distinct kinds of force, but that this is not “written down anywhere in the grammar,” but rather “follows from general principles” linking semantic types to functional potentials. The sense in which imperatives have conventionalized directive force is precisely the sense in which indicative sentences have conventionalized assertoric force: conventionalized force is a function of the type of the semantic denotation of the clause.

If that is right, though, it’s not Portner’s work on imperatives, per se, that gives the noncognitivist a reason to be optimistic. It’s Portner’s work on the conventionalized connection between clause-type and force, in general, that is relevant.

But I have to wonder if there is really any reason for optimism here at all. Non-imperative, normative sentences do not carry any sort of distinctive syntactic marking. Certainly, they do not constitute their own clause-type; they are declaratives. There is an argument to be made (and I make it in my paper) that the noncognitivist is committed to the idea that the conventional force of a normative sentence is not assertoric. But, if a sentence’s clause-type determines the type of its semantic denotation, and the type of its semantic denotation determines its conventional force, then normative sentences have the same conventional force as non-normative declaratives. Yikes.

What’s the noncognitivist to do? I think the best move probably is to deny the idea that clause-type determines semantic type. A suggestive analogy. Nick Asher and Alex Lascarides have argued (“Indirect Speech Acts” [Synthese, 2001]) that the semantic object assigned by the grammar to an interrogative like (1) is distinct in type from the semantic object assigned by the grammar to an interrogative like (2).

(1) Can you pass the salt?

(2) Are you able to pass the salt?

The motivation for this is the idea that (1) has conventionalized directive and interrogative force (for which they offer some pretty compelling evidence in their essay), while (2) has only conventionalized interrogative force. The friendly suggestion to the noncognitivist is that normative sentences are more like (1) than (2): normative sentences have conventionalized non-assertoric (perhaps expressive) force, in addition to conventionalized assertoric force (which they have in virtue of their clause-type).

Of course, this stratagem raises a host of new (and, I think, rather troubling) questions. First, where is the linguistic evidence that normative sentences have conventionalized non-assertoric (perhaps expressive) force? (The evidence that Asher and Lascarides give re: (1) does not seem to me to extend to normative sentences.) Second, if normative sentences have conventionalized assertoric force (in virtue of their clause-type), what is it that they are in the business of asserting?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. That said, it does seem to me that Portner’s work paints a rather more complicated picture for noncognitivism than Alwood is letting on.

Categories: Language, Meta-ethics, Philosophy, Semantics, Syntax.

2009 Amsterdam Colloquium

Very excited to be flying to Amsterdam this week to present a paper on imperatives at the Seventeenth Amsterdam Colloquium. For philosophers who are unfamiliar, this is a biennial conference in which the mean presentation tends to be, not surprisingly, in Amsterdam-style formal semantics.

I’ll be giving a paper on–again, not surprisingly–imperatives. The basic gist of the paper (certainly not original to me) is that the pragmatics of conditional imperatives is hard because of a misconception about the nature of illocutionary force: that we represent the force of an utterance by applying a force-operator (like assertion) to a force-less content (e.g., a proposition). Illocutionary operators behave more like modal-operators, I suggest. In particular, they can take restriction arguments, and they can “embed” (albeit not freely).

The paper (titled “Restricting and Embedding Imperatives”) is pretty formal, but, if you’re interested, is available on my webpage.

Happy holidays!

Categories: Me, Papers, Philosophy, Semantics.


Delivered comments on a paper by Jeroen Groenendijk (a hero of mine) and Floris Roelofsen this weekend at the 2009 Michigan Workshop in Philosophy and Linguistics. The topic of this year’s conference was the semantics and pragmatics of questions, and the point of Jeroen and Floris’ paper was to supply a logic for a language with devices for expressing both questions and assertions — a project which I take to be in roughly the same vein as the work I’ve been trying to do on the logic and semantics of the imperative mood.

It was an outstanding weekend, in no small part because both my brother Simon and good friend Anders were in town. If you’re interested, you can find my comments here (under the “Talks” heading).

Categories: Friends, Me, Philosophy, Semantics.