The idea of using experiments to address philosophical questions has provoked heated debate in many areas of philosophy. However, if there is one area in which this approach has been completely uncontroversial, it is the field of formal semantics. This field unites researchers in philosophy and linguistics in an interdisciplinary attempt to make progress on semantic questions. The field has always understood itself as an empirical one, and researchers within it have basically welcomed the arrival of experimental techniques with open arms.
Just in the past few years, philosophers working in formal semantics have authored or coauthored experimental papers on vagueness (Egré et al., Ripley), the relationship between semantics and pragmatics (Chemla, Homer & Rothschild), conditionals (Cariani & Rips), generics (Prasada, Khemlani, Leslie & Glucksberg), modals (Knobe & Szabó; Knobe & Yalcin), the language of probability (Yalcin), gradable adjectives used for color (Hansen & Chemla) and aesthetics (Liao & Meskin), presupposition projection (Chemla & Schlenker), the determiners ‘most’ (Pietroski et al.) and ‘many’ (Egré & Cova), and much, much more. Clearly, the field as a whole is moving very strongly in an experimental direction.
Just to highlight one example of some of the amazing work that’s been going on these days, I thought it might be helpful to discuss a new experimental paper from philosopher Justin Khoo (MIT).
Khoo takes up a problem about what it means to disagree with another speaker's assertion. Thus, suppose that one speaker makes an assertion and then another says, 'No.' This second speaker seems to be disagreeing with the first, but what exactly does that mean?
Khoo's paper focuses especially on cases in which speakers disagree with assertions involving epistemic modals. For example, suppose that one speaker says:
- The keys might be in the drawer.
Then suppose that the other speaker goes ahead and checks in the drawer. She then says:
- No, they aren't here.
This second speaker seems to be disagreeing with what the first one said. But what exactly does that mean? Traditionally, semanticists assumed it meant that the second speaker thought that what the first speaker said was false. A great deal of theoretical work then went into explaining how the second speaker could think that the first speaker's claim was false in a case like this. (Given that the information wasn't available to the first speaker, what could she possibly have been saying that could be rightly described as false?) This is one of the main motivations behind the account of epistemic modals known as 'relativism.'
Khoo shows experimentally that this approach was actually mistaken. Participants in his studies say that it is correct in a case like this one for the second speaker to say 'No,' but they also say that it is actually not the case that the first speaker's claim was false. Indeed, in some of his other experiments, participants actually say that there are cases in which it is right to say 'No' even though what the speaker said is true!
This observation leads Khoo to suggest a new and, I think, very promising view about what we are actually doing when we disagree with an assertion. This view gets us out of the puzzle we faced about epistemic modals but also has implications for numerous other semantic questions. (Hint: the key idea is that the disagreement is targeting not the content of the assertion but the proposed update to the context.)
All the details are available in Khoo's actual paper, but please do feel free to write in with comments or questions even if you haven't read the paper itself.