Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Epistemological? What are you talking about?

I just found one of my favourite clips from the best comedy ever made up on Youtube, so I thought I'd share. This is Sir Humphrey trying to explain to the Prime Minister that he lied to the House of Commons..........


Sunday, January 20, 2008


Language in Context: On Quantifier Domain Restriction (Part 1)

Why are philosophers, and not just philosophers of language, so interested in the phenomenon of quantifier domain restriction (QDR)?

1. One reason stressed, by Jason in Knowledge and Practical Interests, is that David Lewis based his contextualist semantics for knowledge attributions on QDR. The sceptic is right to suggest that in order to know that p we must be able to rule out all relevant alternatives to p; to adopt fallibilism, according to which one may felicitously utter 'p, but I haven't ruled out possibilities in which not-p', is madness. But the sceptic fails to recognize that this does not set an absolute standard on which alternatives need to be ruled out; it's 'all' of them, but in everyday contexts the domain of 'all' is seriously restricted. In particular, we can properly ignore sceptical scenarios. Indeed, Jason argues against Lewis's epistemic contextualism on the grounds that knowledge attributions don't behave like uncontroversial cases of QDR in the relevant respects (see Jonathan's recent post for discussion of Jason's argument). So a proper understanding of QDR is necessary to evaluate certain proposals in epistemology.

(I don't mean to endorse Lewis's characterization of fallibilism here. As most of you will know, Jason and others have resisted Lewis's argument against fallibilism on the grounds that it was never committed to the felicity of the problem utterances in the first place.)

2. QDR also plays an important role in defending various views Lewis held in metaphysics. For example, how are we to square the apparent truth of,

i. there are no talking donkeys,

with the truth of moral realism, according to which if there could be talking donkeys, then in some worlds there are talking donkeys? Likewise, how are we to square universalism--the doctrine that some things always compose some further thing--with our ordinary talk, which seems to pay no heed to objects like the fusion of my iPod and Jeremy Bentham's preserved corpse? In each case, it can be contended that in ordinary settings, we implicitly restrict our quantifiers, ignoring possibilia and gruesome fusions. (See Dan's paper for a critique of this as a defense of the claim that universalism is continuous with common-sense.)

3. Stephen Neale has argued that the puzzle associated with so-called incomplete definite descriptions, such as:

ii. the table is covered with books,

should not be thought of as providing a decisive objection to Russellian views according to which definite descriptions are really quantificational (and imply uniqueness), since the fact that the existence of a bare table in St Andrews does not entail the falsity of my utterance of:

iii. every table is covered with books

made in a room full of book-laden tables in Austin clearly does not impugn the claim that (iii) has quantificational form. The problem of incomplete definite descriptions is really one and the same as the problem of giving a satisfactory account of QDR.

iv. Stanley and Szabo (70) take QDR as a test case for determining the source and nature of an expression's dependence on context. That is, the process by which they think we arrive at a satisfactory account of QDR provides a model for discussion of other constructions. So one might hope that a proper understanding of QDR will lead to better understanding of context dependence in natural language more generally.

Of course, these do not exhaust the sources of philosophical interest in QDR. But I thought it was worth setting on the table some implications for epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of language before turning our attention to Stanley and Szabo's paper.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Arché Methodology Postdocs

UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS: School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies

Arché: Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology

2 Research Fellows

Salary – £27,857 per annum

We are seeking to appoint two research fellows for up to four years. You will commence on 1 September 2008, or as soon as possible thereafter. You will conduct research within the scope of the AHRC funded research project ‘Intuitions and Philosophical Methodology’.

We encourage applicants working in any area of philosophy who have a genuine interest in methodological issues. You must have a PhD in Philosophy by the time of appointment and be capable of demonstrating outstanding research potential in the areas of the project. A track record of high quality publications will be an advantage. Please include with your application a CV, research proposal (1000 word max) and recent writing sample (5000 word max.).

Please quote ref: ME097/08 Closing date: 15 February 2008

Application forms and further particulars are available from Human Resources, University of St Andrews, College Gate, North Street, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AJ, tel: 01334 462571, by fax 01334 462570 or by e-mail @ jobline@st-andrews.ac.uk. The advertisement and further particulars and a downloadable application form can be found here.

