Monday, August 01, 2005

Steven Gross, Essays on Linguistic Context-Sensitivity

Summary of Stephen Gross, Essays on Linguistic Context Sensitivity

While this is about Stephen Gross’s Essays on Linguistic Context-Sensitivity, I want to make a few comments about a philosopher who plays an important role in Gross’s book. Charles Travis has developed a radical context-sensitive view in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language to which Gross is “very much indebted” (p. 3). Instead of sticking with the most commonly discussed context-sensitive singular expressions (demonstratives, indexicals, definite descriptions) Travis focuses on simple predicate expressions like “is blue” and “is a philosopher”. These kinds of expression display a much richer and more multifarious form of context sensitivity, which appears (prima facie) more difficult to handle using the devices of formal semantics. Gross gives a perspicuous catalogue of the forms of context sensitivity these predicate expressions display in chapter one of his book. One of the forms of context-sensitivity he calls context-sensitivity of “aspect”, which is that which Travis concentrates on. “Aspect”, Gross says, is a “catch-all [covering] the various parts, capacities, roles, states, activities, etc. that a thing can possess, play, be in, engage in, etc” (p. 4). A statement like “The apple is green” Gross says is aspect-dependent, which means that whether it is true or not depends on which aspect of the apple we care about being green on some occasion. Even if you hold the state of the apple constant, uttering “The apple is green” can be true on some occasions and false on others. For example, if someone asks me what kind of apple I’m looking at, I may truly reply “The apple is green”, thereby referring to its skin (which is what someone who wanted to identify the type of apple would presumably be interested in). But if someone asks me whether the apple I’m looking at is moldy inside, and I say, “The apple is green”, then I have thereby (according to Gross) said something false. Gross and Travis do not want to claim that the speaker has said the same thing in both cases, but implicated something false in the second. Gross worries, plausibly, about responses based on implicature that they require making seemingly arbitrary decisions about what cases will count as strictly speaking true or false and which cases will be merely implicated. The trade-off of ruling out rampant context-sensitivity is ruling in rampant falsehood.

Gross also gives, in the first chapter, a few positive arguments in favor of rampant context sensitivity: (i) it enables us to explain how “light dawns gradually over the whole” by making room for the role of exemplars in language learning, before a learner acquires full mastery of a concept (mastery that meets Evans’s steep requirement of satisfying the Generality Constraint); (ii) context sensitivity increases the efficiency of communication (p. 16), in that we don’t have to spend lots of time spelling out in full what aspect of the thing under discussion is important to us; and (iii) the most interesting suggestion Gross makes concerns the way in which context-sensitivity allows some of the parameters of content to remain open so that we can sharpen things up as we go along. This last argument in favor of rampant context-sensitivity plays an important role in the discussion of vagueness in chapter four. Chapter functions as a nice, clear contextualist manifesto.

Chapter two is a survey of three different conceptions of context, attributed to Lewis, Stalnaker and (roughly) Davidson. “Lewis’s conception is an ordered triple: the ‘location—time, place and possible world—where a sentence is said”; “Stalnaker favors representing such a context as the set of possible worlds compatible with what is presupposed”; “On the Davidsonian conception, a context comprises the features adverted to by a truth-theory that assigns truth conditions for the sentences of a given language” (p. 30).

Chapter three is an examination of what a context-sensitive Davidsonian truth-theory for a language would look like. The issues are complex, but Gross argues that it may not be possible to eliminate context-sensitivity on the right hand side of the truth theorems. Gross draws some tentative conclusions from this result, like the impossibility of a theorist completely specifying the linguistic knowledge of a speaker of the object language, since the theorist will be relying on his own context in formulating the truth theorems. I would have liked a little bit more hand-holding at this stage of the argument (that's more a statement about me than the book), but I’m sympathetic to Gross’s profound-sounding conclusion, that there is “an in principle limit—if you will—on our capacity for theoretical self-knowledge” due to the ineliminability of context even for the theorist. (It would be an interesting project to connect up this work on the ineliminability of context with the literature on the possibility of an “absolute” point of view). In a footnote, Gross works hard to qualify this claim, but one might wonder: what’s the point of doing all the technical work if you can’t say something big, exciting and Kantian (as Gross does)?

Chapter four proposes an interesting solution to the sorites paradox: there is a general condition on the expression of propositions that is not met in the case of the formulation of the sorites paradox, so when a skeptic tries to generate the paradox, he is not actually expressing any propositions. He is speaking nonsense. The discussion is provocative, but I’m queasy about accepting a general constraint on sense of whatever form—I’d prefer to hang on to the idea that “(If everything in the symbolism works as though a sign had meaning, then it has meaning.)” (TLP, 3.328). That Wittgensteinian criterion of sense and nonsense strikes me as much more consistent with the spirit of the context-sensitive project than the general principle Gross proposes.

The final chapter of the book is a free-wheeling, fun account of contemporary philosophical accusations of nonsense in discussions of ontology (Gross makes a point of citing Kim, van Fraassen and Searle rather than Carnap, Austin or Wittgenstein [p. 111]). Anyone who has wrestled with Travis’s pioneering work on context-sensitivity will enjoy Gross’s book for its clear defense of certain central contextualist commitments as well as its willingness to engage head on with philosophers outside the Wittgensteinian-Austinian camp.

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