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Constraining Meanings With Contextuality


In this paper, we defend two claims. First, we argue that a notion of contextuality that has been formalized in physics and psychology is applicable to linguistic contexts. Second, we propose that this formal apparatus is philosophically significant for the epistemology of language because it imposes homogeneous rational constraints on speakers. We propose a Contextuality Principle that explains and articulates these two claims. This principle states that speakers update contextual information by significantly reducing the space of probabilities and variables in a non-commutative way. Some contexts affect other contexts not merely in terms of the information they contain, but also on the basis of their sequential order. In particular, we argue that the Contextuality by Default (CBD) theory provides a formalism that helps explain the role of contextuality in rational linguistic exchanges.

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  1. It may be possible to extend our discussions in this paper to intuitionist logic, if we follow Narens (2014), or even a more general lattice structure, such as orthomodular lattices (Holik et al. 2014), instead of a classical Boolean structure, but this would go beyond the scope of this paper.

  2. Here we are viewing context as an umbrella term meaning whatever we need to add to the utterance in order to allow for a coordinated connection to a reference.

  3. We do not mean that explicit rule-following, i.e. coherentism, or explicit conscious inference might be important here. All we assume is that speakers have the capacities to identify meaning in a rational way, however those capacities are construed.


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The authors thank the two anonymous referees for their important questions and suggestions. We feel our manuscript improved substantially because of their reviews. JAB thanks John Perry and Paul Skokowski for their hospitality at the Center for the Explanation of Consiousness at Stanford. JAB also thanks Otavio Bueno and Adonai Sant’Anna for discussions. LPGA acknowledge support from the Patrick Suppes Gift Fund, and the Byrne Gift Funds at Stanford University.

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Correspondence to J. Acacio de Barros.

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de Barros, J.A., Montemayor, C., De Assis, L.P.G. et al. Constraining Meanings With Contextuality. Found Sci (2022).

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  • Linguistic contextuality
  • Quantum contextuality
  • Contextuality by default
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics