research

Some of the things I’ve written.

Optionality in animal communication
Biological Reviews
co-first author, w/ Stuart K. Watson et al.
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A critical feature of language is that the form of words need not bear any perceptual similarity to their function - these relationships can be “arbitrary”. The capacity to process these arbitrary form-function associations facilitates the enormous expressive power of language. However, the evolutionary roots of our capacity for arbitrariness, i.e. the extent to which related abilities may be shared with animals, is largely unexamined. We argue this is due to the challenges of applying such an intrinsically linguistic concept to animal communication, and address this by proposing a novel conceptual framework highlighting a key underpinning of linguistic arbitrariness, which is nevertheless applicable to non-human species. Specifically, we focus on the capacity to associate alternative functions with a signal, or alternative signals with a function, a feature we refer to as optionality. We apply this framework to a broad survey of findings from animal communication studies and identify five key dimensions of communicative optionality: signal production, signal adjustment, signal usage, signal combinatoriality and signal perception. We find that optionality is widespread in non-human animals across each of these dimensions, although only humans demonstrate it in all five. Finally, we discuss the relevance of optionality to behavioural and cognitive domains outside of communication. This investigation provides a powerful new conceptual framework for the cross-species investigation of the origins of arbitrariness, and promises to generate original insights into animal communication and language evolution more generally.

Śaṅkaran monism and the limits of thought
The Monist
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A growing movement in contemporary philosophy of mind is looking back on Indian thought to gain new insights into the problem of consciousness. This paper weighs the prospects of thinking about mentality through the lenses of Śaṅkaran Advaita Vedānta. To start, I outline micropsychist and cosmopsychist accounts of consciousness, introduce Śaṅkaran monism, and describe a potential reason of attraction of the framework over micropsychist and cosmopsychist alternatives. I then show that the eliminativist commitments of the view threaten to yield a self-defeating account of ordinary experience, and that Advaitins took the accommodation of the issue to be beyond the reach of rational inquiry. Finally, I discuss how the analytical debate over Śaṅkaran monism might proceed based on these premises.

Proportional dispositional predicates
Synthese
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Ordinary disposition ascriptions (DAs) appear to form a semantically heterogeneous class of clauses some of which can be straightforwardly analyzed as possibility claims, and some of which resist a simple quantificational treatment. For example, while “The block is breakable” is true if the block breaks at a relevant possible world, for “The block is fragile” to be true it doesn’t suffice that the block breaks at one of the worlds that matter to the evaluation of the ascription, since the block could break accidentally and yet be sturdy. The contrast has been taken to indicate that sentences like “The block is fragile” don’t introduce mere existential quantification over sets of worlds, and should be represented as claims about sufficient ratios or proportions of worlds. However, recent work has suggested that by pairing the recalcitrant DAs with modified manifestation phrases, we can generalize the standard analysis of existential DAs to the problematic examples, and state a uniform characterization of DAs as claims of possibility. The paper discusses some counterexamples to the view that allegedly non-existential DAs are covert claims of fine-grained possibility, and sketches a hybrid account combining proportional quantification with fine-grained manifestations.

Lexical innovation and the periphery of language
Linguistics and Philosophy
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Lexical innovations (e.g., zero-derivations coined on the fly by a speaker) seem to bear semantic content. Yet, such expressions cannot bear semantic content as a function of the conventions of meaning in force in the language, since they are not part of its lexicon. This is in tension with the commonplace view that the semantic content of lexical expressions is constituted by semantic conventions. The conventionalist has two immediate ways out of the tension. The first is to preserve the conventionalist assumption and deny that lexical innovations bear semantic content. The second is to dynamize the conventionalist assumption, that is, argue that presentations of unattested expressions trigger an augmentation of the standing semantic resources of the language and instantiate semantic content as a result of this underlying update. Building on a comparison with the production of novel onomatopoeic words, iconic pseudowords and pro-speech gestures, the paper argues that the issue is best addressed by suspending the conventionalist assumption, and describes the immediate metasemantic implications of the claim.

Semantic supervenience
Inquiry
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It is common belief that semantic properties supervene on non-semantic properties: no two possible worlds can be non-semantic duplicates and fail to be semantic duplicates. The view enjoys somewhat of an orthodoxy status in contemporary philosophy of language and metaphysics, and is often assumed without argument. Yet, work by Stephen Kearns and Ofra Magidor has claimed that it is vulnerable to a variant of the classical arguments against the supervenience of the phenomenal on the physical. This paper does three things: it clarifies what semantic supervenience is about, it responds to the objections that have been leveled against it, and provides a new battery of arguments in its favor. I argue that the thesis of semantic supervenience is safe from classical anti-supervenience arguments, and show that its rejection generates unwelcome consequences. I conclude that there are substantial reasons to embrace the received wisdom: semantic properties supervene.

