Saturday, October 27, 2007


Not-OK Computer

You're probably wondering what's happened to the blog. Actually, you're probably not wondering that at all, but humor me. Well, my laptop is out of the game, which as most of you will know is the kiss of death for a grad student. Fortunately, the damage is only to the AC adapter, so I won't lose any work, and I should be up and running again on Monday. But it really is a pain in the ass - I now have a ton of work overdue. I'm reminded of the old saying: "To err is human. To really mess things up takes a computer".

In other news, Amanda and Andrew have a summary of the Buffalo conference in the latest issue of the Reasoner. That's handy, since I won't have a chance of my own to report on it. But let me add what those guys couldn't write - they did a simply superb job organizing the conference, from making sure everyone got where they needed to be, to feeding us extremely well (including some home-cooking upon arrival!). I'd like to thank the organizers and all involved for a great weekend. Stewart Shapiro proved himself a model keynote, coming to every graduate talk with feedback to offer. Aaron's talk was a real highlight - he has his own short report here.

Ok, back to work.

Update: My new adapter has arrived, thank goodness.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007


CFP: The University of Texas at Austin Philosophy Grad Conference 2008

I'm very pleased to announce the:

2008 University of Texas at Austin Graduate Philosophy Conference

Keynote Speakers:

David Chalmers (ANU)
Tamar Szabo Gendler (Yale)

Faculty Roundtable: Understanding and Illusion with:

Adam Pautz (UT Austin)
Mark Sainsbury (UT Austin and KCL)
Michael Tye (UT Austin)

When: April 5-6 2008

Where: the live music capital of the world

Call for Papers: Papers are due by January 15th 2008. The official CFP is here.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo

I'm off to Buffalo this weekend for Reason, Intuition, Objects: The Epistemology and Ontology of Logic, where I'll be presenting my paper 'Iterations and Limitations'.

For the interested, here's the abstract:

'The iterative conception of set has been defended as a natural and non-arbitrary successor to the inconsistent naive conception, but in ‘The Iterative Conception of Set’ George Boolos showed that the hierarchical picture of the set-theoretic universe given to us by this conception fails to lend support to some of the axioms of ZFC, most notably choice and replacement. Both these axioms are delivered by a rival conception of set—the limitation of size conception—but unhappily this puts the axioms of power set and infinity beyond our reach, and has struck many as merely a technical device designed to avoid the paradoxes, rather than a genuine elucidation of our conception of set. Boolos has suggested that perhaps our conception of set is a hybrid of the leading thoughts behind the iterative conception and limitation of size, and in this paper I begin an assessment of the prospects of such a conception. I argue that even if this hybrid conception—the limitation of iteration conception, as I call it—can deliver all of the axioms of ZFC, it does so only if we are willing to make assumptions justified (if at all) only on pragmatic grounds. Insofar as our project is that of providing conceptual grounds on which to believe the axioms of ZFC, I conclude that we have reason to reject the limitation of iteration conception.'

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Saturday, October 06, 2007


Context and Logical Form Link

Blogger seems to have posted my reflections on Jason Stanley's 'Context and Logical Form' under the date which I started writing it on, rather than the completion date. Very weird. This means it actually appears on the blog underneath the last post I wrote, and I'm worried as a result people will miss it.

So if you'd like to read my post, please go here.


Friday, October 05, 2007


Grice on the Goals of Philosophy

Here is a lovely quote from the closing paragraph of Grice's 'Postwar Oxford Philosophy' on the goals of philosophy:

'They want philosophy to be grand, to yield one important, nonempirical information which will help one to solve either the world's problems or one's personal problems, or both. To them I feel inclined to reply in the end: "You are crying for the moon; philosophy has never really fulfilled this task, though it may sometimes have appeared to do so (and the practical consequences of its appearing to do so have not always been very agreeable). It is no more sensible to complain that philosophy is no longer capable of solving practical problems than it is to complain that the study of the stars no longer enables one to predict the course of world events."'

