There is a growing body of literature reporting experimental data on the contextualism-relativism debate. This website aims to list all published and unpublished work in this area. Please email Alexander Dinges or Julia Zakkou if you think we've missed something.
Dinges, Alexander; Zakkou, Julia (ms): A direction effect on taste predicates (link)
The recent literature abounds with accounts of the semantics and pragmatics of so-called predicates of personal taste, i.e. predicates whose application is, in some sense or other, a subjective matter. Relativism and contextualism are the major types of theories. One crucial difference between these theories concerns how we should assess previous taste claims. Relativism predicts that we should assess them in the light of the taste standard governing the context of assessment. Contextualism predicts that we should assess them in the light of the taste standard governing the context of use. We show in a range of experiments that neither prediction is correct. Which taste standard people choose in evaluating a previous taste claim crucially depend on whether they start out liking the food in question and then come to dislike it or vice versa. We argue that no extant theory predicts this direction effect and go on to suggest what we call hybrid relativism as a possible solution. On this view, sentences of the form “F is/isn’t tasty” have a relativist and a contextualist reading, where the relevant reading is selected by an independently motivated pragmatic principle to interpret speakers as negatively as possible.

Kneer, Markus (ms): Predicates of personal taste: Empirical data (link)
According to contextualism, the extension of claims of personal taste is dependent on the context of utterance. According to truth relativism, their extension depends on the context of assessment. On this view, when the tastes of a speaker change, so does the truth value of a previously uttered taste claim, and if it is false, the speaker is required to retract it. Both views make strong empirical assumptions, which are here put to the test for the first time. It turns out that the linguistic behaviour of ordinary English speakers is consistent with contextualist predictions and inconsistent with relativist predictions.

Marques, Teresa (ms): Falsity and retraction: New experimental data on epistemic modals (link)
Dummet claimed that truth-conditional semantics can’t fully explain the role of truth. We need also an account of the point of truth assessments in the practice of assertion, and of a consequences of making false assertions – namely, the presumed requirement that the speaker retract the assertion. The assumption that speakers should retract when they asserted falsehoods has served as a reason to revise the semantics of, among others, epistemic modal sentences. That assumption is arguably supported by speakers’ intuitions about falsity and retraction. In this paper, I review recent experiments by Knobe and Yalcin on epistemic modals that test the connection between falsity and the appropriateness of a retraction, and report on two new experiments I carried out. The first tests speakers’ intuitions on falsity and a requirement to retract. The second tests speakers’ intuitions on falsity, the requirement to retract, and the appropriateness of retracting. The results do not support relativist semantic revisions, and are compatible with standard contextualist accounts of epistemic modals. The results undermine the claim that speakers are required to retract a past assertion of an epistemic possibility sentence when they acquire information that excludes the truth of the prejacent of the modal.

Khoo, Justin; Phillips, Jonathan (forthcoming): New horizons for a theory of epistemic modals, Australasian Journal of Philosophy (link)
Recent debate over the semantics and pragmatics of epistemic modals has focused on intuitions about cross-contextual truth-value assessments. In this paper, we advocate for a different approach to evaluating theories of epistemic modals. Our strategy focuses on judgments of the incompatibility of two different epistemic possibility claims, or two different truth value assessments of a single epistemic possibility claim. We subject the predictions of existing theories to empirical scrutiny, and argue that existing contextualist and relativist theories are unable to account for the full pattern of observed judgments. As a way of illustrating the theoretical upshot of these results, we conclude by developing a novel theory of epistemic modals that is able to predict the results.

Solt, Stephanie (forthcoming): ‘Multidimensionality, subjectivity and scales: experimental evidence’, in L. McNally, E. Castroviejo-Miró, and G. Sassoon (eds.), The Semantics of Gradability, Vagueness and Scale Structure (Heidelberg: Springer) (link)
This paper investigates the subjective interpretation of the comparative form of certain gradable adjectives, exploring in particular the hypothesis put forward in several recent works that such ‘ordering subjectivity’ derives from the multidimensional nature of the adjectives in question. Results are presented of an experimental study showing that ordering subjectivity is more widespread than previously recognized, and that in this respect, gradable adjectives divide into not two but three groups: objective, subjective and mixed. Some issues are discussed with defining the class of multidimensional adjectives, and on the basis of these observations as well as the experimental findings, it is argued that there are two separate sources of ordering subjectivity: multidimensionality and judge dependence. A theory of gradable adjective meaning is outlined according to which the availability of subjective versus objective readings for the comparative is determined by the formal properties of adjectival measure functions.