The University is committed to equality of opportunity.


Monday, January 14, 2008


Conferences at UT

The deadline for the 2008 Graduate Conference here at UT has been pushed back until Feb. 1st. It's mutual-knowledge* that the graduate conferences here have been great in the past, and with David Chalmers and Tamar Szabo Gendler as keynotes, that's surely going to continue. So get submitting!

As if that weren't enough, Michael Tye is organizing this year's MLK conference. which will feature papers and responses by UT graduate students. It's taking place on MLK day (Monday Jan. 21st), all are welcome, and the program is as follows:

Coffee, rolls, etc.

Welcome by Michael Tye

10.00 - 10.55
Speaker: Enrico Grube, "In Defense of Content Preservation"
Respondent: John Bengson
Chair: Nora Berenstain

11.00 - 11.55
Speaker: David Ivy, "Perceptual Experience as Neither Veridical Nor Nonveridical"
Respondent: Alex Baia
Chair: Stephen James

12.00 - 1.25

1.30 - 2.25

Speaker: Kate Ritchie, "Quantifiers, Context, and Semantic 'Completing' Strategies"
Respondent: Talia D'Abramo
Chair: Liz Rodgers

2.30 - 3.25
Speaker: Alex Grzankowski, "Against DeRose on Epistemic Modals"
Respondent: Malte Willer
Chair: Aidan McGlynn

3.30 - 4.25
Speaker: David Frank, "Once Again, With Feeling: Affectivity and the Emotions"
Respondent: Briggs Wright
Chair: Tomas Bogardus

Reception at Crown and Anchor

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


Belated Birthday!

It's just occurred to me that this blog's second birthday went by on 12/12/07, and I completely forgot. Thanks to all for reading it, and in particular to those who've been leaving such excellent comments in the threads.

I've tried to keep to my promise of making sure things picked up around here at the New Year. We'll see how that keeps up once the semester gets going, but I'm confident it won't be a repeat of last semester. There's been a philosophy of language bias around here recently, and that's going to continue for a while, though I'll throw in some mind, epistemology, and other delights along the way.


Monday, January 07, 2008


Language in Context: Review of Recanati's 'Literal Meaning'

I'm getting a little out of order here, but I had to read Literal Meaning over the break, so it made sense to offer something on Jason's NDPR review just now, and then come back to 'On Quantifier Domain Restriction'.

One of the things I've noticed reading the literature on this stuff is that no one agrees about where the really interesting issues lie. Recanati, for example, spends a great deal of time putting distance between his view and Relevance Theory on issues such as whether primary pragmatic processes (those that go into determining truth-conditional content, rather than those by which what is communicated is determined) are inferential (a topic which some of you will know is becoming very close to my heart). In contrast, Jason writes:

'the genuinely important disputes in the theory of meaning are between those who maintain that the contents primarily asserted by speakers are not generally the semantic contents of the sentences they use (even relative to contexts), and those who maintain that the contents primarily asserted by speakers are generally (not always, but typically) the semantic contents of the sentences used (relative to those contexts).' (237)

Cappelen and Lepore also want to downplay the importance of debates between contextualists, but from their perspective, Jason's view is to be lumped together with Recanati and the Relevance theorists:

'The label 'the Deep/Fundamental Issues' should be awarded to a range of issues independent of any debates internal to MC or RC.'
(Insensitive Semantics: 13)

So not only do we have a range of very different takes on this set of issues, which position one takes seems to shape one's perception of where the real action is. I don't think this is at all unusual in philosophy, but here we have a particularly stark illustration of the phenomenon.

Jason's review is of particular note between it takes on directly the difficult tasks of offering a taxonomy of positions in the debate and trying to get clear on what's at stake between them (as befits a review of Recanati's book). It also raises some methodological issues about how the debate should be conducted, and it's these I want to discuss here. I'll come to them a little indirectly, however, via a discussion of the following (independently interesting) issue.

