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.


I've put up version of an MT based edition of this blog at:
It doesn't have any links up yet, and the template is still an MT standard-order template so it's rather boring looking, and there were issues in transferring files over from Blogger, especially because MT expects every post to have a heading, and because I never followed any consistent formatting conventions here, but anyway if you're interested take a look. I may be migrating there permanently in the next few days. It's a very long address, but I rarely have to give out the address non-electronically anyway, so I'm not sure that matters. (Note that the capitalisation matters in the address.)

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/12/2003 04:09:00 PM


Tamar Gendler and Zoltan Szabo have just posted webpages with lots and lots of philosophical content. Zoltan's papers page (which will be tracked from now on) is here, and Tamar's CV (which includes a papers page, in effect) is here. Both of them have lots of unpublished papers up, which will be added to tomorrow's papers blog, now at its new MT address.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/11/2003 12:30:00 AM


We're in Print!

This is extremely exciting news for TAR. Juan Comesana noted that the new edition of Philosophical Studies contains several papers from last year's Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conferencee. One of those papers is Elizabeth Harman's The Potentiality Problem, which as well as being a good paper contains a reference to this blog!!! Sadly the published version of the paper is not freely available online, so I can't link to it, but I can report that in the footnotes Liz mentions, and responds to, a concern raised about her paper in this post.

The edition of Philosophical Studies has lots of good stuff, and it's a little self-indulgent of me to comment primarily on a small reference to my blog, but it is I think an exciting time to see a reference to my online work appear in a traditional publication.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/10/2003 08:59:00 PM

Paul Neufeld (of ephilosopher fame) has moved the philosophy papers blog to Movable Type. It's new address is:
I will be tinkering a little with it in the next few days, but for the future this is the home of the philosophy papers blog.

Much thanks to Paul for this - the site should look much better in MT than it does now. I'll probably move TAR over there sometime soon, but I don't want to cut off some of the longer comments threads below just yet. And I want to spend a few days tinkering with the papers blog to get used to MT.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/10/2003 03:43:00 PM

I talk about a need for more electronic journals and one appears! Or at least is revealed to have appeared. The Australasian Journal of Logic went online last week, with papers by Koji Tanaka and Ross Brady. It looks like a great new project, and it deserves lots of support.

I should also have mentioned in my list of online journals yesterday that Psyche has been run out of Monash for 8 years now. Like Philosophers Imprint, it has a fairly small volume, but it seems to have kept up a high quality. And after 8 years it gets about as many hits per month as Crooked Timber got on its first day.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/10/2003 12:41:00 AM


Blogger has been behaving very oddly today. One reason I might end up writing more on Crooked Timber is simply that MT is more fun to use. I just had to delete a post that only looked like it was in draft stage on the screens Blogger showed me. All in a day's annoyance.

I should also note that the post immediately below this does not constitute my volunteering to do any work whatsoever on any new philosophical projects people might come up with. I'm just trying to get some ideas circulating that may spur some more motivated, and creative, people.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/09/2003 09:29:00 PM

Analysis and its Alternatives

Analysis has long been my favourite philosophy journal. Short snappy articles, quick turnaround time on replies, mostly interesting areas covered and, although this isn't a reason that will appeal to everyone, no history. It was very sad when it became malfunctional for a few years in the late 90s, and a very happy day indeed when it returned to publication.

But there are two things that could be improved about Analysis. First, there could be more of it. That would be fun, and it would possibly mean debates could be even longer. Second, there is a real risk in writing for Analysis in that if an article is rejected, and good articles are frequently rejected for spurious reasons, there might not be another place to publish it. It's also something of a problem that there's a bit of a backlog between when papers are accepted and when they are published.

There's a way to solve all these problems at once. What we need is an American equivalent to Analysis. I think it would be great to have a journal published over here that came out monthly, with each edition aiming to be around the size of a current edition of Analysis - approximately 80 to 100 pages. I'd envisage this being a primarily electronic publication, but with a dead-tree version printed for posterity. The Xerox commercials have assured me that digital printing is now really really cheap, though I'm not sure I completely believe this. (I did however send off for a quote for the cost of printing such a journal, just for amusement's sake.)

Of course starting a new journal isn't as easy as it sounds, especially electronically. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has been a marvellous success already, but Philosophers Imprint has struggled to get sufficient quantity of high-quality papers. (The quality of the papers they have printed has been high, I think, but four papers a year is hardly enough to really make a splash. Maybe I should start submitting things there though, if I really want to be a cyber-philosopher...)

The real problem, I think, is getting enough of a reputation behind a new journal that people feel comfortable sending it quality material. NDPR solved the problem by having people with superb reputations behind the project, and only publishing book reviews, which most people don't think are being written for posterity in any case. Philosophers Imprint has tried to solve the problem by also having people with superb reputations behind the project and be very selective about what you print. Even if my proposed journal had big names behind it the whole point would be that it was publishing a lot, and hopefully a lot of original research. And it's hard to convince people to turn over their hard-earned ideas to an upstart little e-journal. Still, I think, it should be possible to keep a relatively high quality. The standards for acceptances in good journals nowadays are getting ridiculously high - one could aim to publish 12 to 15 short papers a month and still not be publishing scraps. Or so I think.

Anyway, I'd be interested to know how whether people think there would be a market for such a journal - both in terms of a supply of papers and a demand for them. Even if there is, the technical difficulties with getting a journal off the ground (lack of money, lack of time, lack of motivation, etc.) will probably stop it happening, but it would be interesting to know whether people agree that we'd be better off with more Analysis.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/09/2003 05:05:00 PM


Taking Knowledge Frivolously

We just started a reading group at Brown on Dave Chalmers's book The Conscious Mind. I've never read it straight through, though I suspect I've read every page at different times, so it will be good to have a chance to do that. And of course, I wanted to start by quibbling with the introduction. Dave says that an important part of his project is Taking Consciousness Seriously. Now I don't mind people taking various things seriously. There probably should be more of it. But I think saying that's what you're up to is a fairly cliched way to start. Does anyone ever start a book on X by saying they aren't going to take X seriously?

Then I realised I can change things. If no one else will do this, I can write Taking X Frivolously articles. Then Taking X Seriously won't be contentless, because it will situate ones dialectical position in opposition to my playful frivolity. But perhaps an article is too much. Perhaps we should start with something shorter. A blog entry say.

Here's a perfectly frivolous argument that knowledge equals true belief. (Different to the somewhat by not entirely frivolous argument for that conclusion from a couple of weeks ago.) It starts with a story.

The older man cast a worried glance down the bar.

–Looks like Frank's in no condition to drive imself ome.
–E's not too bad is e? replied his younger friend.
–Yeah, he's that bad, said the barman.
–Well Bob, he's your friend, you better tell im we're taking im ome, said the older man.
–Thanks Doug, grumbled the younger man. Then he had an inspiration.
–Look we don't even need to tell him. He doesn't have a choice in the matter does he? I bet he doesn't even know where his car is.
–How much? asked the barman.
–How much what? asked Bob with surprise.
–How much d'ya bet that he doesn't know where his car is?

Bob was a little shocked by this, but he remembered some pretty wild bets he'd had with this barman before. Still, this was a pretty good shot he thought, staring over while Frank struggled to tell the ashtray from the peanut bowl.

–You're on, said the barman, and turned to Frank. C'mon y'old drunk. Stop eating the cigarettes and get yirself home.
–I got no home, said Frank.
–Sure you do, said the barman. You moved into it last Monday.
–Good point, said Frank.
They all headed out the door. Doug trying to protect Frank, Bob already counting his winnings, and the barman anxious to give Frank every chance to win the bet for him. His heart sank a little when he overheard some street kids talking about a car they'd stolen for a joyride. He could barely decipher their street lingo - it was a foreign language to his companions - but the car they were describing sounded a lot like Frank's car. And the wheel they were playing with looked like Frank's too.

Meanwhile, Bob was getting happier and happier. Frank was now walking the opposite direction to where he'd left his car three hours ago. Pretty soon he'd give up, and the bet would be won. He thought he could hear the coins jangling already. But the sound wasn't right. More like keys jangling in fact. Car keys. Frank's car keys. Frank's car keys that he was putting into the door of a car. His car.

Bob was too dumbstruck to speak. He simply stared at the fresh tire marks streaking out from behind Frank's car.

–How did you know to find your car here? asked Doug.
–Sha's alwiys parched ere, replied Frank.
–Not tonight, said Doug. There was a parade, we had to park on the other side of town.
–A parad? mumbled Frank.

At this point Doug thought of tackling Frank to stop him driving home, but then he noticed that the car was missing a view vital parts, like a steering wheel. Frank wasn't drunk enough to try driving without a steering wheel. He couldn't quite tell what was missing, but Frank knew something was wrong. Sensing a way out of his troubles, he fell asleep at the wheel-mount.

