February 29, 2004

Wow

When I complained about people bashing copy editors, I didn't have this in mind.

(via Ted Barlow. Though it seems like I'm linking about ten different people today, you may notice that they're all Crooked Timber posters. CT is like the New York Yankees of blogging--anyone know how we can work a salary cap?)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:52 PM | Comments (4)

Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty

This came up in a conversation at the IWSPC with David Dick, John Beer, and I think Heather Mills and maybe Adam Potthast--is aesthetics a division of value theory or a division of philosophy of language? Is the question what makes for good art or how art represents content?

I think you can't separate the two. In particular, you can't ask what separate truth in fiction from aesthetics, because sometimes aesthetics determines truth in fiction. The reason that p must hold in a story is because the story would be bad if p did not hold.

An example comes in Alice Munro's story "Bardon Bus." The story (mild spoiler here, but it's not the point) is about the narrator's obsession with a man she calls X--it's a letter in his name--with whom she had a brief fling in Australia. At the very end a friend of the narrator's mentions meeting a man called Alex something [I don't have the book here].

Now, X is Alex (though it took me at least three readings to twig). But the facts stated in the story would be the flimsiest evidence in real life that X is Alex. The odds are low that the narrator's lover is the man her friend meets, given only that the one man has an X in his name and the other is named Alex. Why, then, am I so sure that X is Alex? Because it gives a point to these details of the story. It provides a satisfying conclusion that isn't obvious otherwise. In short, it makes the story better.

What's at work here, I think, is something like a Gricean maxim--but instead of "Make your contribution relevant," it's "Make your story good." If, given the facts baldly stated in the story, there's some glaring aesthetic flaw, the reader should see whether a reading is possible that remedies this flaw. Truth in the story can be determined by the implicatures that this maxim generates, as well as what's explcitly stated.

I don't think that this maxim--call it Beauty--is just the same as that of relevance. Beauty often requires us to account for seeming loose ends and irrelevancies, but not always. Sometimes a reading that ties up loose ends is less Beautiful than one that doesn't. Thurber's Macbeth Murder Mystery is a good case here--the characters try to figure out who the real murderer was, since there are all sorts of flaws with the idea that Macbeth did it. Sometimes an adjustment of our aesthetic expectations will allow us to stop looking for a reading that makes some detail Relevant, by letting us see how the surface reading is more Beautiful. Arguably that's what goes on when Thurber's characters mix up their genres. (BTW, that story is really funny. Don't let me put you off it.)

An objection that John (or maybe David) raised was that the maxim of Beauty makes it impossible for a story to be bad. If the story is bad, you're obliged to provide a reading so that it's good. I don't think this is a problem. In ordinary conversation, when a maxim seems to be broken, the listener is obliged to interpret it so that the maxims are observed, if possible. But it's not always possible. Anyone who talks to me a lot will tell you that there are some utterances that aren't relevant to the conversation, no matter what theory you construct. Same for the maxim of Beauty--there may be no reading of the story that makes it Beautiful without violating the other maxims too much ("mean what you say" or something like that).

One thing that I like about the maxim of Beauty is that it solves the Problem of Crappy Sequels. Robertson Davies' Fifth Business is a rollicking yarn with a mystery at its heart; at the end a perfectly satisfying solution is suggested. But in the sequels, The Manticore and World of Wonders, that solution is explicitly undercut. The sequels also aren't half as good (they tend toward the preachy or psycholanalytic, one each as I recall). I understand similar things apply to the last two Matrix movies--I didn't see them. And Tove Jansson's Exploits of Moominpapa contains a bunch of revisions about the characters that completely undercut later and better Moominbooks. (No way are Snufkin and the Mymble brother and sister.)

Well, according to the maxim of Beauty we're obliged to come up with the most aesthetically possible reading of these corpuses. In this case, I think that that reading requires jettisoning the weak book. Things true in Exploits of Moominpapa simply don't carry over to the world of Moominvalley in November.

Note that this makes truth in fiction no more determinate than aesthetics. I think this is a point in favor of the theory. Arguments about what's true in a work of fiction--how deluded is Kinbote?--will be arguments about what the best reading of the fiction is. And that best is aesthetic. We won't be able to come up for a method to determine the truth in a fictional world, and then evaluate the world aesthetically--those two processes go together.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:42 PM | Comments (0)

Sacred Harp

Eszter Hargittai tells us that her friend (and Crooked Timber commentator) Laura will be singing as part of a Sacred Harp choir, as part of a song from Cold Mountain. This should be superb stuff, though I don't know if I'll watch the Oscars. In this style, the choir sings from the Sacred Harp songbook, in which the music is notated so the different pitches have different-shaped note heads (hence it's also called shape-note singing). The choir sings the solfeggietto before the lyrics. It sounds like they're declaiming in an alien language, before the hymn's words come throug. Beautiful, powerful, eerie, and frightening.

I have a tape of White Spirituals from the Sacred Harp, a recording Alan Lomax made in the 50s; there are also three shape-note songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. (Rocky Road was a shape-note hymn before it was a flavor of ice cream; if you have the right plug-ins you can hear it here.) This is the sort of thing that bloat my record collection--sometimes I'm in the mood for shape-note hymns all day, and I only have an hour's worth.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:47 PM | Comments (0)

The Might of Airports

I just dropped Bernard Nickel off at the airport after the conference. It was a great time--lots of interesting talks, and a snowball fight to top off the after-party (I got creamed). Hopefully all this snow will not prevent the conference guests from getting out of Salt Lake intact.

On that topic, Bernard brought up an unusual epistemic modal that he says he hears all the time in airports: "At this time we would like to preboard our First Class Passengers, Frequent whatevers, and any children who might be travelling alone." The question is: Doesn't everyone concerned know whether the children are travelling alone?

My quick attempt at a solution was: If they said "Children travelling alone," they fear they would be making an existential presupposition. Since there often aren't any children travelling alone on a flight, they feel obliged to qualify it somehow. My other attempt at a solution is: The airlines are screwing up.

Any thoughts?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:56 AM | Comments (0)

February 28, 2004

Mysteries

Belle Waring talks about "cosy" English mysteries, citing Rendell, Marsh, Sayers, and her particular favorite Tey. Ruth Rendell is someone you should absolutely be reading--the only mystery writer that matters, maybe--but I'm not sure that she's cosy. She has elaborate puzzle mysteries, in which you wait to find out the solution, but Raymond Chandler does too.* And Rendell certainly doesn't have the complete absence of threat and dread that characterizes the pure-puzzle Agatha Christie genre. About half of her own-name novels are psychological suspense stories rather than mysteries, and the last three Inspector Wexford novels have been as much concerned with social issues as with the puzzle. (My favorites are actually the ones she writes under the name Barbara Vine, especially The House of Stairs. These are also the artiest--I'm a bad genre fan.)

On Belle's favorite, Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes is fantastic, and something that anyone who's dealt with an academic job market can appreciate, but The Franchise Affair--eeeugh. TFA exemplifies the kind of resistance I sometimes have to fiction, which is quite different from the resistance that makes me take ~p as true in a fiction even though p is explicitly stated. [See Tamar Gendler, "The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance," and Brain Weatherson, passim.] I accept everything said in TFA at face-value as describing/determining what is true in the fiction, but the fictional world is just dead. Some characters are purely good and others purely vicious or purely dupes, and that's just not how life is.

John Holbo, aka Mr. Waring, has an excellent post about these two varieties of imaginative resistance (among other things); see esp. his comments on Saki's "The Great Weep."

*At least, when Chandler's solutions make sense. I realize that I owe you an explanation of what happened to the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. All in good time.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:03 PM | Comments (0)

Kevin Drum Behaves Reasonably, as One Would Expect

Here.

[UPDATE: Title changed from "Kevin Drum Makes the Baby Jesus Cry." Text also changed slightly.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:40 PM | Comments (0)

On Chairing a Conference Session

1. I think that the role of the chair of a session is a bit like the guest host on Saturday Night Live during the musical segments. That is, you get up there and say, "And now, 20 Hertz of Candid Realism!" and sit down. If you tell people this beforehand, and phrase your announcements accordingly, you can get a few cheap laughs.

2. When you say, "Please thank our speaker," do not spoonerize.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 04:28 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2004

Dry-Erase Boards: Tool of Satan

For reasons that I'm sure seemed good at the time, the University of Utah has installed dry-erase boards in place of chalkboards on the first-floor classrooms of our building. This is ordinarily a bit irritating--unlike pieces of chalk, markers don't get shorter as they wear out, and the ink is harder than chalk dust to get off your hands. Today I manage to go past irritation--to, yes, the state of Extreme Annoyance. Five minutes before class, I couldn't find my dry-erase marker set (it's entirely possible that it's on my desk or even in my briefcase, both of which are fairly cluttered), so I had to grab a small skinny marker from out of the supply cabinet. It took my thirty-five minutes to fill up the board. I then passed the eraser over the board--and nothing happened. Turns out it was a wet-erase marker. The students were highly amused. Unfortunately, the same people (I'm sure) who put in the dry-erase boards have also filled the bathrooms with those rolling cloth thingies instead of paper towels, so I had to use wet toilet paper to try to clean the board for the next teacher. It is still all grey and blurry. Phoo.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

No Respect, Part III

At the conference yesterday, I was mistaken for a graduate student at least three times--once by a U of U grad student who asked to look at my "student ID." One of the mistakers (who I'd told I'd been here one year) did say that my project had seemed awfully well developed for a first-year grad student.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:34 AM | Comments (0)

Premature Weekend Update

1. Something like the following seems plausible, or at least plausibe enough for some philosopher to think: We have an innate faculty for learning about other people's mental states. If this alleged faculty doesn't have a name, I propose we call it "outrospection." Actually, I propose that anyway.

2. On the subject of names, when I was working on the testimony and agency paper, I realized that though it was natural to talk about "perceptual justification" and "testimonial justification," the corresponding adjective for justification through memory wasn't obvious to me. I settled on "mnemonic justification," because "mnemonic" means "of the memory" and because I like typing "mnemonic." Does this mean that the epistemology of memory is so neglected that no one has even bothered to think of the adjective? Or just that I'm so benighted that I don't know about it?

3. The University of Utah is hosting the Intermountain West Student Philosophy Conference; so far it's been great. I'm hosting Fellow-philosophy blogger* of sorts Bernard Nickel. He has already gotten away with carrying a cup of coffee through Temple Plaza.
*When I was a copy editor at a biology journal, one of the big in-house debates was what to do when you wanted to hyphenate a modifier onto a compound phrase. If I remember correctly we decided that ordinary hyphenations call for el dashes, but hyphenations onto compound phrases take en dashes, which I don't know how to make in HTML. Copy editor-bashers--you know who you are--don't realize the drama that takes place behind those blue-pencilled remarks you get.

