Saturday, September 05, 2009

Why Davidson is not Humpty Dumpty

I promised in the comments to the other post to say something about Davidson's argument in "Nice Derangement," which is of course the Ursprung of all this talk about rejecting the idea of "linguistic norms." (In the context of that discussion everybody is clear on this, except possibly me, but let me just tie up that loose end.) Unlike Bilgrami, Davidson does not direct his argument against Kripke and Burge in particular (and McDowell's somewhat differently focused criticism of same). Instead Davidson simply argues that we should not base our conception of language use, and thus of meaning, on the concept of convention, i.e., as manifested in linguistic rules which pre-exist and thereby determine the meanings of particular utterances on particular occasions, as if they were, in Davidson's dismissive terms, "portable interpreting machines."

Instead, the fundamental idea is that language is used above all to communicate (i.e. rather than to denote or represent, which it does in only a derivative manner). Similar ideas are already present in Davidson (q.v. "Reality Without Reference," and "Communication and Convention," in Inquiries), but here he spells out the implications more provocatively. Indeed, in asserting a primary role for the intentions of the speaker in determining meaning, he provokes suspicions of "internalism" and downright semantic nihilism.

The specific thesis he rejects is that "[t]he systematic knowledge or competence of the speaker or interpreter is learned in advance of occasions of interpretation and is conventional in character." Okay, that's pretty much what I said above. But later on, he elaborates: "[i]n principle communication does not demand that any two people speak the same language. What must be shared is the interpreter's and the speaker's understanding of the speaker's words." [438] Now there are some constraints on this sharing, some of which involve what can count as a possible communicative intention of the speaker in the given situation (here leaning on Grice's analysis of same); and it is these constraints which separate Davidson's account from nihilism and/or internalism.

Here Davidson points to Keith Donellan's previous (albeit somewhat differently focused – Davidson explains but I will skip that part) discussion of similar matters. Alfred MacKay had accused Donellan of Humpty Dumptyism ("When *I* use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean"), and in reply, Donellan "explains that intentions are connected with explanations and that you cannot intend to accomplish something by a certain means unless you believe or expect that the means will, or at least could, lead to the desired outcome. A speaker cannot, therefore, intend to mean something by what he says unless he believes his audience will interpret his words as he intends (the Gricean circle)." As quoted by Davidson, Donellan says:
If I were to end this reply to MacKay with the sentence 'There's glory for you' I would be guilty of arrogance and, no doubt, of overestimating the strength of what I have said, but given the background I do not think I could be accused of saying something unintelligible. I would be understood, and would I not have meant by 'glory' 'a nice knockdown argument'?
Davidson approves of this reply (and then explains a disagreement I have here elided). Okay, let me just quote the money paragraphs and then I'll stop.
Humpty Dumpty is out of it. He cannot mean what he says because he knows that 'There's glory for you' cannot be interpreted by Alice as meaning 'There's a nice knockdown argument for you.' We know he knows this because Alice says 'I don't know what you mean by "glory"', and Humpty Dumpty retorts, 'Of course you don't – til I tell you.' It is Mrs Malaprop and Donellan who interest me; Mrs Malaprop because she gets away with it without even trying or knowing, and Donellan because he gets away with it on purpose.

Here is what I mean by 'getting away with it': the interpreter comes to the occasion of utterance armed with a theory that tells him (or so he believes) what an arbitrary utterance of the speaker means. The speaker then says something with the intention that it will be interpreted in a certain way, and the expectation that it will be so interpreted. In fact this way is not provided for by the interpreter's theory. But the speaker is nevertheless understood; the interpreter adjusts his theory so that it yields the speaker's intended interpretation. The speaker has 'gotten away with it.' The speaker may or may not (Donellan, Mrs Malaprop) know that he has got away with anything; the interpreter may or may not know that the speaker intended to get away with anything. What is common to the cases is that the speaker expects to be, and is, interpreted as the speaker intended although the interpreter did not have a correct theory in advance. [440]
One more thing. I think that what this means is that when Wittgenstein asks us to consider whether I can say "bububu" and mean "if it does not rain I will go for a walk," the answer is yes, I can; but only after what he elsewhere calls "stagesetting." Before that, not so much (and certainly not by a Humpty Dumpty-like act of, say, inner ostention).

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bilgrami's critique of the Platonistic urge (or: why reject the very idea of semantic normativity?)

