Course Description

A survey of work in dynamic semantics, especially in 1980s and 1990s, and focusing primarily on anaphora and presupposition.

Meetings and Preparation

The seminar meets on Wednesdays from 12 noon - 2 PM in the NYU Philosophy Department (5 Washington Place), on the 2nd floor.

Faculty, post-docs, students from other philosophy departments, and the like, are all welcome to participate.

This is a research seminar, not an introduction to advanced (graduate-level) philosophy of language. If you aren't already comfortable with formal semantics (from either a philosophy of a linguistics perspective), you may find the readings and discussion in this seminar difficult to keep up with. Talk to me about if you have doubts. If you're looking for a gentler introduction to formal semantics, the best candidate this semester is the undergrad linguistics course Advanced Semantics. Other semesters, you could consider the grad linguistics courses Semantics I or II, or various grad courses offered irregularly in Philosophy.

If you're interested in taking or auditing the seminar, it'd help if you emailed me at ahead of time so I have some sense of the group before the first meeting. Also, I can then include you on announcements I may send out by email. (Most announcements will only be posted below.)


I had some older announcements here but decided to rewrite them all with updated information. See below.

If you didn't get an email announcing this website, but want to be put on a mailing list with occasional updates about this seminar, let me know. I'll post a number of readings on this site; you'll be prompted for a username and password to retrieve these. For the moment, I'll announce the username and password here: the former is "student" and the latter is "if p then q" (all lower case, include spaces but omit quotes).

In the first meeting on Wed 1/25, we discussed the structure of the seminar and introduced the problem of donkey anaphora. (I'll write up and post the presentation of that shortly.) At the end of the presentation I referred to David Lewis's paper Adverbs of Quantification (in E. Keenan, ed., Formal Semantics of Natural Language, Cambridge 1975, pp. 3-15; reprinted in Paul Portner and Barbara Partee, eds., Formal Semantics: the Essential Readings, Blackwell 2002, pp. 178-188; and in Lewis's Papers in Philosophical Logic, Cambridge 1998, pp. 5-20). We're not going to read that as a group, but it's posted in case you want to pursue it on your own.

For our second meeting on Wed 2/1, we're going to discuss the problem of donkey anaphora in more detail, and also review some work of Gareth Evans giving a sharp presentation of the problem and proposing a "description-theoretic" strategy for solving it. Evans's presentations are in:

(Evans also had a paper Pronouns, Quantifiers, and Relative Clauses (II) (Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 1977b, pp. 777-797; reprinted in Evans' Collected Papers, Oxford 1985, pp. 153-175), which I'm posting here for your reference, but it's a digression from our main thread, so we're not going to read it as a group. This article criticizes Geach's idiosyncratic theory of relative clauses. Geach thought that "farmer who owns a donkey" doesn't constitute what we'd nowadays call a syntactic constituent. Instead, Geach analyzes "Any farmer who owns a donkey beats it" as "Any farmer, if he owns a donkey, beats it," and analyzes "Some farmer who owns a donkey beats it" as "Some farmer owns a donkey and he beats it.")

Besides the two Evans papers (1977a and 1980), it would also be good to read these surveys for the next class:

Moltmann's paper summarizes the state of the art in treatments of donkey anaphora (as of a decade ago). Just look at section 1-3 of that paper; I have broad sympathy for the positive ideas she develops in the rest of the paper, but some of the details are problematic, and I don't want us to get entangled in those details now.

If you have very limited time, I'd suggest reading Moltmann's paper and the SEP article. If you can read more, look at the Evans 1980 paper. If you can read more, look at the Evans 1977a paper. However, it's optimal to read these in chronological order.

After discussing the surveys of donkey anaphora and the Evans papers (so probably in week 3 of term), we'll discuss some programming idioms and their semantics. There is no published reading for this; I'll just distribute some handouts. It's not important for you to know any programming languages beforehand. I'll present a simplified programming language of my own design (based on Scheme). Understanding these programming idioms will be a good cornerstone for what's going on in the dynamic semantics literature we look at later.

We'll come back to programming languages once (or perhaps twice) more this term, when we discuss "dynamic logic." (The possible other connection is if we discuss how to formulate dynamic semantics in terms of "monads" --- some of you know about my interest and work on that topic, but it's not at the front of my agenda for this semester.)

After discussing those programming idioms, we'll look at one of Irene Heim's 1983 papers, in which she summarizes her 1982 dissertation:

Then we'll look at a trio of papers by a group of people in Amsterdam:

The "two theories" in the second paper are Groenendijk and Stokhof's DPL theory, on the one hand, and Frank Veltman's paper Defaults in Update Semantics (in Hans Kamp, ed., Conditionals, Defaults, and Belief Revision, Edinburgh 1990; and in Journal of Philosophical Logic 25 1996, pp. 221-261). I link the latter here in case you want to pursue it, but probably we'll just rely on G&S's summary. In the "Two theories" paper they discuss difficulties in merging those two forms of "dynamic semantics"; but in the 1996 GSV paper, the three authors present a solution that incorporates such a merger. I'll call the three papers we're looking at the "core Amsterdam papers".

Groenendijk and Stokhof wrote some other papers around the same time, one notable one being Dynamic Montague Grammar (DMG) (in L. Kálmán and L. Pólos, eds., Papers from the Second Symposium on Logic and Language, Budapest: Akademiai Kiadoo 1990, pp. 3-48). I'm posting it here in case you want to pursue it, but I don't think we'll be reading it together or discussing it in class.

After reading Heim 1983a and the three core Amsterdam papers (so probably in week 5 or 6 of term), we'll look at some survey papers on presupposition, and then another paper Heim published in 1983:

That will conclude the "setup and groundwork" portion of the seminar. The rest of the term will be exploratory. I have a queue of candidate books and papers we could read in three areas:

  1. other work in the Amsterdam tradition outside the core papers; special interest has been expressed in Paul Dekker's book Dynamic Semantics (Springer 2012).

  2. work in the DRT tradition, based on the work of Hans Kamp, and with some of the other prominent contributors also being associated with Univ of Texas, Austin, so I'll call this the "Texas tradition". We'll certainly study at least the core papers in this tradition, beginning with Kamp's A Theory of Truth and Semantic Representation (in Jeroen Groenendijk, Theo Janssen, and Martin Stokhof, eds., Formal Methods in the Study of Language, Amsterdam: Mathematische Centrum 1981, pp. 277–322; reprinted in Paul Portner and Barbara Partee, eds., Formal Semantics: the Essential Readings, Blackwell 2002, pp. 189-222). We may also spend most of the semester exploring later work by Kamp, Asher, Beaver, and others.

  3. issues about "intentional identity": Geach 1967 discussed reports like "Hob thinks a witch has blighted Bob's mare, and Nob wonders whether she (the same witch) has killed Cob's sow." In this report, it's not enough that Hob be thinking some witch or other is guilty, and Nob also be thinking some witch or other is guilty. Their beliefs have to be coordinated in some way for it to be appropriate to present them as thinking about "she (the same witch)." On the other hand, the reporter doesn't herself need to believe that any witch really exists for them to be thinking about. Neither do Hob and Nob to be aware of each other and their beliefs. It would be enough, for instance, if there were a rumor in town about some witch Maggoty Meg, and Hob and Nob framed their attitudes in terms of that rumored witch.

There won't be enough time to do everything here that we might hope to, so we'll have to be selective. I'm glad to be directed by your interests.