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Indexical Color Predicates: Truth Conditional Semantics vs. Truth Conditional Pragmatics

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 42, Number 2, June 2012
pp. 71-100 | 10.1353/cjp.2012.0009

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Indexical Color Predicates:
Truth Conditional Semantics vs. Truth Conditional Pragmatics

I Introduction

Truth conditional semantics is the project of 'determining a way of assigning truth conditions to sentences based on A) the extension of their constituents and B) their syntactic mode of combination' (Rothschild and Segal, 2009). This research program has been subject to objections that take the form of underdetermination arguments, an influential instance of which is presented by Travis:

... consider the words 'The leaf is green,' speaking of a given leaf, and its condition at a given time, used so as to mean what they do mean in English. How many distinct things might be said in words with all that true of them? Many.... Suppose a Japanese maple leaf, turned brown, was painted green for a decoration. In sorting leaves by colour, one might truly call this one green. In describing leaves to help identify their species, it might, for all the paint, be false to call it that. So words may have all the stipulated features while saying something true, but while also saying something false.

Travis describes two contexts, one in which we are sorting leaves by color and the other in which we are sorting leaves by species. In the two contexts factors A) and B) at least seem to be the same. Yet the use of 'The leaf is green' in the color-sorting context says something true, [End Page 71] but the use of it in the species-sorting context says something false. So, contrary to what is assumed by truth conditional semantics, factors A) and B) underdetermine the truth conditions of utterances of 'The leaf is green.'

Such underdetermination arguments are invoked by theorists who reject truth conditional semantics in favor of truth conditional pragmatics, the central idea of which is that information available in the context that is not semantically encoded by an uttered sentence is relevant for determining the truth conditions of, or what is said by, the utterance.1 But defenders of truth conditional semantics do not accept such arguments, and there are two principal strategies of response.

First, the response of semantic minimalism is to reject the presumption that intuitive judgments concerning the truth conditions of assertions bear directly on the truth conditions of the sentences uttered.2 Minimalism responds to underdetermination arguments by maintaining that the truth-value of the sentence uttered in two contexts does not vary, rather what varies is only the truth-values of the speech acts performed. Thus according to minimalism, underdetermination arguments confuse semantic sentence-content and pragmatic speaker-content. And second, the response of indexicalism is to analyze some constituent expression of the sentence uttered in the two contexts as being an indexical, i.e. a lexical item that as a matter of conventional meaning has different semantic-contents in different utterance-contexts.3 So, under an indexicalist response, the fact that utterances of 'The leaf is green' can have different truth-values in different contexts is no more troubling for truth conditional semantics than is the fact that two utterances of 'Today is Tuesday' can have different truth-values on different days. Indexicalism thus differs from both truth conditional pragmatics and minimalism in that indexicalism rejects the claim that the judgments of truth conditions elicited in underdetermination arguments must be explained pragmatically. Rather, by extending the class of indexical [End Page 72] expressions the indexicalist hopes to increase the explanatory range of truth conditional semantics so that it encompasses such judgments of truth conditions.4

My purpose here is to criticize several indexicalist proposals that analyze color adjectives, e.g. 'green,' appearing in color predicates, e.g. 'is green,' as being, or otherwise involving, some sort of indexical expression, and to present some empirical evidence suggesting that color adjectives are not indexicals. In the first section I clarify the theoretical issue that divides truth conditional semantics and truth conditional pragmatics, and explain the indexicalist strategy relative to this fundamental disagreement. In the second section I consider two versions of hidden-variable indexicalism: I begin by explicating the relatively straightforward analysis of color adjectives proposed by Szabó (2001), and I demonstrate that this...