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.


Simon said...

You could use a bit of copyediting on this post! What's "W"?

My immediate thought is: Grice! Wouldn't your suggestion have the unfortunate effect of wrapping up all sorts of pragmatic meaning into sematics? A couple of examples: It might not be (in normal contexts) appropriate to say of someone: "She has two children" when she in fact has four, but I surely ought to believe the former, strictly speaking. It might not be appropriate to say "You have a piece of spinach stuck between your front teeth" in certain circumstances, but I might still believe this even of the Queen at a state dinner.

oblomovitis said...


W is wittgenstein, like H is harvard (well, except for when H is heroin) and for similar reasons.

In re proof-reading: sorry, and I will do what I can in the future within reasonable time constraints.

Ok now for the content:
I am not quite sure what you mean to get at with your examples. Certainly there are facts about when it is appropriate to use a sentence which aren’t relevant to its truth or falsity (if this weren’t true there would be no hope for my suggestion that facts about assertion would determine questions about belief attribution which facts about assent did not). Are you saying that there are facts about when it is appropriate to say that P which are *not* part of our conception of what it would take to mean that P? This is true and your examples are convincing. But the suggestions is that there are *some* aspects of appropriate use which are relevant/required for someone to mean that P so there is no conflict between these two claims that I can see.
You also say that this suggestion threatens to confuse/mix up sematics and pragmatics. As far as I am concerned this is more a scientific distinction for linguists to draw in whatever way makes their theories go best than one which is philosophically motivated. But even if you do think that the distinction is philosophical we can maintain the desired distinction by separating the question ‘what does it take for X’s sentence S to mean that P?’ from the question ‘what does S mean?’ one can say that the meaning of a word (and hence it’s semantics) is completely a matter of truth conditions while saying that for X to mean that P by S requires him not just to assent to S in the conditions where P (i.e. the conditions determined by the semantics of S) but for him to obey certain norms about when to assert it.

Simon said...

Sharon, I wasn't being nitpicky - I found it was genuinely hard to understand what point you were making in your post.

I'm puzzled by your responses in the comments as well. First, could you explain the difference between "a scientific distinction" and "a philosophical distinction", as you intend it?
Second, it appears to me that whatever the semantics-pragmatics distinction is, it's not the distinction that you suggest: between the truth conditions of a sentence S and what a subject X means by S when he says it. I might say "Iagavag" and mean that the square root of 4 is 2, but neither semantics nor pragmatics would explain this.

oblomovitis said...

It sometimes scares me how bad I am at expressing myself clearly! Ah well, that is one thing I hope to learn in grad-school. If you ever have concrete suggestions, even very basic things that seem like they should be obvious, I’d like to know. Writing convoluted philosophical prose is much worse than spinach in one’s teeth.

So what I MEANT to claim was that accepting this suggestion about more things than truth conditions being relevant to interpretation still let you divide things up between the semantics and pragmatics however you liked in the traditional way i.e. that that it didn’t require one to blur or change the distinction between semantics and pragmatics.

There would be 3 things in total: 1) the meaning/truth conditions of ‘lo, a rabbit’ 2) the pragmatics of what it implicates/how it is normally used and 3) the collection of behaviors (including stuff like assenting to it when it is true and following the pragmatics of how it was used) which counted in favor of interpreting them as meaning that in your davidsonian-holistic-charitable interpretation type scenario.

oblomovitis said...

About my claim that the semantics vs. pragmatics distinction is a matter for linguistics not philosophy what I was thinking was that the issue of e.g. whether some particular fact was part of what a sentence meant or just implicated was a matter for linguists to decide on the basis of lots of boring surveys and theoretical simplification, rather than a philosophical one. There are some contexts where it could matter (is some kind of moral disapprobation part of the meaning of ‘forced labor’ or does ‘forced labor’ just mean ‘labor which a person is forced to do’ and describing it that way merely contextually suggests that relevant item is a bad? (I know this example is more truth-conditions vs. connotation than semantics vs. pragmatics, but surely there is something similar…) But in these cases the philosopher can just stipulate whichever way is convenient and go on, don’t you think?