4. I've finished a paper arguing that Burge's Acceptance Principle for testimony (that we have a default entitlement to believe anything we're told) doesn't conflict with the common-sense notion that we shouldn't treat all testimony equally. The paper seemed like it was trying to instantiate one of Zeno's paradoxes, both in the rate of composition and in the amount of work that remained after I had completed any given section. I wound up having to explain more or less my whole approach to epistemology--the one-paragraph discussion of coherentism was particularly brash. Anyway, I'm too trepidated to put it on my official site, but I will make it available to you, gentle reader, once I figure out how. If you're reading this, you're already used to reading my pretty undigested thoughts.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 11:32 AM | Comments (2)

February 25, 2004

Illocution v. Intention v. Steyn and Coulter

I think I should be clearer about my proposal in the post about illocutionary acts and intentions. To do so, I'm going to use an example that's political--but if you can't attack Ann Coulter for belittling a triple-amputee Vietnam Vet, what can you do? (Background here and here.) So, here's my proposal:

There are four aspects to a speech act, in order:
(1) The words/sentence uttered
(2) The norms put into play by the speech act--which I take to be definitive of what acts are actually performed
(3) The effect it's intended to have
(4) The effect it does have.

The traditional category of illocution is spread across (2) and (3). For an assertion, (2) will include not only what is literally asserted but what is implicated (and similarly for other moods).

Two examples:

(5) You: What do you think of Mark Steyn? Me: He endorsed Anne Coulter's attack on Max Cleland.

(6) You: Is Mark Steyn trustworthy?
Me: He endorsed Anne Coulter's attack on Max Cleland.

In both dialogues, I am denigrating Mark Steyn--I am attempting to get you to think ill of him (which would traditionally count as an illocution, I'm pretty sure). But in (5) that is an effect in stage 3; in (6) the implicature that Steyn is untrustworthy is in stage 2.

First, note that in both (5) and (6) the sentence I utter is literally true. But in both cases an implicature is generated by the maxim of relevance--the sentence does not have a form of an answer to your question, but you are meant to interpret as relevant. In (5) [given assumptions about my opinion of Coulter] you can calculate that I think Steyn is a bad person. This is obviously meant to get you to think the same--but if Steyn were in fact a good person, I still wouldn't have maligned him. All I've done is present the facts and let you draw your conclusions.

(6) is quite different. The implicature is that Steyn is not trustworthy, and that Coulter's attack is inaccurate (even if technically true). If Coulter's attack were accurate, or if Steyn were trustworthy, I would have maligned Steyn (and her). In (6), I am putting my reputation behind the implicature that Steyn is untrustworthy. I am effectively telling you that Steyn is not trustworthy, if not in so many words.

I think this line might help Chris Bertram against some of the attacks he faces in that thread. Chris said that the illocutionary effect of Steyn and Coulter's insinuations was to demean and belittle Cleland and neutralize him as a Bush critic. He was then accused of judging speech by its political effectiveness rather than by its accuracy.

Well, in my framework those effects are in stage (3), and even if the intended effects are bad, that doesn't justify charges of inaccuracy. But Steyn and Coulter clearly implicated, among other things, that Cleland was not heroic (in fact, he had volunteered for a combat mission and had previously won a Silver Star). That's a stage (2) effect, and it's false. In my book that's enough to classify their writings as "inaccurate even if technically true."

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:05 PM | Comments (1)

No respect, Part II

My dissertation was about the epistemology normative structure of testimony, with an eye to expanding to an account of all speech acts in terms of their normative structure. (That would've happened in Part III of the dissertation, if the simple example about how the argument worked for testimony hadn't swallowed the whole thing.) Well, now that speech acts have been declared unsexy, it's time to look at how the epistemology of testimony is doing.

Well, actually not that badly--people publish on it--but in a forced segue [PHWIP!] I'm going to point you to Brian Leiter's poll on the trends in American philosophy over the last 20 years. I wouldn't presume to comment--20 years ago I wasn't paying attention to much American philosophy other than Godel, Escher, Bach if that counts and maybe* The Mind's I--but one thing I note, that didn't get mentioned, is that the epistemology of testimony was almost completely dormant in Anglo-American philosophy 20 years ago. I sometimes cite C.A.J. Coady's APQ article from 1973, and then the next stuff I cite on testimony or trust comes from 1986--Angus Ross's "Why Believe What We Are Told?" (neglected for a while afterward until Richard Moran started talking about it), Annette Baier's "Trust and Antitrust," Judith Baker's "Trust and Rationality"; then the testimony literature is pretty sparse until Coady's 1992 book and Tyler Burge's 1993 "Content Preservation." (All dates and titles approximate, and I may have left out stuff.)

So that's a trend in one area that I find important. In The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism, whose date I completely forget, Barry Stroud mentions testimony as an important source of justification not much discussed by philosophers. That's not true anymore.--Maybe speech act theory will experience a similar comeback in the next couple decades.

*That is, I'm not sure if I was reading it then, I am sure much of it counts as philosophy.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:24 PM | Comments (5)

Technical Truth

Chris Bertram says that speech act theory is unsexy nowadays. As Alicia Silverstone says in Clueless, "Project!" (For my career that is, I don't think that this post in itself will make speech act theory sexy, even if it does contain a gratuitous reference to the Sex Pistols, and several to doody.)

Chris's point is, in very brief, that literal truth is not always a defense. People may say something literally true that is intended to get you to think something that is wildly false, and you can be judged on the intention as well as on the literal truth.

Chris frames this in terms of the Austinian locutionary/illocutionary/perlocutionary act. The locutionary content is the literal meaning of what is said; the illocutionary content is the intention embodied in the performance; the perlocutionary content is the effect that is achieved. The smear Chris is discussing is too depressing/political to quote in a purely philosophical post*, so let us suppose that I say to Alfred "You are a doody-head." I have performed the locutionary act of saying that Alfred is a doody-head, and so performed the illocutionary act of insulting Alfred and perhaps the perlocutionary act of offending him. (The insult/offend distinction is standard in the literature; "doody-head" is my own contribution.)
*And the point I want to make is independent of my opinion of the merits of this case; substitute your own favorite technically true smear if you like. I'm sure you can think of one.

Chris points out that we can judge people by their illocutionary acts as well as their locutionary acts--so that if someone attempts to do something dishonorable by uttering true sentences, the truth is no excuse. If you perform a true locutionary act with the intention of damaging someone's reputation, that intention is part of the illocutionary act, and it's likely a bad one.

On my view, that doesn't go quite far enough. First of all, it seems to me that the distinction isn't between a true locutionary act and a false illocutionary act. The act of outright stating that Alfred is a doody-head is a different illocutionary act from the acts of conjecturing that Alfred is a doody-head and of suggesting that Alfred is a doody-head, yet all can be performed by performing the same locutionary act.

So, in the smear case, asserting (as opposed to conjecturing) the technical truth is an illocutionary act. I'm not sure how useful it is to pack the intentions behind the assertion into the illocutionary act. If part of my intention in writing this post were to ingratiate myself with Chris, is the attempted ingratiation part of an illocutionary act? "I tried to ingratiate myself with Chris" seems to be a different animal from "I argued that the illocutionary/locutionary distinction wasn't doing the right work."

I've argued, or maybe asserted, that to perform a speech act--and I mean an illocutionary act--is generally to do something with certain normative consequences. (This is the post on my Sex Pistols paper, which I'd love it if you read.) In particular, I think that to tell someone something is to offer them a reason for believing it that is based on your credibility, and to stake that credibility on whether it turns out to be true. (The paper in which I argue this isn't on the web, but Chapter IV of my dissertation outlines the view.)

Which means that what you tell someone isn't restricted to the literal meaning of your words. If you ask me "Where can I get gas?" and I reply "There is a gas station around the corner," I am implicating that you can get gas at that gas station. If the gas station is closed, you will have reason not to ask me directions in the future. Even though I (locutionarily) uttered a true sentence, my credibility is knocked as hard as if I had said the false "You can get gas at the gas station around the corner."

The newspaper columns that Chris is discussing are meant to inform as well as opine. The sentences in them may have been literally true, but the impression that they were deliberately designed to yield was not. As Chris observes, their effect was to lower the reputations of their authors--in part, add I, because informed readers now know that the authors attempted to deceive them. Even if this deception was carried about by means of technical truth, I just don't see why that should make any moral, epistemological, or pragmatic difference. (There is good reason for it to make a legal difference.)

(Chris's thread includes some interesting philosophical comments by Jeremy Osner, Lizardbreath, and CJS, if you're willing to wade through a lot of flung mud.)

(Sidebar: Chris refers to "some daft attempts to deploy [speech act theory] in defence of the idea that pornography silences women." Something like this argument is bruited in Jennifer Hornsby's paper "Illocution and Its Significance" in Tsohatzidis's Foundations of Speech Act Theory. IIRC I largely agreed with Hornsby's account of illocution, and I think it's important to note that there are circumstances in which it is conceptually impossible for a speaker to perform a certain act. I don't think it's possible for me to assert that 2 + 2 = 5, because no one could reasonably take my statement that 2 + 2 = 5 seriously. Whether this account applies to pornography is another question--it seems to me that a silencing effect would have to come from a pervasive atmosphere of garden-variety sexism, and we can't legislate that. Googling reveals a page with contrasting viewpoints on silencing by Ronald Dworkin and Rae Langton--I haven't read it, though, so I can't offer an opinion on it's merits.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:26 AM | Comments (1)

Site Fix

The King of Fools e-mailed me to tell me that comments weren't showing up in IE 6 for windows. I've done his fix, and they should show up now. (I don't use Windows or IE 6, so I can't check it, but it doesn't seem to have messed up the site in IE 5.1 for the Mac, which is all I ask.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:14 AM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2004

It's On

I seem to have become embroiled in my first blog-battle, in which Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels and I duke it out for the governorship of the State of Extreme Annoyance. I suppose I should start by describing what it's like to have bitten the inside of my cheek--which would establish my bona fides as Annoyer and Annoyee. Anyway, don't forget to vote.

(Also, in many states including mine, some political party or other is holding one of those primary thingies. Here it seems to be at the library, whence I am always happy to go.)

Background on the governorship: Here, in an article about a British unversity lecturers' strike, one of the strikers said the strike "shows we are in a state of extreme annoyance." I'm pro-union and decidedly in favor of better condition for university lecturers, but this struck me as rather watery rhetoric.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:36 PM | Comments (0)

All Is Real

Allan Hazlett has posted on the difference between pre-nominal and predicative adjectives. Predicative adjectives can occur either before or after the noun:

(1a) Allie is a brown cat. (1b) Allie is a cat that is brown

Pre-nominal adjectives can only occur before:

(2a) Bill Clinton is a former President. (2b) *Bill Clinton is a President that is former.

Allan expresses surprise that pre-nominal and predicate adjectives are claimed to be of a fundamentally different semantic type, but (after thinking about it a few days) it seems intuitive to me. Roughly, the role of "former" is to perform an operation on the noun that it semantically modifies:

(3) "X is a former F" is true iff X was once an F and is no longer an F.

(That's why "former" will modify common nouns only, except in locutions such as "the former Valerie Plame.")

The role of "brown" is independent of the noun that it semantically modifies:

(4) "X is a brown F" is true iff X is brown and X is an F.

Now, "tall" and "good" are predicative. This led me to think that maybe we have evidence that "tall" can't act as a modifier to whatever (possibly implicit) common noun it's attached to--it's got to be set by context or (shudder) invariant.

But, as Allan points out, "fake" is syntactially predicative too. And I'm not sure how you could have "fake" be contextual or invariant--nothing is fake tout court, it's always a fake something or another. For instance, Allan cites

(5) That necklace is fake

but that usually doesn't mean it's a fake necklace, but rather that it's made of fake pearls or some such. Allan compares "fake" to the prenominal "faux," and it's clear that (5) doesn't correspond to

(6) That's a faux necklace

but to

(7) That necklace is made of faux [pearls].

So maybe "fake" requires an implicit noun, and it's impossible to conclude anything from the predicative character of "good," "tall," etc.

[I should add that I expect this territory is pretty well-trod by people who know it better than I do.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:34 PM | Comments (1)

Supreme Court Rebuffs Special Prosecutor; Attorney General to Appeal

The University of Utah is having student government elections amidst controversy. Apparently the Special Prosecutor filed a grievance against the United party's presidential nominee, the Elections Committee unanimously ruled her ineligible on the grounds that she wasn't really a senior, on appeal the Supreme Court reinstated her by a 3-2 vote, and the Attorney General is appealing in order to clarify eligibility rules.

I really, really, really do not want to know why the U's student government has a special prosecutor, a supreme court, and an attorney to general. I'm going to assume it's a joke that got out of hand and ignore all evidence to the contrary.

(The evidence is in the subscriber-only pages of the Utah Daily Chronicle, for which I refuse to register. You'll just have to trust me.)

[Edit: Changed "Rebukes" in title to more accurate "Rebuffs."]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2004

We're #1!

This weblog is now the top Google hit for its name, if you can spell it. That's the advantage of choosing an obscure word--a blog named "free viagra" will not be getting many google hits coming its way, I reckon.

A lovely day, so I'm off to walk home. I may see to it that I pass a used CD store on the way.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:41 PM | Comments (0)

D'jaknow Who?

In comments to this entry, Robbie asks a good question about my doctrine that there's no such thing as a de re belief: How do I account for a statement like (1)?

(1) There's someone in my class who Mr. Wilson thinks left a tack on his chair.

This seems to require quantifying over the object of Mr. Wilson's thought:

(2) (Ex)(Mr. Wilson thinks x left a tack on his chair)

In (2) it looks as though Mr. Wilson's thought will have to be about x. So doesn't Mr. Wilson have a de re thought here?

Well, there's a problem here, and I'm not sure how to solve it, but I don't think de re thoughts help.

Take the case where Mr. Wilson sees Scooter running away (but doesn't recognize him). He says:

(3) That boy left a tack on my chair!

But let us suppose he will also say:

(4) Scooter didn't leave a tack on my chair. In fact, no boy in this class left a tack on my chair.

In this case (1) seems false. Intuitively, there's no one in the class who Mr. Wilson thinks left a tack on his chair, because he can't identify "that boy" as someone in the class. However, (3) is taken as a paradigmatic expression of a de re belief, so on the theory of de re beliefs (1) comes out true.

My first stab at solving this is to use substitutional quantification. So instead of (2), (1) gets represented as

(5) For some ____, ____ is in my class and Mr. Wilson thinks that ____ left a tack on his chair.

Here the range of the quantifier has to be restricted to some set of acceptable descriptions--probably set by context. If Mr. Wilson knows the names of all the kids in the class, it would probably be OK to restrict the range to names. Then (1) comes out false because of the falsity of this instance:

(6) Scooter is in my class and Mr. Wilson thinks that Scooter left a tack on his chair.

Mr. Wilson's thought (de dicto, as they all are) is "That boy left a tack on my chair," and it's impermissible to ascribe that with the second half of (6); though "Scooter" and "that boy" corefer, "Scooter" isn't in the range of permissible substitutions.

I'm not completely happy with the idea of substitutional quantification, but I'm not sure how else to capture the idea that it matters how Mr. Wilson's thought picks out its object. On the other hand, the construal of Mr. Wilson's thought as de re seems to imply that it doesn't matter how the thought picks out the object, and I think (3) and (4) show that that isn't right.

One last thought: The line could be taken that in the scenario I've described, (1) is true but misleading. OK, but I can take the same tack (ha ha!). My original proposal was that "A thinks that B phis" is true iff A has the thought "X phis" for some term X that refers to B and falls within some contextually set acceptable range. I can drop the acceptable range and declare that any X that refers to B is acceptable, though we will often have statements that are true but misleading. Then (2) works as a logical form for (1)--in fact, it's true but misleading.

This proposal generates more true-but-misleading cases than the proposal that some beliefs are de re, but I think that's hardly any cost at all. The cases are misleading in pretty much exactly the same way, so why knock yourself out trying to exclude one of them?

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:23 PM | Comments (2)

Yellow Flags

Suggested by comments here: Since, people who review journal submissions are called "referees," can't we make some jokes about that? The best I can think of is a 5-yard penalty for illegal quantifier shift. Leave something better in the comments.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:41 PM | Comments (0)

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

and

(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 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

Punctuation

Kevin Drum links to a story about a San Francisco judge delaying a ruling on gay marriage until the plaintiffs change a semicolon in their brief.* Some thoughts:

(1) The LA Times story says, "'I am not trying to be petty here, but it is a big deal That semicolon is a big deal,' Warren told attorneys, according to an account by Associated Press." Yet Kevin baldly inserts a period between the two sentences. Ironic!

(2) The semicolon really does seem to be a big deal. It effectively works as an "and" where the judge says it has to be an "or."

(3) One of Kevin's commenters, JamesK, mentions that he obtained a marriage license with his same-sex partner this weekend; I join a lot of the other commenters in offering congratulations.

(4) Another commenter, Chuck Nolan, says, "as one who was just very happily married, I...." Doesn't that sound to you as though he was happily married up until very recently? My condolences. [There may be an actual linguistic point lurking in the vicinity.]

(5) At least one of the above points illustrates why one of my frequent commenters often tells me, "Nobody likes a literalist."

*[UPDATE: Or is it about the judge's delaying the ruling?]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:17 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2004

Hoo-rah!

Two pieces of good news:

(1) My paper "Why Does Justification Matter?" has been accepted by the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and the referee has lots of good suggestions as to how I can make it clearer. (I'm a little torn here--there's a chance that I should completely rework some of the exposition, but would it be ethical to do so after acceptance if it's not directly responsive to some of the comments?)

(2) I saved the big post I was working on just before I managed to crash Internet Explorer.

Good times!

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:14 PM | Comments (4)

February 16, 2004

That Thing You Do

I'm prepping a post which is going revolve around slicing and dicing of linguistic data to yield metaphysical conclusions. So I think it's time for some methodology: why I don't think you can always slice and dice linguistic to yield fine metaphysical conclusions. (I haven't got far enough in that post to figure out whether I'm going to need this Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, but I want to have it ready.)

It's going to turn on this question: What are the things that we do? Are they repeatables or specific individual events? If I wash my car and you wash your car, have we literally done the same thing or have we done things that are numerically distinct but share a common description?

Jennifer Hornsby has often claimed that in ordinary language, things done are always act-types rather than particular action-events. That certainly seems to be true of, say, "Anything you can do I can do better." Witness the following obviously valid inference:

(1) Anything you can do I can do better [... than you]. You can bake a pie. So I can bake a pie better than you.

First of all, it's not even clear what it would be to say that you can do a particular pie-baking, as opposed to baking a pie in general. Even if that were solved, the conclusion isn't that I can accomplish the particular pie-baking events that you can accomplish, but better; it's that I am better than you at the repeatable action of pie-baking.

But let's take "Every little thing she does is magic." What would an inference look like from this?

(2) Every little thing she does is magic. This morning she read the Times. Her reading of the Times was a little thing. So her reading of the Times was magic.

The things referred to here are clearly (by my lights) particular-events. The claim isn't that any action-type she participated in is magic--not that reading the Times is in itself magic. If the things quantified over in (2) were the same as the things quantified over in (2), the conclusion would have to be that reading the Times is magic. But it's her reading the Times that is magic--not even any particular way of reading the Times that anyone else could partake in.

Nor do I think it can be said that we have two senses of "do" here, taking different objects. Consider this sequence:

(3) What she did on her first entrance as Olivia astounded the audience. It was magic. No one else could have done it better.

This seems pretty unexceptionable to me if you give it an ordinary amount of attention. And it looks like both occurences of it have to be anaphoric to "what she did...." But if (1) and (2) involve different construals of 'do', which sense does "did" have here? To make sense of the second sentence, "did" would have to be construed as in (2); to make sense of the third, as in (1).

Yet I think we can comprehend (3) pretty easily. Dialogue might continue:

(4) What did she do on her first entrance? She straightened her tunic.

From (4) it follows that her [particular] straightening her tunic was magic, and that no one else could have straightened their tunic [action type] better than she did.

Why is this sort of ambiguity permissible? In ordinary language, we rarely have the occasion to distinguish between things done as action types and as particular actions. For instance, if I say "Alice did something that made her mother happy," it's rarely material whether Alice's mother was happy because of the fact that Alice called on her birthday or whether it was the event of Alice's calling that made her mother happy. One can most likely find some action-type that will fit the bill for any particular action that fits the bill.

So here's a case where I think the fine points of linguistics don't help us with the fine points of metaphysics. Fundamentally, it doesn't matter whether the direct object of "do" is really a particular event or really an action type--because we usually don't need to think about the difference. You can probably back people into corners about this--maybe you can ask the speaker in (3) "So there's a magic thing that other people can't do as well?"--but a metaphysically imprecise language is usually enough to get us through the day. And why would it have to be any different?