The previous post was a bit of a bear, wasn't it. (By the way, if you liked it, you may vote for it here - once they work out the bugs, that is.) Let's back up a bit, and see if we can't get clearer on the various players. The dialectic here is quite complicated, with strange bedfellows all over the place, and a number of distinct yet overlapping positions on the issue(s). (When we get back to vagueness, we'll see that there too the teams have a somewhat unusual alignment, which is what provoked Marinus's remarks about Wittgenstein in the LL post.)

Why would anyone deny that there were linguistic norms? If there were no such norms, it is easy to assume, there would be no constraint on meaning. An agent could mean anything by anything, simply by intending to do so (that is, that whatever "norms" constrained his meanings – if we still want to call them "norms" at all – are merely "internal"). But maybe this is correct. This position is called "internalism" or "individualism," and its Cartesian flavor is undeniable, thus attracting criticism from all across the philosophical spectrum (including from closet or residual Cartesians themselves). Rejecting internalism seems to require that there be external linguistic norms, and thus that I can make errors in meaning as determined by others.

But what is it to make an "error in meaning"? On one view, whenever I refer to an ocelot as a lynx, I make an error in judgment (i.e. get the world wrong/say something false), and in so doing, I misuse the word "lynx," which should only be applied to lynxes, and I thus "use the word wrongly" in this way. What determines that this is the "wrong" use of the word? Answer: linguistic rules ("norms"). Among those who take this view, there is some variation about what constitutes the linguistic norms in question: obviously other English speakers have something to do with it, but there is also some role to be played by ocelots and lynxes themselves (what role this is exactly will depend on how you feel about natural kinds and Kripkean metaphysical realism more generally).

Now we can respond to this conception of meaning errors in a few ways. A natural way is to object to a conflation between two cases: 1) using a word "wrongly" (coming out with the wrong fusebox), and 2) using it correctly to express what happens to be a false belief (I perfectly correctly characterize how things appear to me, but as it happens I am mistaken). In one sense, Davidsonians will be happy to make this distinction, as one of their (our) main concerns here is the holism of belief and meaning: that in attributing the two together, we have some interpretive leeway (or even indeterminacy) in saying what falls under what. This doesn't mean there are *no* constraints on interpretation – that someone's meaning may swing free entirely from what both subject and interpreter see as observable evidence for it; it just means that we have a better sense of how content is attributed in interpretation than do those with non-Davidsonian accounts of meaning.

However, even after distinguishing in this way, the question remains how to characterize the first case (and the sense of "correctly" in the second). We are nowhere near out of the woods. It can be a further Davidsonian point that we fall directly back into the Platonistic soup if in making this distinction we carve out a realm of purely or sui generis semantic normativity, or in other words, those same "linguistic norms." On this view, we need nothing so robust (or theoretically questionable) as linguistic normativity so construed to account for the actual constraints we make on meaning attribution. We can perfectly well, for example, think of such "mistakes" as prudential ones, in which the sound I make is inconveniently chosen to convey my perfectly determinate (and indeed often perfectly intelligible) meaning – a prudential "error," not a contravening of "linguistic norms" in the disputed sense.

This is the point Bilgrami is making in "Norms and Meaning," in which he criticizes Kripke and Burge, not for opposing "internalism" or "individualism" per se, but for not getting at the root of the problem, and thus perpetuating it in a new form. In hurrying to explain my attempted moderation of Bilgrami's rejection of semantic normativity, I kind of skipped over his reasons for rejecting it in the first place. So let me go back and say more about that.

In Kripke's and Burge's discussions, the "individualist" is pretty much someone with a "private language," someone whose inner intentions determine his meanings no matter what other people say, which is why the issue comes up in Kripke's book on Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations. Naturally Wittgenstein rejects this view; and so does Kripke, who takes the RFC (whether or not Wittgenstein himself does so) to require an appeal to a "social theory of meaning" to save us from the meaning-skeptical paradoxes to which "individualism" so construed famously leads. On Kripke's picture, if we are to account for meaning at all, *something* must provide the norms manifested in linguistic rules. In distancing itself from mere linguistic nihilism, individualism promises to locate the source of normativity in the speaker's linguistic dispositions. However, as the paradoxes show, such dispositions cannot do this, as they are compatible with *any* subsequent behavior. Nor, Kripke argues (following Wittgenstein at least this far), can we find the source in Platonistic "rigid rails" or whatnot; so "[w]hat then can the source of the desired normativity be but the social element?" ("Norms and Meaning," p. 126). The result is Kripke's "skeptical solution" to the meaning-skeptical paradox, an appeal to the dispositions of the surrounding linguistic community.

