Friday, July 28, 2006


Don't Mess With Texas

Back in June I blogged about Mark Sainsbury's talk on fiction at the Arche Audit. In the comments, Ocham pointed me in the direction of this review by Peter Hank of Mark's most recent book Reference Without Referents. (Does anyone actually follow up all these links in sentences in blog posts?). I said I'd try to post something on why I thought Mark's case against the Millian was stronger than Hank made out, and I think it's about time I got on with it.

Mark basically wants to steer a middle course between descriptivism and Millianism. The descriptivist runs into to trouble for reasons familiar from Kripke, while the Millian has trouble accounting for apparently successful communication involving empty names, and with its committment to Shakespearianism. Mark's central point is that these two positions don't exhaust logical space; there's a stable resting point between them which avoids the shortfalls of each.

Firstly, Mark wants to develop a proposal made by John McDowell in 'On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name', whereby we draw the sense/reference distinction within a Davidson truth-theoretic semantic theory. McDowell's point was that the distinction so drawn gave us resources enough to avoid Frege's puzzle (and other problematic inferences validated by Shakespearianism) without conceding anything about the semantics of proper names to the descriptivist. Secondly, Mark proposes, following Tyler Burge, that the correct logic in which to set semantic theory is not classical, but rather a negative free logic. This allows empty proper names to be treated within semantic theory just as referring proper names are; by homophonic axioms assigning a reference-condition, the condition an arbitrary object would have to satisfy in order to be the bearer.

Mark motivates the latter proposal to a large extent by giving examples to show that empty proper names can be meaningful, as can the sentences in which they feature. They are thus as firmly the concern of semantic theory as referring proper names are, and should be treated in a uniform manner. Hank's principle objection to Mark's position is he has conflated meaningfulness with intelligibility; that all the data Mark gives shows is that empty proper names can be intelligible, but the Millian can accept this without conceding that they are meaningful and hence to be treated by semantics. Hank suggests that:

'. . . a Millian could hold that when speakers utter sentences containing empty names they succeed in conveying propositions, even though the sentences they utter do not themselves semantically express any proposition.' (372)

Hanks offers the following example. The Millian can hold that an utterance of

(10) Santa Claus will come down the chimney tonight.

'can communicate the proposition that the jolly fat man from the North Pole who drives a flying sleigh will come down the chimney tonight, even thought (10) itself is strictly speaking meaningless' (372). It's enough to vindicate the intelligibility of empty names that they can be 'reliably used' (373) in conveying these sorts of descriptive propositions, but that isn't yet enough to vindicate Mark's claim that they must be considered meaningful:

'Empty names may be intelligible, in the sense that they can be reliably and successfully used in communication, without being meaningful.' (373)

Likewise, a belief report like an utterance of

(11) The child believes that Santa Claus will come down the chimney tonight.

can convey that the child has some descriptive belief, even though 'semantically, no belief is expressed by the embedded clause in (11) and hence at the semantic level no belief is attributed to the child'. (373) Hank notes that Mark tries to dismiss this kind of proposal by noting that intuitively 'children all have the same belief when they believe that Santa Claus will come down the chimney tonight, even though their parents have given them slightly different versions of the Santa Claus story...'. (RWR: 89), but he suggests that this intuition is too easily accomodated by the Millian to decide the issue.

I'm guessing Mark will be particularly unhappy about the suggestion that believe reports like (11) convey that the child has some descriptive belief without attributing any belief at the semantic level. I think that Mark, like McDowell, takes very seriously Davidson's insight that a theory of meaning is in part a tool to allow us to make accurate belief-attributions. It's partly this that drives the thought that homophony is an ideal we should aspire to in semantic theory; homophony ensures there's a certain transparency to language which allows our interpretation of another's utterances to be a useful guide to their beliefs. It looks like Hank's proposal doesn't allow semantic theory to play this role anymore, and that seems like a real cost.