(Studies in the Way of Words: 179-80)


Thursday, October 04, 2007


Language in Context: 'Context and Logical Form'

I'm thrilled with how much interest and discussion my first post on Jason Stanley's Language in Context has generated already. Thanks to everyone who's joined in the discussion. I'll start here by offering a reasonably substantive summary of what I think Jason's up to. It goes without saying that this is no substitute for reading Jason himself, but it does help me to get to grips with what's going on, and it gives those of us up for discussion a refresher so we're all on more or less the same page. I should add that last time I was in St Andrews I attended a very useful seminar on this paper led by Andreas - sadly I no longer have his handout, but the discussion there improved my understanding of the paper considerably.

Next up is Jason's 2000 Linguistics and Philosophy paper, 'Context and Logical Form'. I first read 'Context and Logical Form' on a flight between Houston and New Jersey. The flight left about 4am, and I hadn't managed to get any sleep the previous night. So this paper has very strong and very strange associations for me.

Last time we saw that Jason wants the process of trying to figure out what was expressed by another's utterance to be a highly constrained process. The way he thinks that a sentence constrains the interpretation of any utterance of it is simply stated as the opening line of the paper:

'My purpose in this chapter is to defend the thesis that all truth-conditional effects of extra-linguistic context can be traced to logical form.' (30)

Jason then tells us how to understand this thesis:

LOGICAL FORM: By "logical form", Jason means to talk about the so-called "real structure" of the sentence - the claim isn't to be read as the relatively uninteresting and uncontroversial thesis that all truth-conditional effects of context can be traced to logical form, conceived of as merely a representation of each natural language construction in a notation which makes any dependence on context perspicuous for the purpose of interpretation (30).

TRUTH-CONDITIONS: For his purposes in this paper, we're to think of truth-conditions as structured propositions: 'an ordered sequence of objects and properties' (31). The choice, at least in this context, is to be regarded as a matter of convenience rather than adherence to a substantial doctrine about the metaphysics of truth-conditions.

I seem to remember that Jason used to bill 'Context and Logical Form' as his 'statement piece' on the semantics-pragmatics interface, though I wonder if he now considers his joint piece with Jeff King (which is a mere 3 papers away on our quest) to supersede it on that front. In any case, Jason spends some time in the present paper orientating himself. He considers just three ways of carving things up, though he acknowledges (33) that they don't even begin to exhaust the options here.


1. Semantics is the study of context-invariant meaning, while pragmatics is the study of the contribution of context to communication.

2. Semantic interpretation involves the evaluation of expressions relative to contexts of utterance. So even at the stage on semantic interpretation, context can play a role in assigning denotations to elements in the logical form of an expression. Pragmatic interpretation involves taking the product of semantic interpretation and evaluating it with respect to (Gricean) conversational maxims.

3. Semantic interpretation is the process of interpretation that leads to truth-conditions. Pragmatics is 'the study of those aspects of interpretation that take as input the truth-conditions of a linguistic act, and yield other propositions implicated by that speech act' (33).

Jason opts for the second way of conceiving of the division of labor between semantics and pragmatics, though he notes (33) that if his central thesis is correct, the second and third ways of drawing the distinction coincide.

We're now in a position to get clearer on Jason's master thesis. The contribution made by extra-linguistic context in the interpretation of an assertion is restricted to the assignment of values to elements in the logical form of the expression uttered (34). (Jason's thesis isn't really restricted to assertions (31), but he focuses on assertions in this paper). Associated with each such element are rules placing very tight constraints on what context is allowed to throw that element's way; hence the role of extra-linguistic context on determining the truth-conditions of an assertion is very limited. As Jason points out (35):

'If this picture of truth-conditional interpretation is correct, then it is fundamentally different from other kinds of interpretation, like the kind involved in interpreting kicks under the table and taps on the shoulder.'