Akeel in a typical poseHowever, Bilgrami rejects this forced choice (dare I say "dualism"?) between anything-goes-if-I-say-so "individualism" on the one hand and external linguistic normativity on the other, such that we must locate a source for it in this way. Bilgrami frequently qualifies his criticism of Kripke and Burge, rejecting normativity "in the sense demanded by" K/B, or "such" normativity. (This is what encourages me to risk re-expansion of the concept into the semantic realm, or that is, recognizing a properly semantic component to our normative commitments.) Yet he is determined to pull the objectionable picture out by the roots, and takes so doing to require a stronger line against "linguistic norms" than has seemed feasible until Davidson's criticism.

Bilgrami's diagnosis goes like this:
[I]n rejecting the abstractions and metaphor of [platonistic] Meanings and 'rails' on the one hand and the internalistic mentalism of inner facts of the matter on the other, one has not yet succeeded in rejecting what in Platonism underlies the search for these things being rejected. Without rejecting this deeper urge, one will no doubt find another such thing to gratify the Platonist urge and indeed one has found it in society. This deeper urge underlying Platonism is precisely the drive to see concepts and terms as governed by such normativity. (p. 127)
John McDowell has of course also criticized Kripke's diagnosis and attempted solution to the paradoxes. In particular, McDowell too criticizes Kripke on his own terms - that his "skeptical solution," locating semantic norms in community practice, fails to do what it promises. And he too wants to dissolve the problem and allay the skeptical anxiety, just as does Bilgrami, only without giving up semantic normativity entirely. It is in trying make sense of McDowell's approach not only to this issue, but to normativity generally (especially in response to Davidson), that I am motivated to moderate Bilgrami's flat rejection of semantic normativity in the way I did the other day.

But let's see what Bilgrami says about McDowell. According to Bilgrami, McDowell says
that the way Kripke brings in the social is just an extension of the normativity-denying position of the dispositionalist because all Kripke does is bring in the dispositions of other members of society to account for an individual's meanings. So if he says something was missing in the individual dispositionalist account in the first place, then it will be missing in the social extension as well. This criticism seems to me to be fair enough, if one accepts the normativity demand as one finds it in Kripke and as one finds it in these others who think that Kripke has himself failed to live up to that demand. But I do not accept the demand in the first place. So mine is a much more fundamental criticism of Kripke. In my view, one should repudiate the 'Platonism' altogether (even in its ersatz forms) and in so doing give notions like meaning and concepts a much lower profile, whereby it does not matter very much that one is not able to say [referring here to the familiar examples in Kripke and Burge] that KWert is making a [properly semantic, or as Bilgrami puts it, "intrinsic lexical"] mistake on January 1st 1990 or that Burge's protagonist has all along made a mistake when he applies the term to a condition in his thigh. [...] [I]t makes no difference to anything at all, which answer we give. His behaviour is equally well explained no matter what we say. There is no problem, skeptical or otherwise. (p. 128)
Because of the holism of belief and meaning, we can attribute either concept, adjusting the belief component accordingly, and equally well explain the agent's behavior, which is after all the constitutive function of interpretation in the first place. This is the sense in which Bilgrami's is a Davidsonian view (and in response to this article, Davidson agrees heartily).

In this sense, again, I have no problem with this view. However, I think that here too (that is, w/r/t this view itself) we have other options in explaining the anti-Platonism we are after, options which leave the concept (or again, *a* concept) of "properly semantic normativity" in place. I was no doubt remiss in the previous post not to stress that it is only after the point has been understood that we safely can go on and try to accommodate McDowell's way of talking, with its characteristic stress on normative rather than (as readers of Mind and World will recognize as the criticism of Davidson there on analogous grounds) "merely causal" (or again, descriptive) relations between mental contents and the world they are about. When we do this we can see how McDowell's criticism can be properly directed. Davidson is not making a "Platonistic" error, as Kripke et. al. are, but in recoiling to a picture devoid of properly semantic normativity (properly construed), he misses a chance to tell a better story about normative commitment generally speaking, and thus recover gracefully from the error he really does make which results in his "coherentism," dismissed by McDowell as "frictionless spinning in a void" (again, see Mind and World, esp. ch. 1-2). I hope that helps place the other post in dialectical space (if not actually vindicate what I say there, and I still have some more fast talking to do on that score as well).

Okay, that's enough for Bilgrami. Next time: Davidson.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Can words be used incorrectly?

