Thursday, May 31, 2007


Making it Precise

I arrived in Glasgow just this morning, and I took the flight to finally get around to reading Insensitive Semantics. For now, I'll limit myself to offering a couple of brief quotes with commentary:

'Focus on this question: If a range of people can't all be ready, can they at least all be ready for an exam? Is that something a range of people can have in common? We suppose the answer must be 'yes'.' (168)

I'd have thought anyone who'd taught undergraduates would take the answer to this to be 'no'.

More seriously, we're given a 7-step program to fix the minimal proposition expressed by an utterance of sentence S on 144-5. Step 5.d is:

'Precisify every vague expression in S.' (145)

How? One of the motivations for supervaluational treatments of vagueness is that they let you reason with sentences with vague constituents as if they were perfectly precise, but without committing us to the idea that there's a uniquely privileged way of precisifying them, or even that it makes sense to think we could precisify them if we wanted to. Supervaluationism is, in part, a response to the difficulties inherent in the idea that we can sharpen vague expressions. So how are we meant to go about taking step 5.d?

Cappelen and Lepore do work through an example sentence, but sadly they simply assume 'for the sake of argument' that it contains no vague expressions. However, they weren't offering an argument; this all happens in a section headed 'Semantic Minimalism: Illustration', so I can only presume they were meant to be offering an illustration of how to apply the 7 steps to a particular sentence in order to fix the minimal proposition it expresses. So I don't see how the trick's to be pulled with 5.d, and they just glossed right over the issue in the very section supposed to illustrate how it's done.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


UT at the frontline of research yet again

AUSTIN, TX—University of Texas professor Thom Windham once again furthered the cause of human inquiry in a class lecture Monday, as he continued his longtime practice of finding connections between things and other things, pointing out these parallels, and then elaborating on them in detail, campus sources reported.

"By drawing parallels between things and other, entirely different things, I not only further my own studies, but also encourage young minds to develop this comparative methodology in their own work," said Windham, holding his left hand up to represent one thing, then holding his right hand up to represent a separate thing, then bringing his hands together in simulation of a hypothetical synthesis of the two things. "It's not just similarities that are important, though—the differences between things are also worth exploring at length."

Fifteen years ago, Windham was awarded tenure for doing this.



Thursday, May 17, 2007


Overly Strong Statement of the Day 3

Ok, so this probably isn't enough of a regular feature to warrant it having a name which, well, suggests so strongly that it's a regular (in fact, daily) feature. But nevermind.

Tony Blair is stepping down at the end of June, and the issue of his successor naturally enough came to the fore. Labour MPs were to nominate candidates for the leadership race, and in the event of such a race, the party as a whole would vote on who should be leader. As it happened, it didn't get that far; none of the other candidates got the requisite 45 nominations to run in a party-wide election against the favourite, Gordon Brown (who got 313 nominations). So Gordon Brown will take over 10 Downing Street, without there being an election.

John McDonnell, who fancied himself as the most serious challenger to Brown, got only 29 nominations, nowhere near enough to trigger an election. McDonnell described the result as 'a blow to democracy'.


Sunday, May 13, 2007


The Atheist's Nightmare

I'm TAing philosophy of religion this summer, and I thought I'd share this example of the kind of high-quality, irresistible argumentation my students can expect to see on display:

"It's even curved towards the face to make the whole process so much easier." I had one the other day that was curved away from my face. Should I be worried?

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Sunday, May 06, 2007


Anti-Realism: Decidability and Detectability

Back in 1983, Crispin Wright wrote:

'It is a common misunderstanding of the thrust of the anti-realist's criticisms of the role assigned to truth in classical semantics that he believes that the central notion in the theory of meaning should be an effectively decidable one.'

Amen. My entire life-span later, and this is still a point which simply has not been absorbed by opponents of anti-realism (a rare exception is Darragh Byrne, but it's hard to think of any others). I'm writing a paper at the moment, tentatively titled 'Anti-Realist DOs and DON'Ts', in which I'll substantiate Crispin's point, and show how doing so enables the anti-realist to avoid most of the objections recently leveled at him. More specifically, it'll be a defense of compatiblist anti-realism; that is, anti-realism which wants to hold on to truth-conditional semantics (the term is Byrne's). It's been claimed that such a view either inflates into realism (Alex Miller) or must deny that truth is undecidable (Williamson), but these criticisms simply make the assumption Wright warned against all those years ago. More on this in the finished paper.

Here, I want to offer a taster. I'll present two very recent arguments against anti-realism which are not major targets of my paper, but which casually overlook the possibility of a compatiblist anti-realism which holds that truth is necessarily detectable, but is not decidable. First up is Michael Loux's piece on the debate in The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. On page 656 we get the following passage:

'...Dummett's more particular claim that the assertability theorist should trade in verification conditions (that is, conditions that conclusively justify assertion) must face the objection that the resulting theory of meaning has precisely the difficulties Dummett takes to be the undoing of the truth-conditional theory. The claim is that to know the meaning of a statement is to know what would conclusively warrant its assertion; but statements that are in principle undecidable are such that there neither is nor can be anything that would conclusively justify their assertion or their denial. [My emphasis]. But, then, where is the strategic advantage of the assertibility-conditional theory? As we have seen, Dummett tries to forestall this objection by identifying the apparently epistemic state with a practical, discriminatory ability - the ability to recognize, if presented with it, a condition which would justify assertion. But, of course [sic], that is an ability that is in principle incapable of being exercised. [My emphasis]. And how is the attribution of that sort of ability any improvement on the truth-conditional theorist's attribution of epistemic states that can never can manifested?'

