February 18, 2004

Him Running

I hereby retract my offhand crack at James Higginbotham below*--his paper " Remembering, Imagining, and the First Person" almost entirely avoids the assumptions about the de re that annoy me so--that is, it advocates a position that's much closer to mine--and it presents a lot of interesting stuff that I'm chewing over.

One point Higginbotham makes is that there's a big difference between

(22) I remember saying that John should finish his thesis by July


(21c) I remember my saying that John should finish his thesis by July.

For (21c) to be true, I have to remember saying this "from the inside." For (22) to be true, Higginbotham argues, its sufficient that I remember "the words in the air, which turn out to have been put there by me, though I don't remember that" (p. 17). There's a lot to chew over here, but I want to poke at one tiny grammatical distinction in what Higginbotham says. He says that we may arrive at (21c) as follows:

(21) I remember someone saying that John should finish his thesis by July; In fact, as I am now assured, it was I who said it; therefore, I remember my saying John should finish his thesis by July.

Anyone catch the teeny syntactical difference between the first and last line? In the first line, the noun after "remember" isn't possessive; in the last it is. The question is, does this make a difference?

Herewith, some uninformed speculation on the difference between possessed and unpossessed gerunds. (All these examples will involve males, since "him" and "his" are spelled differently but "her" and "her" aren't.)

In my high school grammar textbook (I know, I know), there was a lot of fuss about when gerunds should be preceded by possessives. You would have:

(1a) I watched him running down the street. (1b) ?I watched his running down the street. (1c) I admired his running down the street. (1d) ?I admired him running down the street.

Perhaps I was overtrained, but this pattern seems sensible to me. And it seems to be that from "I phied him psiing" one can deduce "I phied him," but not from "I phied his psiing." Example:

(2a) ??I never liked Michael Irvin, but I liked him swearing on national TV. (2b) I never liked Michael Irvin, but I liked his swearing on national TV.

(2a) seems to me self-contradictory, unless the second "like" means something akin to "liked him for the MVP award." But (2b) seems completely unobjectionable--I liked that he swore, or I liked his act of swearing.

Tentative proposal: The non-possessive (dative?) is appropriate when the object of the verb is the referent of the pronoun, and the gerund (or is it a participle?) provides a further description of that object. The possessive is appropriate when the object of the verb is the event or action specified by the gerund, whose agent is the referent of the pronoun. Hence (1b) is odd, because you don't watch the event without watching the man; and (1c) is wrong if it's the running rather than the man you admire.

Thus we can see why (21) is a valid argument. The first sentence establishes that I have a memory of the event in which someone says that John should finish his thesis. The second sentence establishes that this event was an event of my saying John should finish his thesis. Hence the third sentence follows--because in this formulation "my saying that John should finish" is just a name for the event. "My" is in a referentially transparent position.

But what are the truth-conditions of the first sentence, or in general of "I remember X psiing?" That's a puzzler. "I remember X" is a puzzler in itself, so this accords with my hypothesis about the general semantics of "I phi X psiing." (Possibly the lamest consideration ever adduced in support of a hypothesis!) "I remember X" seems to require having a memory that is of X, but does it require that you recognize it as of X?

I'm inclined to the following hypothesis: "I remember X psiing" is like "A believes that X psis" in that it can be held to more or less strict standards, depending on the context. No matter what, the sentence requires a memory of the event of X's psiing. In strict contexts, we may require that the referent or witness of "X" appear in the memory under the guise that is given by the term "X." So "I remember Mary singing" would require that Mary be recognizable as Mary in the memory. In looser contexts it might be permissible to substitute some coreferential terms--"I remember Mary singing, though at the time I thought her name was Alice." (This is a very controversial thing to say about "A believes that X psis," and it seems weaker for "remembers." Hmm.)

Then "I remember someone saying that John..." requires an event of someone's saying.... In the memory, the speaker is identifiable as "someone"-- that is, the speaker need not be identifiable in the memory at all. But the fact that there is a memory of the event of saying is enough to support the inference in (21).

Now, this is the sort of case I mentioned below, where I think that there's a good chance that linguistics isn't a great guide to metaphysics. And these conclusions are tentative, based on linguistic intuitions that are less than firm, and not precisely formulated. So take this with a huge grain of salt. But I think there might be something interesting in the contrast between "remember X psiing" and "remember X's psiing."

*The offhand crack was in relation to a bit at the end of 'Reference and Control,' in R. Larson et al. (eds.) Control and Grammar (1992), Dordrecht: Kluwer, pp. 79-108. Scroll to the end of my post.

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 18, 2004 12:40 PM