The other day at Language Log there was a post directing us to a philosophically-themed Dinosaur Comic, where T-Rex jubilantly schools philosophers with his deflationary solution to the sorites paradox. I have a number of comments about that, but for now I want to address one aspect of one of the comments there (as you'll see, that will be plenty for today). The commenter, Marinus, after giving an excellent explanation of why the sorites paradox is indeed a real problem in philosophy, suggests that some philosophers, Wittgenstein among them, are committed to the idea that it is impossible for anyone to use a word incorrectly. Marinus does not mention any other such philosophers, and the attribution to Wittgenstein seems like a stretch, or is at least not obvious.

Putting Wittgenstein to one side for now, I can attest that Akeel Bilgrami, following Davidson, has stated explicitly that "normativity is irrelevant to the meaning of words" ("Norms and Meaning"). Here, however, I would like to give some reasons why such talk of using words wrongly is perfectly natural, and, more importantly, can be harmless even by Davidsonian lights. That is, it will seem at first that in helping myself to properly semantic normative considerations, I invite the Platonism which both Davidson and Bilgrami correctly reject. My task will be to show, or at least suggest, that in so doing I issue no such invitation. (Bilgrami actually does qualify his claims somewhat, but not in the way I would prefer. I'll say a bit about this at the end.)

an ocelotLynxes and ocelots are members of the cat family. They're bigger and wilder than domestic cats, but smaller than the big cats (tigers, etc.). Other than that I get a little fuzzy on the details. I think ocelots might be a bit smaller than lynxes, and I think lynxes have little tufts on the ends of their ears. As you might expect, though, cat family classification is somewhat more complicated than I make it appear here, and as it turns out, lynxes and ocelots aren't really that similar. I don't think that affects the following argument, as our question is still what to say if someone were to confuse them: is the mistake epistemic, semantic, both, indeterminate, or something else? If the example bothers you, ignore the kitty pictures and think about elms and beeches instead.

With that in mind, let's say I work at a zoo (a real zoo, that is). I've spent the morning admitting an ocelot: having it checked for the standard ocelot parasites, feeding it ocelot food, cleaning out the ocelot cage, etc. At lunch the conversation centers around lynxes and ocelots, and I mention that the lynx I admitted today had some interesting markings. You've seen the animal in question too – maybe you received delivery and glanced in the cage before signing – and you reply: "Lynx? You mean ocelot, don't you?" My response: "Right, the ocelot." In other words, I don't bat an eye, but simply acknowledge what we would call a slip of the lip. My belief is fine: I knew all along it was an ocelot – that's why I did all those ocelot-specific things – but just now I made a semantic error. I simply came out, as does Michael Palin uncontrollably in a certain Python skit, with the wrong fusebox.

In particular, I attempted to express my (true) belief that the cat was an ocelot, but in so doing, I misused the word "lynx," which after all means lynx, not ocelot, and therefore cannot (or so it seems; I consider a qualification below) be used correctly in expressing beliefs – true or false – about ocelots rather than lynxes.

a lynxSo far, so good. However, I can also make a mistake about the cat, rather than the word. In order to do so, however, I have to use the (mistaken) word correctly in order to express my false belief. Let's say I simply made a cursory examination (before I had my morning caffeine?) and handed the "lynx" over to my assistant for the admission procedures I myself performed in the previous example, only this time it's cleaning out the lynx cage, etc. Again at lunch I speak of the "lynx's" markings, and again your reaction is "Lynx? You mean ocelot, don't you?" Now my response may very well be to frown, and say something like: "My goodness, you're right, it was an ocelot! I better get Terry to clean out the ocelot cage. After he's finished with the lynx cage, anyway."

Again, in referring to the "lynx" as I did, I expressed my mistaken belief that the cat was a lynx; but in order to do that by so speaking, I must have been using the word "lynx" correctly – to refer to lynxes, which the cat in question was not.

