Pervasive Context Conference Schedule

Below is the schedule for the upcoming Pervasive Context Conference on the 25th-26th June.


Saturday 25th June

Time   Title
9.30 Registration and coffee  
10-11.30 Eliot Michaelson  (KCL) Almost Minimal
11.30 – 12 Coffee break  
12 – 1.30 Qilin LI (Peking) TBD
1.30 – 2.30 Lunch  
2.30-4 Jumbly Grindrod (Reading) QUDs and Context Sensitivity
4 – 4.30 Break  
4.30 – 6 Michael Blome-Tillmann (McGill/Cambridge) TBD
7-7.30 Drinks reception  
7.30 Conference Dinner Blandfords


Sunday 26th June

Time Event Title
9.30 – 11 Dan Zeman (Basque Country) Relativism about Predicates of Personal Taste and Perspectival Plurality: Some Solutions
11 – 11.30 Coffee break  
11.30 – 1 Luca Sbordone (Cambridge) Vagueness, Contextualism and Assessment Sensitivity
1 – 2 Lunch  
2-3.30 Josef Stern (Chicago) Quotation and Pictures
3.30-4 Break  
4-5.30 Nausicaa Pouscolous (UCL) TBD
6pm Conference ends/venue clear

Pervasive Context Conference: Abstracts

Below is  a list of our speakers and their abstracts for the conference next month. With such an interesting line-up of speakers, it promises to be a really good conference. We hope to see you there!


Eliot Michaelson (King’s College London): ‘Almost Minimal’

Borg (2004, 2012) develops what I take to be the richest and best-motivated version of ‘semantic minimalism’.  This view offers some very serious benefits: among others, it holds out the prospect of explaining the relationship between semantics and psychology, and it offers a principled way of preserving an interesting explanatory project for semantics.  While I am sympathetic to both the motivations and indeed many of the commitments of this view, I shall argue here that Borg’s considerations regarding reference-fixing constitute a serious weakness in the view—and one which suggests a related, but substantially different, way forward.  In particular, I shall argue that Borg’s view goes wrong when faced with speakers who are sufficiently confused about the world.  After considering some potential fixes, I offer a different way forward, one which bifurcates between a revised notion of ‘character’ and ‘content’.  Complex, sentence-level characters, on this sort of view, fulfil many of the roles that Borg hoped for semantic contents to fill.  But they are not themselves the proper bearers of truth-values.  By understanding the relationship between these two different types of semantic values, I hope to derive a view that can preserve most of the explanatory virtues of Borg’s own position while also offering an account of reference capable of handling the sorts of messy situations we find when considering the full range of real-world speakers.

Josef Stern (University of Chicago): ‘Quotation and Pictures’

Quotation (q-)marks “ ‘… ’ ” are currently used in two main ways: to quote someone’s utterance or inscription (e.g., “Trump said: ‘I will make America great!’”) and to mention words (e.g., “ ‘Love’ is a four letter word”).  Over the last 50 years there has been an explosion of work by philosophers and linguistics on q-marks but almost all of it has focused on their use in mentioning, either ignoring or assimilating quotation to mentioning.  In the first parts of this paper I trace the disjoint histories of q-marks in the two practices to identify the explanandum of quotation and I propose that the q-marks “ ‘… ’ ” are homonymous.  For the rest of the paper I concentrate almost entirely on the use of q-marks in quotation, present the semantic problems raised by sentential and sub-sentential (so-called mixed) quotation, and, drawing on an analogy between pictures and quotations—frequently mentioned but rarely used in the literature—show how quotations can be best analyzed using three notions taken from the theory of pictures.  What emerges from this analysis is a conception of quotation that locates it on the boundary between linguistic competence proper and the non-linguistic—and in one sense, contextual—symbolic skill of picturing.

Luca Sbordone (University of Cambridge): ‘Vagueness, Contextualism and Assessment-sensitivity’

Most natural language predicates such as ‘tall’ in example (1) are notoriously problematic for traditional formal semantics approaches in that they typically show the characteristic and puzzling features of vagueness: borderline cases, lack of clear boundaries, susceptibility to the Sorites paradox.

(1) John is tall.

In recent years, several authors have pursued the intuition that the vagueness of most natural language predicates goes hand in hand with their context-sensitivity and developed contextualist theories that typically aim at tracing back the puzzling properties of vague expressions to features of the context in which these expressions are used. Nonetheless, such contextualist theories of vagueness (Kamp 1981, Raffman 1994, 1996, Fara 2000, Shapiro 2006) have encountered forceful objections in the literature, on the ground that, allegedly, vagueness and context-dependence are two demonstrably independent phenomena: hold the context fixed – so the standard objection goes – vagueness still arises. Based on such a simple reasoning, other authors have insisted that the widespread recognition that typically vague words are in need of contextual specification only points in the direction of “an empirical correlation, not an a priori law” (Williamson 1994: 214).