The barman was grinning with delight. What luck that the kids had left Frank's car right where he always parked it!

–Hand it over.
–Hand what over? asked Bob.
–The fifty.

Bob thought about arguing that Frank didn't really know where his car was, that he'd just walked by it and noticed it. Then he remembered that they'd walked directly here. Frank had hardly looked at the other cars he'd gone past. In fact he'd hardly looked at anything above his own shoelace. If he didn't pay up now there'd have to be a fight.

He turned over the fifty.
The argument now should be obvious. The circumstances demand Bob pay up. If he doesn't pay, he'll get thumped. And not just because someone feels like hitting him. Because he's not paid up when he should have. Given a not excessively violent bettor who has bet that p, if the other party is in danger of violence if he doesn't pay when all the facts are in, then those facts are such as to make it the case that p. Call this the fighting argument for knowledge = true belief.

I think this argument has some merit. Note how natural it is for Doug to ask how Frank knew where his car was. Admittedly in the story Doug and Bob don't know all the details about the kids, but they know something is wrong, yet they don't challenge the barman's knowledge claim - or at least his claim to have won the bet on his knowledge claim. And Doug uses a 'knowledge' locution.

But that's not why I posted this. Rather, I wanted to post a reply to that argument which I owe in its important respects to Andy Egan. Imagine instead of betting on Frank's knowledge, Bob and the barman bet on whether Hydrogen was faster than Hyperion. Both these horses, it turns out, were entered in the 4.15 that afternoon, and the bet was placed at 4.10. In those circumstances, whoever bets on the horse that finishes ahead in the race wins the bet. If they other party doesn't pay up, things could get ugly. But of course the correlation between being faster and finishing ahead is quite loose. One of the horses might be carrying more weight, or get impeded in their run, or just be having a bad day. But for betting purposes those things are ignored.

There seems to be a principle here. Unless p is easily verifiable one way or the other, a bet that p will instantly transform itself into a bet on the closest operational approximation of p. It's hard to tell who's really faster - easy to tell who finished in front, so that becomes the bet. In the case of betting that Frank knows where his car is, that gets transformed into a bet on whether he will walk more or less directly to his car. This explains why Bob has to pay up. He might have been right - it wasn't true that Frank knew where his car was. But the best operational approximation to that proposition is true, so he loses.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/08/2003 04:56:00 PM

A New Blog!

A new group blog, Crooked Timber, has just been born. So far the group is Chris Bertram, Henry Farrell, Maria Farrell, Kieran Healy and moi.

There will be others appearing on the scene in the near future - to a first approximation Crooked Timber will be a broad-based leftie academic blog. But we're open-minded about what counts as leftie, and as what counts as academic. To mangle a cliche or two, the party is meant to be more prominent than the party line. It's a very exciting project, and I was rather honoured to be asked to join it.

As far as I know, Chris Bertram did most of the organising work to get the blog running, and Kieran Healy and Henry Farrell have done the technical work to get the blog looking as good as it does. (And it really does look rather good. Go on, take a look.) So much thanks to all of them.

What will this mean for TAAR? I haven't quite worked that out yet. Crooked Timber is meant to be somewhat less of a niche publication than TAAR, so I won't be posting entries there on the intricacies of Lewisian counterpart theory, or on counterexamples to analyses of vagueness. But I will post there some things that I previously posted on TAAR - not just posts not about philosophy but posts about political philosophy, or legal philosophy, or philosophy of economics, or more generally anything that could conceivably be of interest to those not in linguistics and philosophy departments. So the volume of posts here will necessarily decline. On the other hand, there may be slightly more focus to the entries that remain. We'll have to see how this works out in practice, I think, rather than trying to legislate in advance. The papers blog won't be affected, though I probably won't resume the practice of posting links to the daily entries except on days where there is something especially worth noting.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/08/2003 08:28:00 AM


I was just having a conversation about tenure - not about my tenure but about the concept - and one of the things that came up is how many people would favour the abolition of tenure if it was an option. There are, it was thought, some benefits to abolishing tenure. It could, if managed right, lead to a higher average quality (or at least of performance) at top departments. And it would have individual benefits. There would be more senior vacancies, leading to higher competition for hiring high quality faculty - well beyond the competition for stars we see now. And this should lead to higher salaries in the long run. Of course the losers out of this are those people who did enough to get tenure then coasted the rest of their career. But no one I know is like that, everyone I know publishes frequently in top journals, or if not they are publishing books with top presses or at least chapters in such books. In any case I thought, it's not ever so clear that non-publishers should have a decisive role in setting policy.

But it's harder to publish than one in my position might think, especially if one had a heavy teaching load and/or a family to look after. (Especially hard, I guess, with both. A blogging habit is a much smaller drain on one's time and energy.) How hard, I was wondering? Let's run a few numbers to find out.

I was thinking that on average one article per year in a top 25 journal, or its equivalent in publishing in books (either entire books or chapters) in top quality presses was a reasonable standard to keep up. But it turns out it is practically impossible for a significant percentage of the discipline to maintain that standard, or even anything close to it.

It's hard to estimate how many books come out, but at a guess I'd say at least half of the top quality publishing gets done in journals. (There'll be a few guesses like this along the way. If any enterprising grad student wants to fill in the numbers with slightly more detailed info, they are most welcome.)

The top 25 journals between them publish, I'd guess, around 600 to 700 articles per year. Allowing for some dual authorship (which is actually pretty rare in philosophy) there are about 800 token names appear on the tables of contents of these top journals per year. If that's about half the total of philosophical work that's coming out, then there's about 1600 'chances' to get one's name on something per year.

On the other hand, there are as far as I can tell around 8000 members of the American Philosophical Association. (I got this number by some not very scientific sampling from the APA membership database - it could easily be out by 25% or more in either direction.) Now some of those are student members, but a lot of philosophers around the world, especially outside America, are not members of the APA, so 8000 is probably not a bad estimate for the number of college-employed philosophers out there.

This leads to a pretty staggering mismatch - 1600 publication slots, 8000 philosophers. Remember that several of those slots will be filled by one person many times over. I'm tacitly counting books here as being worth about 5 articles - but of course in a given year they'll be 5 articles by the same person. So in practice I'd be amazed if more than 1000 different people had something equivalent to a top 25 journal article published in a given calendar year.

If anyone really wants to get more specific, the following questions would be interesting to answer:

What percentage of college-employed philosophers had something published in a top 25 journal, or equivalent, in the last year? (My back of envelope calculations above suggest that it's not much about 12%.)

What percentage of college-employed philosophers had something published in a top 25 journal, or equivalent, in the last 5 years?

If the previous number is below 50%, what if any is the smallest n such that more than 50% of college-employed philosophers had something published in a top 25 journal, or equivalent, in the last n years?

Obviously the numbers here could be radically out, and the conclusions I've been hinting at could be flawed in even more ways. It could be that there's really much more publication done via books than via journals. It could be that I'm way out in the number of philosophers around, or the number of journal articles there are. It could be that there are more than 25 journals that should be counted as top journals, in which case there could be more people putting out top quality work than I'm allowing for. On the last point, here's my first-pass list at what I'd take the top 25 journals to be, noting this list is heavily biased towards journals that publish philosophy of language papers and journals that publish electronically:
Analysis, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, Journal of Philosophical Logic, Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Symbolic Logic, Linguistics and Philosophy, Mind, Mind and Language, Monist, Nous, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophical Perspectives, Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophical Review, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Philosophy of Science, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Studia Logica, Synthese.
History journals, and ethics journals, are rather underrepresented on that list. (In history I think that's in part because books are much more important than they are elsewhere in philosophy, so there just aren't that many really important journals. It's hard to get tenure without a book in history, not so hard outside it. This might mean my guess that half the good work is in journals might be an over-estimate, even though it looks absurdly low to me.) But not all the journals there are exactly blockbusters. So I think we could correct for my biases and come up with a list of 25 such that you would expect good work would appear in them. If not, it might be interesting to answer the above questions with top 25 replaced by top 50.

The upshot of all this is that unless I've made several large mistakes in the methodology here, then it's just impossible to have it be the case that most people maintain what I was thinking was a reasonable average standard. Perhaps my standards are just plain wrong.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/07/2003 12:43:00 PM


I was thinking about Wo's comments in the post below about Laurie Paul's paper on contextualism, and I realised I'd overlooked some options for Lewis. Rather than the five options I present, there are at least seven. One more is saying that the predicate is context-sensitive. This won't really do. Lewis says that the semantic values of (ordinary) predicates are sets of world-bound individuals, and which set is picked out by, say, 'was brought by a stork' won't be sensitive to modal context in the right way.

