This is a Paper about Demonstratives


Demonstratives (words like ‘this’ and ‘that’) and indexicals (words like ‘I’, ‘here’, and ‘now’) seem intuitively to form a semantic family. Together they form the basic set of directly referring ‘context sensitive’ terms whose reference changes as the environment or identity of the speaker changes. Something that we might expect of a semantics for indexicals is therefore that it would be closely related to a semantics of demonstratives, although recent approaches have generally treated them separately. A promising new theory of indexicals is the ‘token-contextual’ account, which accounts for a wide range of uses of indexicals without encountering the problems faced by competing models. So far this theory has not been considered for demonstratives, however, but only for the indexicals ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’. In this paper I show that the token-contextual account can be elegantly extended to cover demonstratives. Doing so restores unity to our understanding of a natural semantic family, and allows us to identify a single rule governing the most basic context-sensitive terms.

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  1. 1.

    Some hold that all terms refer by description (see Chalmers 2006 a recent defense), but among those who defend the widely held view that at least some terms refer directly, demonstratives and indexicals are regarded as paradigmatic examples (see Recanati 2012 a recent defense of the direct reference view).

  2. 2.

    Note that Kaplan’s characters are not Russellian descriptions. It is not because the referent of ‘now’ satisfies the description ‘the time of the context’, that it is referred to by the indexical. Rather, these rules characterize the relationship between the indexical or demonstrative and its referent, while reference is established by the actual physical relationship between the producer and the object. This is simply to reiterate the point that demonstratives and indexicals are directly referring terms on this approach, rather than terms that refer on the basis of an intervening description.

  3. 3.

    This is a complex demonstrative, insofar as the reference of the demonstrative seems to be restricted to objects that satisfy the description ‘man’, and which can be contrasted with ‘bare’ demonstratives that include no such restriction. Some (Lepore and Ludwig 2000) do not take complex demonstratives to function similarly to bare demonstratives, while others including Kaplan (1989), Braun (1994) and Siegel and Glanzberg (2004) take such cases to work as bare demonstratives constrained to objects of the type in the nominal, which I adopt for present purposes.

  4. 4.

    Recanati endorses this claim for ‘here’ and ‘now’ only.

  5. 5.

    One push back against the Humpty Dumpty worries is given by Donnellan (1968), who points out that with enough stage-setting one can get a phrase with one standard conventional meaning to mean something quite different. He convincingly explores how one could get the phrase ‘there’s glory for you’ to mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument’, playing on Davidson’s example from Alice in Wonderland. But this response does not get at the heart of the problem. We could indeed get the phrase ‘I am here now’ to mean what Akerman considers – for example if we tell our audience in advance that this is what we shall mean when we use that phrase. But it is crucial to remember that we cannot get the phrase to have that meaning simply by intending it to. The stage-setting is essential. The fact that altering the meaning requires this kind of stage-setting, and is not possible by altering our intentions alone, is sufficient to illuminate the problem with the intentionalist position. We can of course allow that what has sometimes been called ‘speaker’s reference’ can can be fixed by intentions alone – speaker’s reference being simply what a person intends to refer to Kripke (1977). But this leaves ‘semantic reference’, which is generally understood as what a word can effectively be used to refer to in a coherent conversation, on the table. The task of the current paper is to figure out what it is that constrains the ways in which demonstratives can be effectively used.

  6. 6.

    Practically it is redundant to include both ‘intended’ and ‘at the context of the token’ in the case of the first person indexical. For one thing, there is only one possible agent of the token, being the speaker, so intentions are not resolving an indeterminacy of reference here; second since the identity of the agent of the token cannot change as the token is brought into a new context, it is also redundant to include ‘at the context of the token’ (Cohen 2013: 9). However, the fact that these aspects of character are not resolving a referential indeterminacy does not mean that they play no role in the character of the term – they may play an intensional role that makes no extensional difference. It can always be assumed, after all, that when an agent says ‘I’, they do indeed intend to refer to themselves, even if there isn’t anyone else they could use the term to refer to. I therefore include these elements to illustrate the intensional symmetry in the character of the terms.

  7. 7.

    There are of course some puzzle cases for the view. Michaelson (2013) raises the puzzle of the term ‘here’ on a post-card. If it is posted in Tahiti, and received in London, the term ‘here’ seems to refer not to the place in which it is read, but the place it is written. But Cohen (2013) argues that such a case might take its reference anaphorically from locations indicated on the post-card – from the post-mark or the picture on the front of the card. Another puzzle: a telephone call in which the term ‘here’ is produced by the speaker, but another token is produced in the receiver’s hand-set in a faraway location (O’Madagain 2014). Since we now have two tokens located in two different places, this yields a puzzle for the claim that the token-location trivially determines reference. To maintain the token-contextual view, we would need some way to decide which token is the one that determines reference. O’Madagain argues that in this case we can indeed appeal to the speaker’s intentions to make this distinction: if the speaker intends the sound that comes out of her mouth as the true semantic token, but while the sound produced faraway is merely a copy, then it is the sound in the context of the speaker that is the reference-fixing token. This appeal to intentions does not entail that a speaker can alter the meaning (or ‘character’) of a term from one occasion of use to another, and so it avoids the Humpty-Dumpty worries that token-contextualism is designed to avoid. Challenges to the token-contextualist account of indexicals raised so far appear, therefore, to be manageable.

  8. 8.

    The role assigned to intentions here is closer to what Kaplan suggested in a later discussion of his account (Kaplan 1989), where he proposes that speaker intentions will be necessary to fully resolve reference within an already determined context. Of course, Kaplan makes no mention of token-contexts, rather he seems to be considering how to fully resolve reference within the context of production.

  9. 9.

    A variation of the anaphoric case: suppose we go to an amazing party, and the next day when you see me, you say to me ‘that was amazing’. You don’t need to explain yourself any further because you know that the first thing that I will think of when I see you is last night’s party (sometimes called a ‘recognitional demonstrative’ (Himmelman 1996), also see King 2014: 220). In this case, the party is certainly outside of the context of tokening, but you have not introduced an independent referring expression to pick it out. However, arguably such a case is an elliptical anaphoric demonstrative. In elliptical discourse, a part of the discourse that is playing a grammatical or semantic role is dropped because it is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be mentioned. For example, if you want to let me know you’ll be back in a minute, you might say ‘be right back’, rather than ‘I’ll be right back’. You can drop the referring expression ‘I’ll’, because you know I will be able to figure out what you’re saying from the fragment of discourse you have produced. It is however playing a semantic role, even though it is left unstated – it is ‘pragmatically presupposed’ (Stalnaker 1974; Dryer 1996). In your recognitional reference to last night’s party, then, what is pragmatically presupposed is a referring expression from which the demonstrative is anaphorically taking its meaning, so that a non-elliptical version might read: ‘the party last night – that was amazing’. And of course, if it is an anaphoric demonstrative, it falls outside of our explanatory target.


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Correspondence to Cathal O’Madagain.

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O’Madagain, C. This is a Paper about Demonstratives. Philosophia (2020).

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  • Demonstratives
  • Indexicals
  • Contextualism
  • Tokens
  • Kaplan