Thoughts Arguments and Rants


As of July 8 I will be posting on Crooked Timber. This blog will keep running, but it will be more focussed on metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of language than it used to be, with other posts going to Crooked Timber.


Do you think anyone at Arts and Letters Daily actually reads the papers they link to?

This article on language bullies from the National Post (bad sign already) seems to endorse the following argument.

1. English contains negative polarity items.

2. If English contains negative polarity items, then we are in no position to complain about the use of embedded negations in anyone’s idiolect.

3. If we are in no position to complain about the use of embedded negations in anyone’s idiolect, then we are in no position to complain about how Bush pronounces nuclear.

C. It’s noocluelarr Lisa, noocluelarr.
Good things about the argument. First, it’s valid, at least if the conclusion is interpreted liberally. Second, premise 1 is true. (Both features have been somewhat unfairly enhanced in the reprodiction.) Bad things about the argument. Everything else.

The closest we get to a direct defence of noocluelarr is that it is meant to be on a par with how particular is really pronounced. But I don’t hear see a vowel between the c and l in nuclear.

For a better discussion of these pratfalls, I suspect the very discussion on which this little effort was based, see Geoff Nunberg’s Fresh Air discussion. And for a somewhat more sophisticated discussion of ‘black English’ than you’ll find in the National Post, see Geoff’s NLLT paper on ebonics. (Somewhat more sophisticated in the way Mont Blanc is somewhat larger than College Hill.)

It’s just too easy nowadays to get into far-right newspapers, and it seems Arts and Letters Daily, if you say anything attacking Bush critics.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/31/2003 01:35:00 PM


Back from San Francisco. Went pretty much as expected: beautiful city, fun conference with great people, and I’m insanely tired. Will post review of the conference tomorrow if I’m not sleeping all day.

There were lots of questions about the blog. Two main ones. First: how much time do you spend on it? Answer: well, a lot. What would have been the correct answer: about as much time as I used to spend on various computer games. Second: how many people read it? Answer: about 150 a day. That impressed everyone except the philosopher who knew the readership number for Kieran’s blog.

The philosophy papers blog is up. (Think of this not as Sunday’s post being late but Monday’s post being early - there won’t be an entry tomorrow.) There are lots of journals, including an issue of Mind seemingly all about vagueness (aargh!). The highlight is a paper by Ralph Wedgwood, Normative Explanations.

Two basketball notes. First, my reverse jinx on Marquette looks like it’s working pretty well.

More importantly, ’Cuse is in the house.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/30/2003 11:49:00 PM


The philosophy papers blog is up with four new papers posted, highlighted by a paper by Kent Bach, Context ex Machina.

Lonely Planet has fallen in love with Britain. Well, I always thought they had excellent taste.

The papers blog, and probably this blog, will be out of action for a few days while I am in San Francisco for the APA Pacific. Hopefully this should be the last time the papers blog has to pause, because I have some grant money to hire someone to keep it functional when I’m away. But I haven’t moved quickly enough to set that up yet. Hopefully by the time I go away to Cleveland. Hope to see lots of you in San Francisco.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/26/2003 04:21:00 AM


As mentioned below, there have been a few references in the blogworld to Paul Berman’s article in the NY Times magazine about Sayyid Qutb, the ‘philosopher of Al Qaeda’ as they call him there. I said I didn’t like it very much, so this post is to say why. It’s a little long, because I’m a little too lazy to edit it properly.

Qutb’s picture, hardly an original one, is that Western culture is based largely on a merger between Jewish and Greek ideas. (I’m told that developing this idea is one of the main theme’s of Finnegan’s Wake, but heaven knows how one could tell.) From the Jews we get the monotheistic religion, with a few epicycles having been added in the last few millenia. From the Greeks we get the idea that spiritual life and material life can be separated. So we abandon the Jewish idea of letting religous convictions govern all aspects of daily life. Crudely, we accept large parts of Exodus but none of Leviticus. (Some people in the West like the anti-gay lines there, but unless they follow Orthodox practices in all other aspects of life they are obviously hypocrites and should be ignored.) This, Qutb thought, was a disasterous combination. And you know, I think Berman agrees.

Europe's scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ''hideous schizophrenia'' [the separation of spiritual life from material life] on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery -- the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe's leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition -- a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb's account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful -- an alienation that was also a humiliation.

That was Qutb's analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely -- the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of following the Greeks here, the conclusion is just ridiculous. As Joan Robinson apparently said in response to one of Paul Samuelson’s lectures, I don’t so much object to what the young man is saying as to what he means behind it. If modern life is somehow at odds with human nature, just which other time period is more in harmony with it. Perhaps he thinks it was when we were all hunter-gatherers on the savannah. Perhaps he thinks it was when a large percentage of us were slaves. Perhaps he thinks it was when we had Dickensian labour conditions. Perhaps he thinks it was when 51% of us were compelled by social custom to be removed from civil society at an early age and spend and/or sacrifice their lives in child-bearing and rearing.

Early in Ulysses Stephen says that history is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. Some days it feels like my life is just what Stephen would have when he wakes up, and I’m more than a little grateful.

It may not be in keeping with Berman’s idea of human nature to spend more time worrying about the quality of this season’s Gap stock, or whether that cute guy/girl in the bar likes one’s looks than about, say, the relevance of religion to dining practices or the divinely mandated division of labour between the sexes, but that’s just too bad for Berman. And, though it bothers me less, for Qutb.

I suspect most readers will agree so far, so let me move on to the parts that is more likely to lose friends and influence people. Here is Berman’s entire conclusion.

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas -- it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.

Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding -- one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

But what the world needs now is not another deep thought. What the world needs is a way of recognising how much value there is in everyday life. It needs therapy more than this kind of philosophy. To not be able to see enough value in everyday life to keep on keeping on without believing in some external source of value just is a form of depression, perhaps the worst kind there is.

There is something odd about the terminology used around here. Some, and I suspect Berman is among them, suggest that life is not meaningful without some deep idea to guide it. And this is meant to be a bad thing. But lives are, in the most important sense, not meaningful, and this is a good thing. Things that are meaningful, street signs, sentences in blogs, etc are not intrinsically valuable - their value consists in their utility. If lives are to be justified in terms of their meaning, that is to say that they have instrumental value only. And that is the first step on the road to ruin, or at least calamitous war.

I thought the primary lesson of the 20th century was that deep ideas are dangerous. Small ideas are the lifeblood of the world, and they are safe to boot. Someone who has a new idea for representing the relationship between thought and world, or for curing a particular kind of cancer, or for describing the history of the Jews through the Dublin traipsings of an ad salesman, is not likely to start a war over their idea. Someone who has a new idea for the overall arrangement of society is somewhat more war-prone. Deep thoughts are literally dangerous. Paraphrasing Keynes somewhat, the armies of the world are moved by little else.

This of course is not meant to be a move in the war of ideas. I’m not likely to relieve someone’s existential angst by pointing out that it is a form of depression. But I doubt that any move in the war of ideas will cure this. What will cure it? Well, who knows, but I suspect psychologists know a fair bit more than you or I, or than they did 100 years ago. What we need is to get people to see the world in roughly the way Ramsey does, in this utterly delightful passage.

My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable becuse the future is blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I foind interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn’t. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one’s activities.

I don’t agree with all of that. Call me crazy, call me old-fashioned, but I do believe in astronomy. And when this depression leads the depressed to try and kill as many people as possible, potentially including me, well perhaps the despise becomes mutual. But I think the overall picture is just right.

More positively, I think that what moves us forward here is not one big idea, but thousands of small ideas. The best, as in most useful, ambassadors for liberal democracy are not the high theorists, but the millions of artists, innovators and entrepeneurs that make liberal democracy recreate itself every few years in the image of its people’s imagination. Less theoretically, a Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue is likely to win more hearts and minds than most essays on political philosophy. And if that doesn’t work, well there are millions more ideas where they came from.

