Monday, February 18, 2008


Testing for Context Sensitivity (Part 2)

I think Bryan was probably right in his criticisms of my last post on this topic, but let me post some further thoughts on Cappelen and Lepore's tests for context sensitive. In a footnote on page 101, they give us the 'VP-ellipsis test'. But their discussion of this test has always struck me as somewhat bizarre.

Here's the test in short. Context sensitive expressions have fixed interpretations under VP-ellipsis. So if an expression has a fixed interpretation under VP-ellipsis, it's context sensitive, otherwise not.

This seems initially very surprising. One would have thought that context insensitive expressions also had a fixed interpretation under VP-ellipsis. But Cappelen and Lepore write:

'noncontext sensitive expressions do not exhibit this feature, as in

John bought a car, and so did Bill.' (101fn7)

But here the supposedly context invariant expression is the quantifier expression 'a car' - hardly a good choice of an uncontroversially context invariant expression.

(I'm taking it that 'noncontext sensitive' just means context insensitive here. Let me know if that's wrong).

A page over (102fn8) they suggest that Stanley is hoist by his own petard, since he employs the VP-ellipsis test to argue that vague expressions aren't context sensitive, failing to realize that the test tells against his own treatment of quantifier domain restriction. This isn't the first time I've encountered this interpretation of Stanley's argument, so I think it's worth pointing out it's badly mistaken. Stanley never uses the VP-ellipsis test, and in fact, he never argues that vague expressions as a class are context insensitive. Rather, he argues that even if they are context sensitive, that doesn't serve to offer a unified solution to the Sorites paradoxes. He takes contextualists to be making the claim that vague expressions are indexicals, and constructs instances of the Sorites which employ VP-ellipsis to fix the interpretation of the vague expression in question throughout the series. The contextualist about vagueness wanted to disarm the reasoning driving the Sorites whilst explaining why we find it so compelling, and Stanley's objection is that the contextualist's story, in terms of context shifts as we run through the series, has limited scope.

So Stanley doesn't use the VP-ellipsis test to argue that vague expressions are context insensitive. That's a really bad interpretation of his argument. Rather he uses the fact that indexicals have a fixed interpretation under VP-ellipsis (a couple of tricky examples such as the now famous A - 'I love you', B - 'I do too' exchange aside) to enable him to construct instances of the Sorites which contextualist accounts of vague expressions (or at least those according to which they are indexicals) can't disarm. And since the claimed fact is explicitly restricted to indexicals (and demonstratives), we needn't expect quantifier expressions to behave similarly.

So let me boldly state my conclusion: the VP-ellipsis test provides no test for context sensitivity, and it is powerless against Stanley's acccount of quantifier domain restriction. Right?

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Hi Aidan,

This kind of test has long been used to generate prima facie evidence for or against ambiguity claims. Do you reject applications of the test there? You might think that it would be a good initial test for context sensitivity for similar reasons, though not a decisive one on account of the existence of "sloppy" readings.
"So Stanley doesn't use the VP-ellipsis test to argue that vague expressions are context insensitive. That's a really bad interpretation of his argument. Rather he uses the fact that indexicals have a fixed interpretation under VP-ellipsis"

Thinking about it, isnt this exactly what F&C need? If you think that all context sensitivity trace to indexicals at logical form, and you think that indexicals usually have fixed interpretations under VP ellipsis, then wouldn't it create some tension for your program if some things you alleged to be context sensitive didn't preserve reference under VP ellipsis?

Consider (1).

(1) John failed every student. So did Bill.

It seems to me that both sentences in (1) can be true if (a) John failed every student in John's class and (b) Bill failed every student in Bill's class. Now you can hold either that (i) is slightly unusual in that it contains sloppy anaphora, or you can hold (ii) that any indexicals in 'failed every student' receive the same interpretation in the second sentence. Going route (ii) is going to be trouble for Stanley if he wants to hold that 'failed every student' is context sensitive, since for him, all context sensitivity (of the relevant sort) traces to indexcials at the level of logical form. Or am I missing something?
Hi Bryan,

I'm still thinking about the ambiguity issue. The quick answer is no, I'd like to avoid throwing that sort of test as a test for ambiguity. So as I always expected, I should probably at least qualify my overly-bold conclusion.

On the second comment, what or who is F&C? Is it just Cappelen and Lepore?

Jason does explicitly discuss these kinds of issues in the paper in question, so if C&L want to really push an objection to Jason here, they'd need to actually engage with the text more. I won't try to summarize what Jason says about these cases, but it's on p271-2, and he makes explicit the connection to his program in a footnote on p272.
(Well, the footnote's on comparison classes for comparative adjectives, but I take it the story isn't going to change significantly.)
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