Let's follow Recanati in calling the thesis Jason wants to defend indexicalism, and consider the following question: does indexicalism start at a serious disadvantage in the nature over the nature and extent of context sensitivity in natural language? In Literal Meaning, Recanati argues that indexicalism does indeed occupy lower ground, on account of the kind of claim the indexicalist must defend:

'Without going into those [technical and empirical] details, it is fair to say that the indexicalist starts with a significant disadvantage; for he makes a universal claim while his opponent only makes an existential claim. For his opponent to win, it is sufficient to produce one convincing example of a strong pragmatic effect. But the indexicalist is condemned to deal with all putative cases, and to show that they are not what they seem to be.' (2004: 89-90)

Jason writes in response:

'Recanati misstates the dialectical situation. The contextualist's method for arguing against indexicalism is to produce a reading R of a sentence S, and argue that R is not the result of the semantic interpretation of S, relative to the context of utterance. In each such case there are three responses available to the indexicalist.......The advocate of strong pragmatic effects on intuitive truth-conditions must produce a case, and show that none of these options is available for that case. For each putative case in which it can be persuasively argued that [it is not an option to 'establish that the alleged reading is not part of the intuitive truth-conditions of an utterance of that sentence, but is instead due to the pragmatics'], the contextualist [...] must establish that there is no way of accounting for the problematic reading within the semantics. From this perspective, it is the contextualist who makes a universal claim.' (239)

It's not immediately clear what Jason is claiming here. The first and last sentences of this passage might suggest that he thinks Recanati has just got things back to front; it is the contextualist who makes the universal claim and the indexicalist who makes the existential claim. But that doesn't seem quite right. For indexicalist clearly does make a universal claim; recall Jason's statement of his core thesis from the opening lines of 'Context and Logical Form':

'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)

So I think a charitable reading of Jason's response to Recanati has to credit him with recognition that at some level Recanati has correctly described the structure of the debate between them. I think that in claiming that Recanati 'misstates the dialectical situation', Jason is referring less to the claim about the structure of the debate, and more to the suggestion that the indexicalist starts with a disadvantage. The contextualist might only have to produce one persuasive case of a truth-conditional effect of extra-linguistic context which is not traceable to logical form, but Jason's real objection is that Recanati has misrepresented how easy it will be to come up with the golden ticket here.

Interestingly, Jason's response here seems to assume that indexicalism should be the default position, and that the burden is on the contextualist to provide examples that aim to move us away from indexicalism. This is a point he addresses explicitly in the review, responding to Recanati's charge that indexicalism is 'dogmatic and stipulative' (it's also a theme of the introduction to Language in Context, recall). He writes:

'Why believe the indexicalist hypothesis? Recanati finds excluding "top-down" or "strong" pragmatic effects on intuitive truth-conditions "as dogmatic and stipulative as the literalist restriction of context-sensitivity to a short list of familiar indexical expressions' (160). But the indexicalist claim is an empirical hypothesis, not a stipulation about content. Furthermore, it is an empirical hypothesis that has a reasonable basis.' (238)

'The indexicalist's position is a plausible starting hypothesis for how language is able to be sufficiently elastic as to be usable, and sufficiently rule-governed as to be useful. It is a reasonable empirical hypothesis, in advance of detailed inquiry.' (239)

But I'm not sure this really gets at Recanati's worry. Though he perhaps didn't put things very well by accusing indexicalism of being 'dogmatic and stipulative' (and hence inviting precisely the kind of response Jason offers), I think Recanati worry is methodological from the outset. The charge he wants to make isn't really that Jason's claim is empirically empty; as he admits in a passage cited above, the issues get technical and empirical very quickly. The point is rather that we shouldn't endorse such a general thesis in advance of examining the various constructions. We should instead adopt methodological contextualism:

'Any expression may, upon analysis, turn out to have a context-sensitive semantics, that is, be such that its truth-conditional contribution varies across contexts.'

Put in hippy form, Recanati's objection to Jason is that he's not going into the study of particular constructions with an open mind; he's already laid down in advance a strong generalization about the limited role extra-linguistic context can play, and that, Recanti is suggesting, is stifling.

