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Conférences de Manfred Krifka

Manfred Krifka, Professeur, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik & Berlin School of Mind and Brain
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Directeur, Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Directeur d’études invité à l’EHESS


fera une série de conférences (en anglais) sur le thème :


  • Assertions, Commitmentments, Judgements
  • Questions as Restrictions of Commitment Spaces
  • Conditional Commitments
  • Commands, Optatives, Expressives

à l’Ecole normale supérieure, 29 rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris, les mercredi de 15h à 17h, dans le cadre du séminaire "Philosophie du langage et de l’esprit" de François Recanati.

Manfred Krifka participera aussi au colloque Assertion and its Norms organisé à l’Institut d’Etudes Avancées et à l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, avec le soutien de l’IEA-Pais et du programme New Ideas in the Philosophy of Mind and Language (Département d’Etudes Cognitives, ENS) du 3 au 5 juin 2019.


• mercredi 29 mai, 15h17h, salle Ribot

Assertions and Questions in Commitment Spaces

The talk will introduce and develop the modeling of assertions and questions suggested in Krifka (2015). In this theory, the assertion of a proposition p by a speaker s consists in adding the proposition ‘s is committed to the truth of p’ to a set of propositions called “commitment state”. In the normal course of communication, the proposition p itself will enter the commitment space by conversational implicature. Questions, on the other hand, do not update but restrict the possible continuations of commitment states. If a speaker s asks a, the addressee, whether a proposition p holds, s constrains the default continuations to those in which a declares commitment to the truth of p ; the addressee a can also decline this request and, for example, declare commitment to the negation of p. The integration of questions in this dynamic model of communication naturally leads to the notion of “commitment space”, a set of commitment states with their possible continuations. Assertions and questions can then be expressed as restrictions of commitment spaces. Commitment spaces themselves are subject to operations like conjunction, disjunction, and complement formation, which allow for the modeling of speech act conjunction, disjunction, and denegation. I will then show how different types of questions — biased and unbiased polar questions, declarative questions, alternative questions, and constituent questions — can be modeled in a natural way within the framework of commitment spaces. 

Krifka, Manfred. 2015. Bias in Commitment Space Semantics : Declarative questions, negated questions, and question tags. SALT 25. LSA Open Journal Systems, 328-345.


• mercredi 5 juin, 15h-17h, salle Ribot

(with Beste Kamali) :

Focus and Contrastive Topics in Assertions and Questions

This talk is based on the presentation “Assertions and Questions in Commitment Spaces” and will develop a model of the information-theoretic notions of focus and contrastive topic for speech acts like assertions and questions. I will first show how the well-known notion that focus in an assertion expresses the explicit or implicit question that the assertion answers (cf. von Stechow 1990, Rooth 1992), as in Who talked to John ? — MARY talked to John, can be modeled in the dynamic theory of updates of commitment spaces : Focus in an assertive update indicates a disjunction of alternative updates, with the requirement that each possible continuation of the input commitment space is an update alternative. I will then show that this interpretation of focus in assertion can be generalized to the case of focus in polar questions, for which there are specialised morphosyntactic markers in languges like Russian and Turkish (li and mI). In particular, a question like Was it MARY who talked to John ? presupposes an input commitment space similar to the one generated after the constituent question Who talked to John ?, with the result that a negative answer is felt to be incomplete, and has to be supplied by an answer to the underlying constituent question, as in No, BILL talked to John. 

I will then turn to contrastive topics, which also introduce alternatives (cf. Hirschberg 1984, Roberts 1996, Büring 2003). In assertions, a sentence likeAs for MARY, she talked to JOHN answers a question like Who did Mary and Sue talk to ?, where contrastive topic on Mary indicates that the assertion is not a complete answer. I will argue that the contrastive topic alternatives indicate a conjunction of questions in the input commitment space, in contrast to focus alternatives, which indicate a disjunction of questions. I will show that this reconstruction of contrastive topics in assertions generalizes to contrastive topics in questions, as in As for Mary, who did she talk to ? In general, I will argue that focus indicates disjunction, and contrastive topic indicates conjunction of alternatives. I will show why contrastive topic always has to scope over focus, and that commitment spaces are suitable to encode the information in so-called discouse trees (Roberts 1996, Büring 2003, Oneda 2016) that model questions under discussion. 

Büring, Daniel. 2003. On D-trees, beans, and B-accents. Linguistics and Philosophy 26 : 511-545.

Hirschberg, Julia. 1985. A theory of scalar implicature. In : (ed), Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania. 

Roberts, Craige. 1996. Information structure in discourse : Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. In : Yoon, J. H. & Andreas Kathol, (eds), OSU Working Papers in Linguistics 49 : Papers in Semantics. Columbus : The Ohio State University, 91-136.

Onea, Edgar. 2016. Potential questions at the semantics-pragmatics interface. Brill.

Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1 : 75-116.

von Stechow, Arnim. 1990. Focusing and backgrounding operators. In : Abraham, Werner, (ed), Discourse particles. Amsterdam : John Benjamins, 37-84.