This aspect of Jason's view has always really intrigued me. And it really gets to the heart of Jason's disagreement with those such as the relevance theorists, discussed in a passage in the introduction that I didn't talk about last time:

'One possible way to pursue a systematic strategy for explaining the relation between utterances and the truth-conditions they intuitively possess is to attempt a systematic explanation of rational communicative action generally. On this model, advocated for example by relevance theorists such as Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson and Robyn Carston, there is a systematic account of interpretation of the mental states of others. It is our ability to make reasonable inference from the observable behavior and characteristics of our interlocutors to their mental states that ultimately explains our success in acquiring information from their utterances. On this model, linguistic behavior is no different in kind from the other cues (winks and nods, half-smiles) our interlocutors give about their inner narratives.' (9, my emphasis, some references suppressed)

For Jason, this just doesn't do justice to the speed and ease with which we arrive at the specific truth-conditions of another's assertion from hearing them having made the utterance they made (10). Unlike interpreting winks, nods and kicks under the table, interpreting the utterances of another has to be a process that is subject to considerable constraints imposed by the very expressions they uttered - as Jason nicely puts it, it has to be 'under linguistic control' (10).

Jason's opponents hear aren't just the relevance theorists; he mentions also Kent Bach, Rob Stainton, Charles Travis, and Francois Recanati. What unites such theorists is their conviction that semantics doesn't deliver up anything truth-conditional; semantics is only able to offer up something contextually impoverished, since on such views 'the truth-conditions of most utterances go well beyond what semantics can legitimately assign to the logical forms of the sentences uttered' (35). We would do better to think, with Recanati, of truth-condition pragmatics rather than truth-conditional semantics.

Pushing theorists in this direction, Jason thinks, are two assumptions:

FIRST ASSUMPTION: 'In semantic interpretation, one may never postulate hidden structure that is inconsistent with correct syntactic theory.' (35)

SECOND ASSUMPTION: 'In deriving the semantic interpretation of a logical form, every feature of the semantic interpretation must be the semantic value of something in that logical form, or introduced via a context-independent construction rule.' (36)

Jason agrees with both assumptions - he just thinks that his opponents have an impoverished conception of what the elements in the logical form of a various context sensitive expressions will be. That's an empirical issue, to be settled on a construction by construction basis, and so we turn from the grand design to particular constructions; Jason here considers two, which have been thought to undermine the kind of picture of semantic interpretation he favors, namely alleged cases of non-sentential assertion and 'utterances of expressions with sentential structure, which appear to express full-blown propositions, propositions that contain constituents which do not appear to be the values of any constituent in the logical form of the expression uttered' (39).

In the comments of the previous post, Andreas suggests that it's one of the strengths of Jason's work that he's so willing to go beyond programmatic statements of his project, and get stuck into problem cases. I think that's right, but for now I want to maintain a pretty high altitude, and discuss the importance of Jason's project for a particular topic that I'm very very interested in - the inferentialism/anti-inferentialism debate in discussions of linguistic understanding.

Consider again the third distinction between semantics and pragmatics; this splits the process of interpreting another's utterances into two parts, which following some of the plethora of terminological options here we'll describe as arriving at what was said, then determining what was meant. Arriving at what was said is a matter of semantic and perhaps pragmatic interpretation, yielding something propositional, while determining what was meant involves taking the result of semantic interpretation and evaluating it with respect to the maxims governing conversation to determine what implicatures and the like are generated. Even if we want to hold that this isn't the right way to cash out the semantics-pragmatics distinction, let us just agree to regard the latter process as a matter of inference. What of the first process, arriving - by a process of semantic interpretation or a blend of semantic and pragmatic interpretation -at something propositional and truth-conditional? Is this, at least in central cases, inferential or not?

One might have thought this issue turned on the quantity and nature of the context-sensitivity one is willing to acknowledge in natural language. As Jason writes elsewhere, arguing against accounts of linguistic understanding according to which understanding is a non-inferential perceptual or 'quasi-perceptual' grasping (see Fricker 2003, Pettit 2002, 2005):

'...the pervasive context-sensitivity and ambiguity of natural language sentences forces hearers to engage in inferential reasoning about meaning in order to grasp what is said by an utterance.' (2005: 131)

'Virtually every sentence we hear contains context-dependent expressions. Therefore, virtually all of our experience as language interpreters involves making consciously accessible linguistically guided inferences about semantic content.' (2005: 132)

So here's a thought. If you want to defend anti-inferentialism, you should deny the ubiquity of context-sensitivity in natural language. If the list of context-sensitive expressions is more or less exhausted by Cappelen and Lepore's basic set, for example, that might suggest that arriving at what is said, still considered as something truth-conditional for our present purposes, need not be considered an inferential achievement. To motivate moderate or radical contextualism over semantic minimalism, then, would be to motivate inferentialism.

