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Vendler Reading Group

The Vendler Reading Group is an interdisciplinary group composed of faculty and graduate students from philosophy and linguistics. The group's main goal is to facilitate communication between researchers working on issues related to the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of natural languages. The group meets approximately once a month to discuss current research, work in progress by reading group members, and to host visiting scholars.

In 2017-18 we propose to organize a series of eight monthly meetings. Each meeting we will discuss an article about either the philosophical foundations or the linguistic applications of theories of information structure. The final meeting of each semester we will invite a guest speaker who will present their recent work on information structure.

Information Structure and Conversation
Conversation is cooperative and goal-oriented (Grice 1967). If you and I are planning to meet for lunch, it is natural for us to enter into a conversation about where to go. We will cooperate by asking questions and exchanging information until we reach our goal: a decided-upon destination. This illustrates a more general fact about conversations: that they are structured by inquiry (Stalnaker 1984). Inquiries, of course, are varied. You and I could inquire and converse about lunch, as well as about the ultimate structure of reality, or how to build an Ikea dresser. In these cases, the goals of our specific inquiry will structure our conversation in diverse ways. I will say different sorts of things if we are inquiring about a dresser than if we are inquiring about lunch. Roberts (2006) has developed an account of conversation and communication that, at its heart, identifies a particular topic of inquiry, or, as she puts it a question under discussion.

Focus, for a moment, on context-sensitive words like “that”. Often, what I pick out when I use the word “that” depends on my specific aims and intentions, as well as the environment around me—this is why the word is context-sensitive. Compare the following two exchanges:

Person A) How do you like your curry?
Person B) It is fine, but I wish I had gotten that instead (points across the restaurant at table with pad thai and a lager).

Person A) How do you like your ale?
Person B) It is fine, but I wish I had gotten that instead (points across the restaurant a table with pad thai and a lager).

In the first exchange, the conversation is guided by A’s question about B’s curry. The fact that this question guides the conversation makes it clear that the word “that’, as uttered by B, refers to pad thai. By contrast, the second exchange is guided by A’s question about B’s ale. This fact makes it clear that B’s “that” refers to the lager. The exchange illustrates the fact that which question is under discussion impacts our interpretation of utterances—in this case it resolves the meaning of the context-sensitive “that”.

Those who pursue the question-under-discussion model of conversation are motivated both by the foundational view of conversation as a cooperative inquiry, and by the promise that invoking questions helps gain insight into specific linguistic phenomena like the resolution of context-sensitive items. These goals have been actively and fruitfully pursued by both philosophers and linguists. Our goal this year in the Vendler group will be to examine both the foundations and applications of the model.

The model’s foundation is that conversation is cooperative inquiry. Since Grice (1967), Lewis (1979), and Stalnaker (1984) argued for aspects of this model of conversation, philosophers have questioned just what it means to claim that conversation is cooperative inquiry, and how we can understand the fundamental dynamics of conversation. For instance, a crucial component of Stalnaker’s view is that conversation takes place against a shared background of beliefs. We can think of these background beliefs as determining what we take to be possible. For instance, if you and I agree that it is sunny today, then, for the purposes of our conversation, we can rule out the possibility that it is cloudy. As we assert more claims, our list of background beliefs grows and the possibilities shrink. Recently, Brett Sherman has been pursuing the view that our goals of inquiry also affect what we take to be an open possibility for the purposes of conversation. In the fall semester, we will examine the notion of background conversational beliefs and the space of conversational possibilities, culminating in Sherman’s visit.

The model’s applications are varied, including such diverse phenomena as prosodic focus, rhetorical relations, and speech acts. Our focus will be on the nature of communicated content that goes beyond sentence meaning. For instance, if you walk up to one of my students and ask “How’s Professor Liebesman’s class?”, and that student answers “well, his handwriting is great”, then what the student says is merely that my handwriting is great, but what the student communicates is that my class isn’t. In any given scenario, what we say is relatively easy to predict: it is tied to the stable meanings of our words. However, what we additionally communicate varies enormously from context-to-context and depends on factors like our particular interests, background knowledge, and tone of voice. Given the complexity and variability of communicated content, one may be reasonably skeptical about the possibility of giving a systematic theory of communicated content, which makes predictions in individual cases. One of the major lessons of 20th century philosophy of language and linguistics is that this pessimism is premature. Theorists like Roberts (2006) have argued that the question-under-discussion model gives us the ability to make a range of empirical predictions about communicated content. Our aim will be to understand how this works, and our discussion will culminate by considering Simons’ recent work on incorporating the question-under-discussion model into a theory of communicated content.


Dr. David Liebesman, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy,
Dr. Dimitrios Skordos, Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures & Cultures

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