Now for some clarifications. My point here is certainly not that we must speak in this way – that the first really is a case of properly semantic error as opposed to the latter, a clear case of properly doxastic error. So already some peace can be made, as I take the Davidsonian point to be mainly that there can be nothing which forces us to speak this way. It's just that the natural way to make that point is to make sure to speak the other way instead, referring in all cases to doxastic error only, rather than semantic error; and I grant in advance that even this example can be spun that way if you like, as again no force was intended. I simply think there's no real reason not to speak of semantic error in particular cases if we so prefer, and that it can in fact be salutary to remind ourselves that that possibility is open to us.

another ocelotThat we can construe each example in either way is further suggested by the qualification I promised above; for there is a sense in which I can indeed refer to ocelots (i.e. successfully), and express beliefs about them, even when using the word "lynx." Suppose I say "This lynx here [patting yon ocelot on the head] has worms, can you give him a deworming pill?" I've expressed a belief, let's say a true one [i.e. that he's got worms] about what is in fact an ocelot, albeit by using the word "lynx." It would be perverse of you to pretend that I haven't said anything about the ocelot at all, simply because I used the "wrong word" to refer to it. Note that this case is intermediate between the two others, at least so far. For all you know, my response to "I think that's an ocelot, not a lynx" could be either "right, an ocelot; can you give him the pill?" or instead "no, it's a lynx; look, he's got the little tufts on his ears"; where the first suggests that I merely misspoke (failed to express my true belief that the cat is an ocelot), and the second sounds more like I have misidentified the cat rather than misused the word.

Yet these are mere suggestions, at least in advance of further investigation. After all, maybe the former of these responses acknowledges a false belief (if one I regard as unimportant and easily corrected), while the latter confusion about lynxes can also be construed as instead concerning the proper referent of "lynx," a semantic matter.

Now for the moral. The trick here, in my view, is to see two things at the same time. First, "using a word properly" ("having the concept") has (at least) two aspects: first, the semantic part: getting the meaning right; and secondly, the epistemic part: getting the world right. Secondly, on the other hand, these two things, while not identical, are very closely related, indeed interconstitutive, rendering interpretation (determination of meaning) more complicated than simply checking the dictionary to see if a speaker has used a word "correctly." It is in this anti-Platonistic sense only that such obligations are, in Bilgrami's not entirely univocal terms, neither "sui generis" nor "intrinisic."

Sometimes we will emphasize one of these two points rather than the other. For example, we sometimes say that knowing the meaning of a word is knowing how to use it correctly, where the paradigmatic example is that of using the word X to correctly identify X's. If someone says "that's a lynx" when and only when in the presence of lynxes, he most likely knows what "lynx" means. Similarly, when we are teaching someone a word, especially children, we test their understanding by seeing if they do the "appropriate" thing, e.g. apply "doggie" to dogs and not to ferrets, or responding "five" when asked to "add three and two."

This can make it seem that what we have here is a single determination – one of the meaning of a subject's utterances – which is determined behaviorally, by seeing if the subject makes correct judgments. The idea is that knowing the word (having the concept) "add" just is to add correctly; and knowing (the meaning of) the word "lynx" just is identifying lynxes correctly. But this leaves no room for going on to claim a distinct notion of semantic normativity over and above that involved in judgments that things are thus and so, a doxastic matter (Bilgrami is correct that McDowell can be careless on this point).

In other words, this conception of the relation between belief and meaning puts them too close together. In response, we point out that while I can indeed express a false belief that that cat is a lynx, I must, in so doing, be using the word "lynx" in its proper meaning – to refer to lynxes. Recognizing the conceptual distinctness of the two components restores the proper flexibility to an interpretive process which requires us, in standard cases, to attribute beliefs and meanings simultaneously. This reflects the internal connection to the learning process, in which, in learning "how to use words," we learn both what they mean and a whole bunch of truths about the world: what "lynx" means and what lynxes are, and what "add" means and how to add, without those two amounting to (exactly) the same thing.

On the other hand, however, we don't want to think of belief and meaning as two different phenomena (or things) entirely, in the sense of being determinable by separate processes (instead of the single complex process of interpretation cum inquiry); instead, again, we need to see them as interconstitutive.

According to Davidson and Bilgrami, we risk doing this when we speak of "linguistic norms" at all – that is, as in any way distinct from the doxastic norm of "getting things right." To do so makes it sound like meaning is determined not in the interpretive process itself but instead by allegedly independent facts about, say, English: given the actual dispositions of English speakers, on this view, if I make the sound /links/ (or inscribe l-y-n-x), then I necessarily thereby refer to those things (i.e., lynxes) – no matter what an engaged interpreter may say – simply because "that's what 'lynx' means in English." This semantic Platonism makes utter hash of the holistic Davidsonian picture, and is what provokes Davidson to declare, famously, in "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," that "there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed."