This is not to deprecate the role of political philosophy, or of philosophy more generally. It is rather to say that the picture Berman ends with, which I think is a picture widely shared by philosophers, is not at all helpful. The image we get is of the philosopher as Captain Ahab, staking it all on the hunt for the one big catch, the one big deep idea that will change everything. Some people follow this life pattern, and unlike the real Ahab some of them beat the odds and catch a whale of sorts. But it’s not a helpful role model.

To loop back to Joyce (again!) the better role model is Bloom, the flawed but decent everyman whose life is ‘defined’ by how well he does the little things, not by its dramatic arc. Philosophy should be like this too - dealing with the challenges that face us day-to-day, perhaps hoping and checking from time to time that we are not just walking in giant circles, but having value in how well it handles the details, and makes small progress not in how dramatic its big picture may be. Geoff Nunberg says somewhere (it’s in one of the papers on his site, but it’s a little late for me to look where, so the quote may be inaccurate) that a discipline has become a science when second-rate practicioners can make valuable contributions to it. Ahabian philosophy can’t be like that, but a philosophy of puzzle-raising and solving can be. (You may think I have a vested interest in this model of philosophy being accepted...) And those kind of sciences have been much more successful than those that spend their time between paradigm shifts interpreting the words of the great man who last moved the field.

I do pity the people who cannot see the value in a life of everyday pleasures and successes, or at least I pity the non-criminals amongst their number, and it is a source of constant regret that more people don’t see the value in that kind of approach to philosophy.

UPDATE (and clarification): Re-reading that it strikes me that I might have painted with an even broader brush than I intended. Not that it was meant to be a subtle post, but still. The targets, as it were, are not meant to be those people, which would include I suspect most every adult in the world, who thinks that part of the value of their life is constituted by their participation in a grand story. Such stories, be they political, religous, artistic, scientific, or whatever, are an important part of many perfectly healthy lives. Rather, the targets are those who think their life would be valueless without such a narrative, who think that the pleasures and rewards of everyday life are not worth the cost. While I am deliberately flippant above about what makes everyday life valuable, let’s not forget that a large part of it consists in caring for, and where necessary nurturing, those that one loves. Someone who doesn’t find sufficient value even in this I think is a cause for concern. One concern about such a person is that they may think my life is valueless unless I’m participating in the same grand narrative that they see themselves in. But as Ramsey points out, serious costs start to accrue well before that. My main objection to Berman’s piece was the suggestion that we aren’t telling the right narrative, that philosophers should be searching for it, and that perhaps nightmarish history should be our guide. I think by the time a story is needed, it is already too late for anything but therapy. Retail therapy is widely recommended.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 10:51:00 PM

Wo has lots of good questions about imaginative resistance. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer all of them by the time the paper ends, because most of them are too hard to answer on the spot. One of the points running through the questions is that we need to distinguish the truth of supervenience claims from their being believed by a reader. Once we do, we might well ask, well which of these, being true or being believed, matters to resistance? My first instinct is to respond with another distinction. (—No kidding. I’ve never seen you do that before.)

There are two issues about imaginative resistance that I feel have been too quickly run together. First, sometimes imaginative resistance seems to imply that what the author wants to make true in the story is not really true. Whatever the author of Victory wanted (assuming it had a real author, which it didn’t, I impersonated an author to write it) it is not true that Quixote’s apartment contains an armchair. Secondly, sometimes imaginative resistance means we literally can’t imagine what we are being requested to imagine. We can’t imagine that Quixote’s apartment is as it must be for that conversation to happen, and that it contains an armchair. My working hypothesis is that real supervenience matters to the first question, and believed supervenience matters to the second.

One bit of confirming evidence for that conclusion. Imagine someone who didn’t believe the moral supervened on the descriptive. This person, I’ll call them George, thinks that whether a person is good depends just on the character of their soul, not on how they act. George will not resist a story like: Dick killed thousands of people to enrich himself, but beneath it all, Dick remained a good person. But it is not true in the story that Dick is a good person. To the extent we are like George, not accepting supervenience claims that we should accept, then we won’t resist stories that violate those supervenience claims. But what is true in those stories is to some extent independent of what we believe.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep to that line throughout, but that’s the working hypothesis.

Wo also has lots of interesting posts on the logic textbook he’s working on. The book sounds fun - maybe by the time I teach intro logic next it’ll be on the shelves and I can use it!

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 05:11:00 PM

I scooped Leiter by 30 minutes ;) On the other hand, he does have interesting bits of news about Michigan, UNC and Rutgers that my earlier report didn’t include. On the third hand, I promised myself I wouldn’t turn this site into a full-time gossip column, so I shouldn’t care too greatly about scoops etc.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 01:02:00 PM

Tom Stoneham’s blog is operational again after a short hiatus. And one of the posts is advising me to give up trying to please referees. That’s easy for someone with a book coming out through OUP to say! More phlosophically, he has a neat argument posted against the compatibility of God and Hell. The argument makes the most innovative use of the principle of recombination that I've seen in quite a whiles.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 11:09:00 AM

Nomy Arpaly, lately of Rice University, has accepted a job offer at Brown and will be starting in the Fall. This is great news for Brown. Brown is normally known as a mind&epistemology department, largely because our two biggest superstars are Jaegwon Kim and Ernie Sosa. But between Dave Estlund, Jamie Dreier, Bernard Reginster, Felicia Ackerman and now Nomy Arpaly, we have a pretty good group in ethics as well.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 10:53:00 AM

The philosophy papers blog is updated. The highlights are three papers by Stephen Yablo: New Grounds for Naive Truth Theory, Content Carving for Fun and Profit, and Why I Am Not a Nominalist. There is also a link to a review of Sameness and Substance Renewed, but for now it just brings up one of the more amusing 404 errors you’re likely to see. (If you’re geekily amused, that is.) There are also book-length manuscripts by Ken Safir and Gregory Carlson posted, the latter via semantics etc.

I hope the Ned Kelly film gets released in America, or is still showing when I next make it to Australia. I liked this little description of the attraction of the Kelly story from Gregor Jordan, the movie’s director:

Jordan puts all this interest down to a multitude of factors, including the appeal of a strong and rebellious character standing up to corrupt officials. It is also a bizarre story, he says.

"These guys built themselves suits of armour out of ploughs and stood on the balcony in front of 200 policemen and opened fire. That's kind of nuts."

Kind of?!

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 09:51:00 AM

Some days I just don’t understand how quantifier domain restriction is meant to work. This is from this morning’s New York Times.
To feed the appetite for more information from more sources, the Web magazine Salon has started a feature called "War of Words," which was the first to highlight an item from The Sydney Morning Herald that reported the use of napalm by United States troops.
First what? First website? I doubt it - beat them to that by a ways. First American website? Well, perhaps. But this is the internet - who cares? Or, perhaps better, who should care? I just put this down to more evidence that the globalisation movement has a long way to go before it succeeds where it really matters: making people stop caring about little things like borders.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/25/2003 01:36:00 AM


More conceptual questions from the war. Now that we’ve cleaned up the moral status of terrorists, and identified the liberty/freedom distinction, Matthew Yglesias asks what the distinction between courage and bravery might amount to. He suggests this one really is a distinction without a difference, and my first inclination is to agree with him. Any thoughts anyone? Could it be analytic that All brave soliders are courageous?

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 09:54:00 PM

My resistance paper is going to be absurdly long. Part of the problem is that I’m having much more fun writing the examples than I am having writing the philosophy. So naturally I spend more time on them. But the philosophy has a certain amount of space it needs to take. So the paper will be unmanagable and unpublishable and so on. So I will have to serialise it here. Or I don’t have to but I will anyway.

