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The Speaker Authority Problem for Context-Sensitivity (Or: You Can’t Always Mean What You Want)

  • Karen S. LewisEmail author
Original Research


Context-sensitivity raises a metasemantic question: what determines the value of a context-sensitive expression in context? Taking gradable adjectives as a case study, this paper argues against various forms of intentionalist metasemantics, i.e. that speaker intentions determine values for context-sensitive expressions in context, including the coordination account recently defended by King (Philos Perspect 27:288–311, 2013; Noûs 48(2):219–237, 2014a; in: Burgess, Sherman (eds) Metasemantics: New essays on the foundations of meaning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 97–118, 2014b). The paper argues that all intentionalist accounts face the speaker authority problem, that speaker intentions are just the wrong sorts of things to determine the standards for gradable adjectives in context. The problem comes to light when we look at cases in which speakers have idiosyncratic, false beliefs that cause their proper communicative intentions to come apart from the non-intentional features of context like the question under discussion, facts about the world, practical goals, and prior linguistic discourse.



Thanks to Christopher Gauker, Jeff King, and several anonymous referees for helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to audiences at the CUNY Cognitive Science Speaker Series, the Context-Relativity in Semantics conference at the University of Salzburg, The Ninth International and Interdisciplinary Conference on Modeling and Using Context in Larnaca, Cyprus, Jeff King's graduate seminar at Rutgers University, and Meaning & Other Things: A conference celebrating the work of Stephen Schiffer at NYU for helpful discussion of earlier versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBarnard College, Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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