Wednesday, November 29, 2006


When Boredom Strikes...


Monday, November 27, 2006


Anyone for Extinction?

For those of you not on OUP's mailing list, I thought I'd make sure you don't miss the publication of David Benatar's Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. It defends the views that being brought into existence is always a serious harm, that having children is always wrong, that we should hold a 'pro-death' stance on abortion, and that it would be better if humanity became extinct. And you thought dialetheism was weird...


Sunday, November 26, 2006


Lend me some sugar, I am your neighbour

I've just arrived back today from spending Thanksgiving in Sugar Land, of all places. Blogging will resume as soon as I get the paper on Scanlon's theory of moral motivation that I've owed Jonathan Dancy for over 6 months finished at last. Who knows, I may even blog about Scanlon.

I've followed Joe Salerno's advice and installed some new thingy to keep track of recent comments. I have literally no idea what it does, so if anyone gets bored, leave a comment and we can find out what happens together.

Hope everyone's had a good break.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Acquisition Again

Exactly a month ago I posted a long post on Dummett's acquisition challenge, and I've been promising since then to have a go to get clearer on the issues I raised there. John Bengson convinced me in discussion that I'd come across in my original post too much as playing defence on the behalf of the acquisition challenger. In actual fact, my intention was just to register my confusion and to get other people's reactions to the point that was confusing me.

In what follows I'm going to take some familiarity with what I wrote in the previous post on this topic for granted.

I take it that Dummett's challenge is to explain how we could have acquired a particular concept, one which the realist credits us with possession of, but which the anti-realist finds problematic. Here's Dummett (Alex Miller calls this Dummett's 'canonical formulation' of the argument):

'[The anti-realist] maintains that the process by which we came to grasp the sense of statements of the disputed class, and the use which is subsequently made of these statements, are such that we could not derive from it [i.e. the process] any notion of what it would be for such a statement to be true independently of the sort of thing we have learned to recognise as establishing the truth of such statements.'
('The Reality of the Past', T&OE: 362. My italics)

It's important to note that Dummett is explicit here that the challenge is not to show that we understand statements in the disputed class; that's conceded by all sides. Nor is the challenge for the theorist (realist or otherwise) who holds that understanding one of the disputed statements consists in grasp of its truth-conditions to show how we could have come to have grasped those truth conditions given that our linguistic training is a training in use. The challenge as I see it is to explain in a manner consistent with the nature of our linguistic training how we could come to form a conception of what it would be like for such a sentence to be associated with realist truth-conditions, i.e. conditions that can obtain or fail to obtain undetectably. This is hardly a sharp, adequately spelled-out statement of the nature of the challenge that's being presented to the realist, but it hope it's clear enough for my present purposes.

What I found so surprising in the Wright quote from last time was that it basically concedes to the realist that it suffices to meet the challenge as I've put it above that the realist can show the following: she has some story about how we could have come by grasp of the truth-conditions of one of the disputed statements in a manner consistent with the nature of our linguistic training:

'Given that the understanding of statements in general is to be viewed as consisting in possession of a concept of their truth-conditions, acquiring a concept of an evidence-transcendent state of affairs is simply a matter of acquiring an understanding of a statement for which that state of affairs would constitute the truth-condition.' (Realism, Meaning & Truth: 16)

Once we've made this concession, it's clear how compositionality helps the realist meet the challenge.

Now, part of my confusion last time stemmed from the following. Wright thinks there are insuperable difficulties standing in the way of a semantic theory which replaces the notion of truth with that of warranted-assertibility (or something similar). So we should adopt truth-conditional semantics. Understanding a sentence consists in grasping its truth-conditions; understanding one of the disputed sentences consists in grasping its truth-conditions. The realist is to be accused of 'overdescribing' what understanding a sentence consists in; she's right to hold that it consists in grasp of truth-conditions, but unwarranted in supposing it ever consists in grasp of realist truth-conditions (since such grasp could never be manifested in linguistic behaviour). As Wright is prone to putting it (regarding epistemicism, but clearly the point is more general than that), the realist is to be accused of superstition rather than error.

