‘Absolute’ adjectives in belief contexts

Linguistics and Philosophy 44 (4):875-910 (2020)
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It is a consequence of both Kennedy and McNally’s typology of the scale structures of gradable adjectives and Kennedy’s :1–45, 2007) economy principle that an object is clean just in case its degree of cleanness is maximal. So they jointly predict that the sentence ‘Both towels are clean, but the red one is cleaner than the blue one’ :259–288, 2004) is a contradiction. Surely, one can account for the sentence’s assertability by saying that the first instance of ‘clean’ is used loosely: since ‘clean’ pragmatically conveys the property of being close to maximally clean rather than the property of being maximally clean, the sentence as a whole conveys a consistent proposition. I challenge this semantics–pragmatics package by considering the sentence ‘Mary believes that both towels are clean but that the red one is cleaner than the blue one’. We can certainly use this sentence to attribute a coherent belief to Mary: One of its readings says that she believes that the towels are clean by a contextually salient standard ; the other says that she believes that the towels are clean by her own standard. I argue that Kennedy’s semantics–pragmatics package can’t deliver those readings, and propose that we drop the economy principle and account for those readings semantically by assigning to the belief sentence two distinct truth conditions. I consider two ways to deliver those truth-conditions. The first one posits world-variables in the sentence’s logical form and analyzes those truth-conditions as resulting from two binding possibilities of those variables. The second one proposes that the threshold function introduced by the phonologically null morpheme pos is shiftable in belief contexts.

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Charlie Siu
Sun Yat-Sen University


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