There are two principal aspects of the MEANING conventionally conveyed by a linguistic expression, its presupposed content and its proffered content (Stalnaker 1979; Karttunen and Peters 1979; Heim 1982; Roberts 1996b). The proffered content is what we usually think of as the literal content of the expression: what is asserted by using a declarative sentence, the question raised by an interrogative, the command (or wish, or suggestion, etc.) posed by an imperative. It is the information that is treated as new by the speaker (or writer, etc.). The presupposed content is ostensibly old information: it is information that the speaker (behaves as if she) assumes is already known in the context of the discourse in progress. Hence, a presupposition imposes a requirement on the context of use, the requirement that it already contain the presupposed information. An older view of presuppositions treats them as semantic -- that is, as entailments of both a sentence and its negation (Van Fraassen 1971). By contrast, the present notion is called pragmatic presupposition, because a presupposition so analyzed is an entailment not of the utterance itself, but of any context which satisfies the imposed requirement.

Consider (1), where the capital letters indicate emphasis on the subject.

(1) MARCIA has a bicycle, too.

(1) cannot be used without presuming that someone other than Marcia has a bicycle, demonstrating that this proposition is in some way conventionally associated with the utterance. This contrasts with conversational implicatures, which in general only arise when context interacts with the conventional content of an utterance in a certain way. That the presupposed proposition in (1) isn't part of what's directly asserted is suggested by the fact that if the addressee directly denies the speaker's assertion of (1), for example replying No, he is not taken thereby to deny that someone other than Marcia has a bicycle but rather to deny that Marcia has a bicycle. In fact, such a reply implicitly acknowledges the truth of the presupposition, as reflected in the dilemma of the man under oath who must reply to the question Have you stopped stealing bicycles? The indirectness of presuppositions and their conventional (i.e., noncancellable) nature is also reflected in the behavior of examples like (1) under negation, interrogation, and conditional assumption, as in the following:

(2) It's not as if MARCIA has a bicycle, too.
(3) Does MARCIA have a bicycle, too?
(4) If MARCIA has a bicycle, too, we can go for a ride by the river.

The retention in such variants of the presupposition that someone other than Marcia has a bicycle demonstrates that presuppositions are logically stronger than mere entailments, which are lost under negation, interrogation, or conditional assumption: Here, what is directly entailed by (1), that Marcia has a bicycle, is not entailed by (2), (3), or (4).

There are many kinds of expressions that conventionally trigger presuppositions, including inflectional affixes, lexical items, and syntactic constructions. Among others in English, besides too, we find presuppositions conventionally associated with the possessive case, as in Marcia's bicycle (which presupposes that Marcia has a bicycle), with the adverbials only and even, with factive predicates like regret, and with constructions like the pseudo-cleft construction, as illustrated by the following. (The reader may use the negated, interrogative, and conditional forms of these examples to test that the presuppositions noted are implicated.)

Marcia even sold her BICYCLE.
Presupposed: Her bicycle was one of the least likely things for Marcia to have sold, and there are other things that she sold.
Asserted: Marcia sold her bicycle.

Marcia regrets that she sold her bicycle.
Presupposed: Marcia sold her bicycle.
Asserted: Marcia regrets having done so.

What Marcia sold is her bicycle.
Presupposed: Marcia sold something.
Asserted: Marcia sold her bicycle.

If the interlocutors in a conversation do not already agree on the truth of a presupposition associated with an utterance, then we say that the presupposition has failed to be satisfied in the context of utterance. Presupposition failure often leads to infelicity. Following the seminal work of Karttunen (1973) and Stalnaker (1974), an utterance with presupposition p is felicitious in context c iff c entails p. If one utters (1) in a conversation whose interlocutors don't have in their common ground the information that someone besides Marcia has a bicycle, then it will sound distinctly odd. If the interlocutors haven't been discussing what Marcia (perhaps among others) sold, then (7) will seem infelicitous. That the presupposition p itself needn't have been directly asserted is demonstrated by the following type of example:

a. All Dutch people own bicycles.
b. Marcia is Dutch.
c. She rides her bicycle to work.

(8c) contains the noun phrase her bicycle, with her anaphoric to Marcia, and hence presupposes that Marcia has a bicycle. This presupposition is satisfied in the context suggested, where (8a) and (8b) together (though neither alone) entail that Marcia owns a bicycle.

But presupposition failure doesn't always lead to infelicity. Sometimes a cooperative addressee will be willing to accommodate the speaker by assuming the truth of the presupposed proposition after the fact, as if it had been true all along (Lewis 1979; Heim 1983; Thomason 1990). In such a case, we say that the addressee has accommodated the failed presupposition, saving the conversation from infelicity. This is not uncommon with factive verbs, such as regret in (6), and in fact gossips often use factives as a way of reporting juicy news while pretending it was already common knowledge.

The linguistic and philosophical literature on presupposition since the early 1970s has largely focused on the so-called projection problem: how to predict the presuppositions that a possibly complex sentence will inherit from the words and phrases that constitute it. Uttered out of the blue, (9) seems to presuppose that Marcia has a bicycle. However, this is only apparent, as we can see when we put (9) in the appropriate sort of context, illustrated by (9").

(9) Marcia believes that she sold her bicycle.
(9") Marcia is quite mad. Last week, she imagined that she had acquired a bicycle and a motorscooter. Now, she believes that she sold her bicycle.

Hence, the effect of the main verb believe in (9) is quite different from that of regret in the otherwise identical (6): regret always passes along the presuppositions of its sentential complement she sold her bicycle, (that is, the proposition that Marcia had a bicycle), to the matrix sentence; we say that the complement sentence's presuppositions are projected. But believe doesn't necessarily do so -- whether it does depends on the context of utterance.

Karttunen (1973) classifies so-called factive predicates like regret as holes to presupposition, because they pass along the presuppositions of their complements to become presuppositions of the clause of which they are the main verb. Other holes include negation (in (2)), the interrogative construction (in (3)), and the antecedent of a conditional (in (4)). Predicates like say are said to be presupposition plugs, not passing along any of the presuppositions of a complement; replacing regrets with says in (6) gets rid of the presupposition that Marcia sold her bicycle. Predicates like believe are said to be presupposition filters, since they only pass along their complement's presuppositions under certain conditions. Filters include a number of syntactic constructions, as well as embedding predicates and other operators. The filtering behavior of the conditional construction is illustrated in (10):

(10) If Marcia sold her bicycle, then by now she regrets selling it.

The consequent of (10) carries the presupposition that Marcia regrets selling her bicycle; but (10) as a whole does not presuppose this. Although one can utter (10) in a context in which it's known that Marcia sold the bicycle, it would also be felicitous in a context in which we only know that she was contemplating doing so.

The merits of three principal types of theories of presupposition and of presupposition projection are currently being debated: satisfaction theories (Karttunen 1973; Stalnaker 1974, 1979; Heim 1983, 1992), cancellation theories (Gazdar 1979; Soames 1989), and anaphoric theories (Van der Sandt 1989, 1992). See Beaver 1998 for an excellent technical overview of current theory with extensive comparison. For historical overviews of the linguistic and philosophical literature on presupposition (including the important debate on the purported presuppositions of definite Noun Phrases in Frege 1892; Russell 1905, and Strawson 1950), the reader is referred to Levinson (1983) and Soames (1989). Evans (1977), Heim (1982), Kadmon (1990), and Neale (1990), among others, continue the Russell/Strawson debate. And Roberts (1996a) discusses a phenomenon dubbed modal subordination, which poses prima facie problems for most theories of presupposition

See also

Additional links

-- Craige Roberts


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