Fri Feb 3, 2006
60 Evans Hall, 4:10–6 PM
John MacFarlane (University of California, Berkeley)
Epistemic Modals Are Assessment-Sensitive
The truth of claims made using epistemic modals (like “Joe might be in Boston” or “The victim probably died within seconds”) depends on what is known: that is what makes them “epistemic.” But known by whom? It is standardly assumed by philosophers and linguists that the relevant body of knowledge is determined by features of the context in which the claim is made (the “context of use”). I argue that no account along these lines makes sense of the way we actually use epistemic modals. Though it may be tempting to conclude that the meanings of epistemic modals must be understood non-truth-conditionally, I suggest that there is a truth-conditional alternative. On the view I recommend, the relevant body of knowledge is determined in part by features of the context in which the claim is being assessed (the “context of assessment”). This view accounts elegantly for our sense that, while the claims we make using epistemic modals depend for their truth on “what is known,” they are not equivalent to claims about the knowledge of any particular person or group.