[UPDATE: I should point out that there's a pretty good chance that someone has done some work on the linguistics of "do" that answers all these questions.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:32 PM | Comments (0)

More of This, Please

The reading group/independent study/lunch outing on "New Wave Rationalism" met in the Desert Edge Pub this afternoon, school being out today. (We're reading Laurence BonJour's In Defense of Pure Reason and next week starting Jerrold Katz's Realistic Rationalism.) The music was a bit loud, until the second half of the group, when they started playing Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1 by Antibalas. One of my favorite records of this millenium--anyone who wants to play it anytime is welcome to do so, as loud as they want.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2004

Happy Birthday to Me

The Rolling Rock birthday (33) on Sunday--I will probably be out of the office until at least then. Were I in Pittsburgh I would be laying in some Rock for the occasion, but regular-strength beer is hard enough to get in Utah that it seems like I should try for something fancier.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:01 PM | Comments (1)

De Re Returns

First a couple of examples, and then some rants about why I think they're relevant.

(1) Scooter has put a tack on Mr. Wilson's chair. Karl knows that Scooter did this, but Mr. Wilson doesn't know. Mr. Wilson says to Karl, "I will make life hell for the boy who put the tack on my chair." Karl says to Scooter, "Mr. Wilson thinks he'll make your life hell."

(2) At the baseball stadium, they show pictures of fans on the Jumbotron; whoever gets the most applause wins a free ticket. They show Brian's picture on the screen; Brian does not recognize himself, but Luz recognizes him. Brian points to the screen and says, "He won't win the free ticket." Luz says, "Brian thinks that he won't win the free ticket."

I think (1) is unexceptionable. On the other hand, (2) sounds pretty weird; if Luz's audience doesn't know that Brian has failed to recognize himself, they will be seriously misled. But on most theories of de re attitudes, (2) is fine and (1) isn't.

The idea behind theories of de re belief is that certain beliefs are based on direct access to the object of the belief, such as direct perceptual links (often expressed with proper names). To say the beliefs themselves are de re is to say that the object of the belief is a constituent of the belief--as opposed to the way that the object is thought about. So the belief Brian expresses in (3) would be [Brian, "won't win the free ticket"] as opposed to something like ["That guy won't win the free ticket"] or ["dthat (the guy on the screen) won't win the free ticket"]; where the stuff in quotes is in mentalese. If the belief is de re, then Brian himself is part of the belief.

Since de re beliefs incorporate their objects, it shouldn't matter how you refer to the object when you report the belief. "Brian" and "that guy" and "the guy in the seat next to me" and "the proprietor of Thoughts Arguments and Rants" all refer to the same object, and that object is a component of Brian's belief. So the report in (2) comes out OK on this theory, because Luz's "he" refers to Brian.

De re beliefs are traditionally contrasted with de dicto beliefs, which incorporate a definite description. This description does not reflect direct acquaintance with the object of the belief; you think about the object by means of the description. It's generally taken that a description of a de dicto belief is loose, unless it exactly reproduces the description involved in the original belief.

So (1) should be unacceptable. Mr. Wilson isn't directly acquainted with Scooter as "the boy who put the tack on my chair." He might not be acquainted with Scooter at all. So his belief doesn't reach out and incorporate Scooter, and it should be illegitimate for Karl to substitute the coreferential term "you" in describing Mr. Wilson's belief.

So what do I think is going on?

Well, as I ranted before, I don't think that it makes sense to split beliefs themselves into de re and de dicto. In (2), and in every other situation, Brian's belief doesn't just swallow him. Brian has to think about himself under some guise; this time it's the guise of "The guy on the screen" or just "That guy" or even a mental picture. The whole belief can be put in mentalese in that way. There's an important difference between Brian thinking "I won't win the ticket" and "That guy won't win the ticket"; but if we construe them as de re beliefs, they both come out as [Brian, "won't win the ticket."] That, to me, indicates that construing them as de re destroys important information.

Suppose, then, we abandon the division of beliefs into de re and de dicto. All beliefs are to be represented as mentalese sentences. Then an ascription of a belief has the potential to be correct if every term that the ascriber uses corefers with the corresponding term of mentalese as thought by the original believer. Karl's ascription in (1) has the potential to be correct because his "You" and Mr. Wilson's "the boy who put the tack on my chair" both refer to Scooter; Luz's ascription in (2) has the potential to be correct because her "he" and Brian's "He" both refer to Brian.

Why is there a difference between (1) and (2)? If someone wants to get the clearest possible picture of the original belief from a report, they have to figure out the original mentalese phrasing of the belief. In (1), it's obvious that "you" can't be exactly what Mr. Wilson thought. So Scooter can ask himself, when Mr. Wilson thought, "I'm going to make [blank's] life hell," what term referring to me would have gone in the blank? "The boy who put the tack on my chair" is a natural answer--even if Mr. Wilson knows Scooter's name.

In (2), Luz's audience can ask themself, when Brian thought "[Blank] won't win the ticket," what term referring to Brian would have gone in the blank? Well, unless you know most of the backstory, the first term you'll think of is "me." Most people frequently think of themselves in the first-person (or in terms that they know to be synonymous with the first person, like "Bob Dole"). In (2), if you discover that Brian is going around saying, "I'll win the ticket," you'll probably take Luz to be proved wrong, because the most natural interpretation of her utterance has been proved wrong.

In general, I think there's going to be a range of permissible substitutions for the original terms of the belief. The range may depend on the context--what you're trying to convey with the report, how important it is to give a precise idea of the original belief, which assumptions the hearer will most naturally make. I want to suspend judgment about whether an impermissible substitution falsifies a belief report, but some substitutions will certainly mislead.

The problem with the division of beliefs into de re and de dicto is that it creates a black-and-white picture of permissible substitutions. If you're reporting a de re belief, you can use any term that refers to the res; if you're reporting a de dicto belief, you have to use the exact description that appears in the original mentalese. But it'll be rare that the range of non-misleading substitutions hits either extreme. And there's no particular reason to think that the range will always be narrower for thoughts containing definite descriptions as opposed to thoughts containing indexicals or demonstratives.

(This rant is occasioned because I've been reading up on the linguistics literature that Kai von Fintel cites here concerning the de re and the de se, and the division of beliefs into de re and de dicto seems to go pretty much unquestioned throughout. I think this gets the debate off on the wrong foot. For instance, Higginbotham thinks de se thoughts are a will-o'-the wisp; but surely we understand what it is for me to think "My pants are on fire" better than we understand what it is for me to think [x's pants are on fire] with Matt assigned to x? There's a lot in this literature I need to think through, but taking de re beliefs as fundamental is a philosophically fraught move.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:21 PM | Comments (3)

Someone's Inhumanity to Someone Else

The problem with the gender-neutral translations of "Greater love hath no man..." is that they just don't sound as good. But I think there's a serious semantic difficulty in coming up with a gender-neutral translation for this phrase:

Man's inhumanity to man.

The problem is that I think this phrase plays on the ambiguity of "man" between specific people and humanity in general, somewhat like the Malcolm Lowry poem that starts "How like a man is Man, who rises late." (Not on the web, damn it!)
There's no gender-neutral word for the whole species that can also signify an individual. And if you said "Humanity's inhumanity to humanity," that would make it sound as though the species is both the collective agent and the collective target, which I think is not what is meant.

(The official Opiniatrety position on gender-neutral language is that it's nice to use language that doesn't connote a specific gender, but sometimes it sounds funny. Usually when I need to denote a generic person in my papers I use "she.")

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:27 AM | Comments (1)

Gender-Neutral

Brian gives a gender-neutral translation of "Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friend." (His main point is that "they" can be used as a singular.) In comments, Rich suggests using "one" as the gender-neutral personal pronoun. This reminded me of James Thurber on "one":

'The chief objection to a consistent, or "cross-country" use of "one" is that it tends to make a sentence sound like a trombone solo - such as: "One knows one's friends will help one if one is in trouble, or at least one trusts one's friends will help one." Even though this is correct, to the point of being impeccable, there is no excuse for it. The "one" enthusiast should actually take up the trombone and let it go at that.'

The Thurb was referring to use of "one" instead of "I," as you can tell. Anyway, read the whole thing, read all of Thurber on Modern English Usage if you can find it, and thanks to Caroline Heycock for putting this bit on the web where I could get it right.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:18 AM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2004

Re-electable

A couple of more thoughts about electability (first thoughts here):

(1) If you interpret "X is electable" as "X can win the election," that still leaves open the question of whether you mean something like ability or possibility. If I say "I can hit the pins when I bowl," I mean that I have the ability to--not that I will always succeed if I try, but roughly, that if I try and am careful and don't screw up in any drastic way, I will succeed. If I say "I can bowl a strike" or maybe "I could bowl a strike," I mean that it's not impossible, not that I have the ability to do it. "Anyone can grow up to be president" seems to me to be a pretty clear case in which the indicative "can" means possibility rather than ability.

To say "X is able to win the election" sets a darn high standard for electability--it's that X will win the election, if X runs a decent campaign. To say "It is possible for X to win the election" sets a low standard--it's what I'd mean if I said "X is not unelectable," or "not entirely unelectable." When I say "X is electable" I think I mean something in between.

(2) When I said that electability tout court was contextually determined, I don't think I gave a shred of evidence for it. In fact, at the moment I don't think I believe it--I'd say someone is electable if they have, say, a 45% chance of winning. Or maybe that electability is vague, with the penumbra from around 60% to around 40%. Or something.

(3) "Electable" is a modal term, I think, but I'm not sure it has a normative rather than an epistemic use. If Lyndon LaRouche had an 80% chance of winning the next election, could we say "But he's not electable!" meaning that it's just completely wrong to elect him? I don't think so. That makes me think that maybe Ralph Wedgwood's point here should be run in reverse. It's not that "ought," "can," "supposed to," and "may" are modal terms, which all have normative as well as epistemic meanings; it's that they're normative terms, which all have epistemic meanings.

"Supposed to" has a bit of bite here--grammatically it's not an auxiliary, like "ought," "can," and "may," but it exhibits the same duality as "ought" (as well as a funny interaction with negation). So this shows that the divide isn't simply between grammatical auxiliaries with two senses and other modal terms with only one.

(I expect Ralph is much more prepared than I am in this area, so take what I say with a grain of salt!) (Also, he said most modal terms.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:48 PM | Comments (0)

Overanalysis for Lunch


"I'll go and secure our table before someone else grabs it."

Is this deviant or not? "Secure" here is a bit like a verb of creation--securing the table doesn't bring it into existence, but it does make it ours. Can we then use "it" to refer to "our table," which has not yet been determined by the act of securing? Does this add a wrinkle on to the well-known case of "I caught the ball before it hit the ground"--in which we cannot interpret "before" as meaning that the first event takes place earlier than the second, because the ball never hits the ground? How about "We must prevent the explosion before it takes place"?

Are you going to avoid going to lunch with philosophers now, or just with me? Discuss.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:41 PM | Comments (3)

Electable

Matthew Yglesias says (scroll down to the comments):

I should also do a little unpacking of the term "electability." If you say a guy is "unelectable" that means he can't win. So if a guy is "electable" he can, or at least could win. I'm quite sure Kerry is electable in this sense -- Bush might beat him, but he might beat Bush. Edwards, I would say, is more electable than Kerry, meaning he's more likely to win, and more likely to win, if he does win, by a large margin.