I hope Mark will be sympathetic to that response, but it probably invokes too substantial a commitment to be a fully satisfying response to Hank's charge that Mark hasn't motivated his own position on empty names over the Millian's. I think the real problem with Hank's suggestion is that it offers does nothing towards settling the explanatory debt incurred by recognition that '[e]mpty names may be intelligible, in the sense that they can be reliably and successfully used in communication' (373). In offering examples that show that empty proper names may be intelligible in this sense, Mark has highlighted a feature of out language practices which calls out for explanation.

Mark's explanation of the reliability and success of our communication with empty proper names is appealingly simple, for it just appeals to the compositional mechanicisms which it is hoped explain reliable, successful communication with other subsentential linguistic items. What is the rival explanation Hank offers of how an utterance of (10) reliably and successfully communicates some descriptive proposition (despite lacking meaning)? He doesn't give one, he just points out that there is logical space for such a view. I just don't think that meets Mark's challenge to the Millian, for it just fails to engage with the explanatory task which Mark's examples motivate.

A similar problem faces Hank's proposal regarding belief reports. Hank fails to note that Mark does not simply claim the intuition that children who believe that Santa Claus will come down the chimney tonight might all share the same belief despite hearing different versions of the story from their parents. He also writes, immediately following the remark quoted by Hank:

'The direction taken by our envisaged critic involves all the difficulties involved in seeing non-empty names as expressing descriptive thoughts: the whole point of a name (we may add: empty or non-empty) is to enable communication among those who do not coincide in the information they associate with the expression.' (RWR: 89)

Again, there's a challenge here to explain successful communication (which surely takes place) between children and adults who don't all associate the same description with the expression 'Santa Claus'. Mark's point is that his envisaged opponent faces all the problems highlighted by Kripke's Feynman examples and the like in trying to meet this challenge. And again, Hank hasn't even gestured at how an explanation which avoids these worries might go.

In sum, then, merely pointing out position in logical space for a Millianism that concedes the intelligibility of empty names without conceding their meaningfulness is totally unsatisfying as a response to Mark's challenge to Millianism; it just leaves the major explanatory tasks untouched.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006


IRI and experts revisited

Back in April, I posted an objection to Stanley's version of interest relative invariantism based on the thought that the picture of knowledge offered did violence to intuitive thoughts regarding what expertise consists in. I've just noticed that Duncan Pritchard has a really nice review of Stanley's book up on NDPR, which raises pretty much the same issue (as well as some new objections to the whole project). You can find it here.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006


The Naked Truth

I've been watching more 'Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge' the past couple of weeks than is strictly good for me, and something about this dialogue from episode four has been bugging me:

Yvonne Boyd - Underneath our clothes, we're all of us naked. Even you Alan.
Alan - No I'm not.
Yvonne - Yes of course you are.
Alan - No I'm not, I've got underwear.
Philippe Lambert- Yes, but underneath your underwear, you are naked.
Alan - No I'm not.
Philippe - Of course. You have your buttocks.
Alan - Ah yes, here we go. I was wondering how long it would take before this show descended into some French hidden buttock agenda.
Nina Vanier - Alan, all we are saying is that underneath your clothes, you are naked.
Alan - (Pause) No I'm not.

I've realised that my sympathies are entirely with Alan here. People say things like 'underneath our clothes we're all naked' all the time, often as if this is some deep truth about human nature. But it just seems false. Naked means without clothes, so underneath our clothes we're not naked, by hypothesis.

Of course, you'll want to say that what's really meant is that stripped of all clothes we're all naked. But that's just banal, it doesn't look like a promising candidate for a revealing comment about the human condition. It's a bit like saying 'if he were unmarried, he'd be a bachelor' - it's dictionary level stuff. So Alan Partridge is right; underneath our clothes, we're underneath our clothes, and hence not naked.


Monday, July 24, 2006


Herzlich willkommen!

In the few weeks I've been in Berlin, the city has been host to the final of the World Cup and the Love Parade. But all that is about to pale into insignificance, for today this historic and wonderful city plays host to Philosophers' Carnival #33, this month's showcase of philosophical bloggery from around the globe.

