Philosophy 290-5

Fall 2013

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-5 Graduate Seminar: Assessment Sensitivity MacFarlane Tu 4-6 234 Moses

The seminar will focus on the issues discussed in my forthcoming book, Assessment Sensitivity: Relative Truth and Its Applications (PDF). The book attempts to make solid philosophical sense of the fraught idea that truth might be “relative,” an idea with a long philosophical history and few adherents in the analytic tradition. It describes a novel way in which thoughts and linguistic expressions can be contextually sensitive. Familiar context-sensitive words like “here” and “I” are semantically sensitive to features of the context of use. Thus, “here” denotes the location at which the word is being used, “I” denotes the person using it. Similarly, the truth of a tensed sentence like “Obama is president” depends on the time of use. Call this familiar kind of context sensitivity use sensitivity. Assessment sensitivity, by contrast, is semantic sensitivity to features of the context in which a use of the expression is being assessed (in my lingo, a context of assessment). Because a particular use of an expression can be assessed from indefinitely many different contexts, it does not make sense to talk of “the context of assessment” associated with a particular such use. Rather, truth must be relativized to contexts of assessment. Thus, making sense of semantic assessment sensitivity requires making sense of (a certain kind of) “relative truth” – a notion often held to be incoherent.

Part of the work, then, is devoted to explaining how we can make room for assessment sensitivity within existing formal semantic frameworks, and to making an empirical case for the assessment sensitivity of several kinds of discourse that have been puzzled philosophers and linguists, including future contingents, predicates of personal taste, knowledge ascriptions, epistemic modals, deontic claims, and indicative conditionals. And part of the work is devoted to the more philosophical task of fending off principled worries about the kind of “relative truth” that the proposals countenance, and giving us a solid grip on what it means to say that an expression is assessment-sensitive.

The aim is to read and discuss the whole book, which will be the main text for the seminar. Supplementary readings will be suggested for each chapter.