If this is how we should take Recanati's objection (and I think it is, though I have to admit there are passages in these pages where he clearly seems to be making the kind of charge of empirical emptiness that Jason takes him to be), then Jason's comments in his review don't really seem to get to the heart of the issues; Recanati would presumably just regard it as more of what he was objecting to. That's not to say Jason has nothing to say in response; on the contrary he's going to push the line that contextualist views that allow extra-linguistic context to determine truth-conditional content in ways that go beyond providing values for items in logical form render mysterious how it is that we can interpret the utterances of others as smoothly as we are able to. And so indexicalism provides a better starting point. As he writes in the introduction to the book:

'I have great difficulty seeing alternative proposals as sufficiently constrained. Proposals that appear smoothly to account for the bewildering variety of ways in which context appears to affect the relation between utterances and their intuitive truth-conditions only do so because they appeal (whether overtly or covertly) to interpretative processes that are deeply mysterious or wildly unconstrained. I prefer to explore a view that is neither mysterious nor unconstrained, and see how far one can use it to explain our linguistic behavior. If, at the end of the day, my proposal is too constrained, perhaps the investigation into its adequacy will reveal systematic ways of modifying it or liberalizing it. This seems more promising that beginning with a mysterious and unconstrained process, and trying to add on stipulative constraints. If we do not have a clear grip on the process with which we began, why thing that adding on restrictions will yield any greater elucidation?' (21)

We'll get to assess the charge of lack of constraint when we get to 'Making it Articulated'. In any case, these methodological issues about which perspective we should adopt going into the empirical study of different constructions seem about as challenging, rich and important as the issues about who's right, and it's a virtue of Jason review that it brings the former issues into such sharp focus.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008


Testing for Context Sensitivity (Part 1)

There's been some further discussion on the thread about Stanley's motivations concerning Cappelen and Lepore's stance on issues about context sensitivity. Here I'd like to discuss one of their tests for context dependence put forward in Insensitive Semantics, since it strikes me as deeply problematic.

Here's their Inter-Contextual Disquotation Test:

Say one wants to test whether some expression e is context sensitive. First, one choses a sentence S containing e, but no other context sensitive expressions (2004: 105fn12). Then S, and hence e is context sensitive only if there is a true utterance of the following:

(ICD) There are (or can be) false utterances of ^S^ even though S (Where ^^ should be read as corner quotes).
(2004: 105)

Cappelen and Lepore are explicit that past and future utterances can be quantified over here (see 2004: 205fn10) Problem then is that S might feature a context invariant expression which denotes a property that an object might possess at one time, but not at another. For example, the following is supposed to show that the first-person pronoun is context sensitive:

(2c) There is a false utterance of 'I'm hungry' even though I am hungry. (2004: 106)

But I don't think this shows anything at all about the context sensitivity of 'I'. For (2c) could be true even on the bizarre assumption that 'I' invariantly denotes me (i.e. Aidan McGlynn), since my being hungry now does nothing to prevent there from being false past, future or merely possible utterances of 'I'm hungry'.

Objection: The schema should really have been understood as this:

(ICD') There are (or can be) false utterances of ^S^ at t even though S at t.

So the idea is there can be false utterances of a sentence S co-temporally with S being the case. That's the real mark of context sensitivity.

Response: This obviously won't work, since sometimes a context dependence expression is sensitive to the time of utterance. For example, take Cappelen and Lepore's discussion of 'now':

'(2d) There is a false utterance of 'Tom is leaving now' even though Tom is leaving now.

Suppose Tom is leaving now. Then, obviously, any utterance of 'Tom is leaving now' made at times other than now, say, a few days into the future when Tom isn't leaving, suffices to establish that the test utterance of (2d) expresses a truth."
(2004: 106)

By the way, notice that my original point could equally have been made with this example - one could repeat just the same reasoning as Cappelen and Lepore offer even if (2d) hadn't contained 'now':

Suppose Tom is leaving. Then, obviously, any utterance of 'Tom is leaving' made at other times, say, a few days into the future when Tom isn't leaving, suffices to establish that the test utterance of (2d) expresses a truth.

Unless I'm missing something, the ICD test is pretty hopeless insofar as the aim was to find a necessary condition for an expression to count as context sensitive.

(By the way, if anyone knows any literature where this or a related point is made about this test, I'd be very interested to know. I'm still catching up on the literature generated by the book).