I say philosophical, but fittingly given the title of this blog, we're going to kick off with some linguistics. I've been taking an intensive German course while I've been here, and so I enjoyed Mark Liberman's posts 'We feel sad because we say ü' and 'Sad knights who say nü' over at one of my favourite sites Language Log. Liberman pokes fun at an article that reports that Germans are such a miserable bunch because the facial movements they are forced to make to say letters with umlauts forces them to frown a lot. The highlight is this quote from Robert Hellig:

What makes me even more suspicious about this Umlaut story is the fact that English has similar sounding vowels as the German Umlaut, even if they are not written with two dots. To my amateur ears ä is the same sound as in Big Mac, ö as in turn or turbulence and ü as in bureaucratic. Thus my theory would rather be that the process of writing lots of dots makes you grumpy, as the facial expressions should be the same for speakers of the two languages.'

It's an interesting theory, but I think sadly it's demonstrably flawed. You see, German speakers love writing lots of dots, as anyone who has ever tried to read any of the pioneering work in mathematical logic from the early part of the last century will easily appreciate. Over at LogBlog, Richard Zach sheds light on how to read 'Dots as Brackets in Formulas'. Now you can read those parts of the Tractatus that say crazy things about the identity sign!

Fortunately, we've streamlined notation a bit since then. But what would an argument for a deeper revision to our logical practices look like? In his post 'Dummett on the Revision of Logic' on the UConn grad students' What is it Like to Be a Blog?, Colin Caret writes on a subject very close to my own heart right now. Colin
characterizes Dummett’s argument from the ‘Manifestation Criterion’ to the rejection of classical logic as a reductio, and argues that to the extent the argument is valid, it relies upon inference rules that the intuitionist doesn’t sanction. (Note: The deadline is fast approaching for the UConn/Yale graduate conference. See the call for papers here.)

Dummett famously set his philosophical work to one side in the 60's to try to counter the growing threat of racism in Britain. In an interesting post on Sago Boulevard, David Fryman tackles some difficult questions about how one might justify patriotism, given that one does not wish to regard one's copatriots as intrisically morally privileged. That is, how can we account for the force of 'ethical obligations that stem from loyalty to one's country' once we've recognised the somewhat arbitrary character of any such allegiance
? In 'Patriotism as Gratitude' Fryman draws an illuminating analogy to one's obligations to one’s own family, arguing that the lesson in both cases is that the moral obligations incurred stem from the requirement to show gratitude for the benefits one receives.

'Where ever they go, "Pop Idol" spin-offs inevitably inspire comparisons with the democratic process--a phenomenon frequently referred to as "Idol Democracy."' In 'Twilight of the Idols' over at The Naked Gaze, Carlos Rojas explores 'Idol Democracy' a little deeper, arguing that the analogy highlights some of the 'more troubling' aspects of modern democracy, and uses such shows as an entry-point for a discussion of Wendy Brown's theory of ressentiment.

Eric Schwitzgebel considers different answers to the question of where in the body it seems to us that thinking takes place, and wonders to what extent the associated phenomenology varies with cultural context, or whether the phenomenology is always the same, but our opinions about our phenomenology shift with cultural context (together with other factors) in a manner that explains the dispositions of the products of different cultures to offer different answers. Check out his post 'Do we experience thoughts as in our heads' at The Splintered Mind.

To what extent does contemporary philosophy of mind need an injection of metaphysics, philosophy of science, or both, in order to make progress? Gualtiero Piccinini contrasts recent answers to this question in 'Mind, Metaphysics, and the Philosophy of Science' over at Brains.

How should science itself try to make progress? In 'Conceptual essentialism' on his blog Philosophy of Real Mathematics, David Corfield discusses an interesting comment by mathematical physicist John Baez. Baez expresses frustration with the 'swarming' style of trying to make progress in theoretical physics, where 'nobody takes the time to distill the matter to its essence.' For Corfield, distilling matters down to their essences is exactly what mathematics at it highest level aims at, and here he looks for a catchy name for this position to impress its importance upon philosophers of mathematics.

