Conversational Exculpature

Philosophical Review 127 (2):151-196 (2018)
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Abstract

Conversational exculpature is a pragmatic process whereby information is subtracted from, rather than added to, what the speaker literally says. This pragmatic content subtraction explains why we can say “Rob is six feet tall” without implying that Rob is between 5'0.99" and 6'0.01" tall, and why we can say “Ellen has a hat like the one Sherlock Holmes always wears” without implying Holmes exists or has a hat. This article presents a simple formalism for understanding this pragmatic mechanism, specifying how, in context, the result of such subtractions is determined. And it shows how the resulting theory of conversational exculpature accounts for a varied range of linguistic phenomena. A distinctive feature of the approach is the crucial role played by the question under discussion in determining the result of a given exculpature.

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Daniel Hoek
Virginia Tech

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