(Let me just give a bit more from that article. The quote continues: "There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases." Earlier on, he says that to say this means that "we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally"; or, as I would say, between meaning and belief. "Erasing the boundary" in this way, however, sends us back to the first point – that we must not think of these things as identical or simply reducible to the normativity of belief. The two are not dualistically opposed, but distinct.)

another lynx (here, a bobcat)My claim is that even loyal Davidsonians can recognize a difference between "linguistic norms" in this deceptive sense, on the one hand, and on the other, the idea that "getting things right" is a norm for meaning just as much as it is for belief. We can have the latter without the former. Consider the Davidsonian triangle, with a subject at one point, an interpreter (or an informant) at another, and our shared but objective world at the apex. Each point can exert normative pressure on what we say (and believe and do): I get the world right when I believe the truth; I get meaning(s) right when I speak properly; and I get myself right when I act in accordance with my most fundamental commitments. Yet in each case talk of "getting right" need not commit us to the existence of some separably characterizable thing. The lack of a language, in the sense in which Davidson rejects it, is analogous in this image to the lack of the Cartesian world-in-itself on the one hand, and the non-existence of my "true self" on the other. Just as with belief and meaning, it is the dualism of norm and norm-follower that is rejected, not the distinction (and the relation). Even if that means we give up the terminology of concrete "norms" for something fuzzier like "normative commitment" (or as above, normative "pressure"), there is still a role for such a relation between meaning and "language" (if not *a* language).

Bilgrami does suggest that "norms" of meaning could be salvaged if construed as the "extrinsic" prudential norm of "speaking as others do" (rather than "speaking rightly"), or the hypothetical imperative of "... if you wish to be understood." But while prudence is indeed a part of the interpretive picture, I think, for the above reasons, that even properly semantic normativity (if not "norms") can be unobjectionable. But there's a lot more to say about that, so I'll leave Bilgrami's views for another time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who says philblogging isn't the royal road to riches?

As Abbas points out in the comments to the previous post, 3 Quarks Daily is now accepting nominations for a prize to be awarded to the best philosophy blog post of the past year. Here's the link. Better hurry though, nominations must be submitted by August 31st. The top prize ("Top Quark," get it?) will net the winner *one thousand* smackers, so choose wisely!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Now that's some strict finitism

I just ran into this quote from L. Graham and J-M Kantor, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity:
Alexander Yessenin-Volpin [was] a Russian logician of the ultra-finitist school who was imprisoned in a mental institution in Soviet Russia. Yessenin-Volpin was once asked how far one can take the geometric sequence of powers of 2, say (2e1, 2e2, 2e3, ... , 2e100) [sorry, I don't know how to do superscripts, so for "2e1" read "2 to the first power," and so on]. He replied that the question "should be made more specific." He was then asked if he considered 2e1 to be "real" and he immediately answered yes. He was then asked if 2e2 was "real." Again he replied yes, but with a barely perceptible delay. Then he was asked about 2e3, and yes, but with more delay. These questions continued until it became clear how was going to handle them. He would always answer yes, but he would take 2e100 times as long to answer yes to 2e100 than he would to answering to 2e1. Yessenin-Volpin had developed his own way of handling a paradox of infinity.
2 to the 100th power is well over 10 to the 30th, so if he took a tenth of a second to decide that 2 to the 1st power is real, then once you ask him about 2 to the 100th, you can go get a cup of coffee while you wait. In fact you better get something to eat too, because you won't have to come back for over [performs quick 'n' dirty calculation] 3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. I wonder how far they actually got. I should mention that just because it was in Soviet Russia, in which mental institutions were routinely used as de facto prisons for political dissidents, that Comrade Yessenin-Volpin was institutionalized, this need not mean that he wasn't actually insane. In fact this sad tale should be a lesson for us all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Resistance is futile

No doubt this one will sweep the geekblogosphere. Too bad there aren't more avatars though.

Digital Unit Calibrated for Killing

Get Your Cyborg Name

HT: Wilkins

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Pitching forty Troy sag is: reports say hello