My puzzlement was over this; why can't we offer the same response to the compositionality response to the acquisition challenge? We'd then concede that we understand the disputed statements, that understanding those statements consists in grasping their truth-conditions, and that one could come (via compositionality) to grasp their truth-conditions in a way consistent with recognising that our linguistic training is a training in use. But what forces us here to say that the truth-conditions we've arrived at are realist truth-conditions? (I've discovered since writing my first post on this that Miller explicitly considers such a response to the compositionality response in his 'What is the Acquisition Argument?'. See pp. 492-4)

Actually, there seems to be a very simple reason to think we are forced to regard the truth-conditions of the disputed statements as realist truth-conditions, namely that (as is conceded on all sides) these statements are undecidable (See Miller p491 and p7 of Williamson's 'Must Do Better'.) I think that there's a serious challenge there, but setting that point aside for now, we still have something of a mystery as far as I can see. Why did Wright think that it sufficed to meet the acquisition challenge - formulated as a challenge to explain how we could have acquired a conception of what it would be for a statement to be associated with realist truth-conditions - to explain how we could come to grasp (in the right sort of way) the truth-conditions of one of the disputed statements, given that he holds that nothing warrants us in regarding those truth-conditions as realist truth-conditions?

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


CALL FOR PAPERS: 2007 University of Texas at Austin Graduate Philosophy

Here finally is the official CFP, which has been emailed out today (I'm not sure why it's come out quite so grey):

The Philosophy Department of the University of Texas at Austin is pleased to
announce that the annual Graduate Philosophy Conference will take place on
April 27-28, 2007. We welcome submissions from graduate students on any topic
in analytic philosophy broadly construed.

Plenary Addresses will be given by:

Karen Bennett, Princeton University
Achille Varzi, Columbia University

There will also be a Faculty Roundtable on the topic of Epistemic Normativity.
Roundtable speakers will be:

Daniel Bonevac, University of Texas at Austin
Jonathan Dancy, University of Texas at Austin and University of Reading
David Sosa, University of Texas at Austin

Submissions are due by February 1st, 2007. Submissions must meet the following

(1) Papers must be approximately 4000 words, i.e., suitable for a 30 minute
(2) Papers must be entirely free of any potentially identifying information,
e.g., name, affiliation, or acknowledgements.
(3) Submissions must include, as a distinct document, a cover page with the
author's name, affiliation, e-mail address, and abstract of no more than 200

Papers and cover pages may be submitted via e-mail to utgradconference AT gmail DOT com
as an attachment in .doc, .pdf, or .rtf file format. Authors of accepted papers
will be awarded a modest stipend to help defray travel expenses.

A website for the conference is now online here.


Monday, November 13, 2006


DeRose on the Leiter Report

I hope people don't miss Keith DeRose's very sensible comments on the latest PGR over at Certain Doubts. I myself consulted the report when I was applying to grad school, and while I took many other factors into account in reaching my decision, I found it very useful. I'd certainly recommend to anyone going through that confusing and difficult process that they pay attention to the rankings (even though other factors are very important, which as DeRose notes, isn't in dispute by anyone).

Update: over at Lemmings, Brit Brogaard points out that it's hardly a great idea to remain in complete ignorance about which programs the people who will often involved in hiring procedures are likely to favour when it comes to crunch time. So even if we accept the suggestion that any student who's ready to begin graduate work in philosophy will know who they should work with, it still seems like a smart idea to utilise resources like the rankings.

By the way, in the UK there would be some issues about someone beginning graduate work at PhD level in philosophy without a clue about which area within philosophy they wanted to focus in, simply because a UK PhD is immediately research-based, and one is assigned a supervisor at a very early point. (There's obviously still a long, long way to go to reach the claim that someone who started a UK PhD under such circumstances is unfit for graduate work in the discipline). Similar comments could be made about other countries.