I shall argue that this conclusion is not correct. I will show that the presumed force of the objection is based on a restrictive understanding and formalization of the notion of context. Particularly, I shall develop a new contextualist theory of vagueness according to which, in order to make sense of the idea that vagueness is a form of context-sensitivity, we need to acknowledge that the context-dependence of vague words is two-fold: the meaning of vague expressions is not only sensitive to the context of use, but it also shows a previously unrecognised form of context-sensitivity which, following MacFarlane (2003), I shall call sensitivity to the context of assessment. Within a broadly Kaplanian framework, I propose that expanding the operative (two-dimensional) notion of context so as to include the entirely new level of the context of assessment helps building a version of the contextualist theory of vagueness that is immune to the standard objection. Building on the analogy between vague predications and utterances of future contingent statements, I will argue that the assessment- sensitive semantics allows capturing the seemingly incompatible intuitions about the meaning and use of vague predicates. At the same time, it explains why the Sorites paradox is logically invalid but psychologically so compelling.

Jumbly Grindrod (University of Reading): ‘QUDs and Context Sensitivity’

It has variously been argued that discourse can be modelled as an attempt to answer questions (Roberts 1996, Ginzburg 1996). This is called the question under discussion (QUD) framework. In recent years, it has been thought that this pragmatic framework could provide the basis of an account of the context-sensitivity found in natural language. In particular, Schoubye & Stokke (2015) and Stokke (2016) have argued that the QUD can be utilised to provide a systematic account of how what is said is freely enriched across different contexts. In doing so, they aim to provide a clear role for minimal, context-invariant content in determining what is said. In this talk, I will present two objections to their view. First, there are several cases of free enrichment that their account fails to capture. Furthermore, the divide between those cases of free enrichment that their account does capture, and those that it does not looks to be arbitrary. Secondly, on their account there is no obvious way for what is said to be the input for relevance implicature derivation. Schoubye & Stokke (2015) and Stokke (2016) do provide differing responses to this objection. However, I argue that both responses fail.


Dan Zeman (University of the Basque Country): ‘Relativism about Predicates of Personal Taste and Perspectival Plurality: Some Solutions’

In this paper we discuss a phenomenon that has been largely unnoticed in the current debate between relativism and contextualism about predicates of personal taste. This is the phenomenon of “perspectival plurality”, whereby the truth value of a sentence containing more than one such predicate may depend on more than one perspective. Prima facie, perspectival plurality constitutes a problem for relativism and an argument for contextualism. In the paper we first introduce the phenomenon, then the problem it poses. In the last section, we explore several possible solutions for the relativist.

Michael Blome-Tillmann (University of Cambridge/McGill University): TBC

Qilin Li (Peking University): TBC

Nausicaa Pouscolous (University College London): TBC


Reminder: Pervasive Context Conference

Just a reminder that the second Pervasive Context conference will be taking place at Reading next month, on the 25th and 26th of June. The confirmed speakers for the conference are:

  • Michael Blome-Tillman, University of Cambridge/McGill University
  • Qilin Li, Philosophy, Peking University
  • Eliot Michaelson, King’s College London
  • Nausicaä Pouscoulous, University College London
  • Luca Sbordone, Cambridge University
  • Jumbly Grindrod, University of Reading
  • Josef Stern, University of Chicago
  • Dan Zeman, University of the Basque Country

The next Pervasive Context meeting

Our next virtual conference meeting between Reading and Beijing will take place next Tuesday (March 1st) from 9:00-11:00. In this meeting, we will be discussing chapter 13 from Imagination and Convention by Ernie Lepore and Matthew Stone (OUP).

In this chapter, the authors argue for a distinctive view regarding the role of communicative intentions, which they contrast with the view put forward by Grice. According to Grice’s ‘prospective intentionalist’ view, the meaning of an utterance is determined by the changes that the speaker intends to make to the conversation in uttering what she has. According to Lepore & Stone’s view, communicative intentions determine the meaning of an utterance by linking it up with the appropriate linguistic conventions.

Here is a link to the OSO page for the chapter:

Dr. Nat Hansen will lead the discussion on the chapter.

