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Journal Article

Another way to look at counterfactuals


Klein,  Wolfgang
Emeriti, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Klein, W. (2021). Another way to look at counterfactuals. Theoretical Linguistics, 47, 189-226. doi:10.1515/tl-2021-2019.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-9237-4
Counterfactuals such as If the world did not exist, we would not notice it have been a challenge for philosophers and linguists since antiquity. There is no generally accepted semantic analysis. The prevalent view, developed in varying forms by Robert Stalnaker, David Lewis, and others, enriches the idea of strict implication by the idea of a “minimal revision” of the actual world. Objections mainly address problems of maximal similarity between worlds. In this paper, I will raise several problems of a different nature and draw attention to several phenomena that are relevant for counterfactuality but rarely discussed in that context. An alternative analysis that is very close to the linguistic facts is proposed. A core notion is the “situation talked about”: it makes little sense to discuss whether an assertion is true or false unless it is clear which situation is talked about. In counterfactuals, this situation is marked as not belonging to the actual world. Typically, this is done in the form of the finite verb in the main clause. The if-clause is optional and has only a supportive role: it provides information about the world to which the situation talked about belongs. Counterfactuals only speak about some nonactual world, of which we only know what results from the protasis. In order to judge them as true or false, an additional assumption is required: they are warranted according to the same criteria that warrant the corresponding indicative assertion. Overall similarity between worlds is irrelevant.