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Contextualism and Relativism (2008-2012)
The Contextualism and Relativism project has pursued an ambitious program of conferences, seminars, mini-courses and other events. The project began in May 2008 and will run until August 2012. As of August 2010, we have put on more than 70 seminars and 10 major conferences/workshops, and have hosted more than 40 visitors from 4 continents. A complete list of our previous seminars and visitors is available here.

The first two years of the project were funded by the AHRC; the remaining two were funded by the AHRC and the University of St Andrews.

Major Events:

May 2008: Semantics and Philosophy in Europe Conference
May 2008: Assertion Workshop
June 2008: Contextualism and Relativism Pilot Workshop
November 2008: Epistemic Modals Workshop
May 2009: Contextualism and Relativism about Knowledge Workshop
May 2009: Linguistic Intuitions Conference (in collaboration with CSMN)
October 2009: Conditionals and Context Workshop
October 2009: Conditionals Mini-Course
November 2009: Expressivism Mini-Course
April 2010: Time and Tense Workshop (in collaboration with the Time and Tense Pilot Project)
June 2010: De Se Attitudes Workshop and Mini-Course (in collaboration with CSMN)
May 2011: Propositions and the Aim of Semantics (in collaboration with the Propositions Pilot Project)
May 2011: a Dynamic Semantics, Vagueness, and Conditionals Mini-Course (in collaboration with ILLC-Amsterdam)
The Project Team
Principal Investigator: Herman Cappelen.

Independent Auditor: Josh Dever (Texas).

Post-Doctoral Fellows: Derek Ball and Dilip Ninan.

Project Students: Steven Hall, Thomas Hodgson, Nick Hughes, Torfinn Huvenes, Dirk Kindermann, Anders Schoubye, and Rachel Sterken.

The Research Problem

The Contextualism and Relativism project commenced in April 2008. Major AHRC funding has been secured to support postdoctoral fellowships and PhD studentships for research within the project agenda or on topics closely associated with it; this funding has been continued by the University of St Andrews. We are also keen to identify prospective postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers who would potentially be interested in applying for their own individual awards from external sources (such as the British Academy and the AHRC) to enable them to join the project. Arché will provide tailored support for the individual funding applications of accepted candidates.

We are also keen to receive expressions of interest from prospective visiting scholars at senior and intermediate career stages who would welcome an opportunity to spend time at Arché during the period of the project and contribute to its research, and/or to join the international network of scholars who will participate in an associated programme of twice-yearly workshops.

Enquiries and informal expressions of interest can be sent by email to Arché. Please give details of your current and prospective research interests, and of any external source to which you intend to apply for funding.

Overarching Problem
Contextualism and Relativism will focus on the confluence of three powerful and important currents within contemporary analytical philosophy. One is semantic contextualism. The second is the revival of the ancient tradition of relativistic conceptions of truth, knowledge and value. The third, standing opposed to both these tendencies, is the general, more conservative stance of invariantism.

The recent semantic contextualist “turn” has typically drawn on (so-called) intuitions about imaginary cases, suggestive that in many areas of discourse — indeed for some writers (Recanati, Travis) almost everywhere — what an utterance literally says is not determined in the manner conceived by traditional semantic theory but turns in subtle and complex ways on the needs, intentions and saliences operative in the particular speech context. In its most radical form, this view seemingly jeopardises any prospect of a satisfyingly systematic semantics, which, it appears, would have to be vastly more elaborate than traditionally envisaged — if still possible at all. Yet the data that drive contemporary contextualists are powerful and unquestionably call for account.

Relativism and contextualism come into competition as follows. The attraction of relativism has always been that of a resource for explaining away certain apparent contradictions — for instance, between spokespersons for apparently irreconcilable moral points of view — in a way that avoids the attribution of error to either side. Such disputes, even if involving genuine contradiction, can be faultless if truth for claims of the relevant kind is relativised to an additional parameter: the context of assessment. The great issue about this proposal, even in the modem dress of Kaplan-style semantics, remains whether it offers any coherent conceptions of truth and content. Contextualism offers a different resource to a similar end: if content may be unobviously context-sensitive, the “disputes” in question may be error-free not because truth is assessment-relative, but because they do not concern a shared content.