Turri, John (forthcoming): Epistemic modals and alternative possibilities, Erkenntnis (link)
Indicative judgments pertain to what is true. Epistemic modal judgments pertain to what must or might be true relative to a body of information. A standard view is that epistemic modals implicitly quantify over alternative possibilities, or ways things could turn out. On this view, a proposition must be true just in case it is true in all the possibilities consistent with the available information, and a proposition might be true just in case it is true in at least one possibility consistent with the available information. I report three experiments testing this view of epistemic modals. The results show that although modal judgments are sensitive to information about alternative possibilities, the standard quantification theory mischaracterizes the ordinary meaning of modals. I then report two more experiments testing the hypothesis that epistemic modals express willingness to attribute knowledge based on the available information. The results support this hypothesis. The results also show that the difference between “inside” and “outside” probabilistic information, familiar from the judgment and decision-making literature, affects epistemic modal judgments.

Beddor, Bob; Egan, Andy (2018): Might do better: Flexible relativism and the QUD, Semantics and Pragmatics, 18/7 (link)
The past decade has seen a protracted debate over the semantics of epistemic modals. According to contextualists, epistemic modals quantify over the possibilities compatible with some contextually determined group’s information. Relativists often object that contextualism fails to do justice to the way we assess utterances containing epistemic modals for truth or falsity. However, recent empirical work seems to cast doubt on the relativist’s claim, suggesting that ordinary speakers’ judgments about epistemic modals are more closely in line with contextualism than relativism (Knobe & Yalcin 2014; Khoo 2015). This paper furthers the debate by reporting new empirical research revealing a previously overlooked dimension of speakers’ truth-value judgments concerning epistemic modals. Our results show that these judgments vary systematically with the question under discussion in the conversational context in which the utterance is being assessed. We argue that this ‘QUD effect’ is difficult to explain if contextualism is true, but is readily explained by a suitably flexible form of relativism.

Dowell, Janice (2017): Truth-assessment methodology and the relativist case against contextualism about deontic modals, Res Philosophica, 94/3, 325-357 (link)
Recent challenges to Kratzer’s canonical contextualist semantics for modal expressions are united by a shared methodological practice: Each requires the assessment of the truth or warrant of a sentence in a scenario. The default evidential status accorded these judgments is a constraining one: It is assumed that, to be plausible, a semantic hypothesis must vindicate the reported judgments. Fully assessing the extent to which these cases do generate data that puts pressure on the canonical semantics, then, requires an understanding of this methodological practice. Here I argue that not all assessments are fit to play this evidential role. To play it, we need reason to think that speakers’ assessments can be reasonably expected to be reliable. Minimally, having such grounds requires that assessments are given against the background of non-defectively characterized points of evaluation. Assessing MacFarlane’s central challenge case to contextualism about deontic modals in light of this constraint shows that his judgments do not have the needed evidential significance. In addition, new experimental data shows that once the needed scenario is characterized non-defectively, none of the resulting range of cases provides data that cannot be accommodated by a Kratzer-style contextualism.

Kaiser, Elsi; Herron Lee, Jamie (2017): Predicates of personal taste and multidimensional adjectives: An experimental investigation, Proceedings of the 35th West Coast Conference On Formal Linguistics (link)
[no abstract available]

Katz, Jonah; Salerno, Joe (2017): Epistemic modal disagreement, Topoi 36/1, 141-153 (link)
At the center of the debate between contextualist versus relativist semantics for epistemic modal claims is an empirical question about when competent subjects judge epistemic modal disagreement to be present. John MacFarlane’s relativist claims that we judge there to be epistemic modal disagreement across the widest range of cases. We wish to dispute the robustness of his data with the results of two studies. Our primary conclusion is that the actual disagreement data is not consistent with relativist predictions, and so, that the primary motivation for relativism disappears. Our study differs from a related study by Knobe and Yalcin (Semant Pragmat 7(10):1–21, 2014) in that we focus directly on the question of genuine disagreement, as opposed to a question about truth or the appropriateness of retraction. Some of our findings agree with theirs about relativism. We uncover new lessons along the way, including that there are widespread situation effects of epistemic modal discourse; idiosyncratic features of the vignettes significantly influencing judgments about epistemic modal disagreement. We reflect with mixed feelings on the prospects for contextualism to accommodate our findings.

Liao, Shen-Yi; Meskin, Aaron (2017): Aesthetic adjectives: Experimental semantics and context-sensitivity, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94/2, 371-398 (link)
One aim of this essay is to contribute to understanding aesthetic communication—the process by which agents aim to convey thoughts and transmit knowledge about aesthetic matters to others. Our focus will be on the use of aesthetic adjectives in aesthetic communication. Although theorists working on the semantics of adjectives have developed sophisticated theories about gradable adjectives, they have tended to avoid studying aesthetic adjectives—the class of adjectives that play a central role in expressing aesthetic evaluations (e.g., ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘elegant’). And despite the wealth of attention paid to aesthetic adjectives by philosophical aestheticians, they have paid little attention to contemporary linguistic theories of adjectives. We take our work to be a first step in remedying these lacunae. In this paper, we present four experiments that examine one aspect of how aesthetic adjectives ordinarily function: the context-sensitivity of their application standards. Our results present a prima facie empirical challenge to a common distinction between relative and absolute gradable adjectives because aesthetic adjectives are found to behave differently from both. Our results thus also constitute a prima facie vindication of some philosophical aestheticians’ contention that aesthetic adjectives constitute a particularly interesting segment of natural language, even if the boundaries of this segment might turn out to be different from what they had in mind.