'C.S. Lewis, Instinct, and the Moral Law' on hell's handmaiden picks apart an argument by C.S. Lewis that aimed to show that we must believe in God because nothing else could explain the high levels of intersubjective agreement on moral issues we (apparently) observe:

'In Book 1, Chapter 1, of Mere Christianity, Lewis presents an argument for the existence of God, which rests on the idea that people worldwide hold to very similar standards of morality. This, according to Lewis, points to the presence of a God. Nothing else, according to him, can explain the cross-cultural similiarities. I suggest that there is another explanation, and that Lewis merely "stated the improbable and called it a day".'

Sticking with philosophy of religion for a moment, Kenny Pearce offers neon green reflections on the problem of 'middle-knowledge'. For those of you interested in the interaction between Divine foreknowledge
and free will (and more relevantly here, issues concerning how to ground truths about what a free agent would do in counterfactual circumstances in a way consistent with Divine knowledge), be sure to head over to 'Truth-Makers, Truth-Conditions, and Middle Knowledge' at KennyPearce.

Rule-Consequentialism is usually offered as a response to the charge that act-consequentialism makes morality too demanding, but it is widely regarded as an unstable resting point; if we take consequentialism seriously, rule-consequentialism collapses into a form of act-consequentialism. Alex Gregory considers a response to this objection by Brad Hooker, and suggests that Hooker's proposal basically shrinks the disagreement between the two flavours of the theory to the point that it doesn’t really seem worth distinguishing them. Check out his post 'Act vs. Rule Consequentialism' at There's an interesting comment in the thread by Brian Berkey; if you enjoy Alex's post, you might want to check out too.

What is that makes taking drugs to gain an advantage in competitive sports wrong? In 'The Outspokin' Cyclist ' on, Philip Barron reflects:

the concepts of respect and fairness, archaic as they may sound to some, are still what sport is based on. Training is a performance enhancing activity done in earnest. Preparing for a race, there is no substitute (physically or morally) for practice. If sport is a measure of physical discipline, mental toughness, and moral determination, then cheating leaves us unworthy of playing the game (much less winning).'

Heading way down south to Philosophy, et cetera, Carnival mastermind Richard Chappell asks 'Is it always good to prevent harm?' Most of us will think the answer is clearly no; sometimes in failing to prevent a harm, one might prevent a bigger harm. But Richard wants to argue that even considering cases where there will not be that consequence, it can still be ok to fail to prevent a harm:

Typically, in preventing a harm we thereby make someone's life go better than it otherwise would have. In such cases, preventing harm is beneficial, and that's why it is usually a good thing to do. But there is another way to prevent harms: you can prevent the subject who would have been harmed from ever actually existing. There's nothing particularly good about that.'

What has been particularly good in its short lifespan is Brit Brogaard's new blog Lemmings. It seems pretty arbitrary to pick any one post out; so far its been full of high-altitude and high-quality points in the intersection between philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics. Recommended.

Representing the new generation of St Andrews lemmings is Andreas over at Plurality of Words, who in 'Some random thoughts on infallibility'
distinguishes various theses that might be labeled infallibilism, and investigates their plausibility, and their connections to omniscience, the Church-Fitch result, and apriority. And yes, he has lost his marbles :) Representing the old guard, here on the boundaries of langauge I contrast Jim Pryor's recent presentation of anti-Given arguments with the perhaps more familiar presentation of John McDowell in Mind and World, and wonder who got it right.

Last but not least, in 'Explanation' Marco worries about various different accounts of explanation, and their ability to deal with contextualised and constrastive explanations in particular. Marco's post marks a natural place to draw this Carnival to a close, because on the 14th of August, El Blog de Marcos will host Philosophers' Carnival #34. Don't miss it.