The seventh option is more interesting. Lewis could say that changes in context change the composition rules. At the time I wrote the post I thought this would violate compositionality. What I realised on reading Wo's comments is that this need not be so. We can say that which proposition is denoted by 'a is F' is sensitive to the contextually determined counterpart relation without violating compositionality, because within a given context the proposition picked out by 'a is F' just is a function of the semantic value of 'a' and the semantic value of 'is F'. It almost goes without saying that this option leads to an utterly bizarre semantic theory. If I had a choice between Laurie's theory that context changes the semantic value of names and the theory that context changes the semantics of predication generally I'd pick Laurie's theory every day of the week and twice on Sundays. But I think Lewis really is committed to the latter theory.

Consider two contexts such that in the first a has no counterparts that are F, and in the second it does have some. In the first, 'a is F' expresses the necessarily false proposition. In the second, it expresses a contingent proposition. By hypothesis, 'a' does not change its content between the contexts, and neither does 'is F'. But the proposition expressed changes. Unless we just abandon compositionality altogether, we have to say that the function that takes a subject and a predicate as input and delivers a proposition as output changes between contexts. I don't think this is very plausible, but it looks at least consistent.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/06/2003 10:57:00 PM


A few days ago, Andy Egan noted on the 617 blog that what happens in Matrix 3 will determine, in part, the aesthetic qualities of Matrix 1. (Permalinks bloggered, but right now it's the second post from the top.) In this case the connection was because what happens in Matrix 3 (partially) determines what is true in Matrix 1, and the relevant fictional facts are relevant to the aesthetic value of the whole.

[Warning: What follows contains spoilers about Matrix 2, the first season of 24, Ulysses and possibly the Iliad, depending on what I feel like writing about.]

When can a later story determine what is true in an earlier story? This turned out to be harder than I expected to figure out. Let's start with one case where it does make a difference, and another case where it does not make a difference. Both are fictional, though they could be close to real cases.

Martian Leopold
Joyce survived his illnesses in 1941, but this wasn't obviously for the greater good of literary creation. Deciding that the future was in sci-fi, he decided to write the story of June 17, 1904, where it was revealed that Bloom was really a Martian, and that the Circe episode was not hallucinatory, as everyone had previously suspected, but a literal representation of what happened in Nighttown.

24 by Committee
As in the real-world 24, it is revealed towards the end of the first series that Nina is a traitor, and has been throughout the show. This changes what we think about the earlier episodes, including I think their aesthetic qualities. As in the real-world show, it was not decided until the early episodes had been completed, and even screened, that Nina would be made to have been a traitor all along. Unlike, I think, the real-world version, 24 was written by a very fluid committee. Although there was some continuity from week to week, the committee of writers who made Nina treasonous had no members in common with the committee that wrote the early episodes.

I hope you agree that even if Ulysses Part 2 is written, in Ulysses Leopold is human not Martian, and Circe is a hallucination (or perhaps several hallucinations). And I hope you agree that changing the writing structure of 24 in this way does not affect the truth value of claims about the early episodes. To really make trouble, I need a slightly harder case.

Intended Martian Leopold
Joyce survived his illnesses in 1941, which gave him the chance to write the sequel to Ulysses he'd always planned: the story of June 17, 1904, where it is revealed that Bloom was really a Martian, and that the Circe episode was not hallucinatory, as everyone had previously suspected, but a literal representation of what happened in Nighttown.

I think that even here, it is not true in Ulysses that Bloom is a Martian. I guess this is a contentious intuition, but there's a way to back it up, sort of. Imagine that Joyce intended to write this sequel, but really did die before he had a chance to write it. In this case I think the complete absence of textual clues means that Bloom really isn't Martian, authorial intention be damned. I know this is an unfashionably fashionable view for an analytic philosophy blog, but I think it's correct. Call me crazy, call me Derridian, call me a sellout. (Just don't call me late for breakfast.) I don't think that in that case Joyce's intentions matter, and I don't think his writing out those intentions in a later work matters either.

What makes the difference between these cases? At first glance one might think that a later work matters to what's true in an earlier work if (a) the later work is written by the same author as the earlier work, and (b) it carries out the intentions the author had in describing what was happening in the first work. But these are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions, as our cases above illustrate. Or at least, so I think they illustrate. One might argue that the later episodes of 24 do have the same author as the earlier episodes, since the author in each case is a committee, and the same committee writes each episode, even if it has different members at the different times. (Mereological essentialism is not true of writing committees, you see.) But I don't think that will do. Make the earlier episodes written by a single person, who gradually adds co-authors, then gradually drifts out of the process. The later episodes still matter. (Or do they?) And it's hard to say that we have the same author. (Or is it? My intuitions have quit for the day.)

So what does make the difference? Beats me. It's easy to say that the later work matters iff it is part of the same story, or narrative, as the first work. This seems true, but the problem is now analysing the concept of being part of the same story. And I have no idea how this will be done.

For anyone who likes more and more absurd examples, it's fun to play with variations of the 24 case where one of two co-authors stays on, and writes out her intentions for the back story behind what they co-wrote. Or, even better, completely changes her mind about the back story, and instead writes a story that meshes perfectly with what her co-author thought the back-story was, even though she was ignorant of her co-author's wild views.

Looks like I didn't get around to spoiling the Iliad. Maybe tomorrow.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/05/2003 05:59:00 PM


I wanted to write something systematic about Laurie Paul's paper on contextualism and essentialism, but doing the metaphysics full justice would require that I either be better informed, or smarter, or less lazy, so I can't really say anything too comprehensive. But the points I wanted to make didn't have much to do with the metaphysics anyway, so let's try the following plan. I'll start with a relatively crude caricature of Laurie's position, make a few criticisms of the caricature, silently bet that filling in the details of the metaphysics won't make much difference to the objections, then go on to a puzzle for Lewis that Laurie's paper raises. Then I'll turn over to watching television.

Here's the puzzle. In some contexts we feel happy assenting to essentialist claims like "Queen Elizabeth II (QE2 for short) could not have been brought by a stork". Call these the Kripkean contexts. For definiteness, imagine the Kripkean context to be a seminar on essentialism run by Kripke, in particular a time in that seminar when Kripke has just said "QE2 could not have been brought by a stork" in a particularly authoritative fashion. But in other contexts, the contrary assertion "QE2 could have been brought by a stork" sounds fine. Call these the Lewisian contexts. For definiteness, imagine the Lewisian context to be a seminar on counterpart theory run by Lewis immediately after that Kripkean seminar, in particular a time in Lewis's seminar when he has just said "QE2 could have been brought by a stork" in a particularly convivial fashion. How can we explain what is going on here?

Laurie's solution is that in the two contexts, 'QE2' names different objects. For definiteness (and here I'm really caricaturing) we can imagine that in each context QE2 names a trans-world fusion, a modal continuant as Lewis calls it ("Postscript to Counterpart Theory", pg. 40-42), but it names different modal continuants in different contexts. In the Kripkean context it names a fusion every one of whose modal parts is born of human parents. (Germanic royals as it turns out). In the Lewisian context it names a much larger fusion, some of whose modal parts were brought into the world by a stork. Now we have it that both Kripke and Lewis speak truly in their respective contexts.

This isn't a million miles from Lewis's own solution, as Laurie acknowledges. Lewis also favoured a contextualist solution to the puzzle. But for Lewis the contextualism seems to reside in the modal terms, not in the names. (It's a slightly tricky matter of interpretation determining whether Lewis is committed to this. But I think Laurie's right that he is, for reasons that should become clear in what follows. Laurie argues that it is an improvement to have the contextual variability in the name rather than the modal terms. I think she's right - Lewis's position here is I think inconsistent. But that doesn't mean contextualism here of any kind is a good idea.

I think some fairly simple considerations about speech reports pose pretty desperate problems for the contextualist theory. A few years ago I noticed that contextualist theories had problems with indirect speech reports. (I wasn't the only one to notice this, and I probably wasn't the first. But it was an original thought on my part at the time.) We can illustrate this fairly well with the seminars above. Imagine a student responds to Lewis's convivial statement with (1).

(1) Professor Kripke said that QE2 could not have been brought by a stork.

Our intuition is that what the student said is true. Kripke did say just that. But if the student is still in the Lewisian context - and since she's still in the Lewisian classroom she probably is - then 'QE2' in her mouth does not denote the modal continuant that Kripke was talking about. And we can hardly report Kripke's speech by talking about a thing that he did not even denote. Even worse, it's hard to see how the 'that'-clause in (1) fails to name a false proposition in the context, so (1) reports Kripke as having expressed a false proposition. Yet the contextualist thinks Kripke spoke truly.

(It should be clear enough how to extend this kind of criticism to contextualism about knowledge, or truth, or ethics, or victory. The last would be amusing - it would be nice to know that after the game we could always find a context in which we can truly say "We won.")

