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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 MacFarlane’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 this normative difference. 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 discussion of how to describe what retractions are.

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  1. 1.

    Authors that have contributed to the debate include among others DeRose (1991, 1992), Dowell (2011, 2013), Hawthorne (2004), Egan et al. (2005), Egan (2007, 2010), Glanzberg (2007), Kölbel (2002, 2004a, b), Kolodny and MacFarlane (2010), Lasersohn (2005), López de Sa (2008, 2015), MacFarlane (2005a, b), Recanati (2007), Stanley (2005), Stephenson (2007), and Stojanovic (2007).

  2. 2.

    It is certain that for indexical contextualists only the truth of sentences depends on, i.e. is relative to, context. Once a sentence as used in context expresses a proposition, that proposition’s truth-value only varies with respect to possible worlds, if it is contingent. For nonindexical contextualists, the same possible world proposition may still vary in truth-value with respect to times, judges, standards of taste, etc.

  3. 3.

    I will not offer in detail an exposition of MacFarlane’s semantics, nor of his distinction between semantics and postsemantics. For a detailed exposition, see for instance MacFarlane (2014), Chap. 3 and schematically, Fig. 3.2 on p. 58 and Fig. 3.3. on p. 61.

  4. 4.

    MacFarlane (2014) discussion in p. 102 and ff. suggests he agrees with Pagin’s characterization of constitutive rules.

  5. 5.

    MacFarlane’s comments in p. 109 suggest that he thinks that, for any kind of speech act T, there is a corresponding kind of retraction \(R_T\).

  6. 6.

    This is also how Pagin (2015) interprets the Retraction Rule. MacFarlane (2014) repeats the second interpretation of the Retraction Rule as constitutive of retraction in other places, for instance p. 256. I think this is confused, for the reasons indicated earlier.

  7. 7.

    I thank an anonymous referee for pointing out the need to distinguish between these two retraction challenges.

  8. 8.

    MacFarlane (2005b) admits that having to retract whenever one is challenged is “too damaging to the integrity of a single person’s body of assertions...It demands too much of asserters to give every challenger the home stadium advantage” (MacFarlane 2005b, p. 320).

  9. 9.

    See Saul (2012) on the wrongness of misleading and lying.

  10. 10.

    I had doubts about the “appropriate to retract” question, since I think an appropriate act is not the same deontically as a required act. If something is required, then it better be appropriate. But if we agree that something is appropriate we have not, yet, established that it is required. Contrast for instance the two cases “it is appropriate for a woman to wear high heels to work” and “a woman is required to wear high heels to work”. Most people would agree with the former, but disagree with the latter. With this distinction in mind, we repeated the last experiment by Knobe and Yalcin (2014), using the same Sally and George example, the same methods with AMT, with 203 participants. The only change in our new experiment was a small change in the retraction question, which now read “Is Sally required to take back what she said?” In our new experiment, the divergence in judgments of falsity and of retraction was even more striking, confirming the prediction that “being appropriate” and “being required” elicit disparate judgments. The mean rating for agreement with the falsity of the modal was down at 3.49 on the Likert scale, and the mean rating for agreement with the requirement to retract was even lower at 3.26. The results confirm, among other things, that there is a significant deontic difference between appropriateness and obligation, and reinforce Knobe and Yalcin’s conclusion that (J) is mistaken. Full results and their analysis are presented in forthcoming work.

  11. 11.

    In recent work, Kneer (2015) also tested formulations of epistemic modals which made the indexical contextualist interpretation explicit. Besides collecting data on sentences like ‘John might be in China’ (when it turns out he isn’t), he also tested the formulation ‘For all I know, John is in China’. On the results he reports, there is no significant difference between the modal formulation and the contextualist’s best shot (‘for all I know, \(\phi \)’). He concludes that this refutes assessment-relativism and also makes a strong case for indexical-contextualism.

  12. 12.

    These are in contrast with Hom (2008)’s view on pejoratives, for whom assertions with pejoratives and slurs express thick prescriptive properties, and as a result apply to no one—no one should be treated in such and such contemptuous way as a virtue of possessing certain features. As a result, pejorative assertions are, he claims, false. For a different view and criticism, see Jeshion (2013).

  13. 13.

    On metalinguistic negation, see for instance Horn (1989) and Carston (1998).


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This work was presented at the conference of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology in Granada, August 2013, the 2nd PLM Conference in Budapest, September 2013, the LanCog seminar in Lisbon, November 2013, and the LOGOS seminar in Barcelona, February 2014. I am grateful to the audiences at those events for discussion of this material, and in particular to Robyn Carston, Manuel García-Carpintero, Kathrin Glüer-Pagin, Joshua Knobe, Dan López de Sa, Josep Macià, Peter Pagin, François Recanati, Sven Rosenkranz, Pedro Santos, Isidora Stojanovic, Elia Zardini and Dan Zeman, and to two anonymous reviewers for this journal. This work was supported by FP7 Marie Curie Action, Intra-European Fellowship. Grant Agreement Number: PIEF-GA-2012-622114; Grup de Recerca Consolidat en Filosofia del Dret, 2014 SGR 626, funded by AGAUR de la Generalitat de Catalunya; About Ourselves, FFI2013-47948-P; and Online Companion to Problems of Analytic Philosophy, FCT Project PTDC/FIL-FIL/121209/20.

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Correspondence to Teresa Marques.

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Marques, T. Retractions. Synthese 195, 3335–3359 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0852-8

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  • Retraction
  • Contextualism
  • Relativism
  • Epistemic modals
  • Predicates of personal taste