pp 1–23 | Cite as

Communication and Variance

  • Martín Abreu ZavaletaEmail author


According to standard assumptions in semantics, (a) ordinary users of a language have implicit beliefs about the truth-conditions of sentences in that language, and (b) they often agree on those beliefs. For example, it is assumed that if Anna and John are both competent users of English and the former utters ‘grass is green’ in conversation with the latter, they will both believe that that sentence is true if and only if grass is green. These assumptions play an important role in an intuitively compelling picture of communication, according to which successful communication through literal assertoric utterances is normally effected thanks to our shared beliefs about the truth-conditions of the sentences uttered in the course of the conversation. Against these standard assumptions, this paper argues that the participants in a conversation rarely have the same beliefs about the truth-conditions of the sentences involved in a linguistic interaction. More precisely, it argues for Variance, the thesis that nearly every utterance is such that there is no proposition which more than one language user believes to be that utterance’s truth-conditional content. If Variance is true, we must reject the standard picture of communication. Towards the end of the paper I identify three ways in which ordinary conversations can be communication-like despite the truth of Variance and argue that the most natural amendments to the standard picture fail to explain them.


Communication Truth-conditional content Metalinguistic negotiation 



Thanks to Ben Holguín, Ian Grubb, Rose Flinn, Tienmu Ma, Chris Scambler, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. For helpful discussion, thanks to audiences at Institut d’Études Avancées de Paris, New York University, The New School for Social Research, and Università degli Studi di Torino. Thanks especially to Cian Dorr, James Pryor, Stephen Schiffer, and Erica Shumener for their insightful feedback on serveral drafts of this paper.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author (Martín Abreu Zavaleta) declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by the author.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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