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Experimenting on Contextualism


  • We wish to thank Aidan Gray, Chauncey Maher, Eliot Michaelson, Daniel Rothschild, Tim Sundell, members of the philosophy department at Umeå University, and the organizers and participants of the conference on ‘Meaning, Context and Implicit Content' in Cerisy, Normandy, in June 2011 for comments on this material. Thanks to two anonymous reviewers for this journal for providing very helpful remarks. And special thanks to François Recanati and Marie Guillot for proposing and organizing the colloquium on experimental work in semantics and pragmatics that prompted our collaboration on this project. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement no 229 441 - CCC.

Address for correspondence: Nat Hansen, Department of Philosophy, University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AA, U.K. Email:


In this article we refine the design of context shifting experiments, which play a central role in contextualist debates, and we subject a large number of scenarios involving different types of expressions of interest to contextualists, including ‘know’ and color adjectives like ‘green’, to experimental investigation. Our experiment (i) reveals an effect of changing contexts on the evaluation of uses of the sentences that we examine, thereby overturning the absence of results reported in previous experimental studies (so-called null results), (ii) uncovers evidence for a ‘truth bias' in favor of positive over negative sentences, and (iii) reveals previously unnoticed distinctions between the strength of the contextual effects displayed by scenarios involving knowledge ascriptions and scenarios concerning color and other miscellaneous scenarios.