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Indeterminacy, Incompleteness, Indecision, and Other Semantic Phenomena

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 1, March 2011
pp. 73-98 | 10.1353/cjp.2011.0001

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This paper explores the relationships between Davidson's indeterminacy of interpretation thesis and two semantic properties of sentences that have come to be recognized recently, namely semantic incompleteness and semantic indecision. More specifically, I will examine what the indeterminacy thesis entails for sentences of the form 'By sentence S (or word w), agent A means that m' and 'Agent A believes that p.' My primary goal is to shed light on the indeterminacy thesis and its consequences. I will distinguish two kinds of indeterminacy that have very different sources and very different consequences. But this does not purport to be an exhaustive study: there may well be other forms of indeterminacy that this paper does not address.

I will first explain the phenomena of semantic incompleteness and semantic indecision, and then explore their relationships with the indeterminacy thesis. This exploration, we will see, has more than a mere exegetical interest, for it allows for a dissolution of the debate about semantic externalism, as well as a solution to Kripke's puzzle about belief.

I Semantic Incompleteness

Consider the sentence

1.   Sophia is ready.

The conventional meaning of (1), it seems, fails to determine a complete, truth-evaluable, proposition. It is impossible to figure out whether (1) is true or false, even if we are informed about all the facts regarding Sophia. (1) thus lacks context-independent truth conditions; it is semantically incomplete, as Kent Bach (2005) puts it. This does not mean that utterances of (1) cannot be intuitively assessed as true or false. To do so, however, one must (implicitly) specify what Sophia is said to be ready for. Thus, in uttering (1), one may mean a number of different things: that Sophia is ready to eat, that Sophia is ready to go to the store, that Sophia is ready to run the marathon, etc. We may say, again following Bach, that what a speaker means in uttering (1) is a completion of what the sentence means: since the conventional meaning of (1) fails to determine a complete proposition, an utterance of (1) requires a pragmatic process of completion to produce a full proposition. Here are some other examples of semantically incomplete sentences, with possible completions in brackets:

2.   Jacob is tall. [for a jockey]

3.   Barbara has had enough. [cookies to eat]

4.   Tea is cheap. [compared to wine]

Without the addition of relevant contextual information, we cannot specify the conditions under which utterances of (2)-(4) would be true. The sentence 'Barbara has had enough,' for instance, is not truth-evaluable as it stands; a complete proposition is reached only when the thing of which Barbara is claimed to have had enough is contextually supplied.

Now, it is important to note that saying that sentences (1)-(4) are semantically incomplete is not the same as saying that these sentences can be used to mean different things in different contexts. Consider the sentence:

5.   Harry has not taken a bath.

One can utter (5) to mean that Harry has not taken a bath lately, that Harry has not taken a bath since coming back from the fishing trip, that Harry has not taken a bath during his stay at Mollie's place, etc. However, (5) is semantically complete, that is, it possesses context-independent truth conditions: 'Harry has not taken a bath' is true iff Harry has not taken a bath (ever). This means that when (5) is used to mean Harry has not taken a bath lately, it is used non-literally. Hence, to say that a sentence is semantically incomplete is not merely to say that speakers can use it to mean different things in different contexts; a semantically incomplete sentence is one that lacks context-independent truth conditions.

II Semantic Indecision

Consider the sentence

6.   Lauren is in her early thirties.

(6) possesses context-independent truth conditions: it is true if Lauren is, say, 32 years old, and false if she is 38 years old. But there seems to be no determinate answer to the question of precisely when Lauren would cease to be in her early thirties. Since the expression 'early thirties' is vague, there are borderline cases of people in their early thirties...



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