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Discourse, Context and Coherence: The Grammar of Prominence

This paper presents a new general theory of the resolution of context sensitivity. According to this view, resolution of context-sensitive expressions is governed by the linguistic mechanisms of discourse coherence.

Coherence theory describes how speakers organize successive sentences into larger units that address particular topics and answer particular questions about them.

Such factors are studied in linguistics as discourse structure and information structure, among others.  I argue that these mechanisms establish prominence of particular values of contextual parameters that in turn determine the interpretation of context-sensitive expressions, and do so as a matter of linguistic conventions.  My view stands in opposition to the received wisdom, which recommends treating resolution of context-sensitivity as a matter of open-ended pragmatic processes.

For example, resolution is often explained in terms of recognizing the speaker's intentions or reasoning about the non-linguistic cues available in context.

I argue that my view provides a much more systematic and constrained account of context-sensitivity. If the view I develop here is on the right track, it requires a re-thinking of how and when it is legitimate to appeal to context-sensitivity in philosophical arguments. 

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