Counterfactual antecedent falsity and the epistemic sensitivity of counterfactuals


Why do utterances of counterfactual conditionals typically, but not universally, convey the message that their antecedents are false? I demonstrate that two common theoretical commitments–commitment to the existence of scalar implicature and of informative presupposition—can be supplemented with an independently motivated theory of the presuppositions of competing conditional alternatives to jointly predict this information when and only when it appears. The view works best if indicative and counterfactual conditionals have a closely related semantics, so I conclude by undermining two familiar arguments for a nonunified semantics of indicative and counterfactual conditionals.

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  1. 1.

    For simplicity I’ll sometimes write as though sentences bear presuppositions, though an alternative account might attribute presuppositions to utterances or to the speakers who make those utterances. Some discussion appears in Sect. 3.1.

  2. 2.

    Ippolito employs Stalnaker’s technical theory of context and common ground; since this paper does not introduce that theory until Sect. 3.1, I present Ippolito’s theory using the less technical notion “shared belief”.

  3. 3.

    To be careful, I should note that this holds if quantifiers presuppose that their quantifier domains are not empty.

  4. 4.

    It might be added that (13b) conveys the stronger message that the alien has more than two eyes. Perhaps this additional information is generated from the use of the plural. I will not address this question here.

  5. 5.

    This will be modified slightly below.

  6. 6.

    Schlenker does not extend this claim to French conditionals; still, treating subjunctive as an unmarked construction is not my innovation.

  7. 7.

    A further question is why (22) is infelicitous; that question is addressed in Leahy (2011).

  8. 8.

    Why do we remove ‘No one other than Oswald killed Kennedy’ and not ‘Kennedy was killed’? Perhaps because we are more confident that Kennedy was killed than we are that no one other than Oswald killed Kennedy. But it could be otherwise. If we are more confident that no one other than Oswald killed Kennedy than we are that Kennedy was killed, then to treat the possibility that Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy as subject to discussion, we eliminate ‘Kennedy was killed’ from our epistemic state and preserve ‘No one other than Oswald did it’. That is, we move to a Bill-like epistemic state. From that point my argument will run in parallel to the one given in this paragraph, though of course the judgements about which conditionals we accept and which we reject will be switched.


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More friends and colleagues helped this paper along than can reasonably be listed here. I sincerely thank everyone who has discussed these issues with me over the course of the paper’s development.

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Correspondence to Brian Leahy.

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This research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft (DFG) as part of DFG Research Group 1614.

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Leahy, B. Counterfactual antecedent falsity and the epistemic sensitivity of counterfactuals. Philos Stud 175, 45–69 (2018).

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  • Conditionals
  • Counterfactual antecedent falsity
  • Presuppositional implicature
  • Adams
  • Oswald–Kennedy example
  • Gibbard
  • Riverboat example