Are Modal Thought Experiments All A priori?

I have recently encountered, in several quite different contexts, the idea that all modal thought experiments are a priori. In particular, the claim shows up in defense of the idea that genuine philosophy is entirely a priori. (Aside: I have never met anyone with the list inkling of the history of philosophy who embraces the latter take on philosophy’s methodology. This is not a coincidence.) Or anyway, I seem to have encountered it: the idea is so outlandish that I suspect I must be misunderstanding.

Consider an example. Suppose I make a fist-sized snowball. To make the situation not just counterfactual but outside ordinary experience, suppose I go through a ceremony and dub the snowball ‘Mrs. Roberts’. Now the thought experiment: What would happen if I put Mrs. Roberts into a 450 degree F oven on a cookie sheet for an hour?  We all know the answer… but our knowledge is patently not a priori. Both in terms of cause and justification, it rests on: knowing the enormous causal powers of a hot oven vis-a-vis a smallish frozen body; knowing the exceedingly negligible causal powers of a pointless dubbing ceremony.

A related mistake is to suppose that, because a conclusion is arrived at by “thinking about it in my armchair”, it’s therefore a priori. To the contrary, insofar as one’s armchair philosophizing is based in memory of relevant experiences, its deliverances cannot be justified a priori. And much of our thinking about modal properties is so based: if asked to reflect in your armchair about whether a rubber ball will still bounce, even if a tiny pink dot is painted onto it, you know the answer because of experience.

An interesting connection here is the idea, found in Jerry Katz, that linguistic semantics and syntax are not empirical because their usual data are intuitions about well-formedness, entailment relations, etc. We have here another confusion. If those linguistic intuitions in their turn trace (partly) to experience, and to discovery of form/meaning/context patterns, then the fact that we can now arrive at a conclusion without additional observation isn’t probative at all — because we are relying on memory. (To drive the point home, were it really a priori whether ‘Yo quiero comprar una naranja’ is grammatical, and whether it entails the existence of oranges and/or mental states, then one ought to be able to figure it out with no experience of Spanish. QED.)

Was J.L. Austin A Radical Contextualist?

I am reading from work in progress by my friends Herman Cappelen and Josh Dever. They suggest in passing, as numerous others have, that J.L. Austin was, to use today’s nomenclature, a “Radical Contextualist”. What this means is: Austin thought that all words and all sentences were context sensitive.

I think this reading is importantly wrong.

Austin didn’t mean that all words and all sentences are like ‘I’ or ‘now’ or ‘you’. What he maintained was that it is not sentences which have meaning, if what you intend by “meaning” is reference and truth conditions. It is, of course, a mistake to ask whether ‘The cat is on the mat’ itself, that sentence in the language, is true or false. Everyone agrees that the sentence is neither. Nor can one ask which cat it is about, and which mat. But it’s equally a mistake to suppose that this is because the sentence is “context sensitive” — so that one can ask whether the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ is true, say, relative to context X and possible world W.

For Austin, as I read him, to ask whether a sentence is true relative to a context X and a world W is like asking: Is such-and-such sentence a clever quip relative to <X, W>? Is such-and-such sentence a lie relative to <X, W>? Is such-and-such sentence an insightful rebuttal relative to context X and world W? Austin would find it absurd, rightly, to suppose that sentences are clever quips, lies or insightful rebuttals — adding, “radically”, that each is so only relative to context. Sentences just aren’t the right sort of things to be clever quips, insightful rebuttals and lies. (What are the right sort of things? Statements, a kind of action which a rational agent intentionally performs.)

Reasons for Inclusive Language

At the following website you will find various posters advocating inclusive language:

Look especially at the posters about “Gender” and “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”, and consider the following twin questions.

First, there are four reasons given for changing our way of speaking in the section “Why use inclusive language?”. They are, and I quote: “To promote respectful and accepting interactions. Language should be accurate, fair and respectful. Language is not static; it is constantly evolving. Language has a powerful impact on shaping ideas, perceptions, and attitudes.” For each of the four, what kind of reason is it, epistemic, practical or moral?

The second question is this: granting that the reasons given do motivate some kind of change, are they good reasons for adopting the specific choices of wording advocated in the sections “Say this… Instead of…” and “Some examples of inclusive language”?

NYC “Cat Calls” and Harassment

This infamous Youtube video contains some very creepy moments. It must be horrible to face that sort of stuff day in, day out. But, as many commentators have noted, the video contains a few comments which, considered in isolation, don’t seem especially creepy at all.

Maybe all cat calls aren’t created equal?

Which bits strike you as the worst, which as the least problematic? And: are even the least creepy ones harassing because unwelcome, and because they are part of a pattern of harassment?

More on the Moral Limits on Jokes

Is the right solution to moronic and nasty speech really more speech, e.g., speech pointing out how stupid the former is? Is it true that “there are no bad subjects for jokes, only bad jokes”? Should jokes by the powerful about the oppressed be banned, or anyway discouraged?

Were the Dal dentistry students just engaging in crude jokes in private, with no intent to pursue them? Does that matter?

Reading the attached article from Western’s The Gazette newspaper, I was struck by a series of linguistico-philosophical issues…

For example, when it comes to choosing a punishment, does it matter whether the posts really were jokes, or were intended as such? Does it matter whether the writings were not supposed to be shared publicly?  Can a person genuinely be “harassed” without realizing it? In what sense of that phrase would Dalhousie be “sending a message” by its decision? What of the claim that “Hate sex seems synonymous with rape”, and the author’s definition of ‘hate sex’?


Word Order in “Frozen” Conjunctive Noun Phrases. What Are The Patterns?

It is clear what drives the word ordering in very many “frozen” conjunctive noun phrases. See the first list. What ordering criteria might be at play in the exceptions listed below? What conclusions might we draw about societal attitudes – both from the “normal” word order in freezes, and from the anomalies?

The Norm

Adam and Eve
Romeo and Juliet
Antony and Cleopatra
Will and Grace
Sonny and Cher
John and Yoko
Fred and Wilma
Mickey and Minnie
Mr. and Mrs.
Boys and girls
He or she
His and hers
Sons and daughters
Gods and goddesses
Kings and queens
Lords and ladies
Actors and actresses
Gays and lesbians
Husband and wife

Some Exceptions

Victoria and Albert
Mary and Joseph
Bride and groom
Widows and widowers
Mother and father
Mom and pop