Now, my first guess is that "electable" and "unelectable" tout court are contextually determined like "tall" and "short" tout court. Degrees of relative tallness and shortness aren't contextual--no matter what the context, Yao Ming is taller than Michael Jordan. But how tall you have to be to count as "tall" is contextually determined--in some contexts Jordan may be tall, in others not. So "unelectable" doesn't have to mean the guy can't win--it just means that he's unlikely enough to win that we'll confidently predict it wouldn't happen.

[My currently favored account of "justified" is much the same. The degree to which a belief is justified is the degree to which it is supported by the evidence, and that's not contextual. But whether a belief is plain ol' justified is contextual, or at least depends on pragmatic factors. The stakes riding on the beliefs are important, as in the bank cases. End of digression.]

But things might get complicated because "electable" is a dispositional term (or something). Can someone lose the election and still have been electable? If not, the idea of degrees of electability may be in trouble. Certainly it would seem odd to say that so-and-so was unelectable and yet won.

[UPDATE: Forgot the Yglesias link the first time.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2004

Emptying and Knowing

I was rereading Knowledge and the Flow of Information for the paper on testimony and agency, and I ran across a passage in which Dretske compares knowledge with being empty. To be empty is to contain no objects, and to know is to be free of uneliminated doubts. But what counts as an object, and what counts as a doubt, depends on your purposes.

Well, we were just discussing some of Jason Stanley's arguments against contextualism. One was that, unlike other context-dependent words like "tall" or "big," "know" doesn't admit of degree modifiers--you can't say "I know that 2 + 2 = 4 more than you do."

Could the verb "empty" be a word that is clearly contextually dependent but doesn't admit degree modifiers? It seems odd to say

(1) *I emptied the salt shaker more than I emptied the pepper shaker

unless you mean "more often." But "empty" is clearly context-dependent. Whether "I emptied the salt shaker" counts as true will vary, depending on whether you meant to put as much salt in your food as possible (in which case it's OK to leave grains of salt clinging to the sides) or whether you mean to fill it with sugar (in which case you'd better have got those grains out). So maybe "empty" could serve as a model for the context-dependence of "know."

It might make sense to say

(2) I emptied the salt shaker more thoroughly than the pepper shaker

But doesn't that constitute an admission that you didn't really empty the pepper shaker? Similarly, I don't find it completely weird to say

(3) Jamal knows when the movie is more securely than Jerome does

say, if Jerome has read the listing in the paper, but Jamal has actually called the theater. At least, I don't know what else you'd say about such epistemic overkill.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:25 PM | Comments (4)

Oh Boy Oh Boy

My parents just sent me a copy of Martin Rowson's comic book, "The Waste Land." Our detective, Chris Marlowe, gets entangled with Madam Sosostris, Phlebas the Phoenician, the butler Sweeney, and the two cops Burbank and Bleistein (who always smokes a cigar). That's right, it's T.S. Eliot's poem redone as a hard-boiled detective movie. An absolute gold mine of literary in-jokes--I'd lost my copy a while ago, and my parents dug one up for me out of the blue. Thanks!

My favorite bits: part IV--"Death by Water." The chauffeur is dredged out of the bay, with the comment "It was Phlebas the Phoenician... He'd been dead a fortnight." (I must remember to post my explanation of the drowned chauffeur in The Big Sleep sometime.)

Later Burbank is marching Marlowe through the desert and Marlowe says, "Who is that on the other side of you?" Burbank responds, "Don't push your luck, Marlowe! That's the oldest trick in the book." (See Eliot's version, line 365.)

[While googling I found "Narrativity and Stasis in Martin Rowson's Tristram Shandy". The paper actually looks pretty comprehensible.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:05 PM | Comments (0)

Common Cause Is Not Just a Liberal Lobby

Front page story in today's Deseret Morning News: "Has Bad Air Helped Drought?: Pollution and cold actually kept valley snow from melting"

The argument: In the recent temperature inversion, warmer air in the mountains trapped colder air in the valley, leading to horrible smog (some days I could barely see the Angel Moroni on the top of the LDS temple--that's one block away and a couple hundred feet up). But the cold air also kept snow from melting, which could help relieve the drought.

Um, anonymous headline writer? That's not the pollution keeping the valley snow from melting. The temperature inversion aggravated the pollution and also kept the snow from melting. But if we had fixed the pollution--say, by instituting emission controls--we still would've got the benefits of the cold weather.

I don't think you need a PhD in philosophy to figure this out. Any hard questions should probably be referred to Carolina Sartorio.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:50 PM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2004

You Oughta Know

Some new comments on an old thread of Brian's about the epistemic and normative meaning of "ought"; this came up here, in relation to "supposed to," because of these comments.

Brian notes Judith Jarvis Thomson's observation that this "ought" really seems to be ambiguous--you can't say "Jane and Joe ought to be here" if you mean that Jane promised to come and Joe is probably here.

I tossed in the following comments:

There's another underdetermination that takes place with "ought." I've seen it described as the difference between ought to be and ought to do, but that's not quite right--it's not determined by the verb following "ought."

Consider the following two situations.

(1) We are at a family reunion hosted by my notoriously feckless nephew. There is anxiety about whether he has laid in enough supplies. I say, "He ought to have enough food for his family."

(2) We are watching a documentary about poverty in America. A Wal-Mart cashier is describing how, given his and his wife's low salaries, they sometimes do not know where their children's next meal is coming from. I say, "He ought to have enough food for his family."

Both of these are cases of the moral "ought," but the onus falls differently. In (1), the onus falls on the subject of "ought"; in (2), the onus is impersonal. My nephew has done wrong if he does not have enough food to feed his family; it is wrong tout court if the Wal-Mart cashier does not have enough food to feed his family.

I think you can't conjoin these oughts:

(3)??My nephew and the cashier both ought to have enough food to feed their famililes.

But of course (3) is an odd thing to say anyway; I'd have to come up with something more natural to prove this case.

Interestingly, in the epistemic "ought" the onus doesn't fall on the subject of the "ought." In the epistemic sense, "P ought to phi" seems to mean, given what the speaker knows, it is likely that P phis; or maybe that it is likely tout court that P phis.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:02 PM | Comments (1)

The Side that Loses Gets Pittsburgh

Allan Hazlett has a map of the Midwest here--suggesting, perhaps, that vague terms can be defined as "terms that start an argument whenever you try to specify them." He's done it state-by-state, thus papering over the whole Pittsburgh question--everyone knows most of Pennsylvania isn't Midwest, but Pittsburgh is, as Allan says, definitely penumbral. I have a friend who says he didn't realize he was from the Midwest until he moved to New York--but if he'd moved to Omaha maybe he'd have a different reaction.

Anyway, I agree with the people who said that Kentucky should be out and Kansas/Nebraska in. The folks I know from Kentucky insist they're Southern, though maybe the parts near Cincinnati would disagree. If Pittsburgh is definitely penumbral, is Wheeling WV too? I think a lot of folks would be surprised to be told that any of WV is in the midwest, but they might also be surprised to learn that any of WV is on the Ohio river, so forget 'em.

(The title comes from an old Society of Creative Anachronism I think it is story--there was a battle between the East and Midwest regions, and Pittsburgh happened to be switched from the one to the other the year after the other had lost. On something unrelated--does anyone remember which league won the world series the year before the Brewers traded themselves to the NL?)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:06 PM | Comments (3)

David Blair Poetry Reading

My friend David Blair, of the New England Institute of Arts, is giving a poetry reading tonight at 7:15 pm Eastern time. The link is http://neia.aiiradio.com. Click on the "Listen Live" button. I'll be around for this, if I can get it to work...

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:58 AM | Comments (0)

RIP Malachi Favors

Malachi Favors, the bassist of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, died of cancer Jan. 30. I only just learned this. Sad.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:55 AM | Comments (1)

February 07, 2004

All Modesty is False, Otherwise It Isn't Modesty

[Post title courtesy of Alan Bennett, and maybe not exact.]

Geoff Pullum opens a post with the famous alleged Churchill quotation about "A modest man with much to be modest about."

This has nothing to do with the substance of Pullum's post, but it brings up a question--how can modesty be thought to be a virtue? To have an accurately low opinion of your qualities is not usually called "modesty" but "depression." Yet to have an inaccurately low opinion of qualities would hardly seem virtuous--wouldn't it be more virtuous to know thyself?

The only thing I can think of is some sort of salience analysis. To be modest is to know your good qualities but somehow not to see them as salient--as McDowell says that the chaste person is aware of the pleasure that sex would bring but does not see it as a reason to act. Ironic to give a neo-Aristotelian account of modesty, since I don't think Aristotle would've found modesty virtuous.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:30 PM | Comments (1)

Even if I'm right, what does it matter?

An example in Iatridou's paper suggested the following case to me:

(1) If it doesn't rain, we'll die of thirst. Even if it rains, what will we eat?

Here the second sentence seems to call for an answer of the form:

(2) We will eat coconuts if it rains.

So far, so good--"If it rains, what will we eat?" would elicit the same answers, just as "Even if it rains, we will eat coconuts" seems to have the same truth-conditions (if different presuppositions" than "If it rains, we will eat coconuts."

My account of "even if" suggested that "even if p, q" always involved a contrast with some presupposed "if r, q." In (1), there's definitely a contrasted antecedent--"If it doesn't rain." But the question isn't asked on the condition that it doesn't rain. If it doesn't rain, we die of thirst, and the question is moot.

I'm not sure what to do about this--but I'm not sure what to do about conditional questions in general--maybe they yield an answer.

I will note that "even if" clauses can be utterance modifiers for questions:

(3) Even if you think your friends are at the Gateway, do you know how to get there?

This does not call for an answer of the form, "If I think my friends are at the Gateway...." The question only has point if you think your friends are at the Gateway. I guess the implied contrast might be "If you have no idea where your friends are, you won't be able to meet them."

[Iatridou's own example was the second sentence of (1) without the comma, calling for an answer of the form "We will eat coconuts even if it rains." As she points out, "*Even if it rains what will we eat?" is ungrammatical, though "What will we eat even if it rains" seems acceptable though an odd question to ask [as does "Even if it rains we will eat what?"]. This is in service of a syntactical point that is well beyond my competence.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:37 PM | Comments (0)

Even if

Brian linked to On the Contribution of Conditional Then by Sabine Iatridou. Iatridou discusses why "then" is disallowed in many "if"-sentences, and proposes (roughly) that "If p, then q" presupposes that there are some cases in which ~p and ~q are both true.

Brian points out that, though "even if" conditionals don't allow "then," they don't support Iatridou's thesis, because sometimes you can say "even if p, q" without presupposing q.

