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Conditionals, Questions, and Content

William Starr

Thursday, September 10, 2009, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Rutgers University, Department of Philosophy

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Conditional sentences like 'Bob danced if Leland danced' are a heavily worked resource in planning, communication and inquiry, and have provided a wealth of puzzles for researchers in linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science. Current work on the semantics of conditionals ignores the role of 'if' -- and it's cross-linguistic cousins -- as an interrogative operator, e.g. in 'Bob wonders if Leland danced'. This conditional-interrogative link is so strong and poses such a serious obstacle to current theories, that it provides a fertile case for probing foundational ideas of current thinking about semantics and language use. A new theory of conditionals is offered here that is built on the idea that all occurrences of 'if' have an interrogative meaning. The theory relies on some new ideas elaborated in this work about linguistic meaning, truth, semantic content and their connection to the communicative intentions of language users. In addition to accounting for the conditional-interrogative link, this theory delivers a uniform account of indicative and subjunctive conditionals, and solutions to puzzling phenomena involving disjunctive antecedents and 'reverse Sobel sequences'.

William Starr