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A sense of "every question involves presuppositions" can be gleaned from a definition like:

Belnap and Steel (1976, 5) define a question as presupposing a statement if and only if the truth of the statement is a logically necessary condition for there being a true (i.e., correct) answer to the question. ... To deny a presupposition of a question is to give a corrective answer to the question, but most theorists join Belnap and Steel in not counting corrective answers as direct answers.

I suppose what they have in mind is the pragmatic context of, say, "Have you stopped milking your giraffes?" If you don't have any giraffes, or if you never even started milking them, you commit a pragmatic gaffe if you say either, "Yes," or, "No," or even, "Maybe," here.

But that's just a pragmatic issue; more strictly, if you have no giraffes/never milked them to begin with, then you'd be "correct" to say, "No," since it's "logically" true that you can't stop doing something unless you've started doing it beforehand. I would expect the presupposition-relation to hold faster than just to our pragmatic expectations as such.

Now, there are also questions like, "If the last aardvark took over the universe, would every word starting with one a be rewritten with two a's in that position, e.g. America would become Aamerica, etc.?" Now a question having a pseudo-assertoric antecedent seems like "involving a presupposition," and at least for a sort of indexical reason, the erotetic consequent could appear to be deficient in intelligibility without us referring back to the meaning of the antecedent. E.g., if someone just asked, "Would every word starting with one a...?" we would wonder what the conditions of "Would" there, are.

Are conditional questions the only ones involving "semantic," not pragmatic, presuppositions; or are there some questions involving no presuppositions whatsoever, e.g. imperative questions like, "Count to 10?" Or might one say of even, "Count to 10?" that it "presupposes" the existence of counting and the number 10?

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    My first instinct is to suggest that even a question relating to the possibility of an existence presupposes at least that the extant thing can be named. Eg: "Can a !$@%@^ exist?", has now brought "!$@%@^" into existence, even if merely as a description of a potential thing. A one-word abstract question, such as "!$@%@^?" seems to make no commitment; no presupposition (not even that it is answerable), but it may not be deemed as a question if a requirement of a question is that it makes sense. If it is a question though, it seems to presuppose even this. Aug 5 at 13:50
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    @Futilitarian, I would be more comfortable with across-the-board modal presuppositions, here, maybe. Might even make for an interesting tie-in between erotetic and modal logic. Of course, if a non-conditional question has a presupposition, maybe the question + its presupposition can be reformulated as a conditional question, too, then, by the by... Aug 5 at 13:56
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    Let alone questions, doesn’t every act at all presuppose something? If I just let my hand drop do I not presuppose it won’t start of a nuclear explosion? But I’m not sure where you want this question to head.
    – J Kusin
    Aug 5 at 14:41
  • @JKusin, as far as questions go, my point of departure is the notion reported in the SEP article on questions. Vs. e.g. "Does the Princess of France have a beard?" the (recent) tradition was to suppose there was an existential presupposition behind such inquiry, which conjured the mysteries of nonexistent objects and ontological commitments into being (or brought them into sharper relief, anyway). However, "Everything presupposes something else," leads to infinitism in epistemology, and can be self-applied: do we just presuppose this global presupposition, or do we prove it? Aug 5 at 16:49
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    @KristianBerry thanks for the clear explanations. The epistemic infinistism doesn’t seem like the only move. The something else I assume for everything may be convergent to a smaller set. Like maybe I assume GR for everything I do, no troubling infinitism. This is probably too broad for your question though.
    – J Kusin
    Aug 5 at 17:49

2 Answers 2

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My answer would be yes, all questions presuppose, and what they presuppose, particularly as a statement logically or metaphysically prior, is essentially an abductive inference to be drawn. One is at the level of semantics, and might be referred to as the semantic frame or in the more philosophically inclined jargon analytical necessity. The second is at the level of discourse, and is often referred to as context. All questions therefore can be understood to have presuppositions of meaning at the level of the morpheme and then extend up to the context. In pragmatics, the question of what meanings "actually mean" is part of the nature of a language game, and what is presupposed in developed in discourse is subject to the cooperative principle.

So, resolving a question of anaphora for a hearer of a question is an easy case to identify:

Speaker What is she going to do about the bus?
Hearer And who is she, the antecedent to your pronoun?

But there's another presumption here, and that is about the word 'bus' which might have two different meanings depending on the context that might even resolve the anaphora for the hearer. Alternatively, to ferret out the presupposition:

Hearer And are talking about Mary or Jane?
Speaker Mary.
Hearer Oh, then you are talking about the design of the new data bus, and not Jane's trip home on public transportation, is that right?

Since every question presupposes context, the real deliberation for a hearer is generally much more fixed to a third layer of analysis, neither at the semantic or contextual level, but rather at the level of intention of the speaker.