Here's the transcript from the ESPN video recap of Tuesday's Red Sox game, as rendered by its state-of-the-art speech-to-text technology, which "may not be 100% accurate":
What are year old rookie Rick -- sell on the bowl forty Troy in search of its seventh win [...] Red Sox sag is drug DE trade Jason Bay -- his hacks against the young reports say hello that's sixteenth jacked up you're the third -- lasting sport. At Byrd gave up three runs on seven hits his counterpart Daisuke Matsuzaka came in -- three -- 8082 ERA. Gets cleats on his with a six k's over five range Magglio Ordonez followed the ERA still over seven but he gets his first win the -- Terry Francona it was 500 victories Red Sox give them.
Okay, what? Here's what I get from the audio of announcer Jim Basquil's drawl:
Twenty-year-old rookie Rick Porcello on the bump for Detroit in search of his seventh win [...] Red Sox and Tigers from Detroit: Jason Bay taking his hacks against the young Rick Porcello, and that's his sixteenth jack of the year in the third, Porcello lasting four and a third; [he] gave up three runs on seven hits. His counterpart Daisuke Matsuzaka came in 0 and 3 [with] an 8.82 ERA; gets Clete Thomas, one of his six K's over five frames; Magglio Ordonez follows. The ERA still over seven but he gets his first win, and helped Terry Francona to his 500th victory as Red Sox skipper.
Interesting how the program has no problem with "Daisuke Matsuzaka," the syllables of which are after all very unlikely to make up any other phrase; but it stumbles all over "Rick Porcello" (nice try with "reports say hello") and "Clete Thomas" ("cleats on his"). It's clearly primed to use words which are common in ESPN videos, which is how "from Detroit" becomes "drug DE trade." I just wish it wouldn't use the word "trade" (or "drug," for that matter) in such close proximity to the phrase "Jason Bay" -- that just about gave me a heart attack.

"Lasting sport. At Byrd" looks funny (for "lasting four and a third"), until you remember that Paul Byrd pitched for the BoSox last year. But if they can get it to use proper names like that, as well as football terms like "DE," you'd think it could learn to use baseball announcer jargon, however ugly ("bump" = pitching mound; "frames" = innings; "jack" = home run). I wonder what it says for "goes yard."

Also re: BoSox, here is Bill Simmons's take on a key issue, led off by an uncaptioned but heart-rending photo of an all-too-typical moment (yikes).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Four quarks for muster mark

Blog aficionados will want to head over to Three Quarks Daily, a site with which you will want to become familiar in any case, to nominate your favorite posts for one of four annual prizes. Plus you can see which posts everyone else likes; plus a big photo of Head Quark Abbas R. Check it out here!

Monday, May 25, 2009


Jon Hassell is one of my fave musicians/recording artists, and his new record Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street is – if I may gush like a fanboy for a moment – like, totally great. Join a discussion about it here. And buy the record!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Williamson interview

Interview with Timothy Williamson, here. The money quote:
[Vagueness] seemed to present the strongest challenge to the classical, realist picture that has always rung true to me, on which the world is largely independent of us, and the principle of bivalence holds ― every proposition is either true or false (and not both), even if we do not and perhaps cannot know which ― and other standard principles of logic hold too. The problem was that, on an unqualified realist picture, there must be a point at which subtracting just one grain from a heap takes it from being true to being false that there is a heap in front of you, which seems to be incompatible with the vagueness of the concept of a heap, which has no precise definition. For a long time I could see no satisfactory way round that objection. Then, as I was finishing my first book, Identity and Discrimination, I started thinking about the way in which ordinary knowledge requires a margin for error. It dawned on me that the need for a margin for error would explain why, even though ordinary concepts have sharp boundaries, we can’t know where those boundaries are located. That explanation solved the main objection to the logical view that I had always wanted to hold. So the hard part was working out the epistemology; the logic was the easy bit. The larger purpose underlying my book Vagueness was to argue for realism like this: if realism is wrong about anything, it is wrong about vagueness (that premise was generally agreed); but realism is not wrong about vagueness; therefore it is not wrong about anything. [my bold]
Well, that's one view of the matter, anyway. Or we could just marvel at how no nettle can be too sharp for the desperate realist to grasp. I had heard this before, actually – that he was trying to defend realism against what seemed to him to be its toughest challenge – but sometimes it's better to learn to crawl before you try to walk.

HT: Butterflies & Wheels

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Man and kitty

Check out Frank Zappa and his kitty:

My old kitty, name of Karlheinz Stockhausen, liked to climb up on my shoulder like that. He would even, if you leaned over only ever so slightly, jump up directly onto your back and assume the Sphinx position. When this happened you had to scuttle over to a chair or table and tilt to one side to dump him off. (Once – exactly once – I tried to dislodge him by straightening up. The scars are barely visible now. Have I told this story already?) I got this picture from a site featuring lots of stars with their kitties, most of whom (the stars that is) don't seem to know how to hold a kitty properly. You don't just grab him around the middle, or hold him face up like a baby; you support his hind paws with one hand, so he feels like he's standing on something solid. Otherwise he's not a happy kitty. Thus endeth the public service announcement. Back to our irregularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spring is here - let's party

Sorry, I've been neglecting my duties here (again). But here's another Carnival for you at least. I'd say a bientot but it might be a longtemps for all I know. (Sigh.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Is this a philosophy blog?

