Content in a Dynamic Context

Noûs 53 (2):394-432 (2017)
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The standing tradition in theorizing about meaning, since at least Frege, identifies meaning with propositions, which are, or determine, the truth-conditions of a sentence in a context. But a recent trend has advocated a departure from this tradition: in particular, it has been argued that modal claims do not express standard propositional contents. This non-propositionalism has received different implementations in expressivist semantics and certain kinds of dynamic semantics. They maintain that the key aspect of interpretation of modal claims is the characteristic dynamic effect they have on the context. I argue that pessimism about truth-conditions arises from an overly simplistic picture of content, context and their interaction. While I agree with the critics that an important aspect of modal meaning is the dynamic effect modals have on the context, I argue that they have mischaracterized the nature and the complexity of this effect. A more nuanced account of the interaction between modals and context shows that far from being incompatible with propositional meaning, the dynamic aspect of meaning is precisely what allows us to predict the correct propositional content of an utterance.

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Una Stojnic
Princeton University


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