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A radically pragmatic account of if-conditionals

Research project The project aims to understand thoughts expressed by sentences of the form "If P, Q". The question is how these can express a range of radically different but yet strongly constrained relations between P and Q.

Conditional sentences of the form "If P, Q" can express a range of relations: relations of (causal, epistemic, logical, etc) consequence, of independence, and of relevance between P and Q, but also relations between speech acts performed by expressing P and Q ("He didn't do it, if you wonder"). At the same time, most relations that can hold between P and Q cannot be expressed by such sentences. The project aims at understanding this phenomenon, and the thoughts expressed by different conditionals, based on the observation that various pragmatic factors affect what relation a given condition is taken to express in a given situation.

Head of project

Gunnar Björnsson
Other position

Project overview

Project period:

2013-01-29 2014-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies

Research subject

Philosophy and philosophy of science

Project description

One of the more puzzling and philosophically important locutions is the English conditional “if” and cognates in other languages. Conditional thinking and expressions of conditional thoughts are central to scientific and more generally rational enterprises, and figure prominently in philosophical analyses of various concepts and phenomena, making the theory of conditionals methodologically important. Moreover, sentences of the form “if P, Q” are capable of conveying a wide variety of seemingly dissimilar contents. They are capable of conveying relations of consequence (causal, epistemic, logical, etc), independence, relevance, and perspective taking between P and Q, but also relations between P and some illocutionary act performed by uttering Q ("If I may toot my own horn, our group made the transition months ago"). At the same time, this wide variety of expressible contents seems highly constrained. Though the list of relations that can be easily and naturally expressed using such sentences is long, most possible relations between propositions cannot be expressed by simple conditionals: (not relations of contrariety or mere probability raising, for example). The problem is to understand the conventional contribution of “if” and how it interacts with contextual and pragmatic factors to determine the variety of contents conveyed by particular conditionals as well as constraints on these contents.

In this project, I develop a radically pragmatic account of if-conditionals, arguing that the conventional contribution is restricted to introducing the antecedent without presenting it as true, such that the consequent can be understood “in relation to it”, where the relevant relation is determined pragmatically in the context of utterance.