• mercredi 19 juin, 15h-17h salle Ribot

Conditional Commitments

In lingustics semantics, conditional sentences like if Mary was at the party, the party was fun are rendered as conditional presuppositions, which have a truth value given a situation. However, there is ample evidence that an analysis of conditional sentences as conditional speech acts might be preferable ; even proponents of the first view see evidence for the second (cf Stalnaker 2006). To name just one problem of the conditional proposition view, it is difficult to see how it may accommodate cases in which the main clause of the conditional is not an assertion, but a command, optative, or exclamative, as in if Mary was at the party, how fun the party must have been ! I will argue that the framework of commitment spaces, as proposed in Krifka (2015) and in previous lectures, allows for a formally coherent and promising theory of conditional speech acts. Commitment spaces model the admissible continuations of commitment states. Update of a commitment space by a conditional speech act indicates that for all continuations in which the proposition of the protasis clause holds, the speech act effect of the consequent holds as well. In the case of conditional assertion, the update ensures that in all cases in which the protasis is established, the effect of the assertion of the apodosis holds as well. For our example, this means that whenever it is established that Mary was at the party, the speaker is committed to the truth that the party was fun. This generalizes to other speech acts, like exclamatives. If an exclamative indicates a public epistemic or affective stance towards a proposition or an entity, then a conditional assertion restricts a commitment space in such a way that for all developments of the commitment space in which the antecedent proposition is established, the epistemic or affective stance by the speaker towards the proposition holds. 

This analysis will be generalized from indicative conditionals to subjunctive, or counterfactual, commitments, like If Mary had been at the party, the party would have been fun. I will argue that such sentences require loosening up the established information in a commitment space in a minmal way such that the antecedent proposition can be assumed ; in such cases, the consequent speech act holds as well. I will also talk about biscuit conditionals, as inIn case you are hungry, there are biscuits on the counter, which I argue to involve a representation of conditional speech acts as involving an operation not only on possible developments of commitment spaces, but also of the history the world takes. 

Krifka, Manfred. 2015. Bias in Commitment Space Semantics : Declarative questions, negated questions, and question tags. SALT 25. LSA Open Journal Systems, 328-345.

Stalnaker, Robert. 2009. Conditional propositions and conditional assertions. In : Egan, Andy & E. Weatherson, (eds), Epistemic modality. Oxford University Press, 


Talk in Workshop “Assertions and its Norms”

• lundi 3 juin, 14h15-15h15, Institut d’Etudes Avancées


Commitments and Judgements : How to Adjust the Manner and Content of your Assertions

In this talk I will have a closer look at linguistic ingrediences of assertion. I will argue that the essence of assertion is the public commitment of a speaker to a proposition that is backed up by social sanctions (e.g., Peirce ca. 1905, cf. Tuzet 2006 ; Brandom 1983, and others). Assertion is not, I will argue, the expression of the speaker’s belief in a proposition, or the intention that the addressee beliefs a proposition (as argued for, e.g., by Bach & Harnish 1979, among many others). However, there are assertions in which speakers explicitly express their beliefs, as in I think that it will rain tomorrow, and in general the assertion of subjective epistemic clauses, as in It probably will rain tomorrow. I will argue that such sentences show that assertive commitments need not be to simple propositions, but also to propositions that express private judgements. I will show that the distinction between public assertions and private judgements can be found in the work of Peirce, but also Frege (1918). Private judgements can form the justifications of public commitments (as Peirce and Frege probably envisioned), but in addition, there are public commitments to private judgements. 

I will then argue that there are linguistic expressions that adjust the manner of public commitment of an assertion, and expressions that adjust the proposition that is asserted. As for the latter, these are epistemic and evidential operators, as in I think…, probably…, people say that… or according to the weather report. Committing to a proposition that is epistemically or evidentially modified in this way is easily seen as a weaker commitment (e.g., Wolf 2015). However, I will argue that such sentences express regular assertive commitments, although to a different proposition that consists in a private judgement, and hence is more difficult to question and easier to defend. As for the former, I will point out that there are expressions like by Godseriouslyunquestionably, or loosely speaking that indeed adjust the manner of level of commitment of an assertion. 

Finally, I will argue that commitment modifiers have scope over judgement modifiers, and propose a syntactic structure that identifies a “commitment phrase”, a “judgement phrase”, and a propositional phrase, traditionally called Tense Phrase. 


Bach, Kent & Robert M. Harnish. 1979. Linguistic communication and speech acts. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.

Brandom, Robert B. 1983. Asserting. Noûs 17 : 637-650.

Frege, Gottlob. 1918. Der Gedanke. Eine logische Untersuchung. Beiträge zur Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus 2 : 1918-1919.

Tuzet, Giovanni. 2006. Responsible for Truth ? Peirce on judgement and assertion. Cognitio 7 : 317-336.

Wolf, Lavi. 2015. Degrees of Assertion. Doctoral dissertation. Negev : Ben Gurion University of the Negev.