, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 23–35 | Cite as

Presupposition Failure and the Assertive Enterprise



I outline a discourse-based account of presuppositions that relies on insights from the writings of Peter Strawson, as well as on insights from more recent work by Robert Stalnaker and Barbara Abbott. One of the key elements of my account is the idea that presuppositions are “assertorically inert”, in the sense that they are background propositions, rather than being part of the “at issue” or asserted content. Strawson is often assumed to have defended the view that the falsity of a presupposition leads to catastrophe, in the sense that a false presupposition “wrecks the assertive enterprise”. I argue that the discourse-based account in terms of assertoric inertia can explain how cases of presupposition failure can sometimes be non-catastrophic; there are cases in which the assertive enterprise operates smoothly, despite presupposition failure. The chief problem facing this line of argument is to account for cases in which presupposition failure is catastrophic. If presuppositions are assertorically inert, then how can their falsity ever wreck the assertive enterprise? I offer a principled account that delineates the circumstances in which false presuppositions are, and those in which they are not, catastrophic.


Presupposition failure Assertoric inertia Backgrounded propositions Assertion 


  1. Abbott B (2000) Presuppositions as non-assertions. J Pragmat 32:1419–1437CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abbott B (2005) Where have some of the presuppositions gone? Ms. available at
  3. Atlas J (2004) Descriptions, linguistic topic/comment and negative existentials. In: Reimer M, Bezuidenhout A (eds) Descriptions and beyond. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 342–360Google Scholar
  4. Bezuidenhout A (2010) Grice on presupposition. In: Petrus K (ed) Meaning and analysis: themes from H. Paul Grice. Palgrave McMillan, Basingstoke, pp 75–102Google Scholar
  5. Carston R (2002) Thoughts and utterances. Blackwell, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Donnellan K (1966) Reference and definite descriptions. Philos Rev 75:281–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Frege G (1892/1960) On sense and reference. In: Geach P, Black M (eds) Translations from the philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege, 2nd edition. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Goodman N (1961) About. Mind 70:1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Grosz B, Joshi A, Weinstein S (1995) Centering: a framework for modeling the local coherence of discourse. Comput Linguist 21:203–225Google Scholar
  10. Horn L (1989) A natural history of negation. Chicago University Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  11. Horn L (1996) Presupposition and implicature. In: Lappin S (ed) Handbook of contemporary semantic theory. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 299–319Google Scholar
  12. Horn L (2002) Assertoric inertia and NPI licensing. Proc Chic Linguist Soc 38:55–82Google Scholar
  13. Lambrecht K (1994) Information structure and sentence form: topic, focus and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lasersohn P (1993) Existence presuppositions and background knowledge. J Semant 10:113–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lewis D (1988) Statements partly about observation. Philos Pap 17:1–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Loock R (2007) Appositive relative clauses and their functions in discourse. J Pragmat 39:336–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Reinhart T (1981) Pragmatics and linguistics: an analysis of sentence topics. Philosophica 27:53–94Google Scholar
  18. Roberts C (2005) Only, presupposition and implicature. Ms. available at
  19. Simons M (2001) On the conversational basis of some presuppositions. In: Hastings R, Jackson B, Zvolensky Z (eds) Semantics and linguistic theory (SALT) XI. CLC Publications, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  20. Stalnaker R (1999) Context and content. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Strawson P (1950) On referring. Mind 59:320–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Strawson P (1954) A reply to Mr. Sellars. Philos Rev 63:216–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Strawson P (1964) Identifying reference and truth-values. Theoria 30:96–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. von Fintel K (2004) Would you believe it? The king of France is back! (Presuppositions and Truth-Value Intuitions). In: Reimer M, Bezuidenhout A (eds) Descriptions and beyond. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 315–341Google Scholar
  25. Yablo S (2004) Non-catastrophic presupposition failure. Paper presented at the Chapel Hill Colloquium, University of North Carolina, Chapel HillGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Office of the DeanUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA

Personalised recommendations