My proposal in Brian's comments was that "Even if p, q" expresses a contrast with some presupposed conditional, "If r, q." Often that will be "If ~p, q"--in which case q is presupposed (entailed?)--but not always.

I'd like to develop that a bit and see if it stands up.

Iatridou mentions that "the use of even is associated with the existence of a scale of expectation, with the associate of even--in our case the if-clause--at the lowest point" (p. 175). So "Even if p, q" will be felicitous when q is to be expected given ~p, but more surprising given p. In this case, there are two possibilities, ~p and p, with ~p at the top of the scale and p at the bottom.

This makes it natural to think of "even if" sentences against the background of a range of possible antecedents (not just the sentence and its negation). In Brian's example, the antecedents range over members of the boss's family, with the most distant relatives at the bottom of the scale:

(1) If you flirt with the boss's wife, you'll be fired. If you flirt with the boss's daughter, you'll be fired. Even if you flirt with the boss's second cousin once removed, you'll be fired.

But since it's not presupposed that you flirt with any of the boss's relatives--the scale doesn't comprise an exhaustive list of possibilities--the "even if" doesn't presuppose that you'll be fired.

It's natural to use "only" or "as many as" with "even if," depending on whether the scale of expectation goes up or down:

(2) Even if only five people show up to my talk, I'll be happy. (cf. "Even if you only flirt with the boss's second cousin...") (3) Even if as many as fifty people show up to my talk, I'll have enough handouts.

In this case, it doesn't even seem as though the associate of "even" is at the bottom of the scale of expectation--just lower than what's presupposed. So in (2), it might be obvious that I'd be happy if 100 people came to my talk; in (3), it might be obvious that I'd have enough handouts for ten people. Here there is an exhaustive scale, but I'm not committed to anything farther down the scale of expectation than stated in the antecedent of the "even if."

Maybe I should try out an example, in case anyone has read this far. What is presupposed or implied by:

(4) Even if the Democrats nominate Lieberman, I'll vote for him.

Well, first, the false statement that the Democrats might nominate Lieberman (sorry Joe!). I also think it presupposes that there is some Democrat who I like more than Lieberman, but not that I will vote for any Democratic nominee. The contrast is between

(4') If the Democrats nominate Lieberman, I'll vote for him

and other conditionals that are higher up the expectation scale; but it doesn't imply that (4') is rock bottom on the expectation scale, so it doesn't imply that I will vote for any Democratic nominee.

So far I'm pretty happy with this, but we'll see what the pros have to say, if they stop by.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:02 PM | Comments (2)

Literary Notes

I just read Marian Keyes' Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married. Maria Farrell is right--this is Keyes' best book, though maybe not her best example of her genre ("chick lit," as Maria calls it).
In the most genre-y of Keyes' books (Last Chance Saloon and Watermelon), the pleasure of the plot is all in seeing how Keyes gets her women away from the awful men and with the great ones; and the problem is that the great men are more or less indistinct dream princes, and the awful ones are so awful it's hard to see what the women saw in them. (Most of the pleasure is, they're funny.) As Maria says, Rachel's Holiday shows the pain beneath the madcap party-girl heroine, but for me it does so at the expense of the pleasures of the plot. Lucy Sullivan brings both sides together--there's a lot of pain there, but it doesn't overwhelm Lucy's life. And the awful man has a lot of appeal, and the great one is a real character.

Also, I just got my first issue of my new New Yorker subscription. The story, Nicole Krauss's "The Last Words on Earth," is fantastic. I hope her novel is as good. This paragraph:

Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and youíll get a Spinoza; in the end life makes window-watchers of us all. The afternoon went by; little grains of darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought, I didnít live forever.

isn't even the best part of the story. (The link won't last long, so click now.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:44 PM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2004

Se Se Se

[UPDATE: Rewritten from top to bottom.]
I quasi-promised to have something to say about Jason Stanley's remarks on de se desire reports. Briefly: I haven't read the literature in question, but I think Stanley's discussion can be spun to support my views, which are:

(i) There's no such thing as a de re attitude. Everything we think about, we think about some way. If someone thinks about an object in a certain way w, the best way to express that attitude is with a sentence in something like the language of thought, including a term for w (ii) It often makes sense to ascribe attitudes de re. An ascription, "A attitudes that x phis," de re for x, will be true iff A attitudes some sentence "y phis" such that y and x co-refer (as used by A and the ascriber, respectively)--possibly with a contextual restriction on the range of allowable x.

[These views may not be explicit, or even implicit, in the linked post.]

Now, Jason points out that

(1) Brian wants to win the race

always expresses a de se desire, and that

(2) Brian wants himself to win the race

is almost always de se, but that we can contrive a case in which it's not; Brian is running a race and looking at the race on the Jumbotron, and he thinks "I want the red-headed runner to win," not realizing that he is the red-headed runner on the Jumbotron. (An example like this is due to Mark, in Brian's comments.)

This makes sense in terms of (i)-(ii) if we add:

(iii) De se attitudes are just attitudes that contain "I." No difference between saying de dicto "I think that I am cold" and that I have the de se thought that I am cold.

For, in order to make the non-de se reading of (2) come out, we need to find some alternate description under which Brian thinks of himself. His thought simply can't reach out and grab himself in a non-first-personal way; he has to think "I want that guy to win," or "I want the red-head to win," or "I want the guy who looks like [picture] to win," or even "I want the guy that Jason bet on to win."

Each of these can be described in Brian's language of thought--I just did it--and that description seems more fundamental than the description given by "Brian wants himself to win." "Brian wants himself to win" is a de re ascription, grounded on the co-reference of "himself" with the term B that actually shows up in Brian's language of thought (if you will). (2) is acceptable as an ascription of Brian's desire if we're in a position where the salva reference substitution of "himself" for B is allowed. (I'm being agnostic as to whether an impermissible substitution would falsify (2)--thus making (2)'s truth value context-dependent--or whether it would make (2) true but misleading.)

But (2) is guaranteed true if Brian's original desire was "I want to win." And if (1) always reports the desire "I want to win," this explains why the most natural reading of (2) is as equivalent to (1).

I think my view is equivalent to the view that Jason mentions on which (1) expresses a relation between Brian and a property. On my view, (1) has to express a desire of Brian's "I want to..."; the ... is the property to which Brian is being related.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:04 PM | Comments (0)

Badgerous

Badgerous is a philosopher and jazz fan--that's the music, not my local NBA team. Onto the blogroll he goes. And I'm going over there to beg for a link.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:02 PM | Comments (1)

Three and a Half Musical Moments That Bother My Cat

but all these records are heartily recommended to non-cats. Or, at least, non-cats with my tastes in music. Caveat Emptor and all that.

The moments are:
(1) The thunderstorm at the beginning of "Sidewalk Story" on The Sidewalks of New York, by Uri Caine and Tin Pan Alley;
(2) The high note in the middle of "King Porter Stomp" on Chicago Breakdown, by Thomas Heberer and Dieter Manderschied;
(3) The collective whoop in the middle of "Turtle Dreams (Waltz)" on Turtle Dreams, by Meredith Monk;
(3.5) The entrance of the saxophones at the beginning of "Rituals," on Blues for Falasha, by the Glenn Spearman Double Trio.

These moments are listed in descending order of how much they annoy my cat--which I'd guess is also ascending order of how much they'd annoy most people. More details below the fold.

The Sidewalks of New York is an "audio film" the songs of 1895-1915 played by New York avant-gardists. The performances don't send the songs up or break them down. The postmodern touches are provided by sound effects, crowd noises, snatches of dialogues, the occasional song played as if overheard from the street. Surprisingly, this audio verite intensifies the emotional effect instead of dissipating it. The thunderstorm noises also send my cat under the futon. This is not a tough, streety cat we're talking about.

Chicago Breakdown is a disk of six Jelly Roll Morton tunes, played by a German trumpter and bassist. These performances do break the songs down, with the themes emerging from out-of-tempo fantasias, and with Heberer using his trumpet for all sorts of freak noises (some not so far from the sounds New Orleans trumpeters would make). The fifteen-minute version of "King Porter Stomp" stops midway through for one of the longest, highest trumpet notes ever. My cat thinks it's an air-raid siren--the dog-whistle effect, I guess.

"Turtle Dreams (Waltz)" is, for me, the quintessential Meredith Monk piece. For eighteen minutes, over hypnotic, slowly varying organ riffs, four singers sing, chant, gibber, and moan what sounds like a dissection of the sentence "I went to the store." At one point, each in turn starts a sustained whoop--this does sound like an air-raid siren, and it does make the cat sit up.

Blues for Falasha is an intense free-jazz piece about the Jews of Ethiopia, reflecting the late Glenn Spearman's Black-Jewish ancestry. After a brief recitation, two tenor saxophones break in with some long honks that make the cat prick her ears up. The odd thing is that, of all the records I listen to of saxophonists blowing their brains out, this is about the only one that the cat even notices. I don't know why. The record itself builds up to a theatrical climax, intensely sustained--and then, for some reason, there's a two-minute drum duet that destroys the momentum. Why do drummers solo, anyway? They should be expressing themselves while everyone else is playing.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:25 AM | Comments (6)

February 04, 2004

De Re Mi Fa Se La Dic To

While we're on the subject of Jason Stanley, he has some useful comments on the post that inspired my crotchet about de re attitudes. More on this later, maybe.

[And, while we're on the subject of the Posterior Analytics, why was there an ancient Greek mathematician--if not two--named Bryson? I thought that was a Whit Stillman character or something.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:57 PM | Comments (1)

Old Enough to Know Better

Jason Stanley (section 2) has argued that one of the problems for contextualists' account of knowledge is that "know" doesn't admit of degree modifiers. Because bigness is a sliding scale, it makes sense to say one thing can be bigger than another--so it makes sense to have the context set the threshold for how big you have to be to count as "big" tout court. But "know" seems to act funny when you try to put it in comparative forms--it's funny to say "Jack knows p more than q." We don't seem to have much of a way to talk about degrees of knowledge.

Except--when I was prepping the Posterior Analytics this morning I ran across this:

"So since the primary premisses are the cause of our knowledge--i.e. of our conviction--it follows that we know them better--that is, are more convinced of them--than their consequences, precisely because our knowledge of the latter is the effect of our knowledge of the premisses" (72a30-32).

Stanley considers "Hannah knows better than anyone that she is poor," and argues that "better than anyone" is an idiom that doesn't support inferences about the semantics of "know" (p. 10). But Aristotle isn't using that idiom--and it sure seems like he's using it to express degrees of knowledge.

Does this make me the first person ever to cite Aristotle in defense of contextualism about knowledge?

