We talk to people, not contexts

Philosophical Studies 177 (9):2713-2733 (2020)
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According to a popular family of theories, assertions and other communicative acts should be understood as attempts to change the context of a conversation. Contexts, on this view, are publicly shared bodies of information that evolve over the course of a conversation and that play a range of semantic and pragmatic roles. I argue that this view is mistaken: performing a communicative act requires aiming to change the mind of one’s addressee, but not necessarily the context. Although changing the context may sometimes be among a speaker’s aims, this should be seen as an extra-communicative aim, rather than one that is necessary for the performance of a communicative act. Along the way, I also argue that contexts needn’t play a role in linking anaphora to their antecedents. On the view that I defend, theories that take publicly shared contexts to play an essential role in the nature of communicative acts or anaphoric dependence conflate an artifact introduced by idealized models of conversation with a feature of the phenomenon being modeled.



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Daniel W. Harris
Hunter College (CUNY)

Citations of this work

Mindreading in conversation.Evan Westra & Jennifer Nagel - 2021 - Cognition 210 (C):104618.
Pragmatic Particularism.Ray Buchanan & Henry Ian Schiller - 2021 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 105 (1):62-78.
Intentionalism and Bald-Faced Lies.Daniel W. Harris - 2020 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
Joint Attention and Communication.Rory Harder - forthcoming - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.

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Mental Files.François Récanati - 2012 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.

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