University of Cambridge > > Cambridge Linguistics Forum > Unmasking Philosophers’ Fiction: First-Person Reference, Monster Operators, and the Indexical/Nonindexical Distinction

Unmasking Philosophers’ Fiction: First-Person Reference, Monster Operators, and the Indexical/Nonindexical Distinction

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It is standardly acknowledged in the semantic and philosophical literature that ‘I’ is an example of an indexical expression, or a so-called ‘pure indexical’. This claim appears plausible in that it is an expression whose reference can shift from context to context. But this is where the incontrovertible definition ends. Indexicals are generally assumed to be devices of direct reference: its role is supposed to be exhausted in contributing the referent to the proposition. Next, in terms of Kaplan’s (1989) two-dimensional semantics, indexicals have a context-sensitive character which, once fixed in a context, leads to a content that does not vary with circumstances of evaluation. According to Kaplan, the semantic value of an indexical is fixed by the context of the current speech act, except for its occurrences in quotation. Putative operators that would shift the semantic value are called ‘monsters’ and are deemed not to exist. Subsequent discussions have demonstrated, however, that the content of pure indexicals can be fixed by the intended speech act (Predelli 2011, 2014; Corazza 2004). ‘Fixity’ also proves untenable for Amharic where the referent of a first-person pronoun in a propositional attitude construction can come either from the context of the reporting or the reported situation (Schlenker 2003). In this paper I take a more global perspective on these problems and argue – and demonstrate, using the behaviour of the first-person pronoun in English as well as devices for self-reference in a cross-linguistic perspective (Jaszczolt 2013a, b) – that (i) devices standardly used for self-reference do not have the properties they are assumed to have and that (ii) the indexical/nonindexical distinction does not stand up to scrutiny. This opens up the debate as to whether a theoretical construct of an indexical can be defended if it does not correspond to linguistic realisations that are specified for this role. I support the argument with the discussion of first-person pronouns in mixed quotation, showing that (iii) mixed quotation ought not to be excluded from potential ‘monsters’ in that it is an instance of language use rather than mention and as such can testify against fixity, and (iv) mixed quotation induces context-shifts or a generalisation over contexts that can be captured in terms of what I call a ‘character-at-issue’ and ‘content-at-issue’ use. Contextualist accounts appear to be best suited to capture the diversity of use of linguistic expressions but they do not pursue the interpretation of first-person pronouns to its logical end. To remedy this weakness, I demonstrate how the use of first-person ‘indexicals’ in these alleged ‘monster contexts’ can be accounted for in the radical contextualist theory of Default Semantics (Jaszczolt 2005, 2010, in press).

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