If you would like to attend this meeting, just email:

lepore and stone

Virtual meetings in the Spring term

The forthcoming Spring term is an exciting time for the Pervasive Context project. We will be holding three virtual meetings with Peking university, in which we will discuss various recent works on pervasive context-sensitivity. The dates and times for the three meetings are as follows:

1st meeting: 12th January 2016 – 09:00-11:00

2nd meeting: 1st March 2016 – 09:00-11:00

3rd meeting: 22nd March 2016 – 09:00-11:00

Once the readings for the three meetings have been decided, we will post them up on here. If you are interested in attending any of these meetings either in Reading or in Beijing, don’t hesitate to get in touch at

The Second Pervasive Context Conference

The second AHRC research network conference on ‘Pervasive Context’ is to be held at the University of Reading, UK, on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th June 2016. The full list of speakers is as follows:

·         Jumbly Grindrod, Philosophy, University of Reading

·         Qilin Li, Philosophy, Peking University.

·         Eliot Michaelson, Philosophy, King’s College London.

·         Nausicaä Pouscoulous, Linguistics, University College London.

·         Luca Sbordone, Linguistics, Cambridge University.

·         Josef Stern, Philosophy, University of Chicago.

·         Dan Zeman, University of the Basque Country.



1st AHRC Pervasive Context Conference: Beijing 24th and 25th October 2015

Two members of the Reading Philosophy Department, Emma Borg and Nat Hansen, have recently returned from Beijing, where, in collaboration with colleagues Prof. YE Chuang and Dr. LI Qilin at Peking University, they were hosting the first conference held under the auspices of ‘Pervasive Context’ – an AHRC funded international research network. The objective of the network is to explore the way in which features of a context of utterance can influence linguistic or communicated content and the network had already held a number of virtual meetings during 2014-15, but this conference was the first chance for everyone to get together in person. Emma and Nat had a fantastic time in China and were overwhelmed by the generosity and enthusiasm of their hosts. Photos from Beijing conference can be seen at:

The week started with a two and half hour masterclass by Emma on 20th October. The topic was ‘Semantic minimalism and other theories’ and Emma laid out what is at stake between different accounts of the relationship between meaning and context, and tried to show why one might (perhaps) be attracted to so-called ‘minimal semantics’ (the position Emma has argued for in two OUP monographs). Later in the week (on the 23rd), Nat gave his masterclass on ‘Contextualism: Evidence and Explanations’ which introduced debates concerning the empirical foundation of the contextualism-minimalism debate and discussed recent experiments that confirm contextualist judgments about the effects of context on truth value judgments. Both the masterclasses seemed to go very well, with lots of constructive comments and discussion.

However it wasn’t all work: before the conference Chuang, Qilin and other members of the Peking Department very kindly took the conference speakers to visit the Badaling section of the Great Wall – an absolutely amazing sight, made even more splendid by the beautiful autumn colours of the surroundings. (Some of the party decided to make their way down from the Wall via the ‘sliding cars’ – rollercoaster-type chairs which descended by gravity, and which the driver stopped using a manual hand break, an interesting ride!) Throughout the trip, Peking colleagues were incredibly generous with their time and effort, for instance, taking the party on a guided tour of their beautiful Peking campus and treating us all to a huge amount of amazing Chinese food (from a fantastic Mongolian cook-your-own-food buffet to a traditional Peking duck restaurant, where the conference banquet was held).

The conference itself involved leading figures from the semantics-pragmatics debate and included philosophers, linguists and cognitive scientist. It was also a very international programme, with the nationality of speakers including UK, France, Spain, China, New Zealand, Australia, USA and Guatemala. The full programme of speakers and titles was as follows:


Emma Borg

Philosophy, University of Reading

Explanatory roles for minimal content
Stephen Crain

Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders (CCD), Macquarie, Australia

The basic meanings of logical words
Nat Hansen

Philosophy, University of Reading

Cross-cultural context sensitivity
Robyn Carston

Linguistics, University College London

Polysemy, pragmatics, and lexicon(s)
Chuang Ye

Philosophy, Peking University

The meaning of hidden indexicals and the character of Kaplanian indexicals
Teresa Marques

Philosophy, University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Guillermo Estuardo Del Pinal

Philosophy, ZAS Berlin

Prototypes, compositionality, and conceptual components
Francois Recanati

Philosophy, Institut Jean-Nicod, Paris

Semantic entry points for speaker’s meaning


Both Emma and Nat felt the conference was a great success and they would like to extend their thanks to all the speakers, to the conference audience and to everyone at Peking who worked so hard on the event. Next summer, 25-26th June, the second Pervasive Context conference will take place at the University of Reading; details of the programme will be advertised here soon. Anyone who would like to attend this event should contact Emma and Nat also hope to produce a volume of conference papers with OUP in the future, title yet to be decided, so those interested in this topic but unable to attend should still be able to read selected papers from the network conferences.