Look carefully at the crucial lines I put in italics, and ask yourself: how does it follow from a statement's undecidability - that is, the lack of a procedure which could be followed in a finite amount of time, and which if correctly implemented would be bound to conclusively verify or falsify that statement - that there could not be anything that would conclusively justify its assertion? Only, I submit, if we run together undecidability and undetectability; we assume that just because there is no such procedure, there can be no evidence which would decide the matter one way or the other (and hence our discriminatory capacities for such statements must be 'in principle incapable of being exercised') . Dummett himself is perfectly explicit that this is a mistake in his most recent book:

'Although we may have no means, even in principle, of putting ourselves into a position in which we can effectively decide whether the proposition expressed by the utterance of a given sentence is or is not true, it does not follow that we may not come to recognize that proposition as true or false; we may sometimes, and indeed often do, decide the truth or falsity of utterances of undecidable sentences, in the sense I gave to this expression.' (58)

So I submit, Loux's objection simply rests on the conflation of decidability and detectability. Now, the problem may be that Loux appears to interpret undecidable statements to be those which are 'verification- or falsification-transcendent' (635). But there's no real justification for such an interpretation, even if a few passages in Dummett may unfortunately encourage it.

A much more striking example of a failure to appreciate this point, and to miss the possibility of a compatiblist anti-realism, comes in Charles McCarthy's 'The Coherence of Anti-Realism'. In the opening line of the abstract, we are told:

'The project of anti-realism is to construct an assertibility semantics on which (1) the truth of statements obeys a recognition condition so that (2) counterexamples are forthcoming to the law of excluded middle and (3) intuitionistic formal predicate logic is provably sound and complete with respect to the associated notion of validity.'

On page 948, we are further told that in order to 'ensure that the recognition condition obtains', the anti-realist assumes that the central notion in the semantics is decidable in the sense that a decision procedure 'is available in principle'. It turns out, McCarthy argues, that this package is incoherent. All the worse for anti-realism so conceived, I say. But we're given no clues that this conception isn't mandated.

This gives you a taste of just how casually critics of anti-realism have been willing to run together the crucial notions of decidability and detectability, despite (and without so much as acknowledgment of) Crispin's explicit disavowal in print over twenty years ago. My paper, when it's done, will leave many important aspects of the debate completely untouched, but I think I'll have achieved something if I manage to start to change people's attitudes on this central issue. Seems unlikely on the face of it, but we'll see.......

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Leiter Links

This really puts my Wittgenstein gripe in some perspective. (Via Brian Leiter)

Also via Leiter, I see that Jonathan Wolff (UCL) has started writing a very interesting monthly column for the Guardian. Of particular interest, I thought, was this piece on the pressures on graduate students to complete within a particular time-span. I couldn't help but be reminded of Dummett: ''Completion rates' - the very phrase is like a bell.'

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Priority as counterpossible dependence

I've been having a discussion with Joe Salerno over at his blog Knowability on whether moving away from the standard Lewis-style semantics for counterfactuals with impossible antecedents (as he and Brit proposed in their recent piece in the Reasoner) might allow us to respond to some worries Michael Potter had in his most recent book concerning a particular way of thinking of the priority of members over sets in platonist interpretations of the Iterative Conception of set. (Phew!)

I'm not sure whether the suggestions will pan out at all, but in case some of you might be interested, Joe's post and our discussion are here.

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Bride of Kripkenstein

Shawn and I were talking the other day about anomalies in philosophy books and papers we'd read, and I was reminded of one that I discovered a few years ago which REALLY bugged me at the time. With several years distance, however.......well, it still bugs me.

Let me set the scene. Here is the first part of #201 of the Philosophical Investigations:

'This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made to accord with the rule. The answer was: if any can be made to accord with the rule, then it can be made to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.'

Kripke famously took this as stating a sceptical paradox which the rest of the book- in particular the passages developing the argument against the possibility of a private language - offered a sceptical solution to (sceptical in the sense that it, like Hume's 'solution' to the problem of induction, fully concedes the cogency of the sceptical argument). But it's equally well known that Kripke doesn't once in his book quote the second part of #201:

'It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of another standing behind it. What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call "obeying the rule" and "going against it" in actual cases.'

As Crispin Wright puts the familiar point, Wittgenstein is not here endorsing the paradoxical conclusion, but rather 'discharg[ing] what he views as a faulty premise on which it depends: the idea that determinacy of meaning somehow depends on interpretation'.

Now, finally, I come to my real point (you were starting to wonder, weren't you). It's been observed that there's a further slight piece of evidence against reading #201 as stating a paradox which the rest of the book still takes to be a active concern; the statement of the paradox is in the past tense. (I've seen this observation in a few places, though it's usually credited originally to Stanley Cavell). By itself, of course, this wouldn't be weighty enough to support one reading of the passage over another, but it's a neat point in conjunction with the other evidence which suggests Wittgenstein has dispensed with the paradox by the end of #201.

With this (mild) controversy over the tense in mind, try to read this 'quotation' of #201 in Robert Fogelin's widely celebrated introductory text on Wittgenstein without feeling that he's not playing fair. It hardly needs saying that Fogelin reads the Investigations in more or less the same manner as Kripke. Punctuation is exactly as it is on page 160 of Fogelin's book:

'This [is] our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made to accord with the rule. The answer [is]: if any can be made to accord with the rule, then it can be made to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.

I found this pretty astounding when I saw it years ago, and that feeling hasn't much diminished since then.

Afterword: I should say that there is some great stuff in Fogelin's book, on the early Wittgenstein in particular. It's mainly his treatment of the Investigations I object to.


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