Ernie Lepore and Herman Cappelen (in thus far unpublished work) have noted that contextualism also makes a mess of direct speech reports. This is actually a much stronger argument against contextualism than the argument from indirect speech reports just mentioned, since it relies on fewer theoretical overheads. On the contextualist view, the student instead of saying (1) could have truly said (2).

(2) When Professor Kripke said, "QE2 could not have been brought by a stork" he spoke truly, even though QE2 could have been brought by a stork.

But this sentence could not possibly be true. Note that this is not because we cannot contradict what appears inside quote marks in the rest of the sentence. When there really are contextually sensitive terms in what is quoted, this is perfectly possible, as in (3).

(3) When Professor Kripke said, "I wrote Naming and Necessity" he spoke truly, even though I did not write Naming and Necessity.

If 'QE2' is context sensitive, just like 'I', then (2) should sound just as plausible as (3). But it doesn't - it sounds awful.

We can put these two complaints together. On the contextualist theory the student could also say (4), which also sounds very bad.

(4) When Professor Kripke said, "QE2 could not have been brought by a stork" he did not say that QE2 could not have been brought by a stork.

Contextualists have a response to these arguments, though I don't think it's a very persuasive one. They can just say that we should attribute mass error to people about direct and indirect speech reports. People they just ain't no good - at producing reports containing terms with hidden contextual sensitivity. I think this is more plausible for the indirect speech reports than for the direct speech reports, which is why I think Lepore and Cappelen's argument is better than the one I first came up with. (The Lepore and Cappelen paper was presented at the Central APA this year, so hopefully it shouldn't be too far from publication.)

This isn't meant to be a particular criticism of Laurie. I think her contextualist theory is much more plausible than the majority of contextualist theories floating around these days - as far as I can tell it isn't vulnerable to any particular criticisms, just these general criticisms of contextualist theories. And everyone except Kent Bach is probably vulnerable to Lepore and Cappelen's criticism somewhere. (To pick a non-random example, my views on conditionals don't look very good in light of this argument.) The main reason I wanted to work through this here was because it provides a nice way of illustrating the problems contextualisms have with reports.

And I do think that if we must go contextualist, Laurie's version of contextualism is better than Lewis's, which looks inconsistent to me. The problem is that I think Lewis is committed to the following five theses, which look inconsistent.

  • Meaning is compositional
  • Contextualism about de re modal statements is true
  • Modal locutions in ordinary language are operators not quantifiers
  • Propositions are unstructured
  • Names are not contextually variable (or at least they do not vary between the Kripkean and Lewisian contexts)

Here's the argument that these are inconsistent. Assume that (5) is uttered in a context such that it is true.

(5) Possibly, a is F.

Assume it is later uttered in a context where it is false. That is (5') we will assume is false.

(5') Possibly, a is F.

It will be helpful to have the following two sentences to compare with (5) and (5'), the first uttered in the context of (5), the second uttered in the context of (5').

(6) Possibly, 2+2=5
(6') Possibly, 2+2=5

By contextualism, it is possible that (5) and (5') exist. Note that (6) and (6') are false no matter what we know about the context. If 'possibly' is an operator, then the logical form of each of these sentences is OS, where O is a sentence-sentence operator and S a sentence. That sentence denotes a proposition, or something of the sort. Note that this is an unstructured entity, a function from something (possible worlds or possibilia probably) to truth values. By the assumption that the name is not contextually variable (and I assume we pick an F that is also not contextually variable) we get that the content of S is the same in both (5) and (5'). So hence the content of 'possibly' must be different in the two cases. But now note that in the (5') context, the content of a is F is the constant function that maps everything to false, the same as the content of '2+2=5' in (6) and (6'). Since the content of the name and the predicate don't change between contexts, that is still the content of S in (5). So in (5) 'possibly' denotes an operator that maps the constant false function into a true proposition. Hence (6), which consists of the very same operator followed by a sentence denoting the constant false function is true, which is absurd.

There's lots of ways out of this. Possibly being more careful than I've been about what kinds of functions are the contents of sentences will help, though I can't really see how it could. The argument appeals to compositionality several times and one could deny that, though Lewis does not. See, I think, General Semantics. One could give up the contextualism, which I think one should, though again Lewis does not. See chapter 4 of Plurality. One could deny that 'possibly' here is an operator. I might write a bit more on this next week, because it's a more plausible position than I realised. But again Lewis does not. See Index, Context and Content. (Note that the point here is not whether the truth conditions for modal sentences should be stated using operators or objectual quantification over worlds. The point rather is whether English contains modal operators or its apparent modal operators really are objectual quantifiers.) One could accept structured propositions, as Jeff King and others have argued, but Lewis does not. I'm not sure where he explicitly says this, but it's implicit in almost every paper on philosophy of language that he wrote. I guess there's an explicit acceptance of unstructured propositions somewhere in Plurality. This move would fit quite nicely with the counterpart theory I think - it's good to give the modal operators, if there are any, something in the propositions they operate on to bite into. And finally one could adopt Laurie's position and say that the variation is in the content of the name. This position has the nice virtue of being consistent, unlike what I take Lewis's position to be.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/04/2003 09:13:00 PM

The philosophy papers blog has been updated. I should have done this this morning, but my computer started seizing up, so things went fairly slowly today. Hopefully the problems have been fixed now.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/04/2003 08:38:00 PM


The philosophy papers blog has been updated to reflect a paper that I missed this morning. (I'd been looking at the wrong page it seems. My bad.) Jim Pryor has posted a new paper on non-inferential justification which looks rather interesting. (Actually, it's a new version of a paper that's been up on his site for a while, but I missed the old versions too because, as said, I was looking at the wrong page.) Here's the abstract for the paper.
[This paper] articulates a notion of immediate or "non-inferential" justification, cites some apparent examples of it, and then examines at length a familiar coherentist argument against the possibility of such justification. That argument was traditionally employed against "the Given Theory"; but it threatens to have much broader scope. It is driven by a principle I call the "Premise Principle," which says that a belief in P cannot be justified except by other representational states whose contents are premises that inferentially support P. One can accept that Principle and still be a foundationalist, but many foundationalists will want to reject it. I argue that the Premise Principle is unmotivated.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/03/2003 01:21:00 PM

I come back to the philosophy papers blog and there's only one paper to report. Maybe better luck tomorrow.

To make up for it, there's a draft paper on imaginative resistance by blogger John Holbo that I should have linked yesterday. John looks at a quite different angle to me, looking at the connection between resistance and the aesthetic quality of fictional works. I'm not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, in particular I think there's a tighter correlation between imaginability and aesthetic quality than Holbo allows. But he's right I think that a distasteful underlying moral message is not enough to generate imaginative resistance - we don't treat The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice as being like the toy examples of resistance even though in each case the intended moral message is pretty clear, and pretty obnoxious.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/03/2003 07:14:00 AM

A few random notes while I get back to coping with sunset being at 9 not 5.

There's a couple of pages I should have linked to a while ago. H. E. Baber has papers up on welfare, theology and several other issues, as well as very well-developed websites for her courses on Logic and The Economics and Ethics of Gender in the Developing World. Carsten Korfmacher has an extensive webpage, with a blog on the home page, and a papers page. Both of these papers pages have been added to the list of pages being tracked on the papers blog.

Peter Milne has a newer and more dramatic version of Lewis's triviality proof up on the Analysis site.

Before I started this blog I wrote about Marc Lange's "Baseball, Pessimistic Inductions, and the Turnover Fallacy". (I can't find either my comment or Lange's paper online, which sort of spoils the story to follow.) Lange pointed out that the Pessimistic Induction - All science has been wrong in the past, so probably it is wrong in the present - fails to note that current science is not exactly a random sample. Bad theories have a tendency to be refuted, and hence cease to be current. By way of illustration, he noted that while most managers in major league history have sub-.500 records, at any one time most managers have career above -.500 records. The analogy, obviously enough, is that even if most scientific theories are losers, even very weak selective pressure suggests that current theories may well be winners. It's a neat idea, and you'd expect to find it applied not just to managers, but to players. And it seems that it does, even with the very poor decision making by some baseball administrators. Nate Silver shows that over the period 1973-1992, the correlation between quality and playing time holds up quite well, and makes the right statistical/philosophical point.

As Bill James pointed out during his Abstract days, the talent distribution in baseball is asymmetrical; the vast majority of players who appear at some point on a major league roster turn in a below-average performance, but the above-average players receive so much more playing time that the equilibrium is maintained.

Of course, scepticism about current science might be justified for slightly less crude reasons than inductive scepticism. On StarStuff, ABC NewsRadio's Science Show, Brian Boyle noted that the cosmological constant is (a) not known to be constant, and (b) larger than theoretical calculations say it should be by 120 orders of magnitude. It's very hard to imagine what it is to be out by 120 orders of magnitude, even the Bush budget estimates are not normally that bad. The interview is here, and starts about 8 minutes in. Before that is a story even more designed to make one worry about science - the ongoing and so far unsuccessful searches for the Higgs Boson particle, which unlike dark energy is predicted to exist by best theories, and also unlike dark energy do not show up very clearly in experimental results. (If all my physics is off in this paragraph, I blame the ABC, not my reliance on pop science sources.)

