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Context-sensitivity and the semantics of epistemic vocabulary in natural languages

Final Report Summary - EPISTEMIC VOCABULARY (Context-sensitivity and the semantics of epistemic vocabulary in natural languages)

Contextualist approaches to the semantics of knowledge attributions have fallen into significant disrepute in recent years. According to much of the literature in the area, contextualist semantics of ‘knows p’ are subject to a variety of serious philosophical and linguistic objections, leaving little credibility to the view. This research project has formulated conditions of adequacy for a satisfactory account of epistemic contextualism and critically evaluated alternative approaches in the literature. Since none of the views currently defended has been found to be viable from either a linguistic or a philosophical point of view, this project has developed a novel contextualist semantics of knowledge attributions, which postulates a close semantic link between the content of ‘knows p’ at a context of utterance C and what is pragmatically presupposed in C. The resulting view is called Presuppositional Epistemic Contextualism (PEC).

PEC provides us with a semantics for knowledge attributions that avoids and resolves the objections leveled against contextualist semantics in the literature and that is, therefore, significantly more attractive than its competitors. Moreover, PEC is well-motivated from both a linguistic and a philosophical point of view, modelling the semantics of ‘knows p’ by means of a presuppositional constraint on the domain of an implicit quantifier over possible worlds (or ‘relevant alternatives’). The resulting view not only avoids the most familiar linguistic objections to contextualism (syntactic gradability objection, semantic blindness objection), but also allows for a fruitful resolution of a number of philosophical problems in epistemology. For instance, PEC provides us with an elegant solution not only of skeptical puzzles, but also of the Gettier problem, lottery paradoxes, and the Moorean puzzle.

The resulting view has, therefore, a far-reaching impact on debates in epistemology, the philosophy of language, philosophical linguistics, and the natural language semantics of epistemic terms. Many of the epistemological problems that philosophers have been grappling with since the 1950s appear, from the point of view of PEC, in an entirely new light and allow for simple, elegant, and independently motivated solutions. Results of the research project have been published in the form of two monographs (Oxford University Press) and a number of articles and book chapters.