Sunday, July 16, 2006


Without Reference

I've been reading a lot of Williamson's metaphilosophy recently, and I've discovered I can't get the final published version of his 2005 'Armchair Philosophy, Metaphysical Modality and Counterfactual Thinking' online. It's in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1o5: 1-23.

If anyone has access to this volume, it would really help me if they could give me the final page-reference for footnote 11 (the one where he discusses Weinberg, Stich and Nichols 2001).



Saturday, July 08, 2006


Pryor on the Myth of the Given

I arrived in Berlin on Monday to start a 4 week intensive German course at the Goethe Institut, and I had great intentions to keep the momentum from June going, blogging-wise. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, I didn't build up any momentum in June, and given my limited internet access this month I'm guessing that trend will continue. Anyways, I'll do my best, and in the meantime let me point out, particularly for those of you with blogs, that the next Philosophers' Carnival will be hosted here on the 24th of this month.

I found last week that I needed to learn a bit more about recent defenses of foundationalism and discussion of the internalism/externalism debate for a paper I'm writing to submit to the cluster of grad conferences which are coming up, and so I took the opportunity to read Jim Pryor's 'Highlights of Recent Epistemology'. It was all very useful stuff, but in a footnote (p101 fn10) Pryor discusses attacks on the Myth of the Given by Sellars, Davidson and others, and writes:

'These anti-Given arguments deserve a re-examination, in light of recent developments in the philosophy of mind. The anti-Given arguments pose a dilemma: either (i) direct apprehension is not a state with proposition content, in which case it's argued to be incapable with providing us with justification for believing any specific proposition; or (ii) direct apprehension is a state with propositional content. This second option is often thought to entail that direct apprehension is a kind of believing, and hence itself would need justification. But it ought nowadays to be very doubtful that the second option does entail such things. These days many philosophers of mind construe perceptual experience as a state with propositional content, even thought experience is distinct from, and cannot be reduced to, any kind of belief. Your experiences represent the world to you as being a certain way, and the way they represent the world as being is their propositional content. Now, surely, its looking to you as if the world is a certain way is not a kind of state for which you need any justification. Hence, this construal of perceptual experience seems to block the step from 'has propositional content' to 'needs justification'. Of course, what are 'apprehended' by perceptual experiences are facts about your perceptual enviroment, rather than facts about your current mental states. But it should at least be clear that the second horn of the anti-Given argument needs more argument than we've seen so far.'

There was nothing in Pryor's line of argument I was uncomfortable with, but it was rather striking to see the attacks on the myth of the Given portrayed as having this sort of structure. I'm used to thinking of things like this; we're tempted to appeal to experiences, conceived as lacking conceptual content, to justify our beliefs and judgements about the world in order to avoid Coherentism, a doctrine which seems not to allow the world to play the appropriate (ie. not merely causal) role in these justificatory practices. This construal of the debate will be instantly recognisable to many of you as that of John McDowell in Mind and World and elsewhere.

At least as McDowell sets up the dialectic, there is no second horn to such attacks on the Given; conceiving of experience itself as already laden with propositional content is not one half of a dilemma, but rather the first step towards a stable position that avoids the pitfalls of both the myth of the Given and Coherentism. Of course, there are immediately other challenges to be faced; for example, the charges that once one conceives of experience in this way, one cannot do justice to the passive elements of perceptual intake, or to the independence of the external world on the thinking and perceiving subject. But the kind of worry about the threat of a justificatory regress of the kind discussed by Pryor just isn't on table at all.

I always took Sellars and Davidson to have conceived of the debate as having broadly the same shape as McDowell does, but it's occured to me that since I haven't yet managed to read 'Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind', and I'm not that familiar with the relevant bits of Davidson, this impression has come entirely from McDowell's presentation of these figures. Now I'm wondering to what extent Pryor has highlighted an aspect of the debate over the Given which goes astray in McDowell's version, or has distorted the issues by making unreasonable demands on the opponent of the Given. This isn't my area, and I really don't know the answer here. But it's really interesting stuff, and I'd like to have a better grasp of the issues.


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