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Context-Dependence, Perspective and Relativity

Contexte, Perspective et Relativité

The philosophers of language and mind in the CPR team form an active group that has developed strong international cooperations with other groups in Europe : the Arché research group in St Andrews ; the Logos group in Barcelona, which has been Institut Jean Nicod’s partner in several European projects ; the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation of the University of Amsterdam, in cooperation with which the ‘Palmyr’ workshops (Paris-Amsterdam Logic Meeting of Young Researchers) have been organized every year since 2005 ; the Centre for Logic and Language of the Institute of Philosophy in London ; the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature in Oslo; the Northern Institute of Philosophy in Aberdeen ; the Institute for Logic, Cognition, Language and Information in San Sebastian ; plus several departments of philosophy/linguistics or research centers in European universities with which IJN has developed special ties (e.g. Granada, Nottingham, Lisbon, Lund, Geneva, Brussels, Stockholm). In the US, strong ties have been developed with philosophers of language in several universities on both the East and the West Coast and a convention between the philosophy departments at Ecole Normale Supérieure and New York University has enabled Institut Jean Nicod to benefit from the visits of several philosophers of language from that university. Members of the team also participate in international networks such as : the UK-based Leverhulme international network on Exploitation of context in communication ; the International Training Network Perspectival Thought and Facts (PETAF) ; Semantics and Philosophy in Europe (SPE) ; and the Language and Mind network
     Within Institut Jean Nicod, the team interacts both with the linguists (insofar as one can tell the linguists from the philosophers – many IJN researchers are both linguists and philosophers) and with the philosophers of mind and cognitive science (again, to the extent that they can be told apart: many IJN researchers are philosophers of language and mind).
     Below we present some of the research topics which have exercised members of the team in the recent past.

Contextualism, minimalism, and relativism

How pervasive is context-sensitivity ? Which (and how many) forms does it take ? Are there linguistic expressions that are sensitive to the context of assessment rather than the context of utterance ? These (and related) questions have given rise to a debate where the most salient positions are known as ‘contextualism’, ‘minimalism’ and ‘relativism’. These paradigms, and their respective merits, have been extensively discussed, in cooperation with other research groups across the world.

Vagueness : semantic and epistemological aspects

Vagueness is a pervasive phenomenon in natural language and in psychology, which concerns the difficulty of specifying a precise extension for concepts. Gradable adjective in natural language (such as “rich”, “red”) are typically vague, but vagueness is a more general phenomenon, as exemplified by the sorites-susceptibility of common nons (such a “heap” or “house”), and the problem of specifying precise criteria of categorization. The topic of vagueness, which lies at the intersection of several fields (semantics, logic, epistemology and cognitive psychology) has emerged as a proper field of interest at Institut Jean-Nicod from 2004 onward. One particular area of interest concerns the epistemology of vagueness, with special emphasis on margin for error principles, and the articulation between semantic and cognitive aspects of vagueness (see Egré’s ANR research project).

The semantics/pragmatics distinction

Can pragmatics affect truth-conditions, and if so, is a systematic (compositional) semantics still possible ? At Institut Jean-Nicod, much emphasis has been laid on the existence of ‘strong pragmatic effects’ on semantic content, from Sperber’s pioneering work on relevance to Recanati’s influential Literal Meaning. So an affirmative answer has been given to the first question. As for the second question, an affirmative answer has also been sketched, and Recanati has been awarded an ‘advanced investigator grant’ by the European Research Council to pursue work in this area.

Hybrid quotation, deference, and related phenomena

Echoic uses of language, scare quotes, mixed quotation and other ‘hybrid’ phenomena involving use and mention at the same time have been studied for a long time in France. More recently there has been an outburst of interest for these phenomena which challenge standard frameworks in semantics and the philosophy of language. They have been studied at Jean-Nicod both from a linguistic and a cognitive point of view, in connection with related phenomena such as deference and metarepresentation.

Direct reference and indexicality

The semantics of direct reference in general, and of indexical expressions in particular, is one of the central areas of interest for philosophers of language at Institut Jean-Nicod. The following issues have been focussed on : the distinctions between content and character and between context and index, and the possibility of dispensing with them ; the existence of ‘monsters’ (operators on character) ; the idea of mental indexicality ; the phenomenon of context-shift ; and the semantics of demonstratives.

Self-awareness and the body

Work by researchers in this group has focused on a set of interconnected issues: the nature of self-consciousness and introspection; the varieties of ‘first person’ thoughts and their proper analysis ; the phenomenon of immunity to error through misidentification ; the nature of body representations ; the phenomenology of bodily awareness and the sense of ownership of one’s bodily parts.

Situated cognition, subjectivity, and representation « from inside »

Researchers in the CRP team deal with issues such as mental indexicality, subjective experience, the implicit/explicit distinction, and the self-referential analysis of intentional states. One prominent issue is whether the notion of unarticulated propositional constituent, which was introduced to deal with the context-dependence of linguistic utterances, is also relevant to the analysis of contentful mental states. A related question is whether the truth of the contents of such states is ‘relative to’ entities more finely individuated than possible worlds: spatial locations, times, objects, selves, etc. This relativization strategy unburdens the contents of mental states, which can be “incomplete” by traditional semantic standards, but raises the question of the determination of the relevant entities relative to which these contents should be evaluated as true or false. One suggestion is that, in central cases, the psychological mode of mental states contributes to the determination of their full conditions of satisfaction. The notion of relative content can also help to clarify what it means to represent a state of affairs “from the inside”. Researchers in this group have proposed various ways of understanding proprioceptive experience, so-called subjective imagination, and ‘episodic’ memory, with an eye to characterizing what is common to all these ‘subjective’ states. One suggestion that has been developed is that the self is not explicitly represented in these experiences, which at least partly explains why it gives rise to the phenomenon of immunity to error through misidentification.




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