Situation Theory: getting started with the literature

A common problem facing those interested in learning about situation theory and situation semantics for the first time is knowing where to begin. The goal of this blog post is to save my readers as much time and effort as possible by pointing them to the key references in the literature that will enable them to get a quick start in situation theory and situation semantics.

Where Not to Start

When people want to learn what situation theory and situation semantics is all about, people frequently turn to John Perry and Jon Barwise’s book Situations and Attitudes. The choice is understandable enough: after all, their book is widely cited and regarded, and its publication did a great deal to stimulate interest in situation semantics. However, this may be an unfortunate choice as an introduction to the theory. While their book is certainly worth reading, it was published quite early in situation theory’s development. In short, the situation theory of Situations and Attitudes differs in too many important ways from situation theory’s later, more mature, manifestations for it to be the proper place to start. Save it for later.

Pointing in a Better Direction

Where then to begin? Below you will find my recommendations to those who want to become quickly acquainted with situation theory and situation semantics, either to learn it well-enough to apply it as a tool of analysis or to prepare themselves for more topical readings in the situation-theory and situation-semantics literatures. Although a person’s personal syllabus will certainly depend upon their goals and background knowledge, my hope is that I might make that choosing an easier and more successful one.


Before giving my list, I would like to forewarn the reader that there is no single canonical version of situation theory. Instead, there is a family of models of situation theory, each modeled with varying degrees of rigor, and with varying degrees of pairwise mutual compatibility. Do not expect each publication below to agree in all respects with the others.

The Recommendations

A place to begin

Perhaps the best place to start is Keith Devlin’s excellent book Logic and Information. Devlin’s presentation of the theory is fairly informal, but it conforms in many ways to later developments to the theory. It is oriented toward rough and ready application to problems, and the book is full of numerous examples, mostly, but not exclusively, of a linguistic nature.

Devlin, Keith. 1991. Logic and information. Cambridge, Great Britain:
Cambridge University Press.

If you are interested in seeing how Devlin’s situation theory can be applied in a real-world setting, then I would recommend a look at Devlin and Rosenberg’s monograph:

Devlin, Keith, and Duska Rosenberg. 1996. Language at work: Analyzing communication breakdown in the workplace to inform systems design. CSLI Lecture Notes 66. Stanford, CA, USA: Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI).

Finally, I somewhat self-servingly recommend that you read my thesis. I debated whether to include this, but in many ways I view my thesis as filling exactly this role: a resource for someone interested in engaging with the literature. The thesis describes the theory, discusses many of the main points of contentious theoretical concern, and gives the reader a sense of the historical trajectory of the theory. I also made a point of including a lot of straight-forward examples. Situation semantics is treated far too briefly, however.

Lee, Jacob. 2011. Situation Theory: a survey. Master’s Thesis, Fresno, California: California State University Fresno. (pdf).

It may also be useful to consider Jon Barwise’s famous article

Barwise, Jon. 1989. Notes on branch points in situation theory. In The Situation in
, ed. Jon Barwise, 255-276. CSLI Lecture Notes 17. Stanford, CA:
Center for the Study of Language (CSLI).

in which he outlines various decision points that modelers of situation theory must confront in one way or another.

Formal Presentations of the Theory

At this point, more rigorous presentations of the theory would probably be useful. For this I recommend the following mature versions of the theory. The first is a simple situation theory developed by Jon Barwise and Robin Cooper. Their work also introduces a very nice graphical notation for situation theory.

Barwise, Jon, and Robin Cooper. 1991. Simple situation theory and its graphical representation. DYANA REPORT R2.1.C 38-74.205

Barwise, Jon, and Robin Cooper. 1993. Extended Kamp notation: A graphical notation for situation theory. In Situation theory and its applications, ed. Peter Aczel and David Israel, 3:29-53. CSLI Lecture Notes 37. Stanford, CA, USA: Center for the
Study of Language (CSLI).

In addition to these I recommend the more challenging presentation of Jeremy Seligman and Lawrence Moss in their article in the Handbook of Logic and Language. Seligman and Moss develop a theory of extensional relational structures maximizing in order to provide a means of building up models of situation theory in a modular way. There are two editions. I’ve noticed only one or two slight (but possibly interesting) differences between them.

Seligman, Jeremy, and Lawrence Moss. 1997. Situation theory. In Handbook of logic and language, ed. Johan van Benthem and A. Ter Meulen, 239-309. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.

