Thursday, May 17, 2007 will

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Win Sharon’s Money #4

Quine, Backsliding

It’s been a while since I have come to a philosophical question such that knowing the answer to it was worth $5 to me but here we have the latest Win Sharon’s Money with a prize of $5 to the first answer that convinces me (I will send out an email saying so) or what I think is the best one if none of them convince me. This one is about defending a very famous position of Quine's, so it should be on the easy side…

If you are feeling public feel free to post your answers as comments here on the blog, otherwise email me:

So, as happens with alarming frequency whenever I think about stuff in the neighborhood, my grasp of Classic Quine has gotten unstuck. What did it this time was reading a bit of Davidson, in case that helps you see where this is question is coming from (not to imply that Davidson would agree with this point, as I understand it he wouldn’t, which is what got me thinking)…

The question:

Why can’t you take into account facts about whether a person says S in situations where it would be appropriate/normal to say that P as well as those about whether they assent to S in situations where P in deciding whether or not to attribute someone the belief that P? (If you did it, seems like this would cut down on a lot, though probably not all, indeterminacy)

Specifically, what if our ideas about when it is appropriate/normal to say P are sometimes not just some kind of empirical/sociological knowledge about what 21st century western humans like to say but are part of our very conception of what it is to mean that P.

Consider the example –from W I think, though I don’t remember where - of a person who is trained to say the words ‘I think that…’ before every assertion. A person who was taught language in this way wouldn’t be a person who refused to make claims about anything which extended beyond their own epistemic state (wouldn’t you agree?). Rather, using the words ‘I think that’ in this uniform way would deprive them of their usual meaning. So this person’s sentence ‘I think it is raining’ would be much closer in meaning to my sentence ‘It is raining’ than to my homophonic sentence ‘I think it is raining’.

I think this example shows us (among other things) that the evidence relevant to whether a given person’s sentence S means ‘I think that it is raining’ goes beyond their *assenting* to S in the right circumstances. For, the conditions under which one should *assent* to ‘I think it is raining’ and ‘It is raining’ are the same. However the conditions under which one should *assert* ‘It is raining’ and ‘I think it is raining’ are quite different (we use the latter to signal respect and the existence of disagreement or hint that there is a certain kind of relevant justification which one doesn’t have). Now I claim that there is a difference between meaning ‘It is raining’ by your sentence and meaning ‘I think it is raining’ and we are rationally required to attribute the former state and not the latter one to the person described in the paragraph above.

If one allows that these notions of appropriate assertion (as opposed to merely assent) as being part of what is necessary for a person to mean P by their sentence S then it seems like a lot of traditional indeterminacy disappears. So, for example, there are definite (though relatively limited) conditions under which it is appropriate to assert ‘here is an undetached rabbit part’ or ‘the spatial complement of a rabbit is presently avoiding this spot’ which differ from those under which it is appropriate to assert ‘here is a rabbit’. Thus one might think that more detailed consideration of the way that a person’s linguistic behavior constrains their meaning (it’s not just a matter of assenting to what’s true but of asserting what’s appropriate) removes a lot of apparent indeterminacy of reference.

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