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Presupposition

Basically, a presupposition occurs when you base something on a presumptionFor example, if you presume it's going to rain, you might say, "I'll get my rain jacket before I leave." It's a pretzel of a concept when you get into it, though, so here we un-pretzel the pragmatics of the presupposition, including using the negation test to determine whether or not something is a presupposition in the first place.

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Presupposition

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Basically, a presupposition occurs when you base something on a presumption. For example, if you presume it's going to rain, you might say, "I'll get my rain jacket before I leave." It's a pretzel of a concept when you get into it, though, so here we un-pretzel the pragmatics of the presupposition, including using the negation test to determine whether or not something is a presupposition in the first place.

Presupposition Meaning

In pragmatics, the meaning of presupposition is more or less synonymous with the common term, at least on the surface.

Presupposition: an assumed-to-be-true fact upon which an utterance is delivered

For a simple example, take this sentence:

The dog no longer barks at the mailman.

Although it is unstated, the speaker assumes something to be true here.

  • The speaker presupposes the dog once barked at the mailman.

After all, if the dog did not once bark, there would be little cause to say it no longer barks. And if the dog never barked at the mailman, the utterance would probably be:

The dog has never barked at the mailman.

Where the discussion of presupposition in pragmatics might differ from the broader discussion of presupposition lies in the goal of pragmatic discourse. Pragmatic discourse aims to explain how language impacts social interactions. Pragmatism values immediacy as well as context, which means that many presuppositions in the utterance “the dog no longer barks at the mailman” are less important or potentially irrelevant, such as these:

  • The speaker presupposes there’s a dog in this situation.

  • The speaker presupposes dogs can bark.

  • The speaker presupposes a bark can be directed at something.

  • The speaker presupposes dogs and mailmen exist.

These presuppositions increasingly become a matter of existential, not pragmatic, discourse. Take a closer look at this one:

  • The speaker presupposes dogs and mailmen exist.

No one outside an existential or ontological arena would dispute this. Indeed, the only arguments to be made that dogs and mailmen don’t exist are existential. This is because, observably and in the plain use of the word “existence,” dogs and mailmen exist. As such, this presupposition has limited social relevancy and is unlikely to be on the speaker’s mind when saying, “The dog no longer barks at the mailman.”

Presupposition. A mailman. StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - You can make countless presuppositions about mailmen, but not all are relevant to a given situation.

So while a pragmatist would recognize “dogs and mailmen exist” are presuppositions, they are of lesser interest because they provide less immediate context.

A presupposition is taken for granted. More pragmatically interesting presuppositions are those things “taken for granted” that might be false.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most immediate presupposition of “the dog has never barked at the mailman” is “the dog once barked at the mailman.” Although it is not likely to be in question, the change in the dog’s condition (from barking to not barking) is the subject of the utterance. This is what the person is talking about. Thus, it is most relevant to the utterance; thus, it is most relevant to the pragmatic discussion.

So while any given utterance has countless presuppositions, in pragmatic terms, the most remarkable presuppositions have social immediacy. This form of relevancy can be determined by the utterance’s intent, the conditions of the presupposition, and other factors, such as the presupposition’s ramifications.

In an amusing twist of fate, if two Buddhists were discussing the nature of non-being, a pragmatist would suddenly become very interested in ontological presuppositions because ontology is the subject of their social interaction!

Presupposition Negation Test

One interesting (and useful) aspect of a true presupposition is its ability to be tested by negation.

Presupposition negation test: when you take a positive utterance, turn it negative, and see whether the presupposition of the positive utterance remains true in the negative. If it remains true, then the presupposition is, indeed, a presupposition.

A presupposition of a positive utterance is not invalidated when you turn that utterance negative.

Take this example of the test.

Utterance: The girl drinks milk.

  • Presupposition: girls can drink milk

Utterance in the negative: The girl does not drink milk.

  • The presupposition “girls can drink milk” is not invalidated or subject to any necessary change. Thus, the presupposition passes the test and is a presupposition.

The negation test is useful for distinguishing presuppositions from entailments.

Linguistic entailment: when a less specific sentence variation is made true by a true sentence. It’s a mode of deductive reasoning.

For example, “Winnie is a brown dog” entails “Winnie is a dog.” Therefore, if “Winnie is a brown dog” is true, the less specific sentence “Winnie is a dog” is made true.

The following charts contain utterances in the positive and negative as well as example presuppositions and entailments.

Presupposition

Entailment

Winnie is a brown dog.

Dogs can be brown.

Winnie is a dog. Winnie is brown.

Winnie is not a brown dog.

Dogs can be brown. (can remain true)

Winnie is not brown, not a dog, or not either.

Notice how the entailment must change to be true in the negative; this isn’t the case with the presupposition, which can continue to remain true in the negative.

Presuppositions are implicit and not explicit in an utterance, while entailments are explicit and not implicit in an utterance.

Don’t think that “Winnie is not a brown dog” presupposes “dogs can be brown.” The reason is pretty simple: if you think one supposes the other in that case, then you should also think that “Winnie is not a blue dog” presupposes “dogs can be blue.” They follow the same formula, yet obviously, “Winnie is not a blue dog” doesn’t presuppose dogs can be blue; it is a mere utterance of fact — absurdly pointless though it is.