Hearing meanings: the revenge of context
Synthese
co-first author, w/ Michael Murez
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According to the perceptual view of language comprehension, listeners typically recover high-level linguistic properties such as utterance meaning without inferential work. The perceptual view is subject to the Objection from Context: since utterance meaning is massively context-sensitive, and context-sensitivity requires cognitive inference, the perceptual view is false. In recent work, Berit Brogaard provides a challenging reply to this objection. She argues that in language comprehension context-sensitivity is typically exercised not through inferences, but rather through top-down perceptual modulations or perceptual learning. This paper provides a complete formulation of the Objection from Context and evaluates Brogaard’s reply to it. Drawing on conceptual considerations and empirical examples, we argue that the exercise of context-sensitivity in language comprehension does, in fact, typically involve inference.

A pluralistic theory of wordhood
Mind & Language
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What are words and how should we individuate them? There are two main answers on the philosophical market. For some, words are bundles of structural-functional features defining a unique performance profile. For others, words are noneternal continuants individuated by their causal-historical ancestry. These conceptions offer competing views of the nature of words, and it seems natural to assume that at most one of them can capture the essence of wordhood. This paper makes a case for pluralism about wordhood: the view that there is a plurality of acceptable conceptions of the nature of words, none of which is uniquely entitled to inform us as to what wordhood consists in.

A numeral oddity
Journal of Semantics
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Natural language appears to allow the ascription of properties of numeral symbols to the denotation of number referring phrases. The paper describes the phenomenon and presents two alternative explanations for why it obtains. One combining an intuitive semantics for number referring phrases and a predicate-shifting mechanism, the other assigning number referring phrases a structured denotation consisting of two parts: a mathematical object (the number) and a contextually determined numeral symbol. Some preliminary observations in favor of the second analysis are offered.

Pronominal anaphora, coreference, and closed quotation marks
Mind & Language
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Consider the following sentence: “Mary meditated on the sentence ‘Bill is a good friend’ and concluded that he was a good friend”. It is standardly assumed that in sentences of this sort, containing so‐called “closed” quotations, the expressions occurring between quotation marks are mentioned and do not take their ordinary referents. The quoted NP “Bill” refers, if anything, to the name ‘Bill’, not to the individual Bill. At the same time, the pronoun “he”, apparently anaphoric on quoted “Bill”, refers to the individual Bill. The case seems to invalidate the intuitive principle that pronouns anaphoric on referential expressions inherit their reference from their antecedents. The paper formulates the argument, argues that sentences exhibiting the described pattern do not constitute evidence against the intuitive principle, and proposes an alternative account of the anaphoric relation involved.

Phonetic segments and the organization of speech
Philosophy of Science
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According to mainstream linguistic phonetics, speech can be modeled as a string of discrete sound segments or “phones” drawn from a universal phonetic inventory. Recent work has argued that a mature phonetics should refrain from theorizing about speech and speech processing using sound segments, and that the phone concept should be eliminated from linguistic theory. The paper lays out the tenets of the phone methodology and evaluates its prospects in light of the eliminativist arguments. I claim that the eliminativist arguments fail to show that the phone concept should be eliminated from linguistic theory.

Priority cosmopsychism and the Advaita Vedānta
Philosophy East and West
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The combination of panpsychism and priority monism leads to priority cosmopsychism, the view that the consciousness of individual sentient creatures is derivative of an underlying cosmic consciousness. It has been suggested that contemporary priority cosmopsychism parallels central ideas in the Advaita Vedānta tradition. The paper offers a critical evaluation of this claim. It argues that the Advaitic account of consciousness cannot be characterized as an instance of priority cosmopsychism, points out the differences between the two views, and suggests an alternative positioning of the Advaitic canon within the contemporary debate on monism and panpsychism.

Originalism about word types
Thought
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According to originalism, word types are non-eternal continuants which are individuated by their causal-historical lineage and have a unique possible time of origination. This view collides with the intuition that individual words can be added to the lexicon of a language at different times, and generates other problematic consequences. The paper shows that such undesired results can be accommodated without abandoning originalism.

Word meaning
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
co-first author, w/ Diego Marconi
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The entry provides an overview of the way the issues surrounding the nature of lexical meaning have been explored in analytic philosophy, and a summary of relevant research on the subject in neighboring scientific domains. Though the main focus of the entry is on philosophical problems, contributions from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence are also considered.

Mental files and the lexicon
Review of Philosophy and Psychology
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This paper presents the hypothesis that the representational repertoire underpinning our ability to process the lexical items of a natural language can be modeled as a system of mental files. To start, I clarify the basic phenomena that an account of lexical knowledge should be able to elucidate. Then, I propose to evaluate whether the mental files theory can be brought to bear on an account of the representational format of lexical knowledge by modeling mental words as recognitional files.

Minimal semantics and word sense disambiguation
Disputatio
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Emma Borg defines semantic minimalism as the thesis that the literal content of well-formed declarative sentences is truth-evaluable, fully determined by their lexico-syntactic features, and recoverable by language users with no need to access non-linguistic information. The task of this article is threefold. First, I shall raise a criticism to Borg's minimalism based on how speakers disambiguate homonymy. Second, I will explore some ways Borg might respond to my argument and maintain that none of them offers a conclusive reply to my case. Third, I shall suggest that in order for Borg’s minimalism to accommodate the problem discussed in this paper, it should allow for semantically incomplete content and be converted into a claim about linguistic competence.

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