Invariantism repudiates the assessment-relativity of truth, but agrees with relativism that the linguistic data that encourage contextualism should not be interpreted semantically. However invariantists tend to acknowledge that something pragmatically communicated by utterances of the same sentence may vary with context. An importantly different, specific form of invariantism, developed for knowledge-ascriptions (Hawthorne, Stanley), holds that the variations concerned derive not from context-sensitivity of content, nor pragmatic differences, but from the sensitivity to the subject’s practical interests of the standards demanded if she is to count as knowing.

Our project is to explore and evaluate the semantic and metaphysical presuppositions of these various types of view, and to define, refine and pursue the debates between them through a number of broad regions in which they have been prominent including

The philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics;
The theory of knowledge, and the epistemic modalities;
Morals and aesthetics;
The metaphysics of time, and the semantics of vagueness.
The work will run through five phases, each planned as lasting somewhat less than a year, though the semantic and linguistic researches of phase 1 will carry forward to inform all subsequent work, culminating in a final phase of reflection on the overarching metaphysical and methodological issues. In general, our schedule will be responsive to developments, with the phases representing areas of intended concentration rather than exclusion.

PHASE 1 — LANGUAGE — will concern the main cruces for semantic contextualism and its relativist and invariantist opponents in the setting of the philosophical theory of meaning and communication and theoretical linguistics. Suppose what is communicated by utterances of a single, unambiguous sentence S seems to be variable. A paramount issue is:

What should be canonical evidence for a semantic contextualist account of S’s variability, rather than a pragmatic one?
Further, suppose S has no syntactically explicit, obviously context-sensitive ingredients (like demonstratives and personal pronouns.) Then
What evidential and theoretical constraints should govern the postulation of context-sensitive expressions either at the level of the logical form of S (domain specifications for quantifiers, say, or comparison classes for gradable adjectives); or in the role of unarticulated constituents? Can these manoeuvres be preferable to pragmatic alternatives?
The latter — potential pragmatic accounts of S’s variability — include the classical Gricean view (an assertion of the same truth-evaluable proposition in different contexts variably ‘implicates’ other propositions via conversational norms) and various modern descendants. (Bach, Soames, Carston, Recanati, Sperber & Wilson, Cappelen & Lepore). We shall explore
Whether any of these accounts can provide competitive alternatives to contextualism with respect to: quantifiers, gradable adjectives, belief reports and indirect speech, tense, generics, noun phrases, and conditionals.
Invariantists have offered general reasons for resisting contextualist accounts. What, for example, explains how we communicate across (unmonitored) contexts using allegedly semantically context-sensitive sentences, or how someone unfamiliar with the context of utterance can (normally) grasp the proposition expressed? More specific considerations include arguments from homophonic reporting of sayings and beliefs (Cappelen & Lepore, Egan & Hawthorne & Weatherson, MacFarlane, Stanley); and arguments from routine judgments of (dis)agreement — applicable whenever distinct utterances of S, (or utterances of S and of not-S), are routinely, with no special attention to context, treated as expressive of speakers’ (dis)agreement. Questions arising include
How powerful, and widely applicable, are these considerations?
Is shared content necessary to address them, or will some form of similarity of content serve?
Is the combination of content-invariability with some form of truth-relativism better placed to explain any of the variability data than invariantism with supplementary pragmatic resources?
PHASE 2 — KNOWLEDGE AND EPISTEMIC POSSIBILITY — will involve an intensive critical exploration of the strengths, weaknesses and significance of the various relativist and contextualist proposals recently advanced concerning knowledge, justification and epistemic possibility. Among the crucial issues are:

Is there any solid reason to credit sceptical argument, or epistemological enquiry more generally, with the ability to create a special ‘context’, apt to shift epistemic standards?
How does the claim that “knows” and cognates are semantically context-sensitive fare in the light of findings of Phase 1?
The standard evidence that “knows” and cognates are context-sensitive is confused and conflicting. What are the merits and larger implications of the conclusion that the concept of knowledge is unsystematic, and thus disqualified from presentation of any single interesting epistemic kind?
Relatedly, how far is it reputable methodology to charge actual patterns in our epistemic discourse with systematic error? What are the obligations on theorists who make such a charge?
What can be said about the general utility of the notion of epistemic possibility? (What would we lose if we lacked it altogether?) Are assessment-relativist construals of it (MacFarlane, Weatherson et al.) broadly coherent with its role?
Can assessment-relativism provide any coherent construal of embedded epistemic modalities, as in a sentence like “It could be that P but it could also be that Smith knows that it cannot be that P”?
How reliable can the linguistic data about the epistemic modalities be when ordinary language locutions are riddled with scope ambiguities among tenses, negation and modals, (as in “It mightn’t have been that P”)?
PHASE 3 — VALUE AND TASTE — will focus on basic, seemingly irresoluble differences about matters of aesthetics and morals. Our agenda will include these questions:

Are there good reasons for taking it to be a datum that such differences can involve “faultless disagreement”? If so, how is that notion best understood?
Can contextualist accounts of such disagreements explain why disputants will typically possess a mutual understanding of the implications, practical and theoretical, of the opposing view?
If the content, or truth, of moral and aesthetic utterances is conceived as “standard-relative”, how are standards themselves to be conceived? — If as statable general precepts, how are relativist, or contextualist, accounts to be applied to disagreements in which these very precepts are the disputed contents?
Are relativistic accounts of fundamental moral disagreements able to accommodate and explain their characteristic ‘high temperature’ — and the correspondingly characteristic ‘low temperature’ of disagreements in, say, taste in sauce?
Besides hyper-realism (postulating transcendent facts), relativism and contextualism, are there other (better) approaches to such fundamental disagreements which preserve the truth-evaluability of the contents concerned — for instance an Intuitionistic approach?
PHASE 4 — TIME AND VAGUENESS — will focus on two specialised groups of issues prominent in recent contextualist-relativist debate. Macfarlane has canvassed an assessment-relativist treatment of tensed utterances as providing a stable semantic and metaphysical underpinning for the Aristotelian ‘open future’; while the possibilities for disarming the paradoxes of vagueness within broadly contextualist frameworks have been argued by Raffman, Graff, Soames, and others. Our research questions will include

Is there any contextualist alternative that can match the alleged advantages of an assessment-relativist treatment of tensed utterances? Are their unacceptable costs, in terms of compromise of shared content across time, to any such alternative?
Is there, conversely, any coherent notion of the kind of ‘temporally neutral’ proposition to which assessment-relativist treatments would seem committed? What, if so, are such contents like? Can they be the objects of attitudes?
What are the respective implications of contextualist and relativist proposals in this area for the construal of tenses as quantifiers or as operators. Can linguistic evidence be marshalled to advantage one approach over the other?
Can Dummettian antirealism about the past benefit from a parallel treatment along assessment-relativist lines?
Our work on vagueness will extend Arché’s recently concluded project on Vagueness: its Nature and Logic (AHRC, 2004-6). Key questions will include:
Is there independent linguistic evidence that vague expressions are characteristically context-sensitive? Is there any constitutive connection between (relevant kinds of) context-sensitivity and vagueness?
Seemingly cogent arguments (Heck, Stanley) suggest that Sorites paradoxes can be run in ways (e.g., by exploiting anaphora) that pre-empt semantic contextualist treatment. Does semantic contextualism have effective rejoinders?
If not, what are the prospects for recovering the advantages of contextualist treatments by interest-relative invariantist accounts (Graff, recent Raffman) or by assessment-relative ones?
All proposals of this broad stripe require that Soritical reasoning necessarily involves changes in (some relevant sense of) context (or in a subject’s interests.) Can that demand be sustained?
PHASE 5 — LANDSCAPE — will draw on the findings of the previous phases to concentrate on major structural and theoretical issues that underlie the debates. The notions that truth, or content, is relative to context are open to multiple directions of interpretation, only some of which are actually represented in the recent literature. Contextualism takes context to be context of utterance, and the relativity concerned to be that of content. Relativism takes content to be context of assessment, and the relativity concerned to be that of truth. It is salient that both views allow of duals: truth for certain claims might be construed as relative to context of utterance; content itself might be construed as assessment-relative (indeed in a sense is so by the interpretationism of Quine and Davidson). Subject-sensitive invariantist proposals have cousins that let (predicate-) content be subject-sensitive. The full range of these alternative possibilities is hardly registered in the literature. And for any data that might differentially motivate one of them in any particular region, there is also the strategic option of attempting an orthodox invariantist, pragmatic account.

Our project will strive to develop a greatly improved chart of this complex dialectical domain, and the various local antagonisms within it. The final phase of our research will aim to accomplish

an accurate taxonomy of all the theoretically interesting, possible positions in the contextualist-relativist-invariantist war-zones;
an overview and clarification of their respective philosophical motivation, and the status and force of the alleged linguistic evidence for them;
the design of potential crucial experiments between them;
an investigation in depth of their theoretical coherence;
a deepened account, in the light of our earlier researches, of the key notions — paramountly, those of invariance of content, and of context itself — on which the debates turn.