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The Open Instruction Theory of Attitude Reports and the Pragmatics of Answers

journal contribution
posted on 2022-05-26, 00:00 authored by Philipp Koralus
Reports on beliefs, desires, and other attitudes continue to raise foundational questions about linguistic meaning and the pragmatics of utterance interpretation. There is a strong intuition that an attitude report like ‘John believes that Mary smokes’ can simply convey the singular proposition that the individual Mary is believed by John to have the property of smoking. Yet, there is also a strong intuition that ‘Lois believes that Superman can fly’ can additionally convey how an individual is represented (viz. as a superhero not as a reporter). Cases of this sort can be generated with any name in a suitable context (Kripke 1979). It is far from settled how this should be explained. I propose the Open Instruction Theory (OIT), according to which the linguistic meaning of attitude report sentences consists in instructions to create mental models, where those instructions leave open, depending on the state of the discourse, the possibility of singular interpretations as well as of complex interpretations including information about ways of representing. The account makes precise the idea that attitude report sentences with proper names are semantically nonspecific (Soames 2004), rather than indexical (Schiffer 2000), yielding predictions about syntactic constraints on interpretation. On this view, linguistic meaning itself does not provide determinate propositions. Since Gricean pragmatics requires determinate propositions as input, I propose new principles of pragmatics for literal utterance interpretation that do not require them but remain strongly constrained by linguistic meaning. The core principle is “inference to the most responsive interpretation.” Roughly, among the range of literal interpretations allowed by linguistic meaning, the listener generates the one that most fully answers the background question she seeks to answer by engaging in discourse. The pragmatics of literal utterance interpretation is the pragmatics of interpreting potential answers, even if communicative intention may be more important for conversational implicature. The account predicts cases in which our interpretations differ from what we would take the speaker to have had in mind. Singular interpretations of attitude reports have a special status as default interpretations. I suggest some advantages of OIT over indexicalist, DRT, and free enrichment theories. I argue that to the extent that we have to go beyond a strict principle of linguistic constraint (Stanley 2005), we should aim toward a principle of psychological constraint.


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