Conceptions and consequences of semantic underdetermination

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Thomas J. McKay


Contextualism, Truth, Conceptions, Semantic underdetermination

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


This dissertation is an examination of the nature and consequences of semantic underdetermination. A sentence type is semantically underdetermined if it is not semantically associated with a truth-evaluable proposition independent of context construed in a broad way, including but not limited to factors such as the beliefs, intentions, and purposes of the conversational participants. Semantic underdetermination is not identical either to ambiguity or to pure indexicality. Controversy about semantic underdetermination has focused on whether tokens of semantically underdetermined sentences typically express truth-evaluable propositions, and therefore whether pragmatics "intrude" upon the semantics of tokens of semantically undetermined sentences. I argue that the way to understand this controversy is not in terms of the "what is said" debate that is current in the literature, but in terms of the semantics/pragmatics distinction. I argue further that certain prima facie arguments against pragmatic intrusion (very briefly, that the systematicity of semantics precludes pragmatic intrusion, and that pragmatic intrusion sets implausible requirements on what competent speakers understand in understanding sentences) are not successful. Finally, I consider how semantic underdetermination affects a theory of meaning based on Donald Davidson's theory of meaning, concluding that on such a theory of meaning, the meanings of many tokens of semantically underdetermined sentences would be indeterminate.


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