Khoo, Justin; Knobe, Joshua (2016): Moral disagreement and moral semantics, Nous, 1-35 (link)
When speakers utter conflicting moral sentences (“X is wrong”/“X is not wrong”), it seems clear that they disagree. It has often been suggested that the fact that the speakers disagree gives us evidence for a claim about the semantics of the sentences they are uttering. Specifically, it has been suggested that the existence of the disagreement gives us reason to infer that there must be an incompatibility between the contents of these sentences (i.e., that it has to be the case that at least one of them is incorrect). This inference then plays a key role in a now-standard argument against certain theories in moral semantics. In this paper, we introduce new evidence that bears on this debate. We show that there are moral conflict cases in which people are inclined to say both (a) that the two speakers disagree and (b) that it is not the case at least one of them must be saying something incorrect. We then explore how we might understand such disagreements. As a proof of concept, we sketch an account of the concept of disagreement and an independently motivated theory of moral semantics which, together, explain the possibility of such cases.

Liao, Shen-yi ; McNally, Louise; Meskin, Aaron (2016): Aesthetic adjectives lack uniform behavior, Inquiry 59/6, 618-631 (link)
The goal of this short paper is to show that esthetic adjectives—exemplified by “beautiful” and “elegant”—do not pattern stably on a range of linguistic diagnostics that have been used to taxonomize the gradability properties of adjectives. We argue that a plausible explanation for this puzzling data involves distinguishing two properties of gradable adjectives that have been frequently conflated: whether an adjective’s applicability is sensitive to a comparison class, and whether an adjective’s applicability is context-dependent.

Khoo, Justin (2015): Modal disagreement, Inquiry 58/5, 511–534 (link)
It is often assumed that when one party felicitously rejects an assertion made by another party, the first party thinks that the proposition asserted by the second is false. This assumption underlies various disagreement arguments used to challenge contextualism about some class of expressions. As such, many contextualists have resisted these arguments on the grounds that the disagreements in question may not be over the proposition literally asserted. The result appears to be a dialectical stalemate, with no independent method of determining whether any particular instance of disagreement is over the proposition literally asserted. In this paper, I propose an independent method for assessing whether a disagreement is about what’s literally asserted. Focusing on epistemic modals throughout, I argue that this method provides evidence that some epistemic modal disagreements are in fact not over the proposition literally asserted by the utterance of the epistemic modal sentence. This method provides a way to break the stalemate, and reveals a new data point for theories of epistemic modals to predict—that is, how there can be such modal disagreements. In the rest of the paper, I motivate a general theory of how to predict these kinds of disagreements, and then offer some brief remarks about how contextualist, relativist, and expressivist theories of epistemic modals might accommodate this new data point.

Knobe, Joshua; Yalcin, Seth (2014): Epistemic modals and context: Experimental data, Semantics and Pragmatics 7, 1-21 (link)
Recently, a number of theorists (MacFarlane (2003, 2011), Egan, Hawthorne & Weatherson (2005), Egan (2007), Stephenson (2007a,b)) have argued that an adequate semantics and pragmatics for epistemic modals calls for some technical notion of relativist truth and/or relativist content. Much of this work has relied on an empirical thesis about speaker judgments, namely that competent speakers tend to judge a present-tense bare epistemic possibility claim true only if the prejacent is compatible with their information. Relativists have in particular appealed to judgments elicited in so-called eavesdropping and retraction cases to support this empirical thesis. But opposing theorists have denied the judgments, and at present there is no consensus in the literature about how the speaker judgments in fact pattern. Consequently there is little agreement on what exactly a semantics and pragmatics for epistemic modals should predict about the pattern of judgments in these cases. Further theorizing requires greater clarity on the data to be explained. To clarify the data, we subjected eavesdropping and retraction cases to experimental evaluation. Our data provide evidence against the claim that competent speakers tend to judge a present-tense bare epistemic possibility claim true only if the prejacent is compatible with their information. Theories designed to predict this result are accordingly undermined.

Cova, Florian; Pain, Nicolas (2012): Can folk aesthetics ground aesthetic realism?, The Monist 95/2, 241-263 (link)
We challenge an argument that aims to support Aesthetic Realism by claiming, first, that common sense is realist about aesthetic judgments because it considers that aesthetic judgments can be right or wrong, and, second, that because Aesthetic Realism comes from and accounts for "folk aesthetics," it is the best aesthetic theory available. We empirically evaluate this argument by probing whether ordinary people with no training whatsoever in the subtle debates of aesthetic philosophy consider their aesthetic judgments as right or wrong. Having shown that the results do not support the main premise of the argument, we discuss the consequences for Aesthetic Realism and address possible objections to our study.