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Friday, January 04, 2008


Scalar Implicatures and Speakers' Knowledge

There's been revived interest recently in the issue of whether scalar implicatures cannot be accounted for by the usual Gricean mechanisms (that is, reasoning on the assumption that one's conversational partners are trying to be co-operative), or whether they get computed in the grammar (in fact, I see that Eliza Block is writing her entire dissertation on this issue). Crudely speaking, the Griceans hold that the truth conditions of sentences are computed in a compositional fashion in the grammar (actually, as readers of this blog will be well aware, they don't need to assume that this process gets us all the way to something truth conditional, but bracket those issues for the moment), and then there is an secondary process whereby the propositions communicated are determined. This secondary process is not merely independent of the first, but also works on the output of the first process. We get a modular picture of the faculties we bring to bear in communication, with roughly the following picture of the division of labor between semantics/syntax and pragmatics:

'Grammar (which includes semantics and syntax) is a computational system that delivers, say, pairs of phonetic representations and interpreted logical forms. The output of the computational system is passed onto the conceptual/pragmatic system that employs it for concrete communication. The computational system of grammar and the conceptual/pragmatic system are separate units and work in a modular way: each unit is blind to the inner workings of the other. Things like agreement or c-command belong to grammar; things like relevance or conversational maxims belong to the conceptual/pragmatic system.'
(Chierchia 2004: 39)

Chierchia has focused on scalar implicature in an attempt to undermine this natural picture. He writes:

'I will argue that pragmatic computations and grammar-driven ones are "interspersed." Implicatures are not computed after truth conditions of (root) sentences have been figured out; they are computed phrase by phrase in tandem with the truth conditions (or whatever computational semantics computes).
(2004: 40)

He's offered essentially two sets of considerations in favor of this alternative picture:

1. The Gricean account both under- and over-generates scalar implicatures.

2. Adopting a picture according to which scalar implicatures are computed phrase by phrase in the grammar enables one to explain so-called 'intervention effects' on negative polarity items (NPIs); that is, it helps one explain why NPIs are blocked in certain environments which, by the lights of our best existing theories of NPI-licensing, should allow an NPI.

I'm going to leave the second argument aside here, and concentrate on the first. Let's focus on the following example:

(1) George ate some of the fries or the apple pie.
(1a) George ate some (but not all) of the fries or the apple pie.
(1b) It is not the case that George ate all of the fries or the apple pie.

(Chierchia 2004: 46. The example has been changed following Russell 2006.)

Now, intuitively (1) implicates (1a). But, Chierchia argues, if scalar implicatures are determined globally, that is, after the truth conditions of (1) have been computed, it seems like we can't explain how that's so. Rather, Griceans should expect a hearer to reason as follows:

"The speaker said 'George ate some of the fries or the apple pie, and could as easily have said 'George ate all of the fries or the apple pie', which is stronger. Because she is co-operative, she makes the strongest statement possible, so 'George ate all of the fries or the apple pie' can't be true."
(Based on Russell 2006: 361)

It seems, then, that the Gricean predicates that (1) implicates (1b). As Chierchia puts it, 'negation, in the globalist view, seems to wind up in the wrong place: it is expected to take scope over the whole disjunction, whereas we would want it to negate just the [first] disjunct of the alternative'. And this is problematic, since the suggestion that (1) implicates (1b) seems plain wrong, for (1b) entails (1c):

(1c) George did not eat the apple pie.

In his 2006, Benjamin Russell has tried to respond to both of Chierchia's arguments against the Gricean. Here's his line of response to Chierchia's discussion of constructions like (1).

Firstly, he suggests, following Horn and Soames, that in a case like (1), Gricean reasoning shouldn't license one to conclude that a stronger statement would be false: just that the speaker isn't in a position to make it. So, for instance, the reasoning about should really go as follows:

"The speaker said 'George ate some of the fries or the apple pie, and could as easily have said 'George ate all of the fries or the apple pie', which is stronger. Because she is co-operative, she makes the strongest statement possible, so she can't know that 'George ate all of the fries or the apple pie' is true."
(Russell 2006: 370)

So (1) doesn't implicate (1a), but rather (2):

(2) ~K (to be read: the speaker does not know that) George ate all the fries or the apple pie.