This is why the negation test for presuppositions merely checks that a presupposition can be true in the negative and not that it is true in the negative. For a test to work, the logic must remain consistent across all kinds of examples, including absurd ones.

This isn’t to say there are no presuppositions for the utterance “Winnie is not a brown dog.” A presupposition of it would be “things don’t have to be brown dogs.” Another would be, “something can be called Winnie.” However, that’s about it.

Types of Presuppositions

A pragmatist can use various linguistic cues called presupposition triggers to identify presuppositions; here are some common types.

Definitive Descriptions

The definitive description is a common cue that a presupposition has occurred. A definitive description occurs when one thing is put in context.

One thing: The smile

One thing in context: The smile warmed my heart.

The presupposition: There was a smile.

Questions

Questions cue a presupposition because they presuppose an answer is possible.

The question: What are you making?

The presupposition: Something can be made.

Factive Verbs

Factive verbs presuppose that something is the case. Some factive verbs include to learn, to realize, and to be aware.

The use of a factive verb: I learned Rachel has a sister.

Because one can’t learn something if that something doesn’t exist, the presupposition here is that Rachel has a sister.

Factive verbs work on the merit of a presupposed condition.

Iteratives

Iteratives describe something in a different form, presupposing other forms have or will exist. Iteratives often describe occurrences.

The use of an iterative: The truck stopped this time.

The presupposition: The truck didn’t stop at another time or may not stop the next time.

Temporal Clauses

Temporal clauses presuppose that something did or will happen. Because they are clauses, temporal clauses contain a subject and a predicate, and thus they describe a complete condition for something else to occur.

The use of a temporal clause: When things go south, I buy nacho cheese to eat by the gallon.

The presupposition: Things have gone south before.

Presupposition. Nacho chips and cheese pillow bountifully in a bowl. StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Different temporal clauses can result in the same thing. Someone else might say, "When I watch football, I buy nacho cheese to eat by the gallon."

Presupposition Examples

Try to identify the most relevant presupposition in the following example. Again, pragmatically, try to find what’s relevant to the social context. To aid you, this example will include a situation.

The situation: The mayor of a big city is speaking to reporters about a criminal at large.

Mayor: We’ve just learned that the notorious Crockpot Killer has claimed another victim.

Now, try to identify some relevant presuppositions. Here are two:

  • The factive verb “to learn” presupposes that everything following it did indeed happen, or else it could not be learned. In other words, the notorious Crockpot Killer did, in fact, claim another victim.

  • The iterative “another” presupposes that the Crockpot Killer has claimed at least one previous victim.

Now, neither of these things would matter much if what the mayor says is true. However, say the victim is later identified as not a victim of the Crockpot Killer. The mayor would naturally need to answer some hard questions. However, because she used a factive verb in the earlier report, she might retort to any criticism with something like:

Mayor: That's what I learned from the police.

By saying this, the mayor puts the burden on the police. She reported the news thinking it was a fact.

As you can see, to examine presuppositions meaningfully, you need quite a bit of context.

Presupposition vs. Presumption

In pragmatics, there is no specific term called “presumption.” A presumption is merely the common usage.

Presumption: something assumed to be true. It is synonymous with an implicit assumption.

A presupposition is a kind of presumption. The only difference is that a presupposition is a pragmatic term used to describe a kind of presumption upon which a distinct idea is founded.

For example, if you presume cats don’t like dogs, you might make the statement:

When the dog comes into the room, the cat will run.

In this example, the presupposition is also that “cats don’t like dogs” because you’ve used that presumption to draw a conclusion.

Now, note that presumptions are not like arguments. Presumptions are things you don’t even think to consider. They are a given. So, if you presume cats don’t like dogs and say, “When the dog comes into the room, the cat will run,” you’re not stating an argument so much as you’re stating what is, to you, a fact.

In turn, things you presume to be facts are presuppositions.

Think of a presumption as a building block. It’s a more generic term that helps to pull into focus the pragmatic presupposition.

Presupposition - Key Takeaways

  • A presupposition is an assumed-to-be-true fact upon which an utterance is delivered.
  • A presupposition is taken for granted. More pragmatically interesting presuppositions are those things “taken for granted” that might be false.
  • In pragmatic terms, the most remarkable presuppositions have social immediacy.
  • Use the presupposition negation test to verify whether something is a presupposition or something else, like a linguistic entailment.
  • A pragmatist uses various linguistic cues to identify presuppositions, such as definitive descriptions, questions, factive verbs, iteratives, and temporal clauses.

Frequently Asked Questions about Presupposition

A presupposition is an assumed-to-be-true fact upon which an utterance is delivered.

A pragmatist uses various linguistic cues to identify types of presuppositions, such as definitive descriptions, questions, factive verbs, iteratives, and temporal clauses.

A presupposition is taken for granted. More pragmatically interesting presuppositions are those things “taken for granted” that might be false.

Use the presupposition negation to test to verify whether something is a presupposition or something else, like a linguistic entailment.

A presupposition is a kind of presumption. The only difference is that a presupposition is a pragmatic term used to describe a kind of presumption upon which a distinct idea is founded. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

A presupposition is a kind of presumption.

The most remarkable presuppositions have _____ immediacy.

A presupposition of a positive utterance is invalidated when you turn that utterance negative.

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