Seligman, Jeremy, and Lawrence Moss. Situation theory (updated). In Handbook of logic and language, ed. Johan van Benthem and A. Ter Meulen, 253-328. 2cd edition.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.

For those interested in seeing Seligman and Moss’s approach utilized by others, I recommend reading Jonathan Ginzburg and Ivan Sag’s Interrogative investigations.

Ginzburg, Jonathan, and Ivan A. Sag. 2001. Interrogative investigations: the form, meaning, and use of English interrogatives. CSLI Lecture Notes 123. Stanford, CA, USA: Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI).

Information Flow

For those interested in information flow, I might recommend

Mares, Edwin, Jeremy Seligman, and Greg Restall. 2011. Situations, constraints
and channels. In Handbook of Logic and Language, ed. Johan van Benthem
and Alice Ter Meulen, 329-344. 2nd ed. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

as a place to start, and of course

Barwise, Jon, and Jerry Seligman. 1997. Information Flow: The Logic of Distributed Systems. Cambridge tracts in theoretical computer science 44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

but my thesis also gives an in depth review of the various variants of information flow theories in situation theory.

Situation Semantics

For some classic works of situation semantics I would recommend

Gawron, Jean Mark, and Stanley Peters. 1990. Anaphora and Quantification in Situation Semantics. CSLI lecture notes no. 19. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.


Barwise, Jon, and John Perry. 1983. Situations and attitudes. MIT Press.

with the forewarning that Barwise and Perry’s book utilizes an early, in some ways flawed, version of situation theory.

Also, of course, The Liar:

Barwise, Jon, and John Etchemendy. 1989. The liar. Oxford University Press US.

Finally, for an overview of some historical debates in situation semantics, and a view into some contemporary work in philosophical linguistics employing situations I would recommend Angelika Kratzer’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Kratzer, Angelika. Situations in natural language semantics. Ed. Edward N. Zalta.

I think it is fair to say however that Kratzer’s work diverges from Barwise and Perry’s program in a number of respects. Nonetheless her work seems to have inspired some renewed interest in situation-based semantics.

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3 Responses to Situation Theory: getting started with the literature

  1. Jeff Thompson says:

    Thank you for the references. Is there literature which shows how situation theory handles multi-level attribution such as “I know that you know that I know that the server knows that your glass need a refill”? In classic logic, this becomes a nightmare of reifying propositions and struggling with boundary violations. I came to situation theory hoping it could deliver me from the nightmare of doing this in classic logic. Has this been studied?

    Thank you,
    – Jeff

  2. Jacob Lee says:

    Dear Jeff,

    Situation theory was designed with the intent that every object in situation theory be a first-class object. So, for example, propositions can be constituents of other propositions, e.g.

    s |= [Rel; a, (s’ |= [Rel’; b, c ; +]); + ]

    is a proposition that a situation s makes factual that a stands in the relation Rel to a proposition p = (s’ |= [Rel’; b, c ; +]).

    As you can guess this causes all sorts of difficulties for providing for an adequate model of situation theory. In the limit, situation theory handles these sort of attributions by recourse to modeling propositions using a non-standard set theory, one which allows sets to be members of themselves. This allows situation theory to model propositions that refer to themselves. For example, we might have p be the proposition that Joe knows p.

    The following references might be helpful:

    Barwise, Jon. 1989. On the model theory of common knowledge. In The Situation in logic, ed. Jon Barwise, 201-220. CSLI Lecture Notes 17. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language (CSLI). (you can download is entire book at that link, I believe)

    Seligman, Jeremy, and Lawrence Moss. 1997. Situation theory. In Handbook of logic and language, ed. Johan van Benthem and A. Ter Meulen, 239-309. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.

    Barwise, Jon, and John Etchemendy. 1989. The liar. Oxford University Press US.

    Also, I talk a bit about this stuff in my thesis.

  3. Jeff Thompson says:

    Thanks for the reply and the references. I’ve read Devlin’s “Logic and Information”. Even though the situation is introduced as a first class object, sentences which humans handle naturally like “I know that you know that I know that the server knows that your glass needs a refill” become awkward with nested reified propositions like “s |= [Rel; a, (s’ |= [Rel’; b, ; +]); + ] ” many levels deep. It is hard to imagine that this is how I represent what you know. Somehow humans are able to have familiarity with such the elements of such statements without having to dig into nested representations. For example, when I say the sentence above, you can say “I knew that” and we both know that we’re talking about your glass without having to unpack a multi-level deep construct. When you say “I knew that”, the situation you refer to has the glass near to the surface. How do we do that?

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