"Summer" (1964), Agnes Martin.

In my research, I try to understand how we use language as a tool to sustain complex forms of social coordination. In particular, I am interested in understanding the use of language to communicate about socially important 'modal facts': facts about what is required, permissible, or optional, and facts about what our desires, needs, or plans are.


▴ Independent Alternatives: Ross's Puzzle and Free Choice.
Forthcoming in Philosophical Studies.
(Local File)

Orthodox semantics for natural language modals give rise to two puzzles for their interactions with disjunction: Ross’s puzzle and the puzzle of free choice permission. It is widely assumed that each puzzle can be explained in terms of the licensing of 'Diversity' inferences: from the truth of a possibility or necessity modal with an embedded disjunction, hearers infer that each disjunct is compatible with the relevant set of worlds. I argue that Diversity inferences are too weak to explain the full range of data. Instead, modals with embedded disjunctions license 'Independence' inferences: from the truth of a modal with an embedded disjunction, hearers infer that each disjunct is an independent alternative among the relevant set of worlds. I then develop a bilateral inquisitive semantics for modals that predicts the validity of these Independence inferences. My account vindicates common intuitions about both Ross’s puzzle and the puzzle of free choice permission, and explains the full range of data.

▴ Underspecifying Desires (Local File)

According to a simple theory of the relationship between ‘want’ ascriptions and the desires they ascribe, when I learn that 'A wants p' is true, I learn that the truth of p is necessary and sufficient for satisfying one of A’s desires. I argue that this simple theory is false: 'A wants p' can be true and underspecific, that is, there can be cases in which 'A wants p' is true and p is necessary but not sufficient for the satisfaction of A’s desire. I show that existing semantics for ‘want’ cannot account for this kind of underspecificity, and I propose a desire-based semantics for ‘want’ that can. I go on to argue that my semantics has empirical and methodological advantages over existing theories of ‘want’ that give truth conditions in terms of an agent’s preferences rather than their desires.

▴ Supposition, Presupposition, and Trivalent Conditionals (Local File)

The trivalent theory of indicative conditionals – on which ‘if A, B’ is true if A and B are true, false if A is true and B is false, and neither true nor false when A is false – has a lot going for it. Yet even the most sympathetic theorists have thought the theory comes at a high price, given how it appears to interact with the trivalent theory of presupposition. In this paper, I argue that by distinguishing between the characteristic effects of conditional and unconditional assertions on a context, we can block this result. I then develop a model consisting of (i) a static semantics that assigns trivalent truth conditions to both conditional and presuppositional sentences, and (ii) a dynamic pragmatics that distinguishes between two types of assertion. The resulting package distinguishes between supposition and presupposition correctly, even though both types of language give rise to truth value gaps.

Dissertation: Underspecific Modals

We rarely speak with complete specificity about what we want, what is required, or what is allowed. For example, I might say ‘I want ice cream,’ and see no need to specify that certain kinds of ice cream, e.g. melted, or toxic ice cream, would not satisfy my desire. In fact, being completely specific about what I want is practically impossible, for in addition to being non-melted and non-toxic, the desire I would ordinarily describe with ‘I want ice cream’ would be for ice cream that contains no dirt, no petroleum, and so on. Being completely specific, it seems, would require explicitly ruling out an infinite number of possibilities. This gives rise to a puzzle: if speakers almost always underspecify their desires, as in this example, how do hearers manage to successfully understand what they want?

This sort of puzzle arises more generally for language in the scope of modals like ‘want’, ’must’, and ‘may’. I can say truly, for example, that you must wash the dishes, or that you may have some wine, without specifying that there are specific ways of washing the dishes, or of having wine, that are not ways of doing what you must or are allowed.

In my dissertation, I aim to give a semantics for modals and related constructions that explains what underspecific modal claims mean and how we interpret them. In doing so, I also propose new solutions to some longstanding problems in semantics and philosophical logic, including Ross’s puzzle, the problem of free choice permission, and the Samaritan paradox.