The notions of context and contextual disambiguation are either implicitly or explicitly deployed in order to solve problems of ambiguous reference and meaning in the majority of the theories of reference and meaning (not involving reductions of meaning and reference to relations like satisfaction) that I can recall. The most egregious examples I am thinking of include, for example, a provision stating that the determination of the referent of a proper name used by a speaker in a context of utterance involves "general principles of contextual disambiguation." It may be true that "general principles of contextual disambiguation" are required for the determination of a speaker's reference by means of a proper name, but the suggestion is certainly unhelpful.

A considerable amount of work in analytic and continental philosophy about the relationship between context, ambiguity and rules has been done. Here, I am thinking of Derrida's discussion of Condillac, Austin and Searle in Signature Event Context. Similarly, Quine's theses on the indeterminacy of translation and inscrutability of reference presented in Word and Object and subsequent essays have purportedly demonstrated the underdetermination of translation and reference by publicly observable behaviour and linguistic information. Finally, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations contains notoriously ambiguous discussions on the underdetermination of correct meaning, reference, and behaviour by rules.

However, many authors appeal to context in order to formulate either formal or pre-formal semantic theories. I am thinking, in particular, of work on demonstrates and indexicals by Frege, Kripke, Perry, Kaplan, Searle, Evans, Burge, Geach, Salmon, Soames, and so forth. Some of these authors disagree with the conclusions of Wittgenstein and Quine. Others believe that a satisfactory theory of meaning and reference involving context can be obtained despite the conclusions of Wittgenstein and Quine. However, I have been unable to locate satisfactory discussions of the problem of ambiguity and context in many of the "canonical" papers by these authors. Hence, what I am looking for is a selection of "canonical" papers in the analytic tradition of philosophy of language exemplified by the listed or related authors on context and the problem of ambiguity.

Note: My use of the word "canonical" can be illustrated. There are many works on descriptions. Not all of these are canonical. However, Russell's "On Denoting," Strawson's "On Referring," Donnellan's "Reference and Definite Descriptions," Kripke's "Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference," and so forth, are all "canonical" papers on descriptions. They are "essential reading" in the sense that, if you haven't read them, then your philosophical education contains gaps. I am looking for similarly "essential" papers on context.


1 Answer 1


I'm not sure which canon of literature you are expecting to draw from, since you have explicitly excluded the canonical philosophical works on context.

Contextual disambiguation can be viewed linguistically as a semantic problem, so there is a body of literature looking at it from that perspective (within the discipline of Linguistics); similarly, it can be viewed as an applied psychology problem (if we wish to look at which mechanism people use in practice to disambiguate polysemous words or sentences). However, I doubt that either of these will rise above the level of "general principles" that you find unhelpful.

Problems of contextual disambiguation cannot be solved by any finite set of rules; this is demonstrated most handily by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations, and a similar impulse leads Derrida to point out that "context is never saturated", but you seem to already know that-- so I'm still not sure exactly what it is you are after.


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