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Charles Travis

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Charles Travis (born January 1943) is a contemporary American-Portuguese philosopher, currently Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London and Professor Afiliado at the University of Porto, Portugal. He is currently co-leading the activities of the Mind, Language, and Action Research Group (MLAG), where he carries on his main research.

Travis’ most influential work has been primarily in philosophy of language, philosophy of perception and perceptual experience, as well as theories of thought (Wittgenstein and Frege). He is commonly considered as one main proponent of “radical contextualism” in semantics; furthermore, in the discussion of the nature of the relation between thought, language and the world he contributed by coining the influential idea of “occasion sensitivity”. His most recent work focuses on Frege’s conception on thought.

Education and academic career[edit]

Travis completed a B.A. in 1963 at the University of California – Berkeley (where he started off studying mathematics), and his PhD in 1967 at UCLA.  He has taught at the University of Michigan and at Harvard, as well as at Tilburg University (The Netherlans) and at the Collège International de Philosophie (1983-1985) and at the Collège de France (2002). He has been Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stirling (1992-2002), Northwestern University (2001-2005) and at King’s College - London (2005-present, from 2014 emeritus).

Philosophical work[edit]

Travis is one of the main current representatives of the tradition of ordinary language philosophy. His work is thus under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin. He has also been influenced by Hilary Putnam, John McDowell and Noam Chomsky.

Radical contextualism[edit]

Travis’ first important impact in philosophy was in philosophy of language. He is the main proponent of a position in philosophy of language known as “radical contextualism” (RC). According to radical contextualism, the meaning of the sentence cannot be explained uniquely in terms of standard truth-conditional semantics since it is deeply dependent on contextual assumptions (“Words in fact vary their semantics from one speaking of them to another”, Travis 1997, 123).

Travis’ renowned examples of contextual variation in truth-conditions have contributed to illustrate how the meaning of a linguistic expression depends on (a potentially open-ended set of) contextual conditions.  His cases have become paradigmatic and are widely discussed in the literature[1].

Here is one of the most famous ones:

Suppose that a refrigerator is devoid of milk except for a puddle of milk at the bottom of it. Now consider two possible speakings, by Odile, of the words, ‘There’s milk in the refrigerator’. For the first, Hugo is seated at the breakfast table, reading the paper. And from time to time looking dejectedly (but meaningfully) at his cup of black coffee, which he is idly stirring with a spoon. Odile volunteers, ‘There’s milk in the refrigerator’. For the second, Hugo has been given the task of cleaning the refrigerator. He has just changed out of his house-cleaning garb, and is settling with satisfaction into his armchair, book and beverage in hand. Odile opens the refrigerator, looks in, closes it and sternly utters the above words. [. . . ]

[...] Odile’s words in the first case said what was false, while in the second case they said what was true. Both spoke of the same state of the world, or the same refrigerator in the same condition. So, in the first case, the words said what is false of a refrigerator with but a milk puddle; in the second case they said what is true of such a refrigerator. Optionally we may also say that what was said in the words in the first case differs from what was said in those words in the second (Travis, 1989, pp. 18-19).

Another famous example is the following:

Pia’s Japanese maple is full of russet leaves. Believing that green is colour of leaves, she paints them. Returning, she reports, ‘That’s better. The leaves are green now.’ She speaks truth. A botanist friend then phones, seeking green leaves for the study of green-leaf chemistry. ‘The leaves (on my tree) are green,’ Pia says. ‘You can have those.’ But now Pia speaks falsehood. (Travis 1997: 89)

Radical contextualists argue that the contextual changes they are shedding light on “holds of any English predicate” (Travis, 1994, p. 172), or that it is “true of predicates in general” (Travis, 1985, p. 346).

The notion of "context" at use in Travis’ work is quite distinct from the common notion of context – as it is conceived in standard truth-conditional semantics theory to deal with some specific context sensitivity. Radical contextualists argue that their notion of context can never be defined in such a way to understand all the ways that context affects the truth-conditional content of the sentences, while remaining explanatorily fruitful (Travis, 1981). In fact this is furtherly connected with a particular view of thought (see below).

