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RContext Report Summary

Project ID: 656273
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RContext (Radical Contextualism and the Science of Meaning)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

The project RContext investigated a challenge that ‘radical contextualism’ (RC) poses to certain mainstream accounts in the philosophy of language, formal semantics, and philosophy of mind. Main problems addressed concerned: (i) the role of context in successful communication and reasoning, and (ii) the extent to which this role generalises to other forms of representation besides natural language. The key objective was to devise a theory which can make the interaction of meaning and context more tractable and precise by using formal semantic tools. The proposed solution to the challenge posed by RC is twofold: first, that knowing the meaning of a sentence leaves room for a great deal of variation among the situations in which the sentence is true; and, second, that contexts be understood in terms of practical goals which create preferences for (or biases against) some of these situations based on how conducive they are to the contextually salient goal. It has been shown that both of these factors (i.e. conventional meaning and contextual goals) are equally important for understanding and interpreting utterances (and other forms of non-linguistic representation). A goal-sensitive theory of interpretation developed during this project has a wide range of application in natural language semantics and beyond: it can be straightforwardly extended to the interpretation of other sentential forms besides declarative sentences (questions, imperatives) and it can be easily embedded in existing discourse and planning theories. Additionally, we foresee useful applications in computational linguistics and machine learning, especially with tackling one of the oldest problems in this field: the word sense disambiguation problem.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

Work performed during the project is divided into several categories including scientific work, training of the researcher, other professional and outreach activities.

Scientific work. Above we noted that the main scientific objective of the project was to develop a theory that would successfully respond to the challenge posed by radical contextualism. Part of this aim was to devise a formal rep- resentation of the phenomenon that motivates radical contextualism, for which the researcher needed to acquire relevant formal skills and competences. The researcher (whose background is theoretical philosophy) thus undertook an ex- tensive training in formal semantics and logic, including modal logic (Sept/Oct 2015; Paul Dekker), inquisitive semantics (Nov/Dec 2015, F. Roelofsen and J. Groenendijk) and formal structures for semantics (April/May 2016; Maria Aloni). These particular skills and formal methodologies were applied in developing three related formal theories of interpretation: an occasion-sensitive theory of declarative sentences (see Dobler 2017), occasion-sensitive semantics for objective predicates (Dobler, conditional acceptance in L&P) and occasion- sensitive inquisitive semantics (Dobler, under submission in Synthese).

Training. Progress of the researcher in terms of acquisition and implementation of new skills has been monitored in regular meetings with the project super- visor and co-supervisors (Martin Stokhof, Maria Aloni and Floris Roelofsen). Besides with her supervisors, the researcher discussed the formal framework with other members of the institute such as Robert van Rooij, Jakub Dotlacil, Nadine Theiler and Peter Hawke. As part of training and career development, in addition to auditing courses, the researcher supervised the Master in Logic project on radical contextualism (Laura Molenaar) and was on the examination committee for a MoL thesis. She also assisted on Logic, Language and Computation course (Sept-Dec 2017) and delivered a couple of lectures on Wittgenstein’s contemporary relevance (April 2016). The researcher took part in the organisation of Amsterdam Colloquium (2015) and Discourse and Philosophy Colloquium (Sept 2016-Dec 2017) and initiated an international research network (Wittgenstein) between several European and non-European universities (Cutting edge networking grant from the Faculty of Humanities, UvA awarded).

Dissemination and deliverables Intermediate and final scientific results have been presented at a number of workshops and conferences during the period of the project (e.g. OZSW 2015, ILLC Midwinter Colloquium 2016, CONTEXT 2017, InqBnB2 2017), and have been submitted for publication in philosophy and formal semantics journals.

Outreach. Both outreach activities took part in different European countries: in Norwich, UK the researcher helped organise an employability event (Nov 2015, UEA) aimed at sixth-form and junior philosophy students where different career options were discussed, including applying for European Commission grants. Another event took part at the University of Copenhagen (Nov 2017) where the researcher delivered a guest lecture to college students (psychology) on religious disagreement and belief revision (organiser: Maria Serban).


Dobler, T. (2017). The Occasion‐Sensitivity of Thought. Topoi. DOI: 
Dobler, T. (submitted). An inquisitive approach to occasion-sensitivity. Synthese.
Dobler, T. (submitted). Occasion-sensitive semantics for objective predicates. Linguistics and Philosophy. Download
Dobler, T. (2017). Occasion-sensitive semantics. In P. Brezillon, R. Turner, & C. Penco (Eds.), Modeling and Using Context: 10th International and Interdisciplinary Conference, CONTEXT 2017, Paris, France, June 20-23, 2017,  (Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence ed., pp. 254-266). Springer.
Collins J., & Dobler, T. (eds.) (2018). The Philosophy of Charles Travis. Oxford University Press.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

A goal-sensitive theory of interpretation developed as part of this project has a number of innovative features, which take it beyond the state of the art. First, in contrast to many existing theories which either deny tractability of the phenomenon that motivates RC or the phenomenon itself, the current theory successfully integrates a conservative truth-conditional semantics with radical context-sensitivity by proposing that weak truth-conditions often require pragmatic strengthening in the presence of practical goals. Second, to our knowledge, no existing theory of interpretation goes beyond explaining the goal-sensitivity of declarative sentences; our theory is able to explain not only how the truth- conditions of declarative sentence are sensitive to contextually salient goals, but also how the resolution conditions of interrogative sentences are occasion-sensitive (Dobler, under review in Synthese). Third, as noted earlier, the theory potentially extends beyond the domain of natural language semantics to the area of computational linguistics and machine translation. The hypothesis we wish to explore in future work is that having practical goals as the main contextual parameter of interpretation significantly improves traction on what a machine would need to look for in order to decide which of a number of fine-grained word senses is intended in a given context.

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