Skip to main content

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7


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

  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. This will be modified slightly below.

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

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

  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.


  • Adams, E. (1970). Subjunctive and indicative conditionals. Foundations of Language, 6, 89–94.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, A. R. (1951). A note on subjunctive and counterfactual conditionals. Analysis, 12, 35–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bayfield, M. A. (1890). On conditional sentences in Greek and Latin, and indefinite sentences in Greek. Classical Review, 4(5), 200–203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bennett, J. (2003). A philosophical guide to conditionals. New York: Oxford.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • DeRose, K. (2010). The conditionals of deliberation. Mind, 119(473), 1–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Edgington, D. (2004). Counterfactuals and the benefit of hindsight. In P. Dowe & P. Noordhof (Eds.), Cause and chance. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Edgington, D. (2008). Counterfactuals. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 108(1), 1–21.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gillies, A. (2004). Epistemic conditionals and conditional epistemics. Nous, 38, 585–616.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heim, I. (1991). Artikel und definitheit. In A. von Stechow & D. Wunderlich (Eds.), Semantik: Ein Internationales Handbuch der zeitgenösischen Forschung (pp. 487–535). Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Horn, L. (1973). Greek Grice: A brief survey of proto-conversational rules in the history of logic. Chicago Linguistics Society, 9, 205–214.

    Google Scholar 

  • Iatridou, S. (2000). The grammatical ingredients of counterfactuality. Linguistic Inquiry, 31, 231–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ippolito, M. (2003). Presuppositions and implicatures in counterfactuals. Natural Language Semantics, 11, 145–186.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, F. (1987). Conditionals. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Karttunen, L., & Peters, S. (1979). Conventional implicature. In C. K. Oh & D. Dinneen (Eds.), Syntax and semantics Vol. 11: Presupposition. New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leahy, B. (2011). Presuppositions and antipresuppositions in conditionals. In N. Ashton, A. Chereches, & D. Lutz (Eds.), Semantics and linguistic theory (SALT) (21st ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leahy, B. (2014). Teleosemantics: Intentionality, productivity, and the theory of meaning. Language and Linguistics Compass, 8, 197–210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leahy, B. (2015). Counterfactual antecedent falsity and embedded antipresuppositions. In V. Kimmelman., N. Korotkova., & I. Yanovich. (Eds.), Proceedings of MOSS 2, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, Cambridge.

  • Leahy, B. (2016). On presuppositional implicature. TOPOI, 35, 83–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, D. (1973). Counterfactuals. Malden: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lycan, W. G. (2001). Real conditionals. New York: Oxford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Musan, R. (1997). On the temporal interpretation of noun phrases. New York: Garland.

    Google Scholar 

  • Percus, O. (2006). Antipresuppositions. In A. Ueyama (Ed.), Theoretical and empirical studies of reference and anaphora, report of the grant-in-aid for scientific research (B). Tokyo: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schlenker, P. (2004). Conditionals as definite descriptions. Research on Language and Computation, 2(3), 417–462.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schlenker, P. (2005). The lazy Frenchman’s approach to the subjunctive. In T. Geerts, I. van Ginneken, & H. Jacobs (Eds.), Romance languages and linguistic theory (pp. 269–310). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schlenker, P. (2012). Maximize presupposition and Gricean reasoning. Natural Language Semantics, 20, 391–429.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stalnaker, R. (1975). Indicative conditionals. Philosophia, 5(3), 269–286.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stalnaker, R. (2014). Context. New York: Oxford.

  • Starr, W. (2014). A uniform theory of conditionals. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 43, 1019–1064.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Strawson, P. (1950). On referring. Mind, 59(235), 320–344.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Strawson, P. (1986). If and ‘⊃’. In R. Grandy & R. Warner (Eds.), Philosophical grounds of rationality: Intentions, categories, and ends. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Fintel, K. (1997). The presupposition of subjunctive conditionals. In O. Percus., & U. Sauerland (Eds.), MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 25, MITWPL, pp. 29–44.

  • von Fintel, K. (2008). What is presupposition accommodation, again? Philosophical Perspectives, 22(1), 137–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brian Leahy.

Additional information

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

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


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