Practical Modality (2012-14)

Project Summary:
The overarching aim of this pilot project is to explore the possibility of developing a new philosophical theory of the nature, content, and metaethical significance of practical modal concepts. Modal concepts, quite generally, are concepts that pertain to necessities, probabilities, and possibilities. All of the following English words and phrases are widely thought to express modal concepts: ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘ought to’, ‘need to’, ‘necessarily’, ‘certainly’, ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘may’, ‘maybe’, ‘might’, ‘could’, and ‘can’. Two well-studied categories of modal concepts are alethic and epistemic modals. Alethic modals pertain to a proposition being necessarily or possibly true in light of some metaphysical, logical, mathematical, or natural law. Epistemic modals pertain to a proposition being necessary, probably, or possibly true in light of some body of evidence. Alethic and epistemic modals have been extensively investigated by philosophers of language, modal logicians, formal semanticists, developmental linguists, linguistic typologists, and others. A third category of modals that has received less attention – especially in philosophy of language – is practical modals. These pertain to what is necessary or possible to do in light of some rule, norm, goal, ability, or capacity. Various aspects of practical modality have been studied, but often in quite disparate ways and without unity of focus. Modal logicians have studied a subspecies of practical modals in their attempt to develop a logic of rules or norms. Formal semanticists have sought to apply general accounts of the content of modal words to deontic and dynamic modal words. And metaethicists have shown some interest in very specific practical modal concepts in their pursuit of theories of ethical norms and human freedom. The goal of this pilot project is to explore the possibility of broadening and crystallising the focus of the logical, semantical, and metaethical study of practical modality, in order to develop a new unified and general theory of practical modality.


Project Outcome:
This pilot project provided the foundation for a new Eidyn pilot project, Foundations of Normativity

Project team: 
  • Project Leader: Dr Matthew Chrisman

  • Co-Investigators: Dr Campbell Brown (Glasgow); Dr Elinor Mason; Prof Mike Ridge

  • International Network: Prof Robert Brandom (Pittsburgh); Prof Jennifer Hornsby (Birkbeck); Prof Anton Koch (Heidelberg); Prof Paul Portner (Georgetown); Prof Huw Price (Cambridge); Prof Sebastian Rödl (Basel); Prof Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (UNC, Chapel, Hill)


Affiliated projects: 
Funded by Eidyn/PPLS