Content in a Dynamic Context


It is common wisdom that, due to the pervasiveness of context-sensitivity in natural languages, sentences of natural languages express content only relative to the context of utterance. This common wisdom is captured by the slogan: "The context of an utterance (given the standing linguistic meaning of the sentence uttered) determines its content." The content in this framework is understood as the proposition expressed in the context of utterance by the sentence uttered. On the other hand, authors working in the dynamic semantics tradition have long emphasized the aspect of an utterance's interpretation reflected in the way the utterance changes the context in which it has been uttered. They have advocated that we should understand an utterance's meaning as its "context change potential", the characterization of the way in which the utterance affects the context in which it has been uttered. These two approaches are typically presented as competing — thus, the dynamic semantics approach has been taken as a radical reconceptualization of how we should think of meaning. I argue, by contrast that the two approaches to meaning are not in tension. In this chapter, I show how we can simultaneously model an utterance's effect on context and also, capture the ordinary propositional content it expresses in a context. Moreover, I argue not only that the two approaches are not in tension, but that an adequate account of utterance meaning has to capture both of these aspects of meaning, and their interaction. A complete adequate account of an utterance's meaning has to model the two-way interaction between the context and an utterance — on the one hand, an utterance changes the context, on the other, it depends on the context to determine the proposition expressed by the sentence uttered. Both aspects of interpretation are crucial, and they are interrelated— as I show, unless we captured the change in the context prompted by an utterance we wouldn't be able to correctly predict the proposition expressed by the sentence uttered, since the latter depends on this dynamically changing context.