Is A Question Just a Set of Answers? (A Plea for Force!)

It’s an important fact — a fact central to their very nature — that interrogative sentences are typically used to ask. (This is not, I take it, an epiphenomenon of language use. Compare the unsurprising fact that oft-used verbs — e.g. ‘To be’ — tend to have irregular conjugations.) Instead, this fact derives somehow from the meaning of interrogatives. Now consider the standard view of interrogatives, according to which they correspond to a set of propositions — specifically, the ones which intuitively provide the answer to the question. How does the set-of-answers proposal explain the use of interrogatives? Here’s a first guess: The kind of object which interrogatives are said to denote, namely, sets of answers, somehow correlates with the act of asking. The idea would be that, in virtue of denoting this kind of (rather complex) object, utterances of interrogative sentences are able to exhibit a different standard use than, say, utterances of declarative sentences.

This first guess is initially plausible, but ultimately unsatisfying — because there are phrases which share this denotation type, but lack the standard use. Consider, to develop three of the best known variations on the theme in Hamblin, Karttunen and Higginbotham:

1. That unique set whose sole member is IT IS NOT RAINING

2. That unique set whose members are IT IS RAINING and IT IS NOT RAINING

3. That unique set whose members are the unit sets {IT IS RAINING} and {IT IS NOT RAINING}

The noun phrases in (1), (2) and (3) each denote a set. (Notice: I specifically do not use a definite description, to make it clear that these are referential and not quantificational expressions.) Indeed, each denotes the very same set as ‘Is it raining?’ — according to the first, second and third variants of the set-of-answers story, respectively. And yet, whereas ‘Is it raining’ is typically used to ask, (1), (2) and (3) are not.

Why is this? Not because phrases can never be used on their own. As I spend far too much of my time arguing, words and phrases can be, and often are, used outside any sentence: E.g., I can begin a conversation with ‘Hungry?’, or ‘A friend of yours?’ Nor, it seems to me, is it because the content too difficult to understand, when couched in these substantival terms: It’s not as if these noun phrases are so much more difficult to parse than the corresponding interrogative sentence. Rather, ‘Is it raining?’ is understood as having a typical use which (1), (2) and (3) lack because the sentence has interrogatival force as part of its content, whereas none of the phrases do.

What’s more, there’s an overarching reason for thinking that the nature of the object denoted could not determine that, for example, the expression is used to ask: If there were such inherently interrogatival objects, we could not speak of them without attempting to ask a question! Any reference to such an object would, by definition, be interrogatival. Hence saying something about such objects would not be possible. Indeed, if the alleged object which gives ‘Is it raining?’ its use exists, then the phrase ‘that alleged object which gives ‘Is it raining’ its use’ refers to this object. In which case, this latter phrase should also be used to ask… and my last full sentence, in using this phrase, should have been interrogatival in force. This is clearly absurd. I conclude that there is no way in which the kind of object denoted could, in and of itself, determine the use of the denoting expression.

We need (illocutionary) force!


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