Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy

Jonathan Cohen, University of California San Diego: "Indexicality and The Puzzle of the Answering Machine"

Mon, February 4, 2013 | David L. Miller Conference Room, WAG 316

3:30 PM - 4:30 PM

A number of theorists have observed that the behavior of ordinary telephone answering machines frustrate canonical views about the semantics of indexical expressions. On the one hand, the received (Kaplanian) view of the semantics for such expressions entails that tokens of the string (1) are false whenever they occur.

(1) I am not here now.

On the other hand, tokens of (1), recorded on millions of answering machines and voicemail systems worldwide, apparently express something true. It appears, then, that our best theory makes predictions at odds with the (quite banal) facts, and so must be amended. But how?

I'll defend a solution that (i) collapses onto Kaplan's classic semantics for non-answering-machine cases, (ii) departs from (and is superior to) Kaplan's view for answering-machine instances of (1), and (iii) extends smoothly to the variations of the answering machine cases that have arisen in the literature. Specifically, I'll defend a semantics according to which indexicals are interpreted relative to the contexts in which they are tokened. I'll compare this view to competitors, and urge that it succeeds where they fail. Moreover, I'll suggest that getting clear about the puzzle and the resources required for its solution holds important methodological lessons about the appropriate range of data for semantics and pragmatics, and about the division of explanatory labor between these components of our total
theory of language.


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