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Volume 34, 2017

Meaning and Publicity

Daniel W. Harris
Pages 119-143

A Puzzle about Context and Communicative Acts

A context-directed theory of communicative acts is one that thinks of a communicative act as a proposal to change the context in some way. I focus on three influential examples: Robert Stalnaker’s theory of assertion, Craige Roberts’ theory of questions, and Paul Portner’s theory of directives. These theories distinguish different categories of communicative acts by distinguishing the components of context that they aim to change. I argue that the components of context they posit turn out not to be distinct after all, and that these theories therefore col­lapse the taxonomic distinctions that they set out to draw. Although it might be possible to avoid this problem by devising a more adequate theory of the nature of context, I argue that it should be taken as a reductio of context-directed theories.

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