Lots of caveats:
(1) Aristotle didn't write in English. I have no idea what the Greek is.
(2) This is a philosophers' use. Nothing here suggests that hoi polloi should find "know better than" acceptable.
(3) Aristotle was writing a long time ago. We might not want to accept his theory of knowledge today.
(4) Aristotle talks about "firmer conviction" rather than "better evidence." [In another translation, it's "both know and are convinced of them better."] Contextualists seem to talk about better evidence (though it seems to me that firmer conviction goes along with it).
(5) Lots of others that I'm sure I've missed.

But--I think that if we're going to approach the question as epistemologists, trying to find out what concept of knowledge we should have, Aristotle's usage is significant. It suggests that the reason we reject sentences like "Jack knows p more than q" may be that the folk today don't hold Aristotelian conceptions of knowledge. If you want to argue for a contextualist conception of knowledge, you'll have to overturn some folk beliefs anyway--it's not surprising that you'd recommend a change in our usage of "know."

(Of course, if contextualists want to argue that their theory provides the best account of how we actually use "know," Jason's evidence will cause them trouble--and Aristotle may not help them that much. Since Jason's paper is called "On The Linguistic Basis for Contextualism," it seems only fair to note that. :-))

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:38 PM | Comments (4)

All Conversational Implicatures are Cancelable

and I am the Queen of Romania. I mean that literally.

[Update: Edited for clarity. Go to Liberman's post to see the Dorothy Parker poem that is related to this entry.]

Mark Liberman has said all I wanted to say in response to Allan's post on conditionals. Brief recap: If you say "If you're a good citizen, I'm Donald Duck" it means "You're not a good citizen" because of contraposition; if you say "You're a good citizen, and I'm Donald Duck" it means "You're not a good citizen" because the second clause flouts the maxim "say what you believe to be true"--so that it is clear that the first clause is also meant to violate that maxim.

But, since I'm going to use Mark's post as a peg to hang a crotchet on.

Namely: People widely take it that conversational implicatures have to be cancelable. "Some of you passed the test" implicates "Some of you failed," but you can cancel the implicature by saying "Some of you passed the test--in fact, all of you did."

Timothy Williamson uses this in arguing for the Knowledge Account of Assertion ("Knowledge and Assertion" in Phil. Rev., revised as the "Assertion" chapter in Knowledge and Its Limits; Geoff Nunberg gives it as an explicit test for conversational implicatures; and Brian Weatherson, in his Truer paper, talks about a category of implicature that is "a much stronger implicature than conversational implicature, since it is not cancellable."

I don't see this, and the first paragraph of this post is meant to show it. Does saying "I mean it literally" really cancel the implicature expressed by "I am the Queen of Romania"? I've written a short paper (pdf, word) arguing that it doesn't.

You should read this paper because
(1) It's short (6 pages)
(2) It's probably the first philosophy of language paper ever to discuss the Sex Pistols.

The basic idea is quite simple: The act of explicit cancelation is itself bound by conversational maxims. So even if A implicates B, saying "A. And not B" may not amount to an assertion of A with the implicature canceled--because the maxims might determine that the utterance of "And not B" shouldn't be taken literally.

One could define conversational implicatures as those that are cancelable--but then why would we care about them? I'd say that conversational implicatures should be those that are generated in roughly Gricean fashion, and that not all of these are cancelable.

There's some deeper thoughts lurking in the background.

This is: What we do when we perform a speech act, generally, is to do something that has certain normative consequences. In my dissertation I argue that testimony makes the teller liable to lose some credibility if the testimony turns out false; it also affects the hearer's justification for believing what she's been told. An order makes the orderee responsible for carrying it out, on pain of court-martial or some other sanction. (Reminders and requests are hard to work in, but I think it can be done.)

And you're not always in position to bring about whatever normative effects you please. Obviously you can't just order anyone about; it would be lovely for me if I could make people responsible for doing things, on pain of court-martial, but I can't. But I don't think you can even assert whatever you like. I can't make it the case that a reasonable person would take me to be less credible if it turns out that I am not the Queen of Romania--no matter how much I insist that I am the Queen of Romania, the rational thing to do is to take me as telling some bizarre joke. So--on my theory--I just can't tell you that I am the Queen of Romania.

And when I say "I am the Queen of Romania," I can't cancel that utterance's implicatures and leave the bare assertion that I am the Queen of Romania. The rational hearer won't take my canceling utterance any more seriously than my original utterance.

Anyway, I'd appreciate any comments on the paper, or on the other thoughts herein expressed.

Oh, and the scorecard: In the cases Nunberg and Weatherson discuss, they're right that the failure of cancelability indicates an absence of conversational implicature. But Williamson is wrong--he's laid hold of a Gricean implicature that can't be canceled. I argue for that in my paper "Must We Know What We Say?" (word, pdf).

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:38 PM | Comments (2)

Where the Handbasket Goes

Suppose--as is traditional in these setups--you're spending an eternity in Purgatory, but sometimes you have the chance to spend some time in Heaven, and sometimes you get stuck spending some time in Hell. One day in Heaven cancels out one day in Hell, and there are no time discounts.

One day Satan appears to you and offers you the following deal:
"I'll offer you a St. Peter's card. A St. Peter's card is worth a certain number of days in Heaven, determined by a St. Petersburg process--1/2 chance of one day in Heaven, 1/4 chance of 2 days, 1/8 chance of 4 days, etc. As you know, that's infinitely good--it should be worth any bounded number of days in Hell. You can cash the card in any time--you have forever.

"But the next day, I'll offer you another deal. You give me the St. Peter's card back; and you accept a new card that sentences you to a certain number of days in Hell--let's say 1024; and you get a new St. Peter's card.

"The next day I'll offer you another deal--give me your St. Peter's card back, and I'll give you a new St. Peter's card--and another card that sentences you to 2048 days in Hell.

"The next day, I'll offer you the same deal again--except this time you get a card that sentences you to 4096 days in Hell.

"And so on. You can cash in your cards you have any time you want--but then I won't offer you any more St. Peter's cards. And when you cash in your cards, you have to take them all, and you can take them in any order.

"I know you're a sensible person; you won't wait forever for the hope of a higher and higher payoff. You'll take, say, 1024 days in Heaven (in excess of your days in Hell) as a reasonable stopping point. Sure, a new St. Peter's card will always be worth more than 1024 days in Heaven; but if you trade in for a new card every day, you'll never get to Heaven at all. How about it?"

If you're capable of choosing a strategy and sticking to it, you can indeed decide to stop as soon as you have at least 1024 days in Heaven. This may not be the best strategy--you could always pick a number higher than 1024--but as Arntzenius, Elga, and Hawthorne point out, there's no guarantee that there will be a best strategy in cases like this. You can aim for some finite number, but there'll always be a higher one.

But, in this case, it's not very likely that you'll get to Heaven at all.

There's a 1/1024 chance that your first St. Peter's card will get to your threshold of 1024 days in Heaven.

If you don't make it the first time, you get a card worth 1024 days in Hell--so the second day's St. P needs to be worth at least 2048 to allow you to stop. That's a 1/2048 chance.

The next day, you've got another 2048 days in Hell, so you need at least 4096 in Heaven to allow you to stop--a 1/4096 chance. You can see that there's only a 1/512 chance that you'll ever get to stop.

And the trouble here isn't the trouble that arises in "Trumped," where you never wind up cashing in the gains that you've been accumulating. (The same with the Everbetter wine, which gets better every day for all eternity, or Chris Bertram's case in which every day you have a higher chance of getting out of Hell.) There's a 511/512 chance that you are always so deep in the hole that you don't even want to cash in.

Now, that 1/512 of the time, your utility isn't capped at 1024; you effectively have a 1/512 chance at a St. Petersburg's worth of days in Heaven. Any fraction of infinity is still infinite, so you'd like that. But it's a bit disturbing to me that, in this scenario, every trade-in seems rational, but the chances are extremely small that you'll even get to a set finite threshold at any point.

(It might be possible to set this up so that it's even worse. Say, every day that you have a positive balance, you spend in Heaven, but every day you have a negative balance, you spend in Hell--the days coming off your balance. Then you'd spend the first day in Heaven, but I think there'd be a 255/256 chance you'd spend eternity in Hell. That wouldn't be worth the 1/512 chance at at least 1024 surplus days in Heaven. But this way of framing it probably does raise some of the same issues as "Trumped" and the Everbetter wine.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:06 PM | Comments (0)

The Window Envelope

Way back on my first two-envelope post, commenter Mark pointed out that the St. Petersburg two-envelope problem has the following property: though it doesn't make sense to switch before the envelopes are opened, but if you see what's in the first envelope, it would make sense to switch no matter what is in the first envelope. The EU of the second envelope is infinite, so once you know the finite sum that's in the first envelope, you will expect to gain by switching.

Brian has since put up another two-envelope problem in which the two envelopes are indistinguishable before you open them--but if you see what's in the first envelope, switching has a finite positive EU no matter what's in the first envelope. (Call it the Broomean problem--it's not exactly Broome's case, but the differences don't matter.)

There's an important difference between these two cases, though. [Warning! This post rambles worse than usual.]

In the St.P2NV, the switch can effectively be repeated indefinitely. The numbers in the two envelopes are the results of completely independent processes. If God feels like it, S/He can keep producing new St. P envelopes, and offering to sell them to you for 1 util more than the value of your last St. P. Sounds like you'll keep getting your substance whittled away, and you'll never wind up keeping your St. P.

In the Broomean case, one switch is all they can get you to do. The numbers in the envelopes aren't produced by independent processes. After you see the number in the first envelope, you may pay to switch--but after you see the number in the second envelope, you know whether or not it makes sense to switch back. There's not even any risk involved. There's no way to keep getting you to disadvantage yourself indefinitely. To give you a choice that's analogous to the original choice to switch, they'd have to make a new envelope with (in Brian's case) a 0.6 chance of half what you got in the last envelope, and a 0.4 chance of twice what you got in the last envelope (or 2 for sure if the last envelope had 1). And it seems perfectly sensible to take that envelope. You might wind up gaining on both switches.

(Of course, if you're offered an indefinite number of Broomean cases, you can be made to take an indefinite number of Dutch books. But you also get to keep the results of an indefinite number of bets of infinite EU, so things aren't so bad!)

All this, I think, rests entirely on uncontroversial principles of conditional probability, not on any of my attempts to go further with the two-envelope problem. In the St. Petersburg case, the process of determining the value of each envelope is independent--so learning what's in one envelope doesn't change the conditional probability of what's in the next. In the Broomean case, the values aren't independent.

So, suppose you're offered an infinite number of St. Petersburg switches, each costing a dollar more than the value you got the last time. At each stage your expected EU is infinite; you simply have no reason to stop.

