The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LFRG 9/30 - Igor Yanovich

WHO: Igor Yanovich
WHAT: Embedded epistemic claims in the light of the recent epistemics debate
WHEN: Sept 30, 1:00PM-2:30PM
WHERE: 32-D831


Rather than give a formal talk, I plan to introduce a certain current debate in the literature, and discuss some thoughts about new data bearing on it. This is very much work in progress – I have just started to think about those issues. But I do hope I’ll convince you that at the very least the issues are fun.

There is currently a big debate between epistemic relativists (e.g., MacFarlane) and “cloudy contextualists” (von Fintel and Gillies) about what is going on in the scenarios like this:

(1) a. Sarah: The keys might be in the car.
    b1. Mary: Yeah, that’s right. Let me check. / b2. Mary: No, I’ve checked there an hour ago.
    c. Sarah, after (b2): OK, then I guess I was wrong.

Suppose that the epistemic claim in (1a) is relative to a modal base representing the speaker’s, Sarah’s, knowledge. Then (1a) is only about the private knowledge, and it is mysterious why Mary can reject that claim, why she can act as if Sarah’s claim was about their common knowledge, and why Sarah may want to retract her earlier claim – even though at the time she made it, she may have been fully right in doing that.

Relativism and cloudy contextualism are two families of approaches which aim to explain puzzles like (1). Both have put forward a lot of evidence in their favor, and despite serious disagreements, converge on many important points. It is hard to evaluate all the arguments, and I will not try to do that on Friday, though I will try to give you their flavor.

Instead, I want to look more closely into an area which has not yet been subject to much scrutiny during the debate: epistemic claims embedded under attitude verbs. The key observation is that in some circumstances, such embedded epistemic claims may behave just as matrix epistemic claims – even though Hacquard (2010) has shown that they have to be dependent on a different source of knowledge than matrix epistemics. As they stand, I think neither relativist nor cloudy contextualist theories can explain the data.

There is a quick fix which seems to favor cloudy contextualism. However, I believe that once we look more carefully at the evidence coming from the functioning of embedded claims in discourse, a more complex and interesting picture emerges. It is that picture which I’d like to talk about on Friday. Rather than a quick fix, it seems to call for a more thorough analysis of how different sorts of attitude verbs work.