Negative polarity (in the linguistic, not the physical) sense is one of my favourite topics, but sadly there are few lock-solid examples of negative polarity in English. In modern English 'ever' is about the best example we have, as illustrated by the difference between these two cases.

No one has ever defeated Kasparov in a tournament.
*Someone has ever defeated Kasparov in a tournament.

In older dialects of English, 'ever' could be used to mean 'always'. I think it is used in Shakespeare this way sometimes, but I'm a bit too lazy to look that up. But I was a little shocked to see it used in a modern-day sports story.

David Beckham has revealed he had offers from four clubs when it became clear that he was set to leave Manchester United this summer, but insists he was ever interested in joining Real Madrid.

I think that's an error, maybe missing 'only' before 'ever', but if not it's a very bizarre usage.

On bizarre facts, I thought I had a copy of the Harry Potter book waiting for me when I got back to the States, but in fact there were two copies. I don't remember ordering two copies, but I suppose there are several things I've done that I don't remember doing. Or perhaps Amazon messed up. Perhaps.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/03/2003 01:11:00 AM


Happy (belated) New Year's Day.

It's belated because I just got home from a rather long, and slightly eventful flight. I managed to spend the end of the first day of the new year at Boston's South Station, which seemed somewhat appropriate since I ended so many days last year there too.

I wasn't meant to be in Boston today, but my flight plans were re-routed while I was airborne between Sydney and LA. The new plan left roughly 50 minutes between landing in LA and taking off for Washington. This seemed to be a surprising, even touching, display of confidence by United Airlines in the efficiency of the immigration officials (vindicated), their baggage handlers (not vindicated), customs officials and security staff (both retrospectively vindicated). I hadn't got my bags before my plane to Washington took off, though I did make it through the next two steps in about 2 minutes flat. I then managed to get myself re-rerouted to Boston. Where, naturally, my baggage did not end up. I was a little miffed about this at first - especially because while waiting for my bags to not turn up I missed a bus back to Providence. On the other hand, this way the bags will get delivered to my door. (If they arrive.) And on the third hand, the missing bag contains little apart from dirty laundry. Still, maybe not so dirty that I wouldn't have wanted to wear some of the said clothes tomorrow. But that's probably autobiography not philosophy.

So why, I hear you ask, New Year's Day? Well, it dawned on me that the actual calendar years aren't that relevant to academics. What are more relevant are academic years. So we need years that revolve around those. This underdetermines when we should start and finish years a little, since any time between graduation and the start of Fall would do. So the solstice might work, but I don't want to think too hard about solstices. (I've had 11 winter solstices since my last summer solstice. And I'm not sure that I've spelled solstice correctly once here.) As the tax year in Australia goes from July 1 to June 30 for no apparent reason, that seemed a crucial consideration. So around 11.30 last night, I decided July 1 it was, as it had been for most of the past 37 and a half hours.

It being New Year's then, it's time for some New Year's Resolutions. Serious ones, ones that will last at least six days, provided we're allowed to skip a day here or there, yeah?

  1. Read more non-philosophy books
    I've been finding that reading things other than philosophy is (a) entertaining and (b) useful for writing philosophy. So I should do more of it. The problem is knowing exactly what counts as non-philosophy. Not much when I get started. After all, I wrote two chapters of my dissertation (in philosophy) on the General Theory. But I think we'll find something.
  2. Finish my book
    Since the book made negative progress last year, this one could be hard, but we'll try. And it's such a typical New Year's Resolution I had to include it.
  3. Stop caring so much about philosophical status reports
    It worried me to discover that I could recall the details of the latest Leiter rankings better than I could recall the periodic table. Not that I have any use for the periodic table in my work or anything, but this seems to be the wrong way around. And I'm not going to go learning any chemistry to fix it.
  4. Get and keep to a timetable
    I was thinking something like the following:
    Wake-10am: Papers blog, read newspapers, eat breakfast, clear overnight mail tray, etc. (At home)
    10am-5pm: All work - class preparation, grading, writing, editing, research, etc. (At office)
    5pm-7pm: Non-philosophy reading (At home or pub)
    7pm-10pm: Dinner and watching baseball (At home or baseball park)
    10pm-lights out: Open season (Anywhere)
    If I insisted the reading be at a pub I might improve on resolution 1, but only at the cost of the permanent tacit resolution that I won't drink so much this year. And I've have to find a pub in Providence to drink in. And I'd have to allow for exceptions as soon as the timetable became operational. But it might be a way to make sure I get actual work done, as well as fitting in other stuff I want to do.
  5. Stop cheating on my wife
    This one is made up. To keep it, I'd have to (a) get married, (b) start an affair and (c) end that affair. And that's too much activity for one year. Or at least, that would I think count as keeping the resolution. But it's somewhat odd. It only makes sense if we take the resolution to be bounded by a tacit existential quantifier over times in the upcoming year, which seems reasonable, and if we take the description 'my wife' to have narrow scope with respect to the tacit quantifier. The latter is odd. It isn't, I think, what we do in resolution 2. If I give up on vagueness, and instead write a book on demonstratives, I don't think I would keep resolution 2, even though there would be a t such that I'd have completed the thing that would have been, at t, my book. I don't know why the difference here, or whether we should even expect a decent explanation of the difference.

I started making progress on point 1 over the flight here, reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. It was, as the second wave of reviews suggested, as good as the hype indicated. And as always there's lots of potential philosophical points to make. But it's getting late so I'll just make one. The narrator of the story knows a lot more about the world of the story than any particular character. At one point, at least, her knowledge is limited to what is known by some (other) character or other knows, but clearly she would have fairly amazing epistemological powers if she knows all she purports to know. I think I've previously endorsed Alex Byrne's argument that in these cases we should say there is no narrator, at least no narrator in the world of the story. But it's pretty clear here there is a narrator, for she often will say things that relate more to her (and our relationship with her) than to any character. So she'll think out loud about what to say next, let us know that some mystery will be cleared up down the road, and occasionally offer commentary on how the characters are going through their trials. All this suggests a narrator, even one in the world of Archie and Samad and Clara and Irie and everyone, but such a narrator would be magical, and we don't have much of a sense that there's any magic in this world. (Except in one scene involving a fairly improbable coin toss.) The best explanation of what's happening here is roughly Kendall Walton's. The question of how the narrator knows all she knows simply doesn't arise. If she were to say something wildly inappropriate, then it might arise, but as it stands asking how she knows these things is like asking how Othello gets to be such a good poet. It simply isn't playing the game the right way to push on those aspects of the make-believe in just that way. This might all require rewriting some of the sections about the phenomenological puzzle in the imaginative resistance paper.

posted by Brian Weatherson 7/02/2003 03:03:00 AM


I've just got back from a few fun days up in Canberra, so replying to comments on the blog board, email etc will be rather slow. (And tomorrow I'm flying back to Providence, so electronic communication will be non-existent.) Just time for one quick link. John Quiggin links to my imaginative resistance paper, and argues that the kinds of limits on imagination discussed in the literature I mention undercut some intuitive arguments against consequentialism.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/29/2003 08:35:00 PM


I already recommended Geoffrey Nunberg’s website a couple of days ago, but I should have added a specific recommendation for one of the papers archived there: Do You Know What It’s Like to Miss New Orleans? The paper covers a lot of ground, some of it in the French Quarter, but much of it concerns the relationship between philosophy and linguistics. Part of the attraction of the paper is that it reminds us that there still are scientific disciplines out there that take (some) philosophers seriously. But for me the greater interest was the discussion of just which philosophers are influential within linguistics. They might not be the ones you expect. I’d say a little more, but that might be spoiler. So if you want one perspective, as far as I can tell an accurate one, on which of us are being listened to in linguistics, go read the article.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/25/2003 03:31:00 PM


I've been told that the comments boards here are not integrating well with various browsers. As far as I can tell, some comments are only showing up when the comments page is loaded using the same browser type that was used to post them. I won't be able to do much about this until I get back to America - and doing something about it might involve moving to MT, but if I don't respond to your witty clever knockdown counterexample comment, pls don't feel offended. It might be my browser's fault.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/24/2003 08:45:00 PM

A Puzzle About Knowledge

I don't think the evidence that knowledge is simply true belief has been taken seriously enough by many in the philosophical community. So I'm going to try again here to get people to do so. The following example is quite long, but I think that's necessary to remove some possible distractions. In particular, part of my theory is that stress on the word 'know' or its cognate in knowledge claims changes the acceptability of those claims, so a longer story gives us more context and hence more natural stress patterns and hence a better guide to what's really happening. (I'm much indebted to various conversations with Polly Jacobson, Jeff King and Jason Stanley for getting me to realise the importance of stress in these matters.)

