The Truth about Moods


Kirk Ludwig





Assertoric sentences are sentences that admit of truth or falsity.  Non-assertoric sentences, imperatives and interrogatives (as well as molecular sentences combining sentences in different moods), have long been a source of difficulty for the view that a theory of truth for a natural language can serve as the core of a theory of meaning.  The trouble for truth-theoretic semantics posed by non-assertoric sentences is that, prima facie, it does not make sense to say that imperatives, such as ‘Cut your hair’ or ‘Do not multiply entities beyond necessity’, or interrogatives such as ‘What time is it?’ or ‘Who will be the next President?’ are true or false.  Thus, the vehicle for giving the meaning of a sentence by using an interpretive truth theory, the T-sentence, is apparently unavailable for non-assertoric sentences.  My aim in this paper is to show how to incorporate non-assertoric sentences into a theory of meaning that gives central place to an interpretive truth theory for the language, without, however, reducing the non-assertorics to assertorics or treating their utterances as semantically equivalent to one or more utterances of assertoric sentences.  I explain how I wish to understand the project of giving a theory of meaning for a natural language by using a truth theory, and then review the difficulty posed by non-assertoric sentences, and set it against the background of a taxonomy of the uses of language in performing speech acts and some reflections on the relation between the taxonomy and the sentential moods.  In developing the approach, I review four proposals for how to incorporate (prima facie) non-assertoric sentences into a broadly truth-theoretical semantics.  These proposals fall into two classes, those that attempt to explain the meaning of apparently non-assertoric sentences solely by appeal to truth conditions, and those that attempt to explain the meaning of non-assertoric sentences by appeal to a notion of compliance conditions.  The first approach attempts to give the semantics of imperatives and interrogatives solely by appeal to the resources already provided within the framework of an interpretive truth theory.  The second approach aims to provide a treatment of non-assertoric sentences in the framework of theory of generalized fulfillment conditions for sentences that admit of subvarieties, one of which is truth conditions.  In the truth conditional approach, I examine the performative paraphrase approach, championed by David Lewis, though the proposal antedates his “General Semantics” in which he takes it up, and the truth conditional paratactic approach, developed by Donald Davidson in “Moods and Performatives”.  In the generalized fulfillment condition approach, I examine two proposals of Colin McGinn=s, a fulfilment condition paratactic approach and fulfillment condition operator approach.   I will argue that none of these approaches is successful.   I will develop a version of the generalized fulfillment approach that avoids the difficulties of previous approaches and still exhibits a truth theory as the central component of a compositional meaning theory for all sentences of natural languages.  Finally, I show how to integrate this into a generalization of the kind of theory of meaning I describe initially, and review some open questions about the legitimate combinations of sentences of different moods in molecular sentences and the range of mood devices found in natural languages.