Rubinstein Colloq Tuesday

Come to the Greenberg room on Tuesday at noon to hear Aynat Rubinstein (Georgetown) give a colloquium on “Necessity and comparison: The view from modality and mood”.

The ability to compare possibilities and to designate some as better than others is a fundamental aspect of our use of modal words and verbs of propositional attitude. When placed under an obligation or when expressing our desires, we designate as “better” those possibilities in which the obligation is met or the desire fulfilled as closely as possible.

While comparison of possibilities is part and parcel of modal semantic theory, two lines of research have argued that not all modals and attitude verbs are created equal in this respect. Among the modals, Sloman (1970) proposed that weak necessity ‘ought’ is comparative whereas strong necessity ‘must’ is not. Among attitude verbs, subjunctive-selecting attitudes in Romance have been argued to invoke comparison, unlike those that are indicative-selecting (e.g., Villalta 2008).

This talk offers to reconcile these claims about necessity and mood with the common assumption that all priority-based modal expressions involve comparison of possibilities. Building on my analysis of weak necessity (Rubinstein 2012) and recent joint work on verbal mood (Portner and Rubinstein to appear), I propose that true comparison reflects dependency on assumptions that are still negotiable, or “up for discussion” in a conversation. The split between the negotiable and the non-negotiable makes room for strong, non-comparative, normative modalities and attitudes and suggests a new dimension of the context-dependency of these expressions.