One widespread accusation to Radical Contextualism is that it seems to be asystematic. Yet from Travis’ viewpoint this is related to doing justice to the fact that of speakers (thinkers) are rational beings prepared to adjust expectations under the light of novelty (cf. Travis’ exchange with Hilary Putnam; Travis 2001, Putnam 2001, 2002) This is what in fact lies behind the rejection of the “neo-Carnapian views of meaning”, as a function from the meaning of a sentence and values of some set of parameters to the thought it would thus express. The main philosophical point of RC – namely, that there is something theory-resistant here - implies an important change at a metaphilosophical level: Travis rejects widespread preconceptions regarding the nature of language, putting forth a new picture of natural language and thought, one in which linguistic meaning is divorced from truth  (cf. Travis 2017)

According to Travis, the function of words is not to express truth or falsity but rather to be a psychological device making thoughts recognizable (Travis 2017, 41). Whereas thought(s) bring truth into question, what language does is to provide recognizability for such thoughts. Seen this way Travis’ main target is not simply orthodox semantics, but rather a general conception of thought-language relation.

According to RC, when you look at a context and ask what the consequences would be of saying something, that idea is tied to the responsibility of the speaker and hearer – i.e. what you are going to hold the speaker responsible for having said, what he/she would take responsibility for. This for Travis is connected with the fact that speakers are rational being as characterized above, engaged in representing the world and acting in it.

This means that there will be no a priori recipe for determining what a speaker puts forward as true on such specific occasion: words are used as tools by the speaker to make recognizable how the speaker represents the world, so the representing is not done not by sentences per se (or, for that matter, by what Travis calls thoughts). Representing is something done by the speaker. Only thinkers represent. as Travis’ puts it: Sentences do not represent. Thoughts do not represent. Representing-as is, the preserve of thinkers. Thinking otherwise is a kind of anthropomorphization of sentences, or thoughts – which is what the contextualist thinks the non-contextualist is doing.

Perception: the silence of the senses[edit]

When put to work in the philosophy of perception, Charles Travis’ radical contextualism goes together with the idea that perception does not have representational content: only perceptual judgements of agents on occasions represent things as being a certain way and may then and as such be true or false. To put it with the Austinian metaphor Travis has contributed to make famous: the senses are silent[2]. Although pursuing the discussion in terms of the representational content of perception can beg the question of the nature of representation in general (which is in fact the central question Travis’ radical contextualism addresses), frequently Travis’ claim is widely debated within the framework of ongoing discussions in the philosophy of perception, where one central question is whether perception has representational content.

Objectivity and the parochial[edit]

An underlying theme behind Travis’ thought as a whole is a thorough critique of empiricism, pursued in the wake of Frege. A defense of the objectivity of thought can only be done by first showing how empiricism abolishes answerability (of thought to world).

Several components of such approach to the objectivity of thought (in spite of the parochial): Travis goes after e.g. what a Fregean approach to ontology could show about what is wrong in Quine’s approach, or distinction between (a Wittgensteinian) critique of privacy and Putnamian view of thought and the parochial (this goes thourgh Putnam’s Kant); 3) Putnam’s Kant and a view of the nature of logic, which pursues Putnam’s opposition to Quine. Such approach to logic results ultimately in a critique of Frege himself, now under the influence of Wittgenstein: Frege‘s view of logic as ‚emptiness of demands on the world‘, holding for any thinker  is  a view which Travis thinks ‚is still – as he puts it in What Laws of Logic Say, The Shape of the Conceptual, Psychologism – in a subtle way – psychologistic‘.


Radical contextualism is an approach to a range of questions regarding truth, thought and language. Globally it amounts a view of representation as it is pursued by thinkers such as ourselves, a view which is currently formulated by Travis around a particular reading of Frege

Travis’ radical contextualism, as he currently formulates it, concerns the metaphysics of representation and agency and not just linguistic meaning. The proposal is that the debate around linguistic meaning in the philosophy of language cannot be isolated from such questions. Many of Travis’ views have been at the center of philosophical debate, in various areas.

