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This month, we get a little bit meta and ask our distinguished guests some questions about questions.  Or at least about the semantics of questions.  Jeroen Groenendijk is Professor of Philosophy of Language and Floris Roelofsen is Assistant Professor of Logic and Semantics at the Institute for Logic, Language, and Computation in Amsterdam. Click here to listen to our conversation.

What does a question mean?  And how does the meaning of a question relate to the meaning of a statement?  A traditional thought in the philosophy of language has been: I know the meaning of a statement when I know what it takes for the statement to be true.  If, given any hypothetical situation you might be able to describe, I can tell you whether the statement we’re considering would be true or false, then I know what it means.  Philosophers have tried to apply a similar idea to questions.  How can you tell that I understand what a question means?  I know what a question means when I know what would count as answering it.

In this episode, Jeroen Groenendijk and Floris Roelofsen propose that we enrich our old notion of sentence meaning in such a way that the literal content of a statement becomes the same kind of thing as the literal content of a question. The old way of formally representing the meaning of a question, building on what we just said, was to think of a question as literally meaning the set of all its possible answers. But what Groenendijk and Roelofsen have discovered is that if you think of a statement’s meaning as also being a set of possible ‘answers’ (often a set containing just one), then the attempt to define the question/statement distinction quickly leads to the theoretical possibility of sentences that are question/statement hybrids. And though the idea of these question/statement hybrids may seem odd at first, our guests argue that we can use it to address some outstanding problems that have arisen in the theory of meaning.

Join us as we explore this new research program!

Matt Teichman