May 10, 2005

Mandy's Tall

So Keith DeRose, in his Rutgers paper, argued that 'tall' is obviously context-sensitive, invoking a case in which two separate people are simultaneously talking about a basketball player's height when he's standing in front of the gym. We need the simultaneous separate conversations to deal with something like Cappelen and Lepore's third proposal for the metaphysics of 'tall' (Insensitive Semantics, p. 171): For an object to be tall at time t is for it to be tall with respect to some comparison class, which is determined by its circumstances at time t. If the conversations are simultaneous, this proposal doesn't admit that "X is tall" can express a true proposition in one conversation and a false one in the other.

Well, DeRose's example is a bit artificial. When would we be likely to have simultaneous conversations about someone's height, invoking different comparison classes, where the person's current activity didn't obviously privilege one? It's like everyone's serenading them in a musical comedy.

[Lights pick out MANDY MOUNTAIN asleep upstage. She is of above average height for a six-year-old girl. Tune: "Please Hello," sort of.]

For a person?
BEECHER: For a tot!
BAKER: But she'll fit through any doorway.
BEECHER: Now, must we discuss her your way?
In my class she's head and shoulders
above the rest.
BAKER: But when the older
kids surround her, she's not weedy, and
she's well below the median.
GENO AURIEMMA: Playing ball, she's not tall.
I cannot misrepresent her.
On the court, she's so short,
she could never be a center.
DORA THE EXPLORER: I don't know how you've been countin';
Mandy's tiny for a mountain.
THE INVARIANTIST CHORUS: I'm beginning to lose patience
with your raw equivocations!
You're entangled in a thicket; you're
just dealing with implicature.
EVERYONE ELSE [to INVARIANTISTS]: Mandy's tall, in a way.
What this means, well, who can say?
To preserve semantic innocence
we confess there's never been a sense
of this word, that we've heard
that preserves a stable meaning...
and so most of us are leaning
toward a view that, it's true,
is not lacking opposition:
sentence S can express
several different propositions.
Pardon the offensive we give,
but 'tall' is context-sensitive!


Posted by Matt Weiner at May 10, 2005 09:37 AM


Posted by: P.D. at May 11, 2005 05:58 PM

oh, for heaven's sake.

Posted by: cara at May 11, 2005 06:47 PM

Wow, Matt! I'm hanging up my poet's plume!

Posted by: Matt's mom at May 11, 2005 08:57 PM

Nice work. Any philosophy ABD might be able to bite Kenneth Koch's shtick, but setting it to Sondheim, now *that's* epistemology.

I await "A New Refutation of Semantics" in the style of Samuel Beckett and set to the tune of "Know Your Rights."

Posted by: Ben at May 23, 2005 06:23 PM