The AHRC Pervasive Context network is just one of many recent collaborations between Reading University’s Philosophy Department and colleagues in China, including joint research work between Nat Hansen and Jing Zhu at Sun Yat-sen University, and collaboration between Emma and colleagues at Jilin University who translated her book Pursuing Meaning into Chinese.

Early in 2015 John Preston was asked to be the Director of this year’s Summer Institute on Philosophy of Science, at Huaqiao University, Fujian province, China, to which he contributed ten lectures, ten seminars and four evening sessions. He taught there for three weeks, but also, as its Director, dealt with organisational aspects of the summer school. In recognition of his work there he was, in July 2015, formally made a visiting Professor at Huaqiao University. Preston subsequently arranged for an award-winning Chinese student of Philosophy, Ms. Zhao Yang, to spend the Spring term 2016 studying in our Department. He also invited Dr. Shi Yugang, from Shaanxi University of Technology, China, to be with us as a visiting academic during the 2015-16 academic year. Preston now has links with staff and/or graduate students at all the following Chinese Universities: Peking and Renmin Universities, Beijing, Beijing Normal University, East China University of Science and Technology (Shanghai), Xiamen University, Shaanxi University of Technology, Shenzen University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Hubei University.

In mid-November, John Preston and Max de Gaynesford will both be speaking at a major conference in Guangzhou, China, on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Preston will then travel on to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to give another paper to a seminar there.

Pervasive Context Beijing Conference Programme

As part of the Pervasive Context Project, our first conference will be on the 24th-25th October 2015 at Peking University, Beijing. You can find the schedule for the forthcoming conference below, as well as some of the abstracts for the exciting talks that are lined up over the weekend.

Saturday 24th October

Time  Event Title
8.30 – 9.00 Registration
9.00 – 10.30 Emma Borg Explanatory roles for minimal content
10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break
11.00 – 12.30 Stephen Crain The basic meanings of logical words
12.30 – 2.00 Lunch
2.00-3.30 Nat Hansen Cross-cultural context sensitivity
3.30-4.00 break
4.00 – 5.30 Robyn Carston Lexical innovation, polysemy and the lexicon
7.00 Conference dinner


Sunday 25th October

Time Event Title
9.00 – 10.30 Chuang Ye The meaning of hidden indexicals and the character of Kaplanian indexicals
10.30 – 11.00 Coffee break
11.00 – 12.30 Teresa Marques Retractions
12.30 – 2.00 Lunch
2.00-3.30 Guillermo Estuardo Del Pinal Prototypes, compositionality, and conceptual components
3.30-4.00 break
4.00-5.30 Francois Recanati Semantic entry points for speaker’s meaning
5.30 Conference ends
7pm Dinner



Minimal content, communication and acquisition

Emma Borg

A common objection to semantic minimalism is that the truth-evaluable, propostional contents that it posits as attaching to all well-formed sentences are explanatorily redundant: such contents might be theoretically possible but they have no useful role to play. In this talk, I try to answer this challenge by revisiting the classic distinction between what is said and what is (merely) implied. I suggest that (contrary to contextualist predictions) we find that there is a clear explanatory role here for minimal contents to play. Thus consideration of our linguistic practices surrounding assertion provides one kind of answer to the charge of explanatory redundancy. Finally, I conclude by sketching some implications of this finding for developmental claims.


The basic meanings of logical words

Stephen Crain

The basic meanings of logical words (e.g., existential indefinites, disjunction, conjunction) are often hidden from view. They are obscured by pragmatic inferences and by scope ambiguities. For example, disjunction implies ‘exclusivity’ in ordinary affirmative sentences; Ted ordered sushi or pasta implies (but does not entail) that Ted did not order both sushi and pasta. In addition, disjunction yields both surface scope and inverse scope readings in negative sentences. Interestingly, adult speakers of English prefer the surface scope readings of negated disjunctions (Ted didn’t order sushi or pasta) whereas adult speakers of Mandarin prefer the inverse scope readings of the corresponding sentences, so the meaning assigned by Mandarin speakers can be paraphrased using a cleft structure –  It is sushi or pasta that Ted didn’t order.  Despite different scope preferences across languages, scope ambiguities do not arise in certain linguistic environments. To cite just one example, if either negation or disjunction is introduced covertly, then only a surface scope reading is generated. For example, disjunction does not appear overtly in the elided VP in the sentence Ted ordered sushi or pasta, but Bill didn’t. In this case, the elided VP (Bill didn’t) generates two entailments: (a) that Bill didn’t order sushi, and (b) that Bill didn’t order pasta. The same entailments hold in Mandarin. The linguistic contexts that cancel scope ambiguities also cancel the implicature of exclusivity that is associated with disjunction in affirmative sentences. In short, placing logical words in particular linguistic contexts clears the decks for inspection of their basic meanings. This talk will describe a range of tests that linguists use to determine the basic meanings of logical words.