Hearer And yet, I find it odd that you suggest this sentence does refer to Mary at all, because previously in the recorded conversation, you kept saying that Jane was riding the short, yellow bus. You thought Jane was stupid, and you hated her because of her bad decisions ruining your life, no? Aren't you really engaged in a dialog insulting Jane, and the reason Jane is dead is that you have means, opportunity, and now motive in your hatred of her to have murdered her?
Speaker Absolutely not. I was talking about Mary, I swear!
Hearer Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I leave it to you to decide given the words of the defendant, whether or not he was talking about Mary or Jane, and what was being said. But given the fact that the defendant has a history of talking negatively of Jane, in public at that, I trust you to use your common sense about the meaning of this conversation snippet.

So, in terms of linguistical pragmatics, not only are there questions about the units of meanings of words and meanings of words in passages, but there are presuppositions about intention that affect the interpretation of the prior two which can affect the process of abduction to determining presuppositions of utterances. This is exactly why Gricean maxims are so important to understanding pragmatics. They provide a rough framework that helps to explain why shared intentionality is requisite for playing the language-game.

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    I would also say that the presupposition of semantic meaning that inheres to a question can be at the level of definition, logic, or metaphysical. The first is commonly held associations of morphemes and lexical items, the second are inferences given the rules of logic, and the last are extra-logical presumptions about broad notions of domains of discourse or reality or realities shared or otherwise.
    – J D
    Aug 6 at 17:59
  • I wonder about a question like, "Does this question possibly have a correct answer?" where "this question" refers to itself. Does it presuppose its own existence, or does it suppose its existence modulo some prefix besides "pre-"? Or, "Possibly ask this question?" I don't mean these quite as counterexamples to your argument, but maybe more like new ways of looking at what's wrong with liar/related sentences/questions. Aug 6 at 17:59
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    Well, I would push back and say that you presuppose that presupposition is a property of the object (question) and not the agent (questioner). While you use "presuppose" in "does a question presuppose" to push back on questioning intention, you use equivocate between the metaphorical "presupposition" which means broad, logical necessitate and literal "presupposition" which is a belief-related process of an agent. As such, your questions more affirm than disconfirm my response.
    – J D
    Aug 6 at 18:06
  • "This question" is merely a tool for disambiguating which rather than some ontological commitment such as "there exists prior".
    – J D
    Aug 6 at 18:06
  • I definitely need to fix a sharper definition for "presupposition," here. I've got two sentimental accounts muddying about in my head (my college-years' philosophy professor saying that philosophy is reflecting on "the presuppositions of experience," and then the adverse form of the thesis in "presuppositional apologetics"). Aug 6 at 19:28
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I would be inclined to say there are always presuppositions, and not just with questions, but with categorical propositions. A presupposition of the instruction, "Count to 10" is that it invites the response, "Starting from where?" You might think starting from one is obvious, but many computer people prefer to start counting from zero and for good reasons.

More generally, a question or a proposition may include names, properties and relations. If there is a name, this presupposes that the name has a referent. The question, "Did Santa Claus bring you a nice present this year?" presupposes a non-existent object. There is a complication in that the referent might be clearly fictional in the context. The question, "Did Sherlock Holmes wear a deerstalker hat?" merits an affirmative answer, because the fictional world inhabited by Sherlock Holmes is obviously being assumed. Names need not be of individuals, but could be of substances. "Is there any phlogiston in this flask?" presupposes a scientific theory that is not in good standing.

Definite descriptions are notorious for presupposing things. There is of course Russell's, "The present king of France is bald". A more subtle example might be, "What would you see if you were at the edge of the universe?" Although this question is in conditional form because it is conditionalising on where you are standing, the more interesting presupposition is concerned with what the expression "the edge of the universe" is capable of meaning. Another example is, "What happened before the Big Bang?" Physicists today do not dismiss this question as frivolous, but any answer to it will have to involve all kinds of presuppositions, because we simply don't know.

Properties and relations may involve presuppositions. "Did event A happen before event B?" makes sense in classical physics, but within special relativity it requires us to specify an observer's frame of reference. And as with the phlogiston example, some properties or relations might not be in good scientific standing and so presuppose some outdated theory. "Does this stone have sufficient impetus to reach that wall?" might be an example.

As to whether this leads to infinite regress, I don't think it needs to. If you are having an argument with someone, you can always challenge what grounds they have to believe something and then challenge those grounds, but any regress need not be infinite, since hopefully you can find some point of common ground. Similarly, if someone utters a question or statement, you can always identify some presupposition, possibly unwarranted, but hopefully at some point you can agree on what an appropriate set of assumptions are in the circumstances.

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