Philosophy of language: contextualism vs. anti-contextualism. Radical contextualism has been a widely debated philosophical option. Opponents have accused radical contextualists to be “grim pessimists” (Stanley, 2005), or to be trapped into a “Californian” state of mind (Fodor, 2003, p. 100).

Philosophy of perception: representational theories of perception vs. silence of the senses. Travis work on perception has been debated and criticized by defenders of representational content of perception (for instance Susanne Schellenberg, Susanna Siegel). His ongoing debate with John McDowell has drawn much philosophical attention over the last years (cf. Miguens 2017). Many philosopher have discussed Travis’ work on thought, perception and language, including are Jocelyn Benoist, Berit Brogaard, Susanna Schellenberg, Jean-Philippe Narboux, Avner Baz, Martin Gustafsson, Sofia Miguens, David Macarthur, and the dome.

Main works[edit]

  • Le Silence des Sens, Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2014, pp.304.

  • Perception: Essays After Frege, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 420 pp
  • Objectivity and the Parochial: Selected Essays Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 361pp.
  • Occasion Sensitivity: Selected Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 318 + viii pp.
  • Thought’s Footing, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, 217 pp.
  • Les Liaisons Ordinaire, Paris: J. Vrin, March, 2003, 242 pp. (Based on lectures given at the Collège de France, Paris, in May and June 2002.)
  • Unshadowed Thought, Harvard University Press, November 2000 (262+xiv pp.). The Uses of Sense, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 1989), 400+xii pp.
The True and The False, Benjamins (Amsterdam: 1981), 164 pp.
Saying and Understanding, Basil Blackwell (Oxford: 1975), 182+x pp.


  • Miguens, S. (2017). Apperception or Environment.
J. McDowell and Ch.Travis on the nature of perceptual judgement
  • Predelli, S. (2005). Contexts: Meaning, truth, and the use of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Putnam, H. (2001). ‘Reply to Charles Travis’, Revue internationale de philosophie 2001/4 (n° 218), pp. 525-533
  • Putnam, H. (2002). ‘Travis on Meaning, Thought and the Ways the World Is’. The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 52, Issue 206, pp. 96-107
  • Recanati, F. (2012). ‘Contextualism: Some varieties’. In: K. Allen & K. M. Jaszczolt (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of pragmatics (pp. 135–150). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stanley, Jason. ‘Review of Francois Recanati, Literal Meaning.’ Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2005).
  • Stanley, Jason. “Review of Francois Recanati, Literal Meaning.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2005).
  • Travis, C. (1981). ‘The True and the False: The Domain of the Pragmatic’ In: Pragmatics and Beyond. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1981.
  • Travis, C. (1985). ‘Vagueness, Obseration, and Sorites.’ Mind 94 (1985).375: 345–366.
  • Travis, C. (1989).  The Uses of Sense: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Travis, C. (1994) ‘On Constraints of Generality’. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94 (1994): 165–188.
  • Travis, C. (2001). ‘Mind dependence’, Revue internationale de philosophie 2001/4 (n° 218), p. 503-524.
  • Travis, C. (2006) Thought’s Footing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Travis, C. (2015). ‘Review of John Searle’s Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception’. Notre Dame Review of books, 2015.07.06 (
  • Travis, C. (2017). ‘Views of My Fellows Thinking (Counting Thoughts), dialectica, 71, nº3 2017, pp. 337-378 (on Word Meaning – what it is and what is not, with Recanati, Carston and others)
  • Travis, C. 1997. ‘Pragmatics’. In: B. Hale & C. Wright (eds), A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell. 87-107.
  • Vicente, A. (2012). ‘On Travis cases’. Linguistics and Philosophy, 35, 3–19

[1] Vicente, A. (2012). On Travis cases. Linguistics and Philosophy, 35, 3–19, Kennedy, C. and L. McNally, 2010. “Color, context, and compositionality.” Synthese 174: 79–9

[2] Charles Travis, Perception –Essays after Frege (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] See Brogaard, Berit, Does Perception Have Content? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

for an overview of the discussions.

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