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.


Daniel Lindquist said...

Hooray, duck post.

I'm still not sure that Davidson/Bilgrami don't concede enough to cover your point: the "extrinsic 'prudential norm' of speaking as others do" does not strike me as different in kind from the norm of "speaking as I generally do" or "as I want to do" -- which is what goes wrong when my tongue slips. (There are such norms; I correct myself if I make sounds I don't like or if I dislike my orthography, even if the sense is clear either way. Language would be very different if there were no such norms. But, I can't see that language would cease to be meaningful without them, which is why Davidson/Bilgrami are right to deny that these norms have anything to do with meaning.)

Bilgrami's point about the "degenerate" nature of meaning-intentions is that to intend an utterance or inscription to have certain truth-conditions just is for it to have those truth-conditions: there's no gap between intending to do the thing and having done it. There's no room for normativity because there's no room for failure (and so neither for success).

I found myself puzzled by these things again while reading your post; rewriting your first example a little helped convince me that Bilgrami is right:

Zooduck: "The lynx we got today had some interesting markings."
Zoorabbit: "Lynx? You mean ocelot, don't you?"
Zooduck: "Right, that's what I meant. Slip of the tongue."

Zooduck's intention to say something which was true if and only if the lynx which they got in that day had interesting markings went off without a hitch: That is what he meant. No error in meaning. And as in your first example, I don't feel any urge to say that there's been an error in belief. (Zooduck knew that the interesting markings were on an ocelot, and that Zoorabbit would normally take "lynx" in Zooduck's mouth to mean lynxes (not ocelots), etc.)

But we do seem to have some sort of error in the mix: Zoorabbit corrects something about Zooduck's utterance, and Zooduck concedes that Zoorabbit was correct in doing so. I think this sort of error is just: Zooduck didn't speak as he intended to. He made a different sound instead. The error isn't in meaning; it's just in making the wrong noise. (Zooduck intended to say something that meant P by making the sound /P/; instead he said something that meant P by making the sound /Q/. So one thing he was doing went fine; one thing he was doing went awry.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

The sound Zooduck made would have usually, in his mouth, meant "lynx". If someone were to make a dictionary of "The Idiolect Of Zooduck" (which would be mostly like an English dictionary), there would be no need to have an entry under "Lynx" that says "Sometimes means 'ocelot'". The (extrinsic, pragmatic, prudential) norm to which Zooduck holds himself is that he shouldn't use "Lynx" to mean "Ocelot" without some special reason to speak oddly. This norm is perfectly intelligible and real.

It's also entirely irrelevant to meaning, unlike what the social externalism of Burge and Kripkenstein (etc.) claims. Failing to adhere to these norms, or changing them out for other norms, causes no failures to mean what one intends to mean. It just makes it harder (usually) for one's interlocutors to understand one, and makes it seem like you're only semiliterate, uncultured, etc.

There are also situations where we do treat utterances/inscriptions as meaning something other than what was intended: Davidson gives the example of the terms of a bet with someone you don't like. If the terms are what they thought they agreed to, then they didn't lose the bet; if the terms are what the social externalist account says they are (what Webster's Unabridged and the Cambridge Grammar say of them etc.) then they lose the bet. So we lean on conventions and insist on payment: they didn't know what their wager was for, but so what? -- sucks to them. Davidson also mentions signing contracts you don't understand: Sometimes the law holds you responsible to the terms as the law understands them (but not always -- it's a complicated region of law).

I think Gadamer's brief discussion of "statements" (as in "The suspect has signed a statement") at "Truth and Method" p. 469 points in the same direction, I think: Part of what's compelling about the picture of language that Davidson/Bilgrami reject is that it really does capture something real: It's what things "mean" in these narrow circumstances. I've lately come to think that it's (at least polemically) worth stressing this point: Davidson isn't denying that we can (and sometimes do) hold someone to the measure of Webster's; what he denies is that we must do this, or that when we do this we capture all there is to what was meant.

(I hit a character limit, is why there's two comments (they were composed as one) -- 4,096 is the most you can have. I guess I had more than that.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

Oh, and I forgot to repeat what I'd said in NYC: I think Bilgrami just goes too far in saying that normativity is irrelevant to meaning. Intentions are not irrelevant to meaning (they're determinative of it), and you can't have the relevant intentions in the picture without lots of other actions in the surroundings (assertings, believings, and the like at a bare minimum), all of which are normative in a pretty plain sense. What Bilgrami wants is just to say that "You can't mean the wrong thing, as distinct from saying the wrong thing or believing the wrong thing etc.; there's no special place to go wrong in meaning." But you can't mean anything without saying, believing, etc., and so normativity can't drop out of the picture if what you want to talk about is how someone can mean something by what they say. At least, if you want to have an account of it that's at all helpful. ("You mean what you intend to mean" just sounds like Humpty-Dumpty's view; the surrounding stuff in Davidson is important for making it able to hear this the right way.)

Daniel Lindquist said...

Three comments and I forgot to click the box all three times.

The first ocelot picture looks pretty sweet when this post is shared on Facebook. (You should get on Facebook, there are sometimes philosophy discussions there. It has sucked up at least some of my blogging drive.)

Ben Wolfson said...

It's late and I only skimmed the posts & comments.

(a) Having read Marinus' first comment, I admit that I still can't get myself to find the sorites paradox actually problematic, but I've come to accept that this is somewhat eccentric on my part.

(b) This won't I suppose contribute anything beyond what Daniel's comments do, and better, but I was struck by the fact that none of the examples in the post correspond to what I would consider the paradigm case of "using a word incorrectly", in which the person does not correct himself. A dialogue of this sort that began:

A: The students seemed unusually disinterested today.
B: You mean "uninterested".

would not continue:

A: Oh, you're right. Slip of the tongue/I always make that mistake.

(If it really is a slip of the tongue I have a hard time thinking of it as an instance of using the word "disinterested" incorrectly, any more than I would think it a case of using the word "capture" incorrectly if, while transcribing something else, I type "capture" because I'm also overhearing a conversation in which it is used frequently; if it's a case where "I always make that mistake" that seems different.) But:

A: Huh?
B: "disinterested" means that someone doesn't have an interest—a stake—in the proceedings; "uninterested" means that someone doesn't take any interest in them.
A: Maybe in your day, gramps.

If I were to draw up an Idiolect of A, I would put under "disinterested" "sometimes means 'uninterested'". The snotty instinct that leads me to add insert "wrongly" is optional, and pooh-poohed by the knowing ones, but it is, I think, what The People mostly mean by a word's being used incorrectly.

Ben Wolfson said...

It occurred to me on the train that this question is a lot like "can words be spelled incorrectly?".

Daniel Lindquist said...

Spelling is one of Davidson's examples. He notes that he's a terrible speller, but he is (in 1991) too old to realistically improve. So he misspells words on the blackboard constantly, to the amusement of his students. He says he'd improve if he could, but he's resigned himself to the fact that he's a poor speller.

I think the "disinterested as uninterested" example is a pretty straightforward instance of the "external, prudential" norms. The Idiolect of A (assuming it's written in good Wolfson-approved English) would say that A's "disinterested" means "uninterested", at least some of the time.

It's like using a teaspoon to eat your soup. You can tell a story about why the soup spoon is the right spoon, and the teaspoon is the wrong one, but either spoon will work, in an unproblematic sense. ("See, it's big enough that you can get a scoop of soup, to start cooling, and then you can sip from the spoon. It's harder to sip at a good pace from a teaspoon, since it doesn't hold as much. The soup cools faster and you have to down the rest of the spoonful." -- or something like that; I am not committed to any particular story about why we use what spoons, but