January 26, 2004

The Language Log Challenge

Geoff Pullum, a couple weeks back, asked whether there's a hint of the liar paradox in this New Yorker caption:

There's something you need to know about me, Donna. I don't like people knowing things about me.

His philosopher partner is surely back from Ohio, but I'll try anyway.

(1) First of all, we need to assume that the speaker is reliable enough that Donna can gain knowledge by believing what he says. Let's do that.

(2) If this were said in real life, the implicit quantifier in the second sentence would probably be restricted. That wouldn't be very funny, would it?

(3) OK, then, the speaker is causing Donna to know something about him, even though he doesn't like anyone to know anything about him. Geoff asks if this is coherent. Surely it is--we deliberately cause things we don't like all the time. For instance, I don't like to wake up at 7 in the morning, but I set my alarm for that time anyway, because I also don't like having to rush to school or to be late to my classes.

In this case, the speaker is letting Donna know one thing about him, probably to forestall her learning anything else about him (say, by asking). This is the sort of tradeoff we make all the time--it doesn't even require weakness of the will or any of that other fun stuff.

So the self-referentiality makes the sentence funny. (Well, it probably does not seem funny after you've waded through my pedantic analysis, but trust me, it's funny.) But it doesn't make it incoherent, or truth-valueless, or even self-contradictory. It just reflects a hard truth--sometimes you have to do things you don't like.

(BTW, Geoff presupposes that "This sentence makes a false claim" is truth-valueless. Them's fighting words! But not when addressed to me.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at January 26, 2004 12:46 PM