One of the key points will be something noted by Tamar Gendler and developed somewhat by Stephen Yablo. We have imaginative resistance whenever an author says that in the fiction p, where p is some fact that if it obtains only does so in virtue of some more fundamental facts obtaining, and it is specified in the fiction that those more fundamental facts do not obtain. The moral/descriptive case is only one version of this. Here is another, one with nothing at all to do with morality.

A Quixotic Victory
   —What think you of my redecorating Sancho?
   —It’s rather sparse, said Sancho.
   —Sparse. Indeed it is sparse. Just a television and an armchair.
   —Where are they, Senor Quixote? asked Sancho. All I see are a knife and fork on the floor, about six feet from each other. A sparse apartment for a sparse mind. He said the last sentence under his breath so Quixote would not hear him.
   —They might look like a knife and fork, but they are a television and an armchair, replied Quixote.
   —They look just like the knife and fork I have in my pocket, said Sancho, and he moved as to put his knife and fork besides the objects on Quixote’s floor.
   —Please don’t do that, said Quixote, for I may be unable to tell your knife and fork from my television and armchair.
   —But if you can’t tell them apart from a knife and fork, how could they be a television and an armchair?
   —Do you really think being a television is an observational property? asked Quixote with a grin.
   —Maybe not. OK then, how do you change the channels? asked Sancho.
   —There’s a remote.
   —Where? Is it that floorboard?
   —No, it’s at the repair shop, admitted Quixote.
   —I give up, said Sancho.
   Sancho was right to give up. Despite their odd appearance, Quixote’s items of furniture really were a television and an armchair. This was the first time in months Quixote had won an argument with Sancho.
Not the best bit of fiction ever written, but for a first draft I’m moderately pleased with it. My initial temptation was to run the whole thing as a tribute to the Dead Parrot sketch, but that may have been a little obvious. Not that using Quixote and Sancho Panza is other than obvious.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 08:35:00 PM

Holmes Rolston III won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. While it’s always nice to win things, especially prizes with presitgous sounding names, this won has a nice little bonus attached: a $1 million prize. And people say there’s no money in phlosophy...

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 07:00:00 PM

There’s an article in the SMH this morning reporting that 53% of people have a ‘hidden bias’ against Arab Muslims. I’m more than a little suspicious of the methodology. The tests are based on the Project Implicit implicit association tests. These tests work as follows.

Assume we are trying to work out whether you have a bias towards group X, say the English, over group Y, say the Americans. Words from one of four groups are flashed on the screen:
Positive words: e.g. happy, laughter, joy
Negative words: e.g. awful, suffering, misery
Words associated with X: London, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth
Words associated with Y: New York, Ben Franklin, Hollywood
Your task is to group the words into one of two disjunctive categories. The test runs through twice. At first you have to group the words into X or good, on the one hand, or Y or bad, on the other. The second time through, you have to group the words into X or bad, on the one hand, or Y or good, on the other.

The idea is that if your reaction times are quicker (and/or you are more accurate) on the first part of the test, then you find the category X or good more natural than the category Y or good, which reveals a bias for Xs over Ys. On the other hand, if your reaction times are quicker, and/or you are more accurate, on the second part of the test, then for similar reasons you have a bias for Ys over Xs.

So I’ve taken these kinds of tests twice. I just got told I have a strong dislike for Arab Muslims. So I’m apparently one of the 53%. It doesn’t seem very plausible to me, but that’s what implicit preference tests are meant to show. Or maybe not. The other time I took the test I was told I have a bias in favour of the New York Yankees over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now I have no particular fondness for the D'backs, but the Yankees are one of my few outright bigotries. I think “Yankees Suck” should be added to the Pledge of Allegiance. I’d rather see the Taliban being held in Cuba receive constitutional protection than the damned Yankees fans. Are these conscious reactions just a repression of a deep fondness for all things pinstriped?

Unlikely. What happened in both cases was that my reaction times, and accuracies, were higher in the second part of the test than in the first. I was just getting much better at disjunctive classification through doing the test. So in each case I was listed as having a preference for Ys over Xs. But it really was totally independent of just what Xs and Ys were. I presume this kind of consideration has been factored into the test design, but at least in my case (going by a massive N=2 sample) it looks to have not been given sufficient weight. So I’d be more than a little sceptical of newspaper articles reporting doom and gloom based on a few not necessarily well calibrated internet tests.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 01:23:00 PM

I’ve been trying to figure out how the distinction between liberty and freedom relates to these Dylan lines:

A self-ordained professor's tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
Obviously this is foolish, which is more or less the point. It would still be absurd with freedom, but not I think quite as absurd. If freedom can be defined in terms of wealth and nutrition, it can be defined in terms of schoolyard equality. But trying to (a) analyse what is meant seriously here and what is a joke and (b) figure out how those things would change if we replaced one word with a near-synonym is beyond me at this time of the morning.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 11:48:00 AM

No philosophy papers blog today, because I left the update yesterday so late that the papers actually posted during the day yesterday, such as Cian Dorr’s paper on vagueness without ignorance are on yesterday’s update. Hopefully with many departments in the states being on break this week, there will be lots of publishing activity in the next few days.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/24/2003 11:36:00 AM


For those of you who like making fine distinctions, which I presume is every reader of this site, Geoff Nunberg’s discussion of the difference between liberty and freedom will be fun. Amusingly, Matthew Yglesias raised the same question Geoff was answering on his blog 36 hours ago. The spirit of the weekend moves in mysterious ways.

There’s been several comments in the blogosphere already on Paul Berman’s mammoth article on Sayyid Qutb. I think I disagree, perhaps strongly, with the conclusion of the piece, but I need a little more time to think about that (and to actually read rather than just skim the article) before posting. But if I have a spare couple of hours to be disagreeable tomorrow, I might try something.

More philosophically significant, I thought, was Daniel Mendelsohn’s article on the fall of irony and the rise of melodrama. Drawing (and probably snapping) a very long bow he suggests that melodrama is a sign of democracy’s decay. Democracy’s preferred genre is perhaps not the allusive ironism of recent years, but tragedy. Still, melodrama is the enemy, and allusive irony is the enemy’s enemy, which makes it our friend for now. So I’m going to spend some time propping up modern democracy by mixing more knowing references to 80’s indie-pop bands into my papers on the foundations of probability.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 11:39:00 PM

From Wednesday to Sunday next week I’m going to be at the APA Pacific, in beautiful San Francisco. I like saying that to make people who are not going to be in SF jealous. The APA Pacific is always fun because (a) it’s on the Pacific coast, and (b) the papers are high quality. At risk of offending practically everyone, and of crashing Blogger, here is a table of the talks that look most interesting to Brian over the conference. (Note that for some sessions the division of people into ‘speakers’ and ‘commentators’ is rather arbitrary, but it was this or make the table even more complicated, and as you can see I don’t really understand tables in HTML as it is.)