But arguably, things aren't so simple. In fact, it's not only arguable, it's been argued. In his 'Does Linguistic Communication Rest on Inference?', Recanati acknowledges that in general the phenomenon of what he calls 'semantic underdetermination' provides the ammunition for 'the most powerful weapon in the inferentialist's hands' (2002: 2002). Nonetheless, despite holding that reaching something truth-conditional requires a generous helping hand from pragmatic interpretation, he thinks that one we properly understand the anti-inferentialist position, it is the more plausible position to adopt. The good news for perceptual or quasi-perceptual accounts of understanding is that 'communication is 'as direct as' perception' (2002: 125). I'm obviously glossing over a ton of details here, but the upshot if Recanati is right will be that the inferentialism/anti-inferentialism debate turns out to be much richer and more complex than we'd envisaged above. And even demonstrating a ubiquity of context-sensitive expressions outside the basic set in natural language sentences won't bury the Fricker-Pettit account of linguistic understanding, or related anti-inferentialist positions concerning linguistic communication.

I should pause to note that Jason is very careful to state his target in the 2005 paper I've been referring to, and it's plausible to think that he hits it even if one accepts Recanati's point. Jason's official target is the claim that it's a phenomenological datum that, at least in central cases, speakers simply non-inferentially grasp what is said by the utterances of others. It is, of course, perfectly consistent with recognizing the complexity of the inferentialism/anti-inferentialism debate that one urge that the ubiquity of context-sensitivity and ambiguity in natural language shows that the phenomenological claim can't be regarded as a datum.

This points at another way in which the project Jason undertakes in 'Context and Logical Form' and its successors engages with this issue. One might hold that underlying the claim that the phenomenology of linguistic understanding shows that (in central cases) hearers non-inferentially grasp what is said by the utterances of others is a true datum. It's something Jason stressed in the introduction: in most cases, we smoothly, almost effortlessly and almost instantly arrive at what was said by another's utterance, even when dealing with novel sentences. As we saw in the last post, this provides the central motivation for Jason's thesis that the process of interpretation which delivers the truth-conditions of utterances must be highly constrained. So one can see Jason as attempting to do justice to what we might hold to be the real datum underlying the controversial claim that linguistic understanding is nothing more than a kind of non-inferential grasping, thereby knocking out much of the motivation for that claim.


Fricker, E. 2003. Understanding and Knowledge of What is Said. In Barber., ed. Epistemology of Language. OUP.
Pettit, D. 2002. Why Knowledge is Unnecessary for Understanding Language. Mind 111: 519-50.
- 2005. Belief and Understanding: A Rejoinder to Gross. Mind 114: 67-74.
Recanati, F. 2002. Does Linguistic Communication Rest on Inference? Mind & Language 17: 105-26.
Stanley, J. 2000. Context and Logical Form. Linguistics and Philosophy 23: 391-434.
- 2005. Hornsby on the Phenomenology of Speech. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 79: 131-46.

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Anti-Luminosity: The Forgotten Premise

Let a case be a world, subject and time triple < w, s, t >. Conditions either obtain or fail to obtain in each case, and are introduced by that-clauses: e.g. the condition that one is happy or that one feels cold (however, for simplicity I don't always state conditions in this cumbersome form in what follows).

A condition C is luminous iff the following holds:

For every case A, if C obtains in A, then one is in a position to know that C obtains in A.

Tim Williamson's anti-luminosity argument is meant to offer a proof that no non-trivial conditions are luminous in this sense (a condition is trivial iff it obtains in every case, or else fails to obtain in every case).

Williamson proceeds, he claims without loss of generality, by way of a reductio of the claim that the condition that one feels cold is luminous. So from the definition of luminosity, we have as our claim for reductio:

(LUM) For every case Ax, if one feels cold in Ax, then one is in a position to know that one feels cold in Ax.

