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Semantic expressivism for epistemic modals


Expressivists about epistemic modals deny that ‘Jane might be late’ canonically serves to express the speaker’s acceptance of a certain propositional content. Instead, they hold that it expresses a lack of acceptance (that Jane isn’t late). Prominent expressivists embrace pragmatic expressivism: the doxastic property expressed by a declarative is not helpfully identified with (any part of) that sentence’s compositional semantic value. Against this, we defend semantic expressivism about epistemic modals: the semantic value of a declarative from this domain is (partly) the property of doxastic attitudes it canonically serves to express. In support, we synthesize data from the critical literature on expressivism—largely reflecting interactions between modals and disjunctions—and present a semantic expressivism that readily predicts the data. This contrasts with salient competitors, including: pragmatic expressivism based on domain semantics or dynamic semantics; semantic expressivism à la Moss (Semant Pragmat 8(5):1–81, 2015.; and the bounded relational semantics of Mandelkern (Philos Rev 128(1):1–61, 2019.


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Correspondence to Peter Hawke.

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The authors are listed in alphabetical order. We’re grateful to our anonymous referees for insightful and constructive comments. For helpful comments and discussion, we owe thanks to Maria Aloni, Alexandru Baltag, Johan van Benthem, Franz Berto, Justin Bledin, Emmanuel Chemla, Ivano Ciardelli, Cleo Condoravdi, Melissa Fusco, Thomas Icard, Alex Kocurek, Karolina Krzyżanowska, Thom van Gessel, Dan Lassiter, Martin Lipman, Meica Magnani, Matt Mandelkern, Aybüke Özgün, Philippe Schlenker, Tom Schoonen, and Frank Veltman. Thanks also to the audiences at Inquisitiveness Below and Beyond the Sentence Boundary (InqBnB1), Institut Jean Nicod, the Logic and Interactive Rationality (LiRa) seminar and the Logic of Conceivability Seminar. PH has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC CoG), Grant No. 681404 ‘The Logic of Conceivability’. SS-T has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. STG716230 CoSaQ.

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Hawke, P., Steinert-Threlkeld, S. Semantic expressivism for epistemic modals. Linguist and Philos 44, 475–511 (2021).

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  • Epistemic modals
  • Expressivism
  • Domain semantics
  • Update semantics
  • State-based semantics
  • Assertibility logic