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A PHILOSOPHICAL DEFENSE OF THE CONTEXT -DEPENDENCE OF MEANING

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 Format: MS WORD ::   Chapters: 1-5 ::   Pages: 60 ::   Attributes: documentation ::   2,455 people found this useful

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CHAPTER TWO: REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE

2.0 INTRODUCTION

This chapter gives an insight into various studies conducted by outstanding researchers, as well as explained terminologies with regards to a philosophical defense of the context-dependence of meaning.

The chapter also gives a resume of the history and present status of the problem delineated by a concise review of previous studies into closely related problems

2.1 CONTEXT DEPENDENCE

All sorts of things are context-dependent in one way or another. What it is appropriate to wear, to give, or to reveal depends on the context. Whether or not it is all right to lie, harm, or even kill depends on the context. If you google the phrase ‘depends on the context’, you’ll get several hundred million results. This chapter aims to narrow that down. In this context the topic is context dependence in language and its use. It is commonly observed that the same sentence can be used to convey different things in different contexts. That is why people complain when something they say is ‘taken out of context’ and insist that it be ‘put into context’, because ‘context makes it clear’ what they meant. Indeed, it is practically a platitude that what a speaker means in uttering a certain sentence, as well as how her audience understands her, ‘depends on the context’. But just what does that amount to, and to what extent is it true? Philosophers and linguists often say that certain words (and sentences containing them) are context sensitive, that what they express is context dependent, as if it is perfectly obvious what context dependence is. It is not. So we will need to ask what context is, what depends on it, and what this dependence involves. Answers to these questions are not straightforward. It turns out that there is more than one kind of context and that different sorts of things depend on each. At least they seem to, for as we will see, much of what passes for context dependence is really something else. Looking at what goes on in specific cases suggests that much of what is done in context is not done by context. Why should we look into these questions? There are two main theoretical reasons, though we will not dwell on them. First, context sensitivity poses a challenge to the common view that the meaning of a sentence determines its truth-condition. This is the assumption underlying the widespread view that the goal of semantics is to give a systematic theory of the truth-conditions of sentences. However, a truth-conditional semantics has to reckon with the fact that the semantic contents of context-sensitive expressions vary from one context of utterance to another, and that is possible only if the meanings of context-sensitive expressions determine how their semantic contents varywith the context. One complication, as we will see, is that many sentences do not seem to have truth-conditions, even relative to contexts. The second worry, related to the first, is that context sensitivity might undermine the principle of compositionality. This is the common methodological assumption that the semantic properties of complex expressions are determined by those of their constituent expressions and how these are related syntactically. If this principle did not hold, so it is thought, we could not understand, much less knowingly produce, any of the virtually unlimited number of sentences we have not previously encountered. Here the challenge is to show how the contents of complex expressions are determined by the contents of their possibly context-sensitive constituents. In some cases, the semantics of the complex expression creates problems for compositionality. To see this, just compare the meanings of ‘water lily’ and ‘tiger lily’ or of ‘child abuse’ and ‘drug abuse’. There are more down-to-earth reasons for investigating context sensitivity. If the words in a language all had unique and determinate meanings (no ambiguity or vagueness) and fixed references (no indexicality), and if using language were simply a matter of putting one’s thoughts into words, understanding an utterance would merely be a matter of deciphering whatever words the speaker uttered. But language and our use of it to communicate are not as straightforward as that. Some expressions, most obviously pronouns, like ‘I’, ‘they’, and ‘this’, and temporal terms like ‘today’ and ‘next week’, do not have fixed references. For example, when I use ‘I’ it refers to me, but when you use it it refers to you. Moreover, we often speak inexplicitly, nonliterally, or indirectly, and in each case what we mean is distinct from what can be predicted from the meanings of the expressions we utter. We can leave something out but still mean it, use a word or phrase figuratively, or mean something in addition to what we say. We even can do all three at once. Here’s an example. Suppose you have a friend whose neighbor is well known to be an incompetent doctor. Your friend complains about a chronic cough, and you say, ‘You should see someone today, but not that genius next door’. You meant, let’s assume, that your friend should see a doctor that very day for a diagnosis, but not the incompetent neighbor. You probably meant also that he could well have a serious medical condition. What is the role of context in this case? It does not determine what you meant. Your communicative intention determines that. What context does do is provide information that your friend could use, presuming you intend him to, to figure out what you meant. In that connection context plays a merely evidential role. However, it seems that context can play a more direct, semantic role, at least in connection with such words as ‘I’ and ‘today’. They are context sensitive, in that their contents, what they contribute to the contents of sentences in which they occur, depend on the context in which they are used. After discussing how this is so in these paradigm cases, we will look at a wide range of other sorts of expressions that have also been claimed to be context sensitive. To evaluate such claims, which fall under the general rubric of contextualism, we will need to ask whether it is the content of the expression itself that varies from one context of utterance to another and, crucially, whether it does so because of features of the context. This question rarely gets asked. Rather, contextualists tend to use phrases like ‘contextdependent’ and ‘context-sensitive’ freely and uncritically, as if it is obvious that what is done in context is done by context and equally obvious how. The primary aim of this chapter is to encourage the reader not to take the ‘obvious’ for granted.


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Paper Information

Format:MS WORD
Chapter:1-5
Pages:60
Attribute:documentation
Price:₦3,000
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