Robert Stalnaker: Common Ground, 2002: A presentation of his paper and an investigation how its theories can be applied to questions.

Literature Review 2004 9 Pages

Speech Science / Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Presuppositions
2.1. Different Approaches towards a Definition of a presupposition
2.2. Presuppositions and Questions

3. Common Belief
3.1. Stalnaker's Definition of Common Belief and how common belief changes with declarative sentences
3.2. Common belief change with questions

4. Common Ground
4.1. Stalnaker's definition of common ground
4.2. Common ground change because of questions

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In his paper, Common Ground, Stalnaker has the following aim:

to try to be more explicit about the abstract structure of speaker presupposition

in order to get clearer about the relations between the presuppositions of different

participants in a conversation, about the way that what is presupposed changes in

the course of a conversation (Stalnaker 2002: 701).

Stalnaker defines the terms presupposition, common belief and common ground from a pragmatic perspective and provides counterexamples from a semantic perspective. He constantly compares and defends his theory against other presupposition theorists such as Karttunen, Lewis, Soames, von Fintel and others. When I read Stalnaker's paper for this class, I was very interested in it, because I had a chance to deal with presuppositions in my German school. However, since I never had the time to investigate it in such a deep and controversial discourse, I decided to investigate it further for this course. Stalnaker develops a theory about common ground for declarative sentences. He does not mention questions in his whole paper. As I did the course about questions, I decided to analyze his paper in terms of questions. In this paper, I will first explain Stalnaker's theory for declaratives and then investigate how it can be applied to interrogatives. I will use one wh-question: “Who left?” and one yes-no question: “Did someone leave or not?”, and see if there is a change of a presupposition, of common belief or of common ground for the respective question in Stalnakerian theory.

2. Presuppositions

2.1. Different Approaches towards a Definition of a presupposition

There are different ways to define a presupposition according to different theoretical backgrounds. Most common definitions found in dictionaries are standard paradigms and some rough criteria. A paradigm found very often is that “The king of France is wise” presupposes that there is a king of France. “John does not regret voting for Nadar” presupposes that John voted for Nadar. Among the rough criteria which can be found, the most common is the negation criteria, which states that “f sentence S presupposes that ¢, then the negation of S also presupposes that ¢” (Stalnaker 2002: 702). In our example “The king of France is wise” and “The king of France isn't wise” have the same presupposition: “There is a king of France”. Other short definitions that can be found are, for instance “the act of presupposing, a supposition made prior to having knowledge” (www.wordreference.com). It often occurs that a presupposition is defined in contrast to an entailment, as in the following case: “presupposition is different from logical entailment because the negation of the proposition does not lead to negation of the presupposed proposition” (Martinovski). Considering all this different kinds of definitions, Kripke said about the phenomenon of presuppositions: “To some degree Justice Stewart's comment about pornography holds here: we all recognize it when we see it even if we can't exactly say what it is.” (Kripke 1).

Linguistically, definitions of presuppositions can be divided into semantic and pragmatic definitions. A semantic presupposition theory proposes that a presupposition holds between sentence S and proposition Ø if and only if Ø must be true for S to have a truth value. Pragmatic presupposition theorists define presuppositions in terms of common ground or speaker presupposition. A proposed pragmatic definition for a presupposition is

Sentence A pragmatically presupposes B if it is felicitous to utter A in order to increment a common ground C only in case B is already entailed by C (Karttunen and Peters 268). Stalnaker, in this paper, tries a different way of defining phenomena:

The proposal was that one should describe the phenomena to be explained in terms

of what speakers tend to take to be common ground when they use certain expressions,

or what can normally be inferred about the common ground from the use of certain

expressions, and then try to explain (perhaps in different ways for different cases)

why the phenomena are as they are. We don't need the mysterious relation X to

describe the phenomena, and it does not make any contribution to explaining them.

(Stalnaker 2002: 713).



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San Diego State University – Linguistics
Robert Stalnaker Common Ground Graduate Seminar Semantic Questions




Title: Robert Stalnaker: Common Ground, 2002: A presentation of his paper and an investigation how its theories can be applied to questions.