Now imagine a series of times (T0, T1, T2.......Tn) between dawn and noon, each a millisecond apart. Fixing the subject and the world, we obtain a series of cases (A0, A1, A2........An) individuated by those times. One warms up very slowly, virtually imperceptibly, throughout this period. The following are also stipulated features of the case:

(COLD) In A0 one feels cold.
(WARM) In An one does not feel cold.

Williamson's two crucial premises are the following:

(REL) If in a case Ax, one knows that one feels cold, then in case Ax+1 one does feel cold.

(CON) If in a case Ax, one is in a position to know that one feels cold, then if one actively considers the matter, one knows in Ax that one feels cold.

On the assumption that one actively considers the matter of whether one feels cold in each case (A0, A1, A2........An), (LUM), (CON) and (REL) together entail the following tolerance principle for one feeling cold:

(TOL) For every case Ax, if one feels cold in Ax, then one feels cold in Ax+1.

And now Sorites reasoning will easy demonstrate the inconsistency of (TOL) with (COLD) and (WARM). So, since Williamson thinks he can independently motivate all the relevant analogues of (REL), and that (CON) is plausible, it follows that we should reject (LUM) for any non-trivial condition.

Virtually every discussion of Williamson's argument, online or in print, has focused on the reliability premise (REL). I agree that this is a weak point in the reasoning, and it should be explored, but I believe it's monopoly on attention has been deeply unfortunate - the issues surrounding (CON) have been completely neglected. Many presentations of the argument in the literature don't even acknowledge (CON) as a premise (Williamson's own presentations actually do acknowledge it). It's been the same online: in a recent discussion over at the Excluded Middle Errol Lord defines luminosity as I have above, and then when presenting Williamson's argument he writes:

'Now suppose feeling cold is luminous, which entails (2i):

(2i) If in Ax one feels cold, then in Ax one knows that one feels cold.'

(I've altered the reference to cases to be in line with that of the rest of my post here.)

I certainly don't mean to pick on Errol at all - the same move is made in several papers in print, and indeed, I only barely made things more explicit in my earlier post on this stuff. Moreover, Brueckner and Fiocco relegate the following remark to an endnote in their 2002 paper on the argument:

'Following Williamson, we will simplify things by speaking of knowing rather than being in a position to know.'

Over the next while I'll endeavor to convince you that this isn't a harmless simplification at all - we need to explore the issues surrounding (CON) just as much as those arising from (REL). (CON) is an instance of a more general principle, on which subsequent posts will focus:


In every case Ax, if one is in a position to know that condition C obtains, then if one has done everything one is in a position to do to determine whether C obtains, then one knows in Ax that C obtains.

Williamson is quite explicit that as he intends to understand the notion of being in a position to know, Determination is a necessary condition on one's being in a position to know:

'To be in a position to know p, it is neither necessary to know p, nor sufficient to be physically and psychologically capable of knowing p. No obstacle must block one's path to knowing p. If one is in a position to know p, and one has done what one is in a position to do to decide whether p is true, then one does know p.' (Knowledge and its Limits: 95)

In posts to follow, I'll discuss the role of Determination in the debates on the viability of semantic anti-realism and on the constitutive norm of assertion. Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Making an enemy of our own future

I've been busy grading all weekend, so I haven't had an chance to start work on the next installment of my reflections on Stanley's papers. But hopefully it'll be up before the weekend. I'm excited about this next one - the topic will be 'Context and Logical Form'.

Let me announced another couple of blogging projects for the semester, in the hope that this will encourage me to carve out some time to work on them. Firstly, I want to work my way through Mark Sainsbury's Reference Without Referents, which is about to be released (complete with a great new cover design) in paperback. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I've blogged pretty extensively about this book in the past, but I'm going to aim to be much more thorough and systematic this time.

Secondly, and following on from exchanges with Jason Stanley and Errol Lord, I want to write a series of posts on the premise everyone forgot in Williamson's anti-luminosity argument. I've been sitting on this material partly to get it into better shape, and partly to enable it to be blind-reviewed, but the time has arrived for me to try to get it onto the web as clearly as I can. The first post on this should be sometime this week, with posts on the relevance of the forgotten premise for the debates on anti-realism and norms of assertion to follow.


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