Time Title Speaker Commentator 2nd Comments
1-E Epistemic Probability Richard Fumerton Jim Joyce Jim van Cleve
1-M Second-Order Predication and the Metaphysics of Properties Andy Egan Peter Alward ...
1-M Distributional Properties Josh Parsons Troy Cross ...
2-C De Re Belief David Kaplan Robert Stalnaker Kenneth Taylor
2-G Is There a Duty to Vote Geoff Brennan & Loren Lomansky Gerald Gaus Eric Cave
3-M Refuting Scepticism in Style Elijah Millgram Stacie Friend Daniel Jacobson
4-B Author Meets Critics: Hale and Wright Gideon Rosen Jamie Tappenden John McFarlaine
4-E Contextualism in Epistemology John Hawthorne Jim Pryor Jonathan Schaffer
5-F On Dialethicism; or Will no One Rid Me of This Accursed Priest Hartry Field ... ...
5-F Paraconsistency and Dialethicisms Graham Priest ... ...
5-J Tracking with Closure Sherrilyn Roush Robert Howell ...
6-O Asserting and Promising Gary Watson Michael Bratman ...
6-W Temporal Externalism and Epistemic Theories of Vagueness Henry Jackman Gary Ebbs Brian Weatherson
7-A Author Meets Critics: Sider Four-Dimensionalism Ned Markosian Lynne Baker Eric Olson
7-D Imitation, Media Violence and Freedom of Speech Susan Hurley Rae Langton Phillip Pettit
7-F Philosophical Conversations in memory of James Tomberlin Ernie Lepore William Lycan Peter van Inwagen
7-G The Role of Phenomenology in Philosophy of Mind John Searle Hubert Dreyfus Amie Thommason
8-A Author Meets Critics: Adler Belief's Own Ethics Gilbert Harman Richard Fumerton ...
8-D Author Meets Critics: Papineau Thinking about Consciousness Ned Block David Chalmers ...
8-H Temporal Parts and Superluminal Motion Yuri Balashov Hud Hudson ...
8-H Temporal Extension and Decomposition Ryan Wasserman Gabriel Uzquaino ...
9-V How to Russell the Incompleteness Argument Richard Hanley Kent Bach ...
Sat 6pm Hume vs Wittgenstein (Hume Wins) Jerry Fodor ... ...

The real issue some days will be deciding which papers to go to. The worst clashes for me are in session 7, on Saturday morning. (Session 4, on Friday morning, is not much better.) That may put some dampner on the amount of socialising that can be done Friday (and maybe Thursday) night. Or it might not. If every session is such that I can reasonably miss it, then I can reasonably miss all sessions, so I can party all night Friday...Note that I’ve left off all the interesting papers from Sunday, because I won’t be there (flying back early Sunday sadly), so I don’t have much motivation to search the program for the highlights. But it doesn’t look like the program gets any lighter when I leave it.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 09:44:00 PM

Conference Announcement

Common Minds
Common Room, University House, ANU
24 - 25 July 2003

Philip Pettit, currently William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, was Professor of Social and Political Theory in the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, from 1983 until 2002. Common Minds will focus on some of the questions and themes that dominated his work during his 20 years at RSSS. The conference papers will all be made available online. Speakers will be given 10 minutes to introduce their session, the remaining time being given over to discussion. This conference is being organized jointly by the Philosophy Program and the Social and Political Theory Program at RSSS.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 05:51:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is (finally) posted for the day. I’ve already mentioned the two most interesting papers there, but there are two other papers, and three journals, also posted for your browsing pleasure.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 03:30:00 PM

It would make it a lot easier for Brian to write a book on vagueness if smart people would stop writing on it. The goal posts keep moving so fast that I have to spend all day keeping up to keep up.

Vagueness without Ignorance by Cian Dorr.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 02:18:00 PM

Just as I decide to write a paper on imaginative resistance, I see there is a whole book of papers about to appear on the topic. On the one hand, this is good news, for it helps my argument that the question is ripe. (I hate writing the bit of a philosophy paper that is pitched at the referee and the referee only, and only aims to convince him (ever her?) that the question the paper addresses is worth an article. Hate it. But if I don’t do it, who knows if anything I write will ever be published.) On the other hand, there is some chance that everything I say will be anticipated by the papers in the volume. Normally my preternatural confidence would assure me that I’m smarter than the people writing there, so I really shouldn’t worry about that possibility. But I know some of the people writing for that volume, so I know such confidence would be misplaced.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/23/2003 12:07:00 AM


Jason Stanley has a paper posted on Context, Interest-Relativity, and the Sorites. When I get some spare time and energy, I’ll post an analysis of it here.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/22/2003 07:32:00 PM

Big crop of papers in the philosophy papers blog today, in part because I got lazy and decided to list papers that had been posted as much as 36 hours ago on the site.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/22/2003 12:25:00 PM

Two questions about chairs

As the title suggests, this post consists of two questions about chairs. I’m back towards thinking that I have a solution, of sorts, to the problem of imaginative resistance (not the solution I proposed in the stages paper), but it turns on some questions about chairs being answered in the right kind of way. So here are the questions.

A, B and C visit a new design showroom. Many of the objects there are hard to classify into particular categories. One of them, x, is somewhat, but not quite entirely, like a chair. A thinks it is a chair, though B and C deny this. (Presumably it is possibly indeterminate whether x is a chair, but none of them think this.)

When they are asked to draw, from memory, what x looked like, A and B produce identical drawings, but C produces a drawing that is quite different. (A, B and C are all skilled draughters, so their sketches faithfully reproduce their memories.) It seems that B disagrees with both A and C. She disagrees with C about what the object looked like, what shape it was etc, and with A about whether it is a chair.

Question: How should we characterise the two differences of opinion?
I think, somewhat tendentiously, that A and B agree on the facts, but make a different judgment about the facts, while B and C disagree about the facts. This is tendentious, not to mention controversial, because it is clearly a fact (if it is true) that x is a chair. It is not as if A and B agree on the physical description of a certain action but disagree about whether it is right or wrong, for instance. It is at least controversial whether that kind of dispute even could be factual. My claim is that the chair case is not like that, and getting clear on the differences between B’s two disagreements helps see that.

More generally, I think that if x is F (or not) entirely in virtue of which determinate properties from the determinables D1, D2, ..., Dn it possesses, and A and B agree about which determinate in each such determinable it possesses, then disagreement between A and B about whether x is F should be thought of as a disagreement about a matter of judgment, not a factual disagreement. And I think x is a chair (or not) in virtue of its shape and size, and perhaps whether it is maximal, and perhaps its origin and the intent of its creators, and perhaps the physical nature of the community in which the object is embedded. (Something that is not a chair here may be a chair in a community where everyone is 1000m tall.) I assume that in this case x was created with the right intent to be a chair, and is maximal, and that A and B agree more or less on the relevant socio-physiological facts that are relevant to whether x is a chair. And by hypothesis they agree on its shape and size. So their disagreement is not a factual disagreement, in some sense.

The claims in the previous paragraph turn crucially on the term in virtue of, and it would be nice to know a little more about this. So some more questions.

Consider the chair in which I am now sitting. (You presumably were not antecedently aware of this chair.) I think it is a chair in virtue of its shape. But it does not have its shape in virtue of being a chair? What explains the asymmetry here? (I presume this is a well worked field and I’m simply ignorant of the tillings, but ignorance has never stopped a blogger before.)
I think the answer here should relate to the literature on superdupervenience. Here are two kinds of claims that may be relevant to explaining the asymmetry. First, if we changed the shape of the chair a little, it would still be a chair, but if we changed its chairness, it would probably not retain its shape - depending perhaps on how we made it cease to be a chair. Secondly, it could have a radically different shape and still be a chair, but it could not be a radically different type of furniture and still have the shape it does. It could not be a bed, for instance, with just this shape. Both of these ground a kind of asymmetry between the shape properties of the chair and the furniture properties. I’m inclined to think the second is more important, but I might leave my comments on why it is more important to the morning.

So here’s my latest theory of imaginative resistance. The author’s job is to tell us what the facts are about the fictional world. (She is also obliged to do this as artistically as possible, I say, but we’re trying to ignore aesthetics here.) The reader’s job is to evaluate, or more broadly make judgments about, the fictional world. Once the facts in virtue of which some higher-level fact obtains (or not) are set, questions about whether that higher-level fact obtains become in the relevant sense judgment questions, not factual questions, so they are in the domain of the reader, not the author. Hence we will reject authorial authority in these areas. The resistance to moral claims is a special case: moral facts are (very) high level facts that obtain in virtue of lower level facts, and resistance normally arises when the lower level facts are given, but the author nevertheless insists on recording a judgment about the higher level, moral facts.

