Classic Steven Pinker

We are discussing prescriptive grammar in my “Talking Philosophy” class. It called to mind this lovely chestnut from Pinker:


Philosophical Problem Set

When I was a grad student at MIT, Richard Cartwright used to assign us philosophical problem sets. Here is one that I am giving my grad students tomorrow.

In ‘The man drinking the martini is tall’, what object is the definite description about according to… Frege, Russell post-1905, Kripke, Strawson, and Donnellan?

[Hint: The question has a false presupposition in several of these cases. To answer it, point out where those lie.]

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.)

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

Is ‘Feminist’ synonymous with ‘Person who believes that women and men have equal rights’?

Ansari quote

This is a joke. And a clever and telling one at that. Still, is it really true that the word ‘feminist’ has its meaning exhausted by person who believes that men and women have equal rights?  The term certainly has connotations, both positive and negative, that extend beyond that. So, if connotations are part of “meaning”, then ‘feminist’ means more than this. The words aren’t synonymous in that very strong sense. But do ‘feminist’ and ‘person who believes that men and women have equal rights’ even have the same extension — i.e., are they true of all and only the same people? Some questions to ponder when making up your mind. Could someone believe that women and men have equal rights but hold that MAN and WOMAN are essentially and genetically different kinds, rather than mere social constructs? Would such a person be a feminist? Could someone believe that women and men have equal rights but insist that this doesn’t entail equality of outcome, only equality of opportunity — so that, say, affirmative action policies are impermissible? Again, if so, would that person be a feminist? Does being a feminist entail political activism? Does believing that women and men have equal rights do so to the same degree? More radically, is it logically consistent to say “I believe that men and women have equal rights, but I think abortion should be illegal” in the way it seems an oxymoron to be a “pro-life feminist”?