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Consider the following famous example from Bertrand Russell.

    (1) The present king of France is bald.

According to Russell, (1) is false because it asserts the existence of the present king of France. However, following P. F. Strawson (1952), a number of philosophers and linguists have maintained that, if there is no present king of France, an utterance of (1) fails to have a determinate truth-valuein Strawson's words, the question of whether (1) is true or false "does not arise." On this view, (1) therefore does not assert or even entail the existence of the present king of France but rather "presupposes" his existence.

The Range of Phenomena

Sentences like (1) are argued to presuppose the existence of a particular individual, but there are many other "presupposition" effects. It has been argued, for example, that factive verbs such as know and regret presuppose the truth of their complement clauses and that "certain aspectuals"a class of verbs such as quit and continue also presuppose certain actions having taken place (this class covers the example "Have you stopped beating your dog?"). It also appears that a number of modifiers introduce presupposition effects, for example again, too, even, and so forth. L. Karttunen (1973) argued that in propositional-attitude environments such as "Fred wants to sell his unicorn" it is presupposed that Fred believes he has a unicorn. A number of additional constructions that invoke presupposition effects have been explored, including those triggered by phonological stress. So, for example, if I say "I didn't go to the baseball game," it arguably presupposes that I went to some other kind of game.

Presupposition versus Entailment

The philosophical controversy surrounding presupposition comes in at the very beginningdetermining whether these are genuine cases of presupposition or are merely cases of entailment. To illustrate, consider (2)(4):

    (2) Fred stopped washing the dishes.

    (3) Fred didn't stop washing the dishes.

    (4) Fred had been washing the dishes.

According to the presupposition thesis, both (2) and (3) presuppose (4). Hence, if (4) is false, then (2) and (3) must lack determinate truth-values. Alternatively, according to the entailment analysis, (2) entails (4). Should (4) be false, then according to the entailment analysis (2) will be false and (3) will be true. This dispute has all the makings of a stalemate, since it turns on speakers' intuitions about whether sentences lack genuine truth-values under the relevant conditions or are merely false. Indeed, Strawson (1964) came to doubt whether the matter could in fact be settled by "brisk little formal argument[s]" and offered that each view could be reasonable, depending on one's interests. Others have put more stock in brisk little formal arguments, notably D. Wilson (1975), who offered an extensive critique of the presuppositional analysis.

The Projection Problem

One of the most interesting questions to surface is the so-called projection problem for presupposition, first observed by D. T. Langendoen and H. Savin (1971). This problem involves the question of what happens when a construction with a presupposition is embedded in more complex constructions (e.g., in propositional-attitude constructions or in the scope of negation). To illustrate, when (2) is negated, yielding (3), it continues to presuppose (4)the presupposition is said to be projected. Other constructions, such as "doubts that," do not always project presuppositions, and still others (such as the "wants" case from Karttunen, discussed above) project something weaker than the original presupposition. The question is therefore whether projection presupposition is arbitrary or whether it obeys certain specific rules. Much subsequent work has attempted to articulate those "projection rules" (see Gazdar, 1979, Heim 1991, Karttunen 1973, and Soames 1979, 1982, for important examples).

Semantic versus Pragmatic Presupposition

If one accepts that there are genuine instances of presupposition, there remains the question of whether presupposition is a reflex of semantics or pragmaticsthat is, whether the presupposition follows from the meaning of the sentence or is merely part of the conversational background. R. Stalnaker (1974) gave several arguments in favor of the pragmatic alternative, including the interesting observation that, in a case like (5),

    (5) If Eagleton hadn't been dropped from the Democratic ticket, Nixon would have won the election

there seems to be a presupposition that Nixon lost, although the effect is weak, and, in the right context or given appropriate information, that presupposition can be overruled. This graded effect suggests that pragmatic phenomena are in play. Stalnaker also observed that the pragmatic alternative is useful in separating the question of entailment relations from the question of presupposition and in working out solutions to the projection problem. (But see Wilson 1975 for criticism of pragmatic accounts of presupposition.)


The doctrine of presupposition remains somewhat controversial, but at the same time it has found interesting applications. For example, B. van Fraassen (1968, 1970) argued that presupposition might be employed in the treatment of the "liar paradox" and proposed that liar sentences are neither true nor false owing to a presupposition failure. Presupposition has also played an important role in work on the semantics of propositional attitudes, much of it extending from the work of Karttunen (1973). I. Heim (1992), for example, has updated the initial Karttunen analysis with features of Stalnaker's presuppositional analysis. Still other research (including unpublished work by Saul Kripke) has investigated the interplay of presupposition and the analysis of discourse anaphora.

See also Anaphora; Kripke, Saul; Liar Paradox, The; Philosophy of Language; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Strawson, Peter Frederick.


Gazdar, G. Pragmatics. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Grice, P. "Presupposition and Conversational Implicature." In Radical Pragmatics, edited by P. Cole. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Heim, I. "On the Projection Problem for Presuppositions." In Pragmatics, edited by S. Davis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Heim, I. "Presupposition Projection and the Semantics of Attitude Verbs." Journal of Semantics 9 (1992): 183221.

Karttunen, L. "Presuppositions of Compound Sentences." Linguistic Inquiry 4 (1973): 169193.

Langendoen, D. T., and H. Savin. "The Projection Problem for Presupposition." In Studies in Linguistic Semantics, edited by C. Filmore and D. T. Langendoen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Soames, S. "How Presuppositions Are Inherited: A Solution to the Projection Problem." Linguistic Inquiry 13 (1982): 483545.

Soames, S. "A Projection Problem for Speaker Presuppositions." Linguistic Inquiry 10 (1979): 623666.

Stalnaker, R. "Pragmatic Presuppositions." In Semantics and Philosophy, edited by M. Munitz and D. Unger. New York, 1974.

Strawson, P. "Identifying Reference and Truth-Values." Theoria 3 (1964): 96118.

Strawson, P. Introduction to Logical Theory. New York: Wiley, 1952.

van Fraassen, B. "Presupposition, Implication, and Self-Reference." Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968): 136152.

van Fraassen, B. "Truth and Paradoxical Consequences." In The Paradox of the Liar, edited by R. L. Martin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970.

Wilson, D. Presuppositions and Non-Truth-Conditional Semantics. London: Academic Press, 1975.

Peter Ludlow (1996)

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