To make this a complete theory, I need to say a little more about levels, which in turn requires filling out the ‘in virtue of’ locution. And I need to say a little about how this interacts with the possibility of impossible fictions. And I may need to say a little about the division of fictional labour presumed above. But I’m feeling as confident as one ought feel at this hour that we’re making progress here, perhaps more so.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/22/2003 03:34:00 AM

Via David Chalmers, two sites that you might be interested in following, and that I shall be tracking via the philosophy papers blog.

First, the philosophy page at currently includes papers by Dave Chalmers, Jim Pryor, Richard Hanley, Colin McGinn, Julian Driver and several other philosophers.

Secondly, the NYU seminar on Factually Questionable Discourse has plenty of links to papers on, well, factually defective discourse.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/22/2003 02:40:00 AM


More thoughts of other people on the war. Simon Crean’s address to the nation from last night. I think he’s wrong about what the Americans think of the Australian-American alliance, but otherwise I think everything he says is right. It’s not necessarily the bravest thing in the world to oppose a war supported by a relative handful of people, but I think he is doing the right thing.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/21/2003 09:17:00 AM

The philosophy papers blog is up. Seven new papers, including papers by Elizabeth Harman, Branden Fitselsen, Ernest Lepore and Kirk Ludwig, David Deutsch, and Luisa Martí. The Lepore/Ludwig and Martí papers are via Kai von Fintel.

I’ve been rather tardy with this, but congratulations to Laurie and Kieran on their marriage. Kieran is putting more effort into blogging while on holiday in San Francisco (on honeymoon actually) than others might!

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/21/2003 07:11:00 AM


A while ago I wrote some comments on Liz Harman's paper The Potentiality Problem. That paper is now online, and is well worth reading.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/20/2003 05:54:00 PM

I’ve really had nothing to add about the war, but I might pass along things that seem worthwhile. I don’t agree with everything here, but it seems more sensible than a lot of things you’ll see written about the war.

Comments by Ruth Simmons, Brown President, Wednesday March 19

Two nights ago, the President revealed to the world his intention to invade the nation of Iraq if the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, fails to acquiesce to conditions spelled out to avoid imminent attack. American troops in the region are now in a high state of readiness and it is expected that, unless Saddam Hussein and his sons step down, the United States and its allies in this conflict will declare war and move militarily against the Hussein regime.

A declaration of war is a grave step. Every individual of conscience and concern will inevitably be praying-up to the moment of military engagement-for the possibility that conflict and loss of lives can be avoided. Yet, as much as we pray for peace, we must be prepared for what could unfold in the days and months ahead if war should come.

Modern means of superpower conflict resolution and warfare can appear deceptively distant from our lives. The complexity of the issues and the enigmatic historical and political factors that often generate a nation's actions can make it unlikely if not impossible that the average citizen will feel qualified and empowered to make a judgment or offer an opinion as to the justness of any declaration of war. Technological advances in war-making and the removal of conscription as a means of raising an army might have a tendency to make us feel that such decisions are far removed from our immediate sphere of concern. In addition, the deployment of extraordinary force intended to minimize casualties can suggest that impact will be minimal, and efficiency is assured. I have heard many declare in recent weeks that, even if such an action commences, the war will be over swiftly.

If all of this is true-that the issues are far too complex for the non expert to engage and fully comprehend, that there will be minimal casualties, and that the war will be over quickly-it still does not absolve a democratic people from its fundamental responsibilities to probe rigorously the causes and circumstances of war, to be active in understanding how the conflict progresses, and to participate in a process by which our government is continuously informed of the opinions of the public that it represents. I urge that you not make this war, however brief, however minimal, however complex, a distant issue that you perceive at the comfortable periphery of your daily lives.

There are times in our lives when the discomfort of caring too much is welcome. I hope that you feel some of that now as our friends and families face the prospect that their loved ones and friends, colleagues and acquaintances, may encounter a terrifying choice of laying down their lives for the country that they love. Some of the staff at Brown have been called up for active military duty. Many of the relatives of students, faculty and staff are now on the battlefront.

I hope you will feel some of that now as we see families hunker down with deep uncertainty about the present safety and future outlook for their children. Terror and war acknowledge no innocents or bystanders. All pay the price.

In the weeks ahead, we will need to pursue every course to understand better what is taking place. We will need to study this region, as never before, to understand how we can play a fruitful role in helping to foster peace and stability there and elsewhere. We will need to be respectful of the tremendous price being paid daily by American soldiers and public servants. We will need to resist the temptation to be bystanders or indifferent observers of these distant, complex events.

In such times as these, each individual must decide how they wish to respond to events of this magnitude. Some will decide that the best direction is to conquer fear and to proceed with life, drawing out of one's daily experience a fuller measure of what it means to live in safety and freedom. Some will decide that direct involvement is required and will participate with others in either supporting or condemning the war. Still others might decide to focus on the aftermath of war and on long-term measures for reducing world conflict, instability and inequality.

Universities have a particularly important role to play in the advent of war. As in all times, universities must today cling to their commitment to the dispassionate search for truth. The danger of self interest overwhelming truth is most acute in these moments. At a time when we are at risk and fearful of attack, the relentless examination of the many facets of our intellectual, political and social perspectives can give way to a more passive role. As scholars, true to our task, we are morally obligated to continue and strengthen that examination, bringing to light questions and insights that could be useful to the nation in the unwinding of war and the restoration of peace and prosperity. The task of the scholar to probe deeply and the role of the university to foster edifying debate must be protected especially in times of war.

Civil discourse, the primary medium for the advancement of this debate in a healthful context, will be important as we help the nation through the days ahead. Advocates of war should have their say and so should the advocates of peace. While the battlefront is understandably not the site for respectful, orderly exchange, we can cast a vote for peaceful resolution by maintaining our commitment to orderly debate and examination in spite of innermost doubt and fear. We will be establishing forums for discussion, we will be encouraging continued study throughout this conflict, and we will be emphasizing what is to be learned in singular moments such as this.

I ask several things of you in this difficult moment. First, that you take great care in your comings and goings, observing the safety guidelines placed at your disposal. Second, that you determine to be resolute in your studies so that you do not squander the tremendous opportunity you have to develop your intelligence in the service of the world. Third, that you remember how difficult it is for all those who do not sleep in safety, eat in abundance, and live in freedom. Fourth, that you act honorably in this moment and according to the dictates of your conscience, taking care to respect the right of others to do the same even if they are diametrically opposed to the part you have taken. Fifth, that you remember to bring this close to you, taking in the lessons of war. Finally, I ask that you continue to pray every day for the safety of all those caught up in this conflict, whether friend or foe.
We are fortunate to have such a good President.

In other news, I seem to have jinxed Holy Cross. If you want me to do the same thing to your team’s opponents, well I’ll be here all week. Are Cal the highest Leiter ranked team in the tournament? If they get bounced who would take that honour?

UPDATE: Silly question on my part. Pittsburgh are a #2 seed in the tournament, and #5 on Leiter. I guess they’ll retain the honour of being best philosophy school in the tournament for at least a while.

FURTHER UPDATE: Dave Chalmers notes that Arizona are a #1 seed and #8 on Leiter, so their STL (seed times Leiter ranking) of 8 is the lowest of any school. Pitt comes in at 10. If only NYU would spend as much on basketball as on philosophy, I’m sure they could have an STL of 1.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/20/2003 02:40:00 PM

Quick random thoughts while half watching basketball and half working.

Holy Cross is beating Marquette. Amazing!

Chris Bertram links to an explosive email by Alex Miller about the RAE. Part of what Miller says is that journal articles published in journals edited by one’s colleagues should not count as much as other journal articles towards one’s productivity measure. I do hope this idea does not catch hold.

My counterexamples paper got accepted in Phil Studies, and I just got an email about my constructive probability paper saying it is still under consideration. I had pretty much given up on it.

For amusement, check out how many hits Simon Keller has received from being linked on Matthew Yglesias’s weblog. I think Matthew has more readers per day than PPR has subscribers, so you know this is a real new media story.

UPDATE: The quick summary of Miller’s email above is somewhat misleading. Miller makes a number of complaints about Bradford RAE evaluation, and the point about journals edited in-house was a relatively minor complaint in the overall structure of the letter. If you want more detail, well it’s probably best to read what Miller wrote than to read my fairly tendentious summaries. Thanks to Chris Bertram for pointing out that this needed some qualification, though I doubt this goes quite as far as Chris would think appropriate.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/20/2003 01:57:00 PM


I was chatting with Chris Hill and Michael Pace yesterday about unless, and I wasn’t really having much luck convincing them that it didn’t mean if not. So I thought I’d see if my loyal readership were any easier to convince.

For the following case, imagine that I have two boxes in front of me, a red box and a black box. The red box contains 19 red marbles and 1 black marble. The black box contains 19 black marble and 1 red marble. I am going to choose a box at random and then choose a marble from it at random. Do you think the following sentences are definitely true, probably true, probably false or definitely false? (Or something else?)

(1) I will draw a red marble unless I choose the black box.

(2) I will draw a red marble if I choose the red box.

(Make sure you’ve decided what you think before reading on.)

I think that (2) is probably true, but (1) is definitely false. So unless I choose the black box does not mean the same thing as if I choose the red box. I assume that in context choose the red box is the negation of choose the black box. Anyway, that didn’t convince either Chris or Michael, which is sad because it’s clearly a sound argument.

Let’s try a different argument then. In front of me there is a wall of beer bottles. Some of them are Guinness bottles, which are black. Some of them are Dos Equis bottles, which are clear. (Actually, they are brown-ish, but let’s call them clear for convenience.) Beer bottles as far as the eye can see. Well, except for a fake Guinness bottle somewhere hidden in the wall. If I were looking at the fake bottle, I would think it were a real bottle. The fake bottle is a fair way from where I am looking at in the wall. I am actually looking at a Guinness bottle, but there are lots of clear Dos Equis bottles around it.

Anyway, what do we think of (3) through (6)?

(3) If I were not looking at a beer bottle, I would not believe I were looking at a beer bottle.
(4) If I were not looking at a black beer bottle, I would not believe I were looking at a black beer bottle.
(5) I would not believe I were looking at a beer bottle unless I were looking at a beer bottle.
(6) I would not believe I were looking at a black beer bottle unless I were looking at a black beer bottle.

On Lewis’s theory of conditionals, (3) is true and (4) is false. But it is very implausible, I think, that (5) is true and (6) is false. So perhaps that’s another argument that unless is not if not.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/20/2003 10:38:00 AM

The philosophy papers blog is up. Two of the papers, those by Simon Keller and Pekka Väyrynen have already been mentioned. The third is by Richard Arneson.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/20/2003 10:22:00 AM


Among the many areas in philosophy where I wish I had an opinion (not necessarily the true opinion, but preferably a defensible and idiosyncratic one) is the debate about particularism vs universalism about norms. I have this little dream that after the ethicists have sorted out all the issues, but before the epistemologists have noticed that they have, I can make a quick buck translating all the ethics papers into epistemology and looking like I’m doing cutting edge work on epistemic values. Since I have that dream, I probably shouldn’t go round promoting good papers on moral particularism, but I will anyway.

Particularism and Default Reasons by Pekka Väyrynen

ABSTRACT. Moral particularism says that what descriptive non-moral facts function as moral reasons is determined not by general moral principles, but on a fundamentally case-by-case basis. This paper addresses the recent suggestion that particularists can extend their view to countenance presumptive or default reasons – reasons that are pro tanto unless undermined – by relying on certain background expectations of normality (Cullity 2002). Drawing on discussions of normality, and of generic statements, I argue that normality must be understood non-extensionally. Thus we cannot assume that if being a default reason rests on some normality claims, those claims bestow upon default reasons any definite degree of extensional generality. The extensional generality of moral reasons depends rather on the contingent distributional aspects of the world. Such contingent matters play no role in the normative grounding of reasons for action, so appeals to them cannot decide between generalism and particularism. Therefore, appeals to default reasons cannot uniquely support particularism. Moreover, since the extensional generality of reasons turns out to be the sort of contingent matter that no theory of reasons purports to decide on its own, generalism would be a non-starter if it were committed to the existence of reasons whose moral valence is invariant regardless of the context (which is a typical extensional characterization). Since generalism is not a non-starter, we must rethink the parameters of the generalism-particularism debate. I outline the sort of generalism that I think is suggested by my discussion and sketch a generalist account of default reasons that doesn't depend on normality claims.

Looks like there will already be lots for tomorrow’s philosophy papers blog.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/19/2003 03:00:00 PM

I thought this, the latest Leiter mailing, was fairly amusing. (My emphasis throughout).

(1) Tamar Szabo Gendler (epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of psychology), currently at Syracuse University, has accepted the tenured offer from Cornell, to begin fall 2004. In addition, Zoltan Gendler Szabo at Cornell has turned down the offer from NYU Linguistics and Philosophy.

(2) The distinguished rational choice theorist and political philosopher Edward McClennen, who is currently LSE Centennial Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics, has accepted a senior offer from Syracuse University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

(3) The eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison, currently at Boston University, will leave BU to take up a half-time appointment at the University of California at Davis beginning in fall 2004. Allison is also an emeritus professor at the University of California at San Diego.

(4) The distinguished political and legal philosopher Leslie J. Green will now be a regular visiting professor of law *and* philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, beginning in Spring 2004. (He had already been part-time in the law school at Texas.) The rest of the time Green is at York University, Toronto.

(5) Berkeley has made tenured offers to John Campbell, the Wilde Professor of Mental Philosophy at Oxford, and Alva Noe (philosophy of mind) at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Noe also has offers from Tufts University and York University, Toronto.

If Eddie and Leslie and distinguished, and Hank is eminent, what are Tamar, Zoltan, John and Alva? Chopped liver? Seriously, losing Tamar is a big loss for Syracuse (and a big gain for Cornell), but the news about McClennen is a positive for a couple of reasons. The Maxwell school at Syracuse is very strong, and it makes sense to try and be as attached to it as possible.

Leiter also notes that an illegal invasion of Iraq is about to take place.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/19/2003 01:54:00 PM

It’s topical political philosophy day here. Simon Keller has a paper on terrorism posted arguing “that we should not have a war on terror, or on terrorism. But a war on Al Qaeda is OK.”

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/19/2003 01:28:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog is up, but there is only one paper to note. The Audacious Humility of John Rawls by David Estlund. Or you could always reread my APA comments!

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/19/2003 08:03:00 AM


A question about speaker meaning and semantic meaning. (I probably should know the answer to this, but what are blogs for except for revealing one’s ignorance?) Consider the following little passage, taken perhaps from a discussion of the evolution wars:

Creationists believe that contemporary biology is founded on a giant mistake. Humans were created directly by God in His own image. They are not descended from other primates.

I know what the speaker meaning of the last sentence is: Creationists believe that humans are not descended from other primates. But is that the semantic meaning of the sentence, or is the semantic meaning simply that Humans are not descended from other primates? Or is the semantic meaning just a propositional radical The xs are not descended from other primates?

I generally assume speaker meanings and semantic meanings are identical unless there is a good reason to say otherwise, so I am inclined to think they are the same here, but there are some pretty good authorities saying this is very foolish of me.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/18/2003 07:26:00 PM

I have a pile of grading to do, so naturally I’d rather be thinking of something else. In particular, I’d rather be thinking of intentionalist theories of truth in fiction. The following is rather speculative even by blog standards, but I think the cases are a little amusing at least.

The clearest, and most accessible, of the theories I’m interested in here is presented in Alex Byrne’s Truth in Fiction: The Story Continued (AJP 93). (Do you think that if I keep writing about old papers they will magically appear online?!)

In it true in fiction F that p iff the Reader could infer that the Author in inviting the reader to make-believe that p.

Similar proposals have been made by Walton and Currie. For some purposes the differences between the proposals will matter, but I’m not sure that this is one of them. What’s interesting about these kinds of cases is that they have a hope of explaining the many and varied ways in which fictional works can be unreliable. Currie in particular has done some nice work outlining the flexibility that’s available here. And since I think unreliability is the most important issue for a theory of truth in fiction to explain, that means these theories deserve pretty close attention. (I think even those theories can’t explain why moral claims in the story are unreliable, even when those claims match with the author’s view and intents, but that’s for another day. I suspect the right thing to say here is related to what we say about Hamlet and computer databases and evolution.)

One kind of worry is that these accounts will overgenerate for certain complex fictions. We’ll start with something that isn’t a counterexample, then move on to some things that might be. The Reader of Animal Farm is meant to make-believe that some pigs take over a farm and then become corrupt and turn on those who helped them to power. She is also meant to believe that this, in broad outlines, is the story of Stalin’s Russia. But it is not true in the story that Stalin had turned on the workers who had assisted him to power. No worries though - this is something the Reader is invited to believe, not just to make-believe.

But what happens if our story is related not to the world in this way, but to other stories? The simplest example would be a story that is an allegory, perhaps not quite as crude as Animal Farm, for other works of fiction. So imagine the following kind of story. (I’m sure this could be written, and I’m also sure that I could not write it.) The story appears to be about four contemporary American businessmen sitting around a bar in Hell bemoaning their fate. After a while, it becomes clear that the stories of each of the four characters resembles that of a Shakespearean character. So one resembles Hamlet, another Macbeth, another Lear and the fourth Othello. It is never suggested that the people are Hamlet or Macbeth etc, but the parallels in their stories are striking. Then in the final act we learn quite a bit more about the inner lives of these characters. It wasn’t true that the allegoric duplicate of Hamlet, call him Hal, learned that his uncle killed his father when he saw his father’s ghost. Rather, Hal killed his own father, and the ghost was a distorted manifestation of his conscience. (This may be revealed after a troubling conversation with McBride, the second businessman.) It is clear, I think that the Author of this story is inviting the Reader to at least consider, and perhaps to adopt, a striking interpretation of Hamlet. But to think about Hamlet is just to make-believe that it is true, and then examine the details of what is being make-believed. So I think the Author of this work is inviting the Reader to make-belive that Hamlet, like Hal, killed his father. But while it is true in the fiction that Hal killed his father, it is not true in the fiction that Hamlet killed his father. Indeed, it might not even be true in the fiction that Hamlet exists, or even that Hamlet does.

Perhaps this is just a technical problem that can be fixed by tidying-up the concept of make-believe that is at issue. Perhaps it will turn out, on careful consideration, that the Author of this allegory is not inviting the Reader to make-believe that Hamlet killed his father, but to make-believe that she make-believes it, or something. Or there may be some other way that we can reflect the fact that this invitation is in some way embedded in the fiction, while the invitation to make-believe that Hal killed his father is constitutive of the fiction. I can’t see how to do this immediately, but it feels like a solvable puzzle in principle.

If it is to be solved, note some other cases, or one other case considered twice over, that must also be dealt with. In the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ episode of Ulysses, Joyce parodies a succession of writers from the history of English literature. Not all of the parodies are entirely disrespectful - he means the Reader to see his story in a new way by looking at it through the prism of historical styles, as well as seeing something about the styles by seeing them applied to a contemporary story. One of the first targets is Mallory. So we have Joyce writing the following:

This meanwhile this good sister stood by the door and begged them at the reverence of Jesu our alther liege Lord to leave their wassailing for there was above one quick with child, a gentle dame whose time hied fast. Sir Leopold heard on the upfloor cry on high and he wondered what cry that it was whether of child or woman and I marvel, said he, that it be not come or now. Meseems it dureth overlong. And he was ware and saw a franklin that hight Lenehan on that side the table that was older than any of the tother and for that they both were knights virtuous in the one emprise and eke by cause that he was elder he spoke to him full gently. But, said he, or it be long too she will bring forth by God His bounty and have joy of her childing for she hath waited marvellous long. And the franklin that had drunken said, Expecting each moment to be her next. Also he took the cup that stood tofore him for him needed never none asking nor desiring of him to drink and, Now drink, said he, fully delectably, and he quaffed as far as he might to their both's health for he was a passing good man of his lustiness. And sir Leopold that was the goodliest guest that ever sat in scholars' hall and that was the meekest man and the kindest that ever laid husbandly hand under hen and that was the very truest knight of the world one that ever did minion service to lady gentle pledged him courtly in the cup. Woman's woe with wonder pondering.

I think that the Reader here is meant to make-believe, among other things, that Leopold is an Arthurian knight. That’s not because he is an Arthurian knight, even in the story, but because by make-believing it the Reader gets a better appreciation of exactly what kind of early 20th Century Irishman he is. Maybe this isn’t true make-believe, but rather some different kind of imaginative activity, but I think some work is needed to say exactly how the relevant kinds of make-believe are to be separated. In my allegory I had the story saying something about another story. Here Joyce uses another story to say something about his story, but without I think making anything about the other story be true in his. Bloom never leaves 16 June 1904 after all, and certainly does not leave it for Arthurian times.

Oxen of the Sun is problematic for intentionalist theories for another reason, but here intuitions may really be starting to fade out. There are, I am reliably told, three layers to the story going on here. As well as telling the story of an hour of 16 June 1904, and telling the story of the history of English literature, Joyce is also telling the story of the gestation of a foetus. Each of the nine (not clearly demarcated) sections of the chapter is the story of a month of the gestation. Now one may wonder why one would want to do all these things at once, or even whether Joyce entirely succeeded, but scholarly opinion is that he did. So I think one Reader at least is meant to make-believe that a foetus gestates throughout the chapter. But it isn’t true in Oxen of the Sun that a foetus gestates, except perhaps for the little gestation of Mrs Purefoy’s. So I think we shall eventually need to restrict the intentionalist story in some way to stop the foetal story being part of what is true in Ulysses. How to do this without losing some of the ability to deal with unreliable texts, I have no idea. If I had a spare year or two to work this out...

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/18/2003 01:25:00 PM

In San Francisco I’m going to be one of the commentators on Henry Jackman’s paper Temporal Externalism and Epistemic Theories of Vagueness. I won’t exactly be reading the comments out, but I always like to have a text prepared so I can have a sense of how long it will take to say the things I want to say. So here is the draft of the text of my comments. Sometimes I think wheeling out Joyce in a defence of individualism about content (which is one of the things I do in the comments) is really not playing fair. So I should make it clear that the second-half of the comments, where I relate this all specifically to what Henry says about vagueness, is where the philosophical action is. Also note that there are no references, because I don’t really think they’re needed in what are meant to be fairly informal comments. I think I make it clear enough in the text where I’m drawing most of the key ideas from, but normally I think the citations would need to be more rigorous than they are here.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/18/2003 11:09:00 AM

The philosophy papers blog is up for the day. Three new papers: two by Malcolm Forster, and the Young Epistemologist Prize essay by Michael Bergmann.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/18/2003 08:51:00 AM


Via Greg Restall, I see Wittgenstein turned up in a courthouse.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/17/2003 07:09:00 PM

No philosophy papers blog today because there were no new papers to report. Again. Greg Restall moved one of his papers from to be published to published, which is mostly relevant I guess if you think anything on dead trees is out of date. (A mistaken view, in this particular case at least.)

Via Atrios, this is a disturbing story of attacks on the home of a Houston woman who committed the shameful crime of being French. At the end of the story there was a mention of a proposal to change the name of the French Quarter in New Orleans. But it already is the liberty quarter, or at least libertine.

