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Reconceptualising conditionals

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It is well-known that conditional sentences of the form ‘if p, q’ can be used for a plethora of other purposes than to express a conditional thought. Among other things, they can be used to hedge (’...if you see what I mean’), to express relevance (‘if you’re looking for your keys, they’re on the table’), or to request (‘if you could just come here…’). Intuitively, such ‘pragmatic’ uses of ‘if’ differ in the extent to which they conform to ‘standard’, semantic, truth-conditional accounts of conditionals. One might be tempted to discard these ‘non-conditional thoughts’ from the category of conditionals altogether. However, there is also an intuition that while conditional sentences can be used with some other intention than to communicate a conditional thought, there is still a sense in which they are ‘conditional’.

To meet these seemingly conflicting intuitions – conditional sentences with differing truth conditions, and the intrinsic conditionality of conditional sentences – I propose that conditionality should be disassociated from truth-conditional content. I do this by (i) offering pragmatic criteria for inclusion in the category of conditional utterances, thereby accounting for conditionality regardless of whether it is expressed as the main, intended meaning of the utterance, and (ii) taking on board a truth-conditional unit that corresponds to the primary intended meaning of the utterance which may, but need not, correspond to the syntactic form of the uttered sentence. This solution calls for a radical contextualist outlook on the truth conditions of conditionals, in which primary intended meanings are recovered by considering the interaction of the sentence form with other extra-linguistic sources of information.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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