The Virus

A nasty virus has been released at your workplace, and everyone is at risk of infection. The virus isn't extremely infectious, but it isn't fun to have, so it's important to get a clampdown on it as soon as possible. Unfortunately, one of the two tests that people have been using to see whether they have the virus is not very good. The other test is fine, not perfect but pretty good by medical standards.

But the bad test is quite bad. The people using it were told it is 98% accurate. That is a small exaggeration, but in any case it is quite irrelevant. The test is 'accurate' because it mostly returns negative results and most people don't have the virus. So it gets it right with about 95% or so of people. But only about 1/3 of those who get positive test results actually have the virus. So there's a lot of false positives floating around your workplace.

Here are the numbers so far for various salient groups:
5 people have the virus and believe that they do because they used the good test.
4 people have the virus and believe they they do because they used the bad test.
6 people don't have the virus but believe they they do because they used the bad test.
8 people have the virus but haven't taken a test, so don't think they have it.
Making matters worse, your boss would prefer that news of the virus didn't get out, thinking it will send a downwards spiral in the company's share price. He would prefer there'd been no tests at all. Having heard that there's been more testing, he storms in to your office asking, "HOW MANY people know that they have the virus now?"
What do you answer?

It's philosophically defensible to say zero, because no one is 100% beyond a shadow of a ghost of a shade of a doubt certain that they have it. But in the circumstances not many bosses would take that to be an acceptable answer.

It's even more philosophically defensible to say five, because only five have a warranted true belief that they have the virus. (I presume that since the 4 made a false inference from false premises to conclude they have the virus, their belief is not warranted unless warrant is a totally trivial condition.) But again, that doesn't seem like the most appropriate thing to say in the circumstances.

If your boss knew the underlying facts, the answer he'd expect, I think, is nine. And I think that's the right answer.

To back up this intuition, consider if the boss continues questioning you the following way. Molly is one of the 4 who believe for bad reasons she has the virus.
BOSS: Does Molly know she has the virus?
YOU: No.
BOSS: Does Molly believe she has the virus?
YOU: Yes.
BOSS: Does Molly have the virus?
You: Yes.
BOSS: Then whatdya mean she doesn't know she has it?
YOU: Let me tell you about late 20th century epistemology.
The next step, of course, is you being fired. In the circumstances, true belief is enough for knowledge.

But note that nine is the largest answer you could give. You shouldn't answer fifteen, though the Boss might appreciate it if your answer informed him that another 6 people think they have the virus. That's probably relevant information, but those people shouldn't be grouped in with the people who know they have the virus.

And, of course, the eight people who don't even think they have the virus shouldn't be considered. It's clearly wrong to answer seventeen, even though seventeen people do, in fact, have the virus.

I hope you agree with all my intuitions here. What should we make of them philosophically?

The most natural explanation of the data, I think, is that knowledge is simply true belief, though sometimes when someone says S knows that p, they speaker mean that S has a warranted, or justified, or certain, or approved by God, belief that p. Semantically, all that they mean is that S truly believes that p. Questions, especially questions by people in authority not concerned with niceties of speaker meaning, tend to bring out semantic meaning, so in your little conversation with Boss, 'know' reverts back to its basic meaning of being truly believes. That's why the right answer is nine, though perhaps if you have a cute enough smile you can get away with five or zero without being fired.

I'm not saying that's the best explanation of all the data concerned with knowledge talk. But I do think it's the best explanation of this bit of data. There are two other explanations of the data that people have tried in the past.

One of these I won't say much about. This is the contextualist approach. I've argued against contextualism here before, and I think in general the various objections that Jason Stanley and Ernie Lepore and John Hawthorne have made of contextualism in various places work. But I don't want to really argue for that here as much as set it aside. My main target is the invariantist who thinks that (non-trivial) warrant is necessary for knowledge.

What can that philosopher say about the appropriateness of nine as an answer to Boss's question? The response I usually get is an inverse of my response - that although 'knowledge' really denotes warranted true belief, sometimes the speaker meaning of a knowledge ascription can be somewhat weaker than this. Here all Boss cares about is true belief, he speaker means "How many people truly believe they have the virus?", and that's how you should answer.

I used to think this answer was incoherent - speaker meaning can only add to the content of a term not subtract from it. But that was probably too quick. The real problem with this response is that it can't really explain the data. If 'knowledge' semantically means warranted true belief, but its speaker meaning can be simply true belief on some occasions, why couldn't its speaker meaning be simply belief, or simply truth? If we can subtract part of the semantic meaning out, why not the other parts? I don't think there's any good explanation for this available to the invariantist who holds that knowledge is warranted true belief. If there's any explanation for it at all, I suspect it will be very complicated.

Well, this was all rather quick, but I think there's a somewhat powerful case to be made here that knowledge is simply true belief. Obviously this theory will have to rely on some very heavy duty pragmatics in order to explain most of the cases philosophers have talked about. But since virtually every case considered in epistemology classrooms involves stress (usually comparative stress with an unclear comparison) on 'know', I think a good theory of stress can explain a lot of the data apparently inconsistent with the claim that knowledge is simply true belief. Could it, or any other pragmatic theory, explain all of that data? Don't know, but I'd like to see some clever people argue one way or the other.

Quick acknowledgment at the end. The case here is somewhat modelled on various cases John Hawthorne has used for various purposes, but it does have one or two new touches. In particular, the use of questions to push the knowledge = true belief line is John's, but the extra point that these cases do not support knowledge = truth or knowledge = belief is, I think, original.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/24/2003 08:41:00 PM


I have drafted a new version of the imaginative resistance paper. Sadly, I lost my instructions for how to upload anything to my main webpage. Happily, I still have blogs to use. So I’ve put the paper on a subpage within this site. It can be found using the following link:
Fictional Furniture Foughts
I had a rather long list of names I tried out for various reasons before settling on the present one. (Which is not, I hasten to add, Fictional Furniture Foughts, as amusing as that may be.) This was what the list on my sketchpad looked like when I was done scribbling with names.
Psycho Semantics
Summer in Winter, Winter in Springtime
Ideas Sleep Furiously
Electric Gaslight
Quickly Standing Still
One Heavy February
The Silence was Deafening
How Not to Tell a Story
Zero Secrets of Successful Authors
Six Secrets of Unsuccessful Authors
Furniture in Fiction and Fictional Furniture
Fictional Errors from Cervantes to Reifenstahl
Furniture of Fictional Universes
The Caretaker’s Daughter
Good Morning Good Morning
With a Little Help from my Friends
(A response that stressed the role of fiction in moral education could well be called Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.)
Did Romeo Love Juliet?
When Armchairs Attack
I doubt many of those are actually amusing, but all of them seemed like good ideas at the time, even the ones that were taken in their entirety from song titles. I would like to use the first name for a paper on representation in fiction sometime, but maybe I’ll save it for a paper about representation in film.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/21/2003 09:08:00 PM


Grokking, Wokking and Locking

I've been having another crack at my imaginative resistance paper, and this time I'm trying not to make the sections on Stephen Yablo's views a bracketed to be included section. (For details of Yablo's views, see sections 14 and 21 of Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda. I think what Yablo says is intriguing, but too short to be a full solution.

It's a bit hard for me to get my head around Yablo's solution, because officially I think it's incoherent. He things imaginative resistance is closely linked to what he calls response-enabled concepts, or grokking concepts. These are introduced by examples, particularly by the example 'oval'.

Here are meant to be some platitudes about OVAL. It is a shape concept - any two objects in any two worlds, indeed in any two parts of the old 2D matrix, that have the same shape are alike in whether they are ovals. But which shape concept it is is picked out by our reactions. They are the shapes that strike us as being egg-like, or a bit more geekily, like the shape of all ellipse whose length/width ratio is the golden ratio. (Hmmm...golden ratios...Hmmm.) In this way it's meant to be distinguished on the one hand from, say, PRIME NUMBER, which is entirely independent of us, and from WATER, which would have picked out a different chemical substance had our reactions to various chemicals been different. Note that what 'prime number' picks out is determined by us, like all semantic facts are. So the move space into which OVAL is meant to fit is quite tiny. We matter to its extension, but not the way we matter to 'prime number' (or we don't matter to PRIME NUMBER), and not the way we matter to 'water'. Officially, I think there's no move space here to move in, so I think positing such concepts is incoherent. Yablo's terms for grokking concepts strike me as words that have associated egocentric descriptions that fix their reference without having egocentric reference fixing descriptions, and I find it hard to believe such words exist. But my official views are very intolerant, so I'll pretend for now that I understand what Yablo is saying.

