presupposition n : the act of presupposing; a supposition made prior to having knowledge (as for the purpose of argument)
- a UK /ˈpɹiˌsʌp.ə.zɪʃ.ən/, /"pri%sVp.@.zIS.@n/
assumption, conjecture, speculation or something supposed without proof
act of presupposing
- Dutch: veronderstelling, (het) veronderstellen, aanname, (het) aannemen
- Portuguese: pressuposição
In linguistics, a presupposition is background belief, relating to an utterance, that:
- must be mutually known or assumed by the speaker and addressee for the utterance to be considered appropriate in context
- will generally remain a necessary assumption whether the utterance is placed in the form of an assertion, denial, or question, and
- can be associated with a specific lexical item or grammatical feature (presupposition trigger) in the utterance.
In pragmatics, a presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world whose truth is taken for granted in discourse. Examples of presuppositions include:
- Do you want to do it again?
- Presupposition: You have done it already, at least once.
- Jane no longer writes fiction.
- Presupposition: It is assumed that Jane once wrote fiction.
Crucially, negation of an expression does not change its presuppositions: I want to do it again and I don't want to do it again both presuppose that the subject has done it already one or more times; My wife is pregnant and My wife is not pregnant both presuppose that the subject has a wife. In this respect, presupposition is distinguished from entailment and implication. For example, The president was assassinated entails that The president is dead, but if the expression is negated, the entailment is not necessarily true.
Negation of a sentence containing a presuppositionIf presuppositions of a sentence are not consistent with the actual state of affairs, then one of two approaches can be taken. Given the sentences My wife is pregnant and My wife is not pregnant when one has no wife, then either:
- Both the sentence and its negation are false; or
- Strawson's approach: Both "my wife is pregnant" and "my wife is not pregnant" use a wrong presupposition (that there exists an object which can be described with the noun phrase my wife) and therefore can not be assigned truth values.
Russell tries to solve this dilemma with two interpretations of the negated sentence:
- "There exists exactly one person, who is my wife and who is not pregnant"
- "There does not exist exactly one person, who is my wife and who is pregnant."
For the first phrase, Russell would claim that it is false, whereas the second would be true according to him.
Projection of presuppositionsA presupposition of a part of an utterance is sometimes also a presupposition of the whole utterance, and sometimes not. We've seen that the phrase my wife triggers the presupposition that I have a wife. The first sentence below carries that presupposition, even though the phrase occurs inside an embedded clause. In the second sentence, however, it does not. John might be mistaken about his belief that I have a wife, or he might be deliberately trying to misinform his audience, and this has an effect on the meaning of the second sentence, but, perhaps surprisingly, not on the first one.
- John thinks that my wife is beautiful.
- John said that my wife is beautiful.
- If I have a wife, then my wife is blond.
- If it's already 4am, then my wife is probably angry.
A significant amount of current work in semantics and pragmatics is devoted to a proper understanding of when and how presuppositions project.
Accommodation of presuppositionsA presupposition of a sentence must normally be part of the common ground of the utterance context (the shared knowledge of the interlocutors) in order for the sentence to be felicitous. Sometimes, however, sentences may carry presuppositions that are not part of the common ground and nevertheless be felicitous. For example, I can, upon being introduced to someone, out of the blue explain that my wife is a dentist, this without my addressee having ever heard, or having any reason to believe that I have a wife. In order to be able to interpret my utterance, the addressee must assume that I have a wife. This process of an addressee assuming that a presupposition is true, even in the absence of explicit information that it is, is usually called presupposition accommodation. We have just seen that presupposition triggers like my wife (definite descriptions) allow for such accommodation. In important unpublished work, the philosopher Saul Kripke noted that some presupposition triggers do not seem to permit such accommodation. An example of that is the presupposition trigger too. This word triggers the presupposition that, roughly, something parallel to what is stated has happened. For example, if pronounced with emphasis on John, the following sentence triggers the presupposition that somebody other than John had dinner in New York last night.
- John had dinner in New York last night, too.
Other uses of the termCritical discourse analysis identifies the ideological function of presuppositions, particularly in the concept of synthetic personalisation.
In epistemology, presuppositions relate to a belief system, or Weltanschauung, and are required for it to make sense. A variety of Christian apologetics, called presuppositional apologetics, argues that the existence or non-existence of God is the basic presupposition of all human thought, and that all men arrive at a worldview which is ultimately determined by the theology they presuppose. Evidence and arguments are only marshalled after the fact in an attempt to justify the theological assumptions already made. According to this view, it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God unless one presupposes that God exists; modern science is incapable of discovering the supernatural because it relies on methodological naturalism and thereby fashions a Procrustean bed which rejects any observation which would disprove the naturalistic assumption. The best the apologist can do is to argue that the resulting worldview is somehow inconsistent with itself (for example, via the Argument from morality or via the Transcendental argument for the existence of God).
- Beaver, David. 1997. Presupposition. In J. van Benthem and A. ter Meulen (eds.), The Handbook of Logic and Language, Elsevier, pp. 939-1008.
- Beaver, David and Henk Zeevat. To appear. Accommodation. In Ramchand, G. and C. Reiss (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Interfaces, Oxford University Press.
presupposition in German: Präsupposition
presupposition in French: Présupposé
presupposition in Latvian: presuppozīcija
presupposition in Japanese: 前提
presupposition in Polish: Presupozycja
presupposition in Russian: Пресуппозиция
presupposition in Swedish: Presupposition
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