Here in the US, things seem utterly different. There seems no problem at all in people starting their PhD with the expectation that they'll hit upon an area of focus in the first couple of years, while they are taking classes in a broad range of areas, and haven't yet been assigned a dissertation committee. Isn't this in part at least what this period of the US PhD is for? This is particularly clear when we take into account people wanting to pursue graduate studies in philosophy, but who's first degree wasn't in philosophy. And it seems clear that if that's ok, then there should be no general expection that people have a clear idea of who they should be aiming to work with before applying - such people should presumably just try to get into the strongest program they can.

Labels: ,


UT Austin Graduate Conference 2007 - Call for Papers

An official CFP will be getting sent out to departments this week. But let me do a preliminary announcement.

The annual UT Austin graduate conference will take place on the 27th and 28th of April 2007.

The keynote speakers are Karen Bennett (Princeton) and Achille Varzi (Columbia).

There will be a UT faculty roundtable on the topic of Epistemic Normativity. The faculty participants will be Dan Bonevac, Jonathan Dancy and David Sosa.

We welcome submissions on any topic in analytic philosophy, broadly construed.

Submissions should:

1. Be around 4000 words
2. Be free of all potentially identifying information; name, affiliations, acknowledgements, etc. A separate coversheet with name, affilation, email address, paper title, and abstract of no more than 200 words should also be attached to the email as a distinct document.

Submissions should be sent to utgradconference AT gmail DOT com by early February (exact date to follow).


Saturday, November 11, 2006


Hokey KOKI?

I think people around the department really got a lot out of Keith Hossack's talks this week, and they've sparked a number of interesting discussions. It's been a very fun visit for all concerned, as far as I can tell.

Yesterday Keith talked criticised the Inference model of testimony, associated with Grice and others. I won't go into the details at all, but at the heart of one of his criticisms was the following principle:

Knowledge-out, Knowledge-in (KOKI): an inference cannot produce knowledge unless its premises are known to be true

Now, in the discussion session, I tried to persuade Keith that this principle could do with some defense. I had a couple of reasons for thinking this, but the one that people seemed to want to quiz me about afterwards was the reverse lottery inference. Like I did at the time, I want to stress I'm not defending the view I'm about to lay out; I just think it's not sufficiently obviously wrong to allow a premise like the KOKI principle to be assumed without argument. Most people seemed to disagree, and I'd be interested to know what other people thought (if for no other reason than to find out how perverse my philosophical radar has become of late).

Here's the inference. The two premises are:

1. I won't win the million-ticketed major lottery I hold a ticket for

2. I won't receive enough other funds from any other source to enable me to afford to buy Bill Gates out of his house this year

And the conclusion is:

3. I won't be able to afford to buy Bill Gates out of his house this year

The view I had in mind is the following. The second premise could easily be the kind of thing that we'd credit me with knowing; say I don't hold any other lottery tickets, and I know I won't participate in any other games of chance, so I might know 2 in virtue of knowing that I don't have any wealthy relatives, etc. So let's assume that the circumstances are such that if we're not sceptics about ordinary knowledge, we'll credit me with knowledge of 2.

Let us suppose that 1 is true. The view I'm sketching here holds that I still can't know 1 (because a belief in 1 would not be sensitive, as DeRose suggests, or because of Hawthorne style parity reasoning about lottery propositions).

Lastly, the suggestion was I might come to know 3 via an inference from 1 and 2. The basic idea, cast in Vogel's terminology, is that we're to infer an ordinary proposition from a lottery proposition. Lottery propositions don't seem like they can be items of knowledge, despite the overwhelming likelihood that such a proposition is true. The conclusion of the inference inherits whatever good epistemic properties the lottery proposition has, plus being an ordinary proposition the impediment to knowledge of lottery propositions isn't present (the conclusion is sensitive, doesn't support parity reasoning, etc). So we'd have a counterexample to KOKI.

This is obvious more than just a tad on the quick side, and there are some big issues looming. But in any case, that was the thought.

To reiterate, I'm not putting this forward as my view (partly because that seems to be something of a kiss of death these days). But I have to admit, nothing here jumps out at me as preposterous, unless we simply assume the KOKI principle.

(If any Americans are confused about the title of this post, I gather that it's more common on this side of the Pond to call the hokey-cokey the hokey-pokey.)