The important point for fiction about grokking concepts is that we matter, in a non-constitutive way, for their extension. Not we as we might have been, or we as we are in a story, but us. So an author can't say, in the story squares looked egg-shaped to the people, so in the story squares are ovals, because we get to say what's an oval, not some fictional character. Here's how Yablo puts it:
Why should resistance and grokkingnes be connected in this way? It's a feature of grokking concepts that their extension in a situation depends on how the situation does or would strike us. 'Does or would strike us' as we are: how we are represented as reacting, or invited to react, has nothing to do with it. Resistance is the natural consequence. If we insist on judging the extension ourselves, it stands to reason that any seeming intelligence coming from elsewhere is automatically suspect. This applies in particular to being 'told' about the extension by an as-if knowledgeable narrator.
As I said, I think this is all incredibly interesting (if incoherent) and not a million miles from my view. But I don't think it works, at least as a complete solution.

My old Don Quixote story might look like a counterexample to Yablo's position here. After all, the concept that seems to generate resistance there is TELEVISION, and that isn't anything like his examples of grokking concepts. (The examples, apar from evaluative concepts, are all shape concepts.) On the other hand, if there are any grokking concepts, perhaps it is plausible that TELEVISION should be one of them. Let's think of some platitudes about TELEVISION. (The following few lines are mostly me reciting from memory some of what Fodor says in Concepts, with televisual references replacing doorknobular ones.)

Three platitudes about TELEVISION stand out. One is that it's very hard to define just what a television is. (Go on - try it and see how far you get.) Second is that there's a striking correlation between people who have the concept TELEVISION and people who have been acquainted with a television. Not a correlation of 1 - some infants have acquaintance with televisions but not as such, and some people acquire TELEVISION by description - but still high. Third is that conversations about televisions are rarely at cross purposes, consisting of people literally talking different languages. TELEVISION is a shared concept.

Can we put these into a theory of the concept TELEVISION? Here's a try. (Warning: Non-reductive analysis ahead.) Televisions are those things that strike us, people in general, as being sufficiently like the televisions we've seen, in a televisual kind of way. This isn't part of the meaning of television - there's no reference to us in the dictionary entry for 'television', and rightly so. But it sort of latches on to the right thing, in roughly the only way one could. The epistemic necessity of having a paradigm television to use as a basis for similarity judgments explains the striking correlation between televisual acquaintance and concept possession. The fact that the only way of picking out the extension uses something that is not constitutive of the concept, namely our reactions to televisions, explains why we can't define the concept. And the use of people's reactions in general rather than idiosyncratic reactions explains why its a common concept. This all seems remarkably clever to me, I do wish I had thought of it all first, and it doesn't seem that far from what Yablo had in mind. So I'm fairly comfortable with the idea that (if any concept is grokking) TELEVISION is a grokking concept and my Quixote example is not a counterexample to Yablo's little theory.

Still, I have three quibbles.

First, there's a missing antecedent in a key sentence in his account, and I have no idea how to fill it in. What does he mean when he says 'how the situation does or would strike us'? Does or would strike us if what? If we were there? But we don't know where there is. There is a place where televisions look like knifes and forks. If all the non-grokking descriptions were accurate? Maybe, but I think there's a worry now that most concepts will be grokking - Fodor intended his account of DOORKNOB to be quite general. Not universal, but quite general. If we take out all the grokking concepts, there may not be much left.

Second, despite that I'm still rather unsure that mental concepts, and content concepts, are grokking. LOVE might be, BELIEVING THAT THERE ARE SPACE ALIENS probably is not. But in the paper I argued that these concepts can generate resistance too. Maybe these are grokking as well (if anything is) so I don't want to stress this.

Finally, I think this _slightly_ over-generalises. Here's a sketch of a counter-example. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to fill it in. Imagine a time-travelling story told the following way. DQ and his buddy SP leave DQ's apartment at midday Tuesday, leaving a well-arranged lounge suite and home theatre unit. They travel back to Monday, where DQ has some rather strange and unexpected adventures. He intended to correct something that happened yesterday, that had gone all wrong the first time around, and by the time they leave for Tuesday (via that old fashioned time travel route of drinking until they pass out and waking up in the future) he's sure it's all been sorted. When DQ and his buddy SP get back to his apartment midday Tuesday, it looks for all the world like there's nothing there except a knife and fork. As I said, the details need some filling in, but I think you get the idea. Now that story doesn't, I think, generate imaginative resistance. But a grokking concept, TELEVISION, is used in a way inconsistent with the underlying facts.

One might ask at this point whether Brian's own theory also over-generates, predicting imaginative resistance at this point when none is to be found. The answer to that is that it doesn't, though the epicycle to prevent that prediction may or may not have been added to the official story yet.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/19/2003 10:21:00 PM

The Age sadly continues its slow slide into mediocrity. This is too bad, because it used to be a world-class newspaper, but it now seems to think that a couple of pages of originally sourced news, a few (largely predictable) opinion columns and several pages of wire stories a good newspaper make.

Today they decided to reprint Robert Kagan's WaPo OpEd from a week or so ago, already torn to shreds by Brown's own Josh Marshall, arguing that claims that Bush, Blair and Howard lied about Iraq's WMD capacity are a giant 'conspiracy theory'. Kagan's argument relies on the premise that critics of the unholy trinity are saying that not only they lied, but so did the UN weapon inspectors. And that would be, not to put to fine a point on it, a lie. I'd go into greater detail about where Kagan is wrong, but I'd basically just be repeating what Josh said, so if you care mightily about these matters, go read his reply.

If The Age has to find old foreign right-wing opinion pieces to reprint, they could at least try to find half-way decent ones. But really I'm not sure why they bother. There should be some kind of political balance on the opinion pages, but there's no reason why they can't find domestic right-wingers to write original pieces in defence of the war. For all their flaws, Australian conservatives will usually display more intellectual honesty than their American bretheren. (Well, perhaps that's why they had to import a column defending pre-war WMD claims.)

In better news, The Age does feature a cool extended interview with the Go-Betweens. The Go-Betweens are playing in Richmond next week and it should be a fun time. "I've got tickets, to the best show in town..."

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/19/2003 10:20:00 PM


I was thinking a little about quantifiers for various reasons last night, and I ended up being so confused I had to write a blog entry about it.

If you listened to what some philosophers, yours truly included, taught their undergraduates, you'd think we spoke a language in which (1) and (2) were synonymous.
(1) Some cat is beautiful
(2) *Some beautiful is cat.
Some days it is amazing that philosophers can make any useful contribution to linguistics.

So let's try and get a little clearer about just what role 'some' plays. It isn't a quantifier, as philosophers normally think of that term. Rather, it's a determiner, which combines with an NP (or other phrases?) to form a quantifier phrase. The quantifier in (1) is the phrase 'some cat'. And the QP, as is widely known, can be treated as being the same type as a name - a function from predicates to truth-values.

So is there any such thing as unrestricted quantification? Possibly yes, in one sense, and possibly no, in another. The yes sense first.

None of the dogmatic assertions in the previous sentence were meant to be inconsistent with the idea that (1) is an unrestricted quantification over cats. For all I asserted, an utterance (1) could be true just in case some cat somewhere in the universe is beautiful. It's agreed on all sides (I think!) that this is rarely the speaker meaning of (1). The speaker meaning of (1) is usually that some salient cat is beautiful. When pushed I usually agree with those who say this is also part of the semantic meaning, but for present purposes I want to bracket that issue. Let's agree with those who say that the semantic meaning of (1) is just that some cat is beautiful. (That looks so plausible written like that!) It's still the case that the quantifier in (1) is restricted to cats. All cats now, but still cats. The question is could there be an utterly unrestricted quantifier?

Some may think that the quantifier in (3) is such a quantifier, but I doubt it. The problem is that (3) is too similar to (4), and (4) looks like it is restricted to quantification over things, and I rather doubt that 'thing' in English is an utterly trivial noun.
(3) Something is beautiful.
(4) Some thing is beautiful.
So I conclude, somewhat hastily, that quantifier phrases in subject position are always restricted. This is hardly a new conclusion, which is why I feel safe moving at such speed. What though of QPs in subject position, as in (5)?
(5) There is a cat who can play the piano.
To start with, this 'there is' construction is very hard to get a handle on. Here's a relatively simple question about it that I don't know if anyone has solved. (I don't know if anyone's noticed it before, though I suspect they have. As I may have mentioned, I'm away from my books right now.) I assume for now that the prepositional phrase 'who can play the piano' is part of the quantifier phrase. We will come back to that below.

