July 26, 2008

The De Re/De Dicto Distinction in Politics

Reprinting vaguely philosophical comments elsewhere to have something on this blog. I also have a post at my other blog that's kinda sorta related to the epistemology of testimony, but it's also rather scurrilous, so there it stays.

Matthew Yglesias wrote, under the title "The Transitivity of Timetables":

So if McCain likes Maliki's timetable, and Maliki likes [Obama]'s timetable, then logically McCain has to like Obama's timetable.

A commenter going by "pedant" responded:

The "likes" relation is not transitive, nor are timetables (whatever that could mean). What we have here is the following inference:

McCain likes Maliki's timetable.
Maliki's timetable = Obama's timetable.
So, McCain likes Obama's timetable.

Whether or not the inference is good depends on whether McCain knows Maliki's timetable = Obama's timetable (he does), and whether McCain is rational enough to draw the relevant conclusion (questionable).

Taking that pseudonym as a personal challenge, I replied:

It doesn't even necessarily depend -- it depends on whether in "McCain likes Obama's timetable" the term 'Obama's timetable' appears de dicto or de re. In "John flew to X" X is always de re; if John flew to Hesperus then he flew to Phosphorus, even if he doesn't know that Hesperus and Phosphorus are the same thing (Venus). In "John intends to fly to X" then X can be de dicto; if John wants to go to Hesperus but wants to avoid Phosphorus (not realizing they're the same), then we can say that he intends to fly to Hesperus but that he doesn't intend to fly to Phosphorus.

If "John likes Obama's timetable" is a de re ascription then the inference is good whether or not McCain knows that it's good. He may not think he likes Obama's timetable, but it's Obama's timetable he likes. I actually think that after 'likes' it has to be de re. I'm not sure we can make sense of "John likes aubergines, John doesn't like eggplants, but aubergines and eggplants are the same thing." Aubergines/eggplants are a vegetable, and either John likes that vegetable or he doesn't.

For more on de re and de dicto see here; as McKay and Nelson point out, nobody actually agrees on exactly what these things are.

I actually think that the problem of how to report speech is very important in politics, and the de re/de dicto distinction (and indirect discourse in general) is an important part of that. The interesting part does not extend to whether one should fix Yglesias's mind-blowing typos.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 03:57 PM | Comments (3)

July 09, 2008

Brian Leiter Speaks Truly

In giving advice about how to deal with an upcoming bad (or, as he points out, even worse) job market in philosophy, he says (all punctuation and brackets in original):

But how to "prepare"? If you can delay a full search, do so (searching selectively may make good sense, i.e., targetting jobs for which you are a perfect 'fit'). Do not defend your dissertation until a job offer is in hand--PhDs "go stale" quickly, and you don't want to be a 2008 PhD who, because of general market trends, is still looking for a tenure-stream position in 2011. (I must say this is a really crazy aspect of the job market: everyone knows the market is tight, that most philosophers are, in one sense or another, "under-employed" in their first position [even when it is tenure-stream!], and that multiple searches over multiple years are the norm--yet still there is a tendency to draw unfavorable inferences when the job seeker has a PhD that is several years old, and no tenure-stream job.)

I only have anecdotal impressions that PhDs go stale,* but that has been my impression, and Leiter is correct that it's crazy. This seems like a bigger problem because it exacerbates the contingencies of your first job search or two; if you don't get a job right away, each year on the job market digs you into a deeper hole. That wouldn't be the case if search committees were more likely to hire people who'd been out for a couple of years, and they'd also have more information to go on, because people are more likely to start publishing after they graduate. (Though that might make success contingent on the vagaries of the publishing process, not only whether a paper is accepted but how long it takes.)

Unfortunately, not everyone can follow Leiter's advice not to defend until they have an offer in hand; even aside from funding issues, my slightly less anecdotal impression there is that many hiring schools want you to have defended before the interview.

*These impressions are not derived from the searches I took part in, where we made an offer to someone who had been out for several years.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 02:24 PM | Comments (5)