Thursday, November 09, 2006


Analyticity and the Sorites

For a long time I've been a pretty big fan of treating analyticity as a purely epistemic notion. That is, I've agreed with Boghossian that no refinement of the basic thought that analytic truths are truth in virtue of meaning alone is likely to work (where 'in virtue of' is read metaphysically). Instead we should adopt an epistemic notion of analyticity; something like analytic truths are statements which one is justified in believing merely in virtue of understanding (as Boghossian puts it in 'Analyticity', mere grasp of S's meaning by T suffices for T's being justified in holding S true).

Recently Andreas has been working to persuade people that the reasons Boghossian offers in favour of epistemic rather than metaphysical analyticity don't really support that conclusion at all. I haven't had a chance to really get to catch up on his stuff yet, but I have been wondering whether there isn't serious pressure put on the epistemic conception from other quarters.

In particular, I've been wondering if the analytic sorites paradox creates trouble for this account of analyticity. Here's an example (adapted from Sorensen's Vagueness and Contradiction: 117-8):

1. 1 second after noon is noonish
2. For all n, if n seconds after noon is noonish, then n+1 seconds after noon is noonish
3. 10000 seconds after noon is not noonish

Premises 1 and 3 are supposed to be analytically true, and that strikes me as plausible. Sorensen holds (if I remember his view correctly) that all but one of the instances of 2 are analytically true (the exception being analytically false). Now, take any of the true instances of 2, where n seconds and n+1 seconds are borderline for noonish. Does S's understanding that instance suffice for S to be justified in believing it to be true? Surely not.

This way of putting the objection rests on the epistemicist thesis that Sorites premises like 2 have exactly one false instance, but that we can never knowledgably identify which instance that is. I'm not sure how things go on other theories of vagueness, but it seems likely that some of them will have the consequence that there's at least one true instance of 2 (for n and n+1 borderline). If it is plausible that this true instance is analytically true, then it looks again like the epistemic conception of analyticity is in trouble. In any case, it would be surprising to discover that which account of analyticity is correct turns on what the correct solution to the Sorites is.

Any thoughts? And have I missed any discussions of this topic in the literature?

Update: I should be more explicit. Obviously the argument sketched above against the epistemic conception of analyticity takes as an assumption that Sorensen is right to suggest that some instances of 2 are appropriately regarded as analytic. That's very questionable here, and it's open to the proponent of the epistemic conception to deny the assumption. But I'm taking it there are costs to taking this route, for example, we now need some alternative account of the special status these statements have (or alternatively some explanation of why many philosophers have - mistakenly, according to this proposal - thought they possessed some special status). So basically, I'd like to put the objection to the epistemic conception as a dilemma; either there are analytic statements for which understanding doesn't suffice for justified belief, or there are statements which we intuitively take to be analytic truths, but which fall outside of the proposal on offer (thus requiring some alternative account of their (putative) special status, having debarred ourselves from regarding them as analytic).

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Rui da Silva on the Acquisition Challenge

I just downloaded Rui da Silva's 'Touch Me', which features the following Dummettian refrain:

"We can only understand what we are shown".

Mind you, it also features the line,

"I'm always thinking of you baby, yeah",

so perhaps we can't say that the whole song was inspired by Truth and Other Enigmas.



Promises promises...

My brain has turned to mush from marking a ton of essays on sheep-grazing rights (the general topic is the tragedy of the commons, before you ask). I'll resume proper posting once it's started to solidify a bit. In particular, I want to try return to the stuff about the acquisition challenge that was bugging me a few weeks ago, and which I left completely unresolved. Part of the reason I haven't attempted to get any further with this stuff is that we're reading Alex Miller's 'What is the Acquisition Argument?' this week, and I wanted to have that under my belt before I said any more on the topic so I've been hanging back. But I'm hoping to have a clearer grip on things soon. Hoping.

Keith Hossack (KCL) is in town this week, offering a positive solution to the Sorites paradox, an objection to epistemicism, and an account of knowledge by testimony. I'm really looking forward to all three talks. But philosophical interest aside, it's nice to hear another Scottish accent in Texas...

Labels: ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?