And (2) doesn't entail the problematic (1c), but rather the following unproblematic epistemic facts about the speaker:

(2a) ~K George ate all of the fries


(2b) ~K George ate the apple pie.

Russell then asks how we are to account for the fact that (2b) cannot be strengthened to the 'obviously undesirable' (3):

(3) K ~(George ate all the apple pie).

He suggest that '[t]his can be explained in Gricean terms: a sentence's scalar implicatures cannot be strengthened if this leads to contradiction with another of its basic implicatures' (2006: 371). Hence, since (1) has as a basic implicature

(4) ~K George ate some of the fries,

we cannot strengthen (2b) to (3). Of course, (4) doesn't by itself contradict (3), but Russell offers the following proof that it nonetheless suffices to block strengthening to (3) in this case. Recall our target sentence and its basic implicature:

(1) George ate some of the fries or the apple pie.
(4) ~K George ate some of the fries.

From (1) we have,

(a) K (George ate some of the fries or the apple pie).


(b) K ((~George ate the apple pie) -> George ate some of the fries).

Assuming that K distributes, we arrive at

(c) (K ~George ate the apple pie) -> (K George ate some of the fries)

So by contraposition,

(d) (~K George ate some of the fries) -> (~K ~George ate the apple pie)

Therefore, given (4) we arrive at:

(e) ~K ~George ate the apple pie,

which directly contradicts (3). This is why (2b) cannot be strengthened to (3). (Russell 2006: 371)

I'm sympathetic to Russell's stance on these issues, but I'm worried about the appeal to a distribution axiom for K in this proof, and the step from (a) to (b). First of all, all the usual suspects that have been touted as counterexamples to closure are going to be worries for distribution:

i. K (I will visit San Antonio this coming weekend -> I will not have a fatal heart attack this Friday)
ii. K I will visit San Antonio this coming weekend -> K I will not have a fatal heart attack this Friday

i. K (I have hands -> I am not a handless brain in a vat being fed experiences of an external world)
ii. K
I have hands -> K I am not a handless brain in a vat being fed experiences of an external world

i. K (That is a zebra -> it is not a mule cleverly painted to look just like a zebra)
ii. K That is a zebra -> K it is not a mule cleverly painted to look just like a zebra,

and so on. And notice that the step from (a) to (b) actually requires the closure of K under known (or perhaps obvious) logical consequence. (Well, there are other principles one could appeal to here, I guess. But that won't seriously affect my main point, which I'm happy to make just with respect to the distribution axiom.)

But more worryingly in my view, the assumptions that knowledge distributes over the conditional and that it obeys a closure principle that will license the step from (a) to (b) lead to tension with the kind of examples that have moved even friends of closure like Hawthorne to Chisholm the principle:

'...the principle is not especially intuitive as it stands. If at t, I know that p and know that entails q, I may still have to do something--namely perform a deductive inference--in order to come to know that q. Until I perform that inference, I do not know that q. At any rate, that seems to be the natural view of the matter.'
(Hawthorne 2004: 32. Author's footnotes suppressed)

In fact, Hawthorne argues that even building in the requirement that the subject actually perform the inference in question isn't enough to render closure plausible. But let's stick there for now. The K in Russell's proof is to be read as something like 'it is known to the speaker that'. It seems to be a worry for Russell's response to Chierchia that it forces us to assume that this operator is obeys the strongest, least plausible version of epistemic closure and a distribution axiom. For it seems that even friends of epistemic closure will find these principles hard to stomach. The upshot is, I suggest, that Russell's Gricean response to Chierchia isn't very satisfactory, assuming as it does some very strong, controversial principles governing the operator 'it is known to the speaker that'.


Chierchia, F. 2004. Scalar Implicatures, Polarity Phenomena, and the Syntax/Pragmatics Interface. In A. Belletti, ed. 2004. Structures and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford.

Hawthorne, J. 2004. Knowledge and Lotteries. Oxford: Oxford.

Russell, B. 2006. Against Grammatical Computation of Scalar Implicatures. Journal of Semantics 23: 361-82.

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