Over at Leiter Reports, you may vote for the best philosopher of the 20th century, as well as, while you're at it, the best philosopher of the 19th century. However, due to the threat of contamination by the unwashed masses, "non-philosophy blogs" are urged not to link to these polls. So if you think this is one of those, you better not go over there. You have been warned. (Also, re: the first poll, see the (*cough*) lively discussion here.)

UPDATE [3/4]: The madness continues with a runoff pitting the 19th and 20th centuries in a head-to-head battle.

However, everyone is welcome at the Philosophers' Carnival!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Optical delusion?

Here's today's "Dinette Set" cartoon:

Note the logo on our bearded pedant's shirt ("Fale University"), as well as the text on the wall behind him: ("Optical Delusion Fair: Ignorant Public Welcome"). Hmm, I do believe we pedants are being tweaked. Which is fine, of course, but I can't just let it go without piling on some more pedantry in response.

Naturally we here at DR are all over aspect perception. Still, I had never really paid that much attention to the differences between pure figure/ground cases (like this one) and cases like the duckrabbit. For example, it does indeed seem that at least some of the former cases might be perceived in what we might call a "figure/figure" way ("two weirdos kissing a vase"), while no such option is possible for the duckrabbit. That is, I can imagine, after having had the aspects flip back and forth for a bit, seeing the drawing in an indeterminate way, as neither duck nor rabbit. Even this would probably take a conscious effort, to keep the perception from resolving into one or the other figure.

But it's very hard to imagine seeing it as both a duck and a rabbit at the same time. Wouldn't they be taking up the same space? How would you feed "it"? Where would you aim your hand? Toward its "mouths", which are located at the back of each other's head? I'm sorry, that's trying too hard. (Note: this is of course different from seeing it as a "duckrabbit", on the one hand, or as indeterminate in the above sense, on the other). And even if it were possible to do this, this wouldn't "refute" Wittgenstein's use of the example, as people sometimes try to do (an advantage of the "quietist" reading of Wittgenstein is to bring out how pointless it is to try to do this). Wittgenstein's point, as I see it, is to introduce the notion of aspect, by investigating the experience of "aspect-dawning", i.e. when we suddenly see (what we can't help calling) the "same thing" in a different way (pp. 196-7, in Part II):
The change of aspect. "But surely you would say that the picture is altogether different now!"
But what is different: my impression? my point of view?—-Can I say? I describe the alteration like a perception; quite as if the object had altered before my eyes.

"Now I am seeing this", I might say (pointing to another picture, for example). This has the form of a report of a new perception.The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception's being unchanged.

I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape. My visual impression has changed and now I recognize that it has not only shape and colour but also a quite particular 'organization'.—-My visual impression has changed;-—what was it like before and what is it like now?—-If I represent it by means of an exact copy—and isn't that a good representation of it?—-no change is shewn.

And above all do not say "After all my visual impression isn't the drawing; it is this —— which I can't shew to anyone."—-Of course it is not the drawing, but neither is it anything of the same category, which I carry within myself.

The concept of the 'inner picture' is misleading, for this concept uses the 'outer picture' as a model; and yet the uses of the words for these concepts are no more like one another than the uses of 'numeral' and 'number'. (And if one chose to call numbers 'ideal numerals', one might produce a similar confusion.)
In context, Wittgenstein's proximal target is of course, as it is in other parts of the book as well, the (Cartesian) idea of an "inner picture", as well as the Cartesian subject one would have to be in order to "look at" such a thing.

Yet I can't help thinking of the idea of aspect perception as much more central to the entire book than do most readers – for example, as directly related to the concept of "perspicuous representation" (or "presentation"), which in §122 he describes as "of fundamental significance for us. It earmarks the form of account we give, the way we look at things." The way we look at things. Given Wittgenstein's aims throughout the book, how could aspect perception not be central for them?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Actually, first the Carnival, then the comix. Some interesting-looking stuff this time. And do check out the comix, especially this one, which really cracked me up (the whole page, not just the philosophy one at the top).

Or you can just click through to the comix. It's up to you and your conscience.

[Update [3/29]: Kate Beaton link fixed]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Now that the hoopla is over

Oh wait, there's another party - in fact, a Carnival! (You know which kind.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009