We can make all kinds of sentences using the construction 'There' + copula + QP. Focus for now on such sentences where the QP has 'no' at its head. In some of these sentences the copula is most naturally singular. In others it is most naturally plural. For example, (6) is more natural than (7), but (9) is more natural than (8).
(6) There is no way to rescue the princess.
(7) ?There are no ways to rescue the princess

(8) ??There is no Bengals supporter in Sydney.
(9) There are no Bengals supporters in Sydney.
I have no idea why this would be so. Here was one thought I had that doesn't seem to work. Imagine an atheist using the problem of evil to argue against the existence of any gods. She would probably use (10) when addressing a monotheist, but (11) when addressing a polytheist. (Bracket for now concerns about the problem of evil as an argument against multiple gods.)
(10) The famine in Africa is yet more proof that there is no god.
(11) The famine in Africa is yet more proof that there are no gods.
So, I thought to myself, maybe the difference is that we use 'is' when the audience expects that if there is any, there is one, and 'are' when they expect that if there is any, there are many. But this can't be right. American football fans are thin on the ground in Sydney, and Bengals fans are thin on the ground wherever one looks. If there are any there, there is probably just one. And if there is one way to rescue the princess, it wouldn't be surprising at all if there is some relatively minor alternative to that plan. So I don't really know what to make of this. Any suggestions would be most appreciated. Philosophers are notoriously weak on issues to do with plurality in language, so I might leave this one to the experts.

What I was originally interested in was whether the 'There' + copula + QP construction could be used to get an utterly unrestricted quantifier. At first glance, it is plausible that (5) contains an utterly unrestricted quantifier - it says the world contains a cat that is capable of playing the piano. As we might put it in formalese:
(12) Ex (Cat(x) & Can-play-the-piano(x))
But if that's right, then (13) should be a fine sentence, and at least in discourse-initial position it is very odd.
(13) There is a cat.
We can say that in the middle of a conversation. Imagine we are looking through the normal directories for animal pianists. After I've ruled out all the monkeys, whales, giraffes, pandas and antelopes, you might say 'There is a cat', (speaker) meaning (5). But it would be odd to start a conversation.

Now there are good pragmatic explanations for why this would be odd. But in the spirit of early morning experimentation, let me propose a (bad?) semantic explanation. I suggest (13), despite being a somewhat well-formed sentence, does not express a complete proposition. Rather, I think, the proposition expressed by a sentence 'There' + copula + QP + PP is generated by replacing the 'there' in subject position by the QP, and dropping the copula and the head of the PP. So (5) expresses exactly the same proposition as (14).
(14) A cat can play the piano.
And (13) expresses the same proposition as (15).
(15) A cat.
What advantages does this have? Well, not many, but it does explain why (13) is odd in discourse-initial position, and after all we have to try and find some way of writing a semantic entry for these 'There is' sentences. There are also some disadvantages - including some potential counterexamples hidden on this page - but for now that's my morning suggestion.

I would try and write more, including about the differences between using 'there' as a null subject and 'there' as a demonstrative - the stress patterns in the two are notably different I think - but I've probably made enough blunders for one entry.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/16/2003 09:35:00 PM

I knew I should have been spending more time web-surfing if I wanted philosophical ideas.

Wo has a post up defending the impossible solution to the puzzle of imaginative resistance. It's a good post, and I mostly want to just recommend you go read it, assuming like me you've been irrationally not checking his page. But I did have four supplementary comments to make.

1. Tyler Doggett pointed out to me that my preferred solution really is a lot closer to the impossible solution than I suggest in the paper. Tyler's right about this, and I need to correct my existing draft to make it clear that I'm in the same area as the impossible solution. I think my little Quixote story is a pretty powerful argument for something like that solution.

2. There's an odd asymmetry in the premises I use to argue for my solution. I think my Quixote example is an example of the same kind of phenomenon as the paradigm imaginative resistance cases. But I don't think the continuity errors that Wo mentions, or the disagreement with reality errors that I mention (e.g. the Connolly Norman example) are the same kind of phenomenon. When I say this is a premise, that's to say I don't have an argument for the asymmetry here. I think I probably need one.

3. I'm not really as confident in my judgments about Tamar's Tower of Goldbach case as I sound in my paper. What I think is most striking is that intelligent people, most prominently now Wo and Tamar, can differ so radically on the case. I'd be more interested in having an explanation of that than actually having a firm judgment about the case. I've tried a few ideas for explaining the disagreement, mostly trying to link it to possible disagreements about the metaphysics of mathematics, but nothing is sounding very plausible.

4. After reading Wo's defense I'm a little more convinced that the impossible solution is compatible with most of the alleged counterexamples (singing snowmen, parentless children, etc) but I still think the science fiction cases, especially the time travel cases, defeat it. It seems to me there are fairly obvious impossibilities in some time travel stories that just don't matter. These are the hardest cases to explain if you think impossibility is at the heart of imaginative resistance, and I still think they defeat that solution. But maybe I'm being stubborn here.

On this fictional note, happy (belated for some) Bloomsday!

UPDATE: JW pointed out in the comments that the paper on imaginative resistance I keep referring to here isn't exactly easy to find, since I forgot to add it to my papers page. So I'll put the link here: Virtuous Resistance.

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/16/2003 09:32:00 PM


One of the things I've noticed while on holidays is how much I depend on other people's work for having philosophical ideas. Without being attached at the eye to an internet terminal, preferably with open links to many of the sites highlighted on the philosophy papers blog, I struggle to come up with new ideas to talk about. So instead I'll recycle an old idea.

Inspired a little by this post on the 617 blog, I was discussing at a party the other night whether Neo should have taken seriously the possibility that he's in a second-level matrix. There was some consensus that this would be a reasonable worry for him to have, when next he gets the chance to think about it.

Later that night I was having some odd but not too remarkable dream, somehow not at all about The Matrix. The only noteworthy features were some outbreaks of prettier than expected singing, and for no apparent reason a shower of purple tinsel/confetti, that provided some fairly spectacular eye candy. Metaphorically speaking. When I woke up I was trying to explain this dream to some friends, but they didn't seem too interested, largely because my explanations seemed so incoherent. They were much more interested in getting me to see the blue glow reflected off the edge of a flower, that you could only see if you looked just the right way. Of course I couldn't get the angle right, and it looked like a pretty ordinary flower to me, which led to some frustration. And at that point I woke up again.

And here I started to have real philosophical worries. If I can be in a state that feels for all world like waking from a dream (or almost feels this way - see below) and it still be another dream, do I have a special reason for having sceptical worries at just that moment? It certainly seemed at the time that scepticism then would have been much more defensible than a general philosophical scepticism.

As it turns out, I was awake, so my rather insistent involuntary belief that I was awake was true. (Or if it wasn't it's been a very complicated dream since.) But was it knowledge? Or, if you think if it's a different question, if I'd said at the time "I know I'm awake" would I have spoken truly? For a very different question, try running through a few popular accounts of knowledge to see whether on those theories my belief that I'm awake constitutes knowledge. I suspect there's a few ways of reading the safety requirement on knowledge such that it doesn't.

What really convinced me that I was awake was that I was having tactile sensations. I think, though I don't really know how to confirm this, that I don't have tactile sensations in dreams. I'm not even sure that I have auditory sensations in dreams. Certainly my memory of dreams doesn't contain vivid audial representation in the way it contains vivid visual representation. I end up knowing that the auditory surroundings are one way rather than another, but it often seems as if this is by an unmediated, unaccompanied, direct awareness of someone speaking or singing or whatever. In the real world such awareness is constituted by, or at least accompanied by, sensations. I think this isn't the case in my dreams, so I think I now have a good way of testing whether I'm awake or not - hitting myself in the head and seeing whether I hear or feel it. Scepticism refuted using folk science!

Maybe I shouldn't need other philosophers to provide philosophical ideas. Maybe I should be able to get ideas from my environment. But it's not that easy to do that, I've found. Ideally I'd get more philosophical inspiration from other creative works. But that hasn't been working. I've seen two bands since I got here - Machine Translations and Architects in Helsinki - and while both were very good, neither exactly encouraged distinctively philosophical ideas. (Aesthetics question: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that both of these bands sounded exactly the same on stage as on their recordings? I was a little bit disappointed by this, but only a little since their recordings sound very good. But maybe I was being unreasonable, and it's perfectly acceptable to reproduce the recording studio on a pub stage.) I saw an excellent performance of Hamlet, but while that does raise philosophical questions I think I've considered most of them previously at some time or other previously. (Economics question: how well would a book on philosophical issues in Shakespeare sell? It could be used as a textbook for particularly precocious, not to mention precious, young philosophy students. And it could be fun to write.) And I saw some recent Aboriginal paintings, and was again convinced that Australian Aboriginal art is the best art of the past thirty years. When I'm feeling particularly ungenerous I can almost be convinced it's the only worthwhile art of the past thirty years, but that's probably a slight exaggeration. Still, that doesn't raise distinctively philosophical issues either, so I'm still a little lacking in inspiration. Maybe it's just a side-effect of too much holidaying and too little work!

posted by Brian Weatherson 6/15/2003 09:39:00 PM

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