Jonathan Bennett’s book on conditionals arrived today, so that’s another possible distraction from writing the vagueness book. Too many distractions. (Note the link takes you somewhere where it isn’t yet available. I’m not immediately sure where you can find it online, and I’m too lazy to look it up since, as said, I have the book.)

In the art gallery next door to my office (fond of that phrase) there is a giant sculpture made almost entirely of snack food. The smell is almost as striking as the visual impression. The sculpture is unwatched in the foyer, and as I was coming out of the building I saw someone snacking on some of the jelly beans. It seemed almost appropriate in the circumstances. But maybe I’m just too attached to audience interaction.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/17/2003 01:49:00 PM


Some days I like being at Brown. This afternoon I saw the Department of Theatre’s production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. It only kept rather loosely to the original script of the play, taking self-reference, and non-traditional production values about as far as they can go. The quality and quantity of creative thought that went into the performance were mighty impressive. Apart from the slight misfortune of getting caught in the crossfire of one of the waterpistol fights (it was that kind of production) I had a great time. Given how wild the production was, it was also pretty good news for my thesis that everything that can be represented in fiction can be represented on stage. Or off the stage, if the actors insist on spending half the performance roving the aisles and seats, as they did today.

Anyway, before that I had been trying to hunt down references on Dubliners and truth in fiction, and I couldn’t get into one of the databases from off-campus. So I sent an email to the technicians in charge of those databases about it, thinking it wouldn’t be worked on until tomorrow at the earliest, but already I’ve had some feedback about the problem. I’m sure no other university I’ve spent time at had people doing helpdesk work on the databases Sunday afternoon.

I’m a little surprised at how little critical discussion there is of Dubliners. A quick search on MLA only turned up 31 references to Eveline. It seems I could plausibly make new critical points here as well as philosophical points. I’d have thought Joyce, of all people, would have been done to death by now. Amazingly, most of the critical commentary I found takes Eveline’s comments about Frank at face value, and believes that what he tells Eveline is the truth. None of this sounds remotely plausible to me, but it does suggest that it will be harder to write something about Eveline’s plight than I thought.

From a very brief search, it seems all the examples of unreliable narrators in literature in the literature concern stories told in the first person. This is somewhat odd. Greg Currie corrects the bias a little by discussing unreliable narrators in film, but I think third person narrators who have a clear (and mistaken) point of view are more interesting philosophically.

Having said all that, I looked up Alex Byrne’s 1993 paper on Truth in Fiction, and like the 1999 Phillips paper mentioned below, it also seems immune to the most obvious objections arising out of unreliable narrators. In fact, but for the fact that Byrne’s theory is more carefully developed and motivated, the papers are pretty similar I thought, especially in form but to some extent also in content. And in the fact that both papers suggest that authors can make the moral facts in their stories be whatever they want, which seems false. (In After the Race, Joyce says that the Irish are gratefully oppressed. Assuming this judgement about the true Irish is too harsh, is it true in the story that the Irish are gratefully oppressed?)

Alex’s paper has a nice puzzle, which I’d been looking for a way to frame for a while. Is it true in the Holmes stories that Holmes lives before the age of computer databases? I am inclined to think it is - all the facts about the late 19th century that are not explicitly or implicitly rejected get carried over into the stories, and one of the facts about those decades is that they are before the age of computer databases. Alex says that this should be indeterminate. We could ask a few other similar questions - is Hamlet descended from monkeys, and was his country occupied by Germans in WWII? Again, my intuition is that the answers here are strongly yes and yes. Alex’s theory, and it looks like his intuitions, suggest that these answers are not determinately right. What do you think?

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/16/2003 11:45:00 PM

I had an idea to write a paper on truth in fiction arguing that unreliable narrators pose an insuperable problem for extant accounts. The schtick was going to be that every proposal currently on the table gets some fact or other about Eveline wrong, because they all start from the idea that what is in the text is true, and in Eveline this seems unlikely. But maybe this isn’t true. This is the account from John Phillips’s paper Truth and Inference in Fiction (Phil Studies 1999)

A sentence of the form, ‘In the fiction F, p’ is true iff it is reasonable for an informed reader to infer from the text that, under ideal conditions, the author of F would agree that p is part of F.

The problem is that the analysis here is in a sense circular. Idealised beliefs about truth in fiction are used in an account of truth in fiction. So there isn’t enough independent purchase here to let Eveline get a grip on what’s happening.

Having said that, the theory is false, and for a fairly simple reason. (Even circular sounding theories can pick up mistakes as they cycle around the track.) Phillips intends to respect the Principle of Poetic Licence: a writer can make whatever she wants true in her fiction. But as regular readers here will know, that isn’t true. (And I’m not the first one to point it out.) An author can’t make it true, even in a fiction, that selfishness is the greatest of the virtues, no matter how much she tries. And even though one may infer from Rand’s novels that the author would agree that it is part of the story that selfishness is the greatest of the virtues, it is not true in her fiction that this is so. But I’m not sure how to work this into Eveline, unless I can implicate some of Joyce’s somewhat pre-feminist thinking (just why are Eveline and Maria the two most easily confused lead characters in Dubliners?) somehow.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/16/2003 02:13:00 PM

I would like to say the philosophy papers blog is up, but actually there aren’t any new papers to link to. Ted Honderich has a paper in the Independent attacking Tony Blair, to which Chris Bertram has already responded.

I don’t normally mention mentions of papers without links, but I couldn’t help noting that Christopher Green notes on his website the existence of a paper called Psychology Strikes Out: Coleman Griffith and the Chicago Cubs. I wonder what it could be.

Last night at dinner one of the (many) topics that came up was the quality of titles of philosophical papers. One reason for this was that one of our generous hosts is one of the best in the business at entitling. I feel like I should be writing more about the conversations, since there was lots interesting, but right now all my conversations with my inner editor are something like the following:

–Do you remember when ... said ... about ...

–Should I? Was it worth remembering?

–Yes. Yes.

–Oh. No.

Maybe if I carried around a notepad like a little cub reporter. At one stage I defended the common newspaper practice of treating know as a synonym for truly believes in sentences like 9% of Americans know how many Iraqis were amongst the September 11 hijackers. I thought these cases really are evidence, perhaps not compelling evidence but evidence, for the claim that knowledge just is true belief. Then this morning I see that according to the NY Times, “Half of what doctors know is wrong.”

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/16/2003 11:36:00 AM


Some days I oppose the war because of all the lives that will be lost. Some days I oppose it because I think it has by now been conclusively shown that this administration’s level of incompetency is so high that it should not be trusted with anything beyond the minimal necessary roles of government. (There’s a new conspiracy theory for you - Dick Cheney as prudential argument for small government libertarianism.) And some days I just think that I would rather be like the war’s opponents than like its supporters.

S.F. French bistro hosts protest with panache

Ten people, wineglasses in hand, came to the defense of la belle France on Friday in perhaps the most civilized protest ever held in San Francisco.

There was smelly French cheese for all, strong enough to overpower what the protesters complained was the stench of U.S. foreign policy.

The protest, billed as French Friday, took place at a corner table of Cafe de la Presse, a French bistro on Bush Street. The idea was to patronize a French establishment and buy a lot of French goods -- to counteract the boycott of French merchandise by those miffed at the threatened French veto of U.S.-led resolutions at the United Nations.

"I've been to a lot of protests, and this is the most fun," said Bob Roth, between bites of brie....

Rafael Gonzalez celebrated all things French by administering what he said was a French kiss to his female companion, who did not object out of a sense of political correctness.
Much thanks to Geoff Nunberg for the link. I have to go wine-shopping now, and I might have to break my Australian-wine-buying habits of a lifetime out of a similar sense of political correctness.

posted by Brian Weatherson 3/15/2003 12:52:00 PM

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My random philosophical musings, more often in premise-conclusion form than is normal for this media


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