Cross-cultural Context Sensitivity (with Jing Zhu [Sun Yat-sen])

Nathanial Hansen

We investigate whether there is cultural variability in context sensitivity. Contextualist theories claim that the content communicated by uses of sentences such as “S knows that P” or “The leaves are green” is shaped by a variety of features of the context of use. Given current theories of cultural effects on cognition, which attribute greater “orientation to context” to many cultures (paradigmatically East Asians) than to Westerners, we should observe different effects of context on communicated content among East Asians than among Westerners. Demonstrating such an effect would expand the scope of “context sensitivity” beyond the local conversational context.


The Meaning of Hidden Indexicals and the Character of Kaplanian Indexicals

Chuang Ye

In the kernel of Indexicalism is the idea that all or at least most context-dependent or context-sensitive phenomena can be explained by a strategy similar to that Kaplan uses in his theory. The feasibility of the strategy requires that the hidden indexicals posited by Indexicalist theories have the core features of typical indexicals in Kaplan’s list. According to the argument developed in this paper, the standard form of the character of hidden indexicals suggested by Indexicalists couldn’t have the fundamental semantic and cognitive (or epistemic) features of the character of any typical indexical. Hence, it is doubtful whether Indexicalist strategy for giving a syntax-based account of pervasive context-sensitivity through positing hidden indexicals is successful in that the alleged indexicals perhaps are not genuine indexicals.



Teresa Marques

Intuitions about retractions have been used to motivate truth relativism about certain types of claims. Among these figure epistemic modals, knowledge attributions, or personal taste claims. On McFarlane’s prominent relativist proposal, sentences like “the ice cream might be in the freezer” or “Pocoyo is funny” are only assigned a truth-value relative to contexts of utterance and contexts of assessment. Retractions play a crucial role in the argument for assessment-relativism. A retraction of a past assertion is supposed to be mandatory whenever the asserted sentence is not true at the context of use and the context of assessment. If retractions were not obligatory in these conditions, there would be no normative difference between assessment-relativism and contextualism. The main goal of this paper is to undermine the claim that retractions reveal the normative difference between assessment-relativism and contextualism. To this effect, the paper offers a review of three important objections to the obligatoriness of retractions. Taken together, these objections make a strong case against the alleged support that retractions give to assessment-relativism. The objections are moreover supported by recent experimental results that are also discussed. This will satisfy a further goal, which is to undermine the idea that there is a constitutive retraction rule. The paper also discusses two ways to understand what such a rule would be constitutive of, and concludes with a suggestion of how to describe what retractions are.


Prototypes, compositionality, and conceptual components

Guillermo Estuardo Del Pinal

The aim of this paper is to reconcile two claims that have long been thought to be incompatible: (i) that we compositionally determine the meaning of complex expressions from the meaning of their parts, and (ii) that prototypes are components of the meaning of lexical terms such as fish, red, and gun. Hypotheses (i) and (ii) are independently plausible, but most researchers think that reconciling them is a difficult, if not hopeless task. In particular, most linguists and philosophers agree that (i) is not negotiable; so they tend to reject (ii). Recently, there have been some attempts to reconcile these claims (Prinz, 2002, 2012; Jonsson and Hampton, 2008; Hampton and Jonsson, 2012; Schurz, 2012), but they all adopt an implausibly weak notion of compositionality. Furthermore, parties to this debate tend to fall into a problematic way of individuating prototypes that is too externalistic. In contrast, I show that we can reconcile (i) and (ii) if we adopt, instead, an internalist and pluralist conception of prototypes and a context-sensitive but strong notion of compositionality. I argue that each of these proposals is independently plausible and that, when combined, provide a satisfactory account of prototype compositionality. The account of compositionality which I defend consists of imposing certain strong constrains on free modulation (in particular, this address certain well-known charges of over-generation).


Semantic Entry Points for Speaker’s Meaning

François Recanati

Contrary to a widespread idealization, grammatical meaning does not determine assertoric content, but merely constrains it. Speaker’s meaning necessarily comes into play. In this talk, I am concerned with the extent of the phenomenon. When and where, exactly, does speaker’s meaning come into play in fixing assertoric content?