This isn't even as bad as the cases like Arntzenius, Elga, and Hawthorne's "Trumped"--where every day you're offered two days in Heaven if you take one day in Hell first, and so you take an infinite number of days in Hell and never get to Heaven. In the St. Petersburg switch, at every stage you have an infinite expected EU. It doesn't even seem to make sense to ask how many utils you'd have if you could make an infinite number of these transactions--that would be the outcome of the last St. Petersburg minus a countable infinity, but "the last St. Petersburg" isn't defined.

Note, though, that if your goal is simply to attain a certain high number of utils, you can accomplish that with probability 1 in this scenario (I think). Set your target at N--so long as each St. P costs only 1 more than the payoff of the last one, the probability should be 1 that you eventually get a payout of at least N. So this is a sense in which the infinite St. P switch really is arbitrarily good--at some stage you're almost guaranteed to hit a target that's at least as high as you like. (By definition of utils, your goal can't just be to attain a certain high number of utils--more utils are always preferred. I don't really believe in unbounded utility, so that's not going to keep me up at night.)

It should be possible to tell a disturbing tale about the infinite St. P switch, though... in the next post.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2004

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers

It took me hours to get that last post up because my Movable Type wasn't working--but I went to the Movable Type support forums, posted my cry for help, and got an answer in 9 minutes. (It was a bad trackback ping.)

That makes two completely unknown people who've helped me out with this site for no reward other than a Jeevesian quiet satisfaction of having been of service. Thanks, people, I love you. And I'm glad that I'm not theoretically committed to thinking you're irrational... (philosophy always finds its way in somehow).

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:50 PM | Comments (0)

You Don't Know Me

Supacrush writes (at 4:32 AM!) "At least one of them didn't know that Supacrush = me." The usual suspects crack wise about that remark in his comments, but I thought of another one--his/her sentence gives real trouble to the Israel-Perry monstrous theory of how indexicals work within epistemic contexts--roughly, that "X knows that p" is true iff p is true in every context of utterance that is epistemically possible for X.

The problem is, Supacrush wrote that sentence on the Supacrush blog. So there's no way anyone can encounter his utterance without knowing that Supacrush = the author of that sentence, unless they have a very short memory. So it seems as though, in any epistemically possible context (for whoever), "Supacrush = me" comes out true.

You might be able to fiddle this based on X's failure to know that the sentence will be uttered at all--but since no one (except maybe Supacrush) knew that the sentence would be uttered at all, that doesn't account for the one who did know that "Supacrush = me."

I wrote a paper exploiting some similar cases to boost Geoff Nunberg's theory [UPDATE: link fixed] that, in some contexts, indexicals contribute a property of the referent to the truth-conditions of the sentence. For instance, in "Today is always the biggest day of the year in Punxsutawney," today contributes its property of being Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day actually comes up in my paper--since it's the only day that can occur more than once in the same year, if you're Bill Murray. Anyway, I may post this paper, if I get over my scruples about circulating some pretty rough stuff.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:41 PM | Comments (0)

A Meta-Paradox

So far this blog has been pretty much All Paradoxes, All the Time, and I have some stuff about Newcomb's paradox in the pipeline. In my real life I don't actually work on paradoxes that much--I do epistemology, especially the epistemology of testimony, and also speech act theory and the essential indexical. (And some other stuff!) Maybe part of this is guilt over the fact that in my talk at the Pacific APA session on paradoxes I don't actually have anything to say about paradoxes--I argue that you should treat the Deductive Closure principle the same way you treat the major premise of a sorites paradox, but I don't tell you what that way is.

But there's also a paradox here, or maybe it's just irony [paging Alanis Morrisette!]--because I've thought about testimony for so long, my thoughts about it tend to come in huge chunks, with a lot of elaborate stage-setting, and even I wouldn't dare to write a blog post that long. My thoughts on paradoxes and other stuff tend to come in shorter disconnected bursts, and end in question marks and pleas for commentary. Hence, blogging. Should you be interested in listening to me at even greater length, please check out my papers page.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:37 PM | Comments (0)

Schmendrick's Paradox

While ranting against de re attitudes (as opposed to ascriptions), I discussed the truth conditions of ascriptions such as

(1) Brian wants Brian to win the election,
where the second "Brian" is taken to be de re. I remarked that you get a paradox if you propose that
(U) (1) is true iff, for some term X, Brian has a desire "I want X to win the election," and X refers to Brian (as used by him in the context of thinking.

Here's how. I'm going to replace "want" with "say," to avoid uglinesses concerning the language of thought and the like. So the proposed semantics for de re interpretations is:

(S) "X said of Y that he is phi" is true iff X said, "B is phi," for some term "B" which refers to Y in the context of X's utterance [and grant me my goofy use of quotation marks, OK? I don't think it makes a difference]

Now suppose Schmendrick, one of the minor Hebrew prophets, gets up before the people and says, "Malchiah is a sinner. The judges are sinners. Those who sneer at the prophets are sinners. And verily, I say unto you,

(P) He who stands before you today, and says not of himself that he is a sinner, he is a sinner."

Nobody else stands before the people that day. Does the phrase

(N) He who stands before you today, and says not of himself that he is a sinner

refer to Schmendrick?


Well, suppose (N) does refer to Schmendrick. Then, according to (S), when Schmendrick uttered (P), he said "N is a sinner" and N referred to Schmendrick. That means that Schmendrick did say of himself that he's a sinner. So (N) can't refer to Schmendrick.

Suppose (N) does not refer to Schmendrick (and, let's take it, none of the other terms he used referred to him either). Then Schmendrick did stand before the people--and he was the only one--and he did not utter "X is a sinner" for any X that refers to himself. By (S), he stood before the people and did not say of himself that he is a sinner; and he was the only person to do so (since no one else stood before the people that day). So (N) does refer to Schmendrick.

Some notes:
(1) It doesn't matter whether Schmendrick is a sinner or not.
(2) I don't actually think this paradox is very profound. I'd be happy to take care of it by a version of the revision theory. [Some of my old profs might not like the juxtaposition of those two sentences!]
(3) Some people might take the moral to be that definite descriptions can never be the basis for de re ascriptions, but only directly referring terms such as indexicals, demonstratives, and proper names. I don't find this appealing--if Alice says "The Vice President looks scary," do we really want to deny that Alice said that Dick Cheney looks scary? I suppose we could say that it is literally false but pragmatically acceptable that Alice said that Dick Cheney looks scary--but I really don't think there's much reason to privilege substitution of directly referring terms over subsitution of definite descriptions salva reference. And if you forbid substitution of directly referring terms, you're where I want you, allowing only descriptions de dicto.
(4) Some people might take the moral to be that definite descriptions can only be the basis for de re ascriptions when the holder of the attitude is acquainted with the referent of that description as the referent of the description. So Alice knows Dick Cheney as the Vice President, but Schmendrick doesn't know himself as the person who didn't say of himself that he was a sinner.--Well, all right. (I think David Kaplan held a view like this at some point.)
(5) This paradox is a lot like that put forth by Benoit de Cornulier in "Paradoxical Self-Reference," Linguistics and Philosophy 2 (1978) p. 435. (No link because Utah doesn't pay Kluwer's ridiculously high subscription prices.) I discovered the paradox independently--through the time-honored method of building a formal system for the semantics of quotation, and then discovering that my definitions were inconsistent. I discovered the de Cornulier paper because it's entirely contained, the way most maps of Maryland contain maps of Delaware, within my Xerox of Alexander P.D. Mourelatos's classic "Events, Process, and States" (same volume, pp. 415-434).

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:25 PM | Comments (0)

S'posin

"Supposed to" can be either epistemic or deontic--it can mean either "believed to" or "ought to." I really hope that it's the epistemic sense that's intended here.

[POSTSCRIPT THAT SWALLOWS THE ENTRY: While looking up "supposed" in the dictionary, I encountered what looks like a genuine problem. Consider the following:

(1) You're supposed to walk on the moving walkway.

(2) You're not supposed to walk on the moving walkway.

(2) is not the negation of (1)--it means "You're not allowed to walk on the moving walkway." This may seem like a banal case of negation-raising. Except, can't most cases of negation-raising be read two ways? For instance, if I say

(3) I don't think you should do that

it ordinarily means that I think you shouldn't do it, but I can force the reading "It is not the case that I think you should do that" by explicit cancellation:

(3') I don't think you should do that, but I don't think you shouldn't--I have no opinion.

I can't read (2) as having a negation with wide scope over an obligation. An explicit cancellation like

(2') ??You're not supposed to walk on the moving walkway, but you're allowed to

strikes my ear as a flat contradiction. This holds of the epistemic sense of "supposed" as well as of the deontic sense.

Does "supposed" have a weird semantical interaction with negation? Are there other words that behave this way?]

[POST-POSTSCRIPT: It may be easier to get "supposed" to act normally when you toss in a question. So if someone asks, "Are we supposed to be there an hour early?" and you respond, "No, we're not supposed to be there an hour early," it seems as though the negation has wide scope. Emphasis will make a big difference--if you stress not, the negation has narrow scope, but if you stress supposed, it has wide scope. Still, in the absence of a question, I don't see anyway to get the wide-scope reading of (2) without a heavy stress on supposed. But maybe pragmatics is playing more of a role than I had thought.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:17 PM | Comments (0)

Blogrolling

Added to the Blogroll: Allan Hazlett, Jonathan Ichikawa, K and A, Language Log, Sappho's Breathing, and the new MT address for Parablemania. At least two of these were supposed to be on from the beginning, but were dropped through my MT incompetence.

My blogroll works as an auxiliary weblog--I got this trick from King of Fools. It makes new blogrolling easy--just make a new entry on the "Blogroll" blog. It's probably too late to switch if you've got a working blog already--though it shouldn't be any harder to update the blogroll than the "What I'm Listening To" section....

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:18 PM | Comments (0)

I feel a draft...

Allan Hazlett jokingly proposes that the APA institute a draft for new PhDs, in place of the hiring system we have now. I don't think this would be such a bad idea--medical schools do something quite similar for residencies, and it seems to work fine. But I promise not to complain about the hiring system on this blog....

Where I really think this would make sense is with papers. Applying for jobs has this advantage over submitting papers to journals--you can apply for more than one job at once. When you send a paper out, you often have to wait a long time to hear back, and you have to engage in all sorts of risk-reward calculations about how prestigious a journal to send it to; not to mention that you may not know that a certain journal is filled for the next five years.

The APA (and appropriate non-American organizations) could set up a system in which papers are sent to them, they send papers to reviewers, the reviewers write up recommendation letters to send to the journal combine, journal editors can request the full text of articles that look interesting, and then the editors (or original referees) can send offers or suggestions to the author.

How 'bout it?

Allan goes straight onto the blogroll. I might try to say something about his conditionals post, if Mark Liberman hasn't already covered it.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:03 AM | Comments (2)