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Meaning and Demonstration


In demonstration, speakers use real-world activity both for its practical effects and to help make their points. The demonstrations of origami mathematics, for example, reconfigure pieces of paper by folding, while simultaneously allowing their author to signal geometric inferences. Demonstration challenges us to explain how practical actions can get such precise significance and how this meaning compares with that of other representations. In this paper, we propose an explanation inspired by David Lewis’s characterizations of coordination and scorekeeping in conversation. In particular, we argue that words, gestures, diagrams and demonstrations can function together as integrated ensembles that contribute to conversation, because interlocutors use them in parallel ways to coordinate updates to the conversational record.

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  2. We reserve the term demonstration for practical actions, though Clark (1996) uses the term more broadly to cover a wide range of communicative actions, including also iconic gestures and mimicry of quoted speech.

  3. Lewis developed his theory of the conversational record in a totally separate project from his work on coordination and convention. The two strands of research address rather different problems in the philosophy of language, and, perhaps surprisingly, Lewis himself never explored the connection between the two proposals. We believe, however, that there is a natural affinity between them. For example, combining the ideas makes it possible to characterize the domain of semantics in terms of conventions for updating the conversational record (Stojnic and Lepore 2014) and to show how such conventions provide standards for interpreting utterances in context (Lepore and Stone 2014). The development in this paper represents another combined application of Lewis’s ideas.

  4. John Blackburne has published a simple animation presenting the insight of this proof at

  5. Not all coherence theorists would agree with us here; Lepore and Stone (2014) explores the dialectic in more detail.


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This research was supported in part by NSF IIS-1017811. Preliminary versions have been presented at colloquia and UCLA, CUNY, Edinburgh and Rutgers, and in talks at the Amsterdam Colloquium–Semdial joint session and the Rutgers–Jagiellonian Conference on Cognitive Science. This presentation benefits from comments from audiences there, from Sam Cumming, Doug DeCarlo, Eileen Kowler and Rochel Gelman, and the referees of this issue, and particularly from extensive discussion with Gabe Greenberg and Ernie Lepore.

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Correspondence to Matthew Stone.

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Stone, M., Stojnic, U. Meaning and Demonstration. Rev.Phil.Psych. 6, 69–97 (2015).

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  • Living Room
  • Propositional Content
  • Practical Action
  • Straight Edge
  • Pythagorean Theorem