Richard Jefferson Booth

Richard Jefferson Booth


"Underspecific Modals"

Graduate Student | Ph.D. program in Philosophy

Teaching Scholar 2020-21

B.A., UC Berkeley. 2014

Richard’s primary research is in the philosophy of language, especially in formal semantics and pragmatics. He is also interested in related issues in logic, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. 

Thesis Abstract: 

We rarely speak with complete specificity about what we want, what is required, or what is allowed. For example, I might say ‘I want ice cream,’ and see no need to specify that certain kinds of ice cream, e.g. melted, or toxic ice cream, would not satisfy my desire. In fact, being completely specific about what I want is practically impossible; for in addition to being non-melted and non-toxic, the desire I would ordinarily describe with ‘I want ice cream’ would be for ice cream that contains no dirt, no petroleum, and so on. Being completely specific, it seems, would require explicitly ruling out an infinite number of possibilities. This gives rise to a puzzle: if speakers almost always underspecify their desires, as in this example, how do hearers manage to successfully understand what they want?


This sort of puzzle arises more generally for language in the scope of modals like ‘want’, ’must’, and ‘may’. I can say truly, for example, that you must wash the dishes, or that you may have some wine, without specifying that there are exceptions, i.e. specific ways of washing the dishes, or of having wine, that are not ways of doing what you must or are allowed.

In my dissertation, I aim to give a semantics for modals and related constructions that explains what underspecific modal claims mean and how we interpret them. In doing so, I also propose new solutions to some longstanding problems in semantics and philosophical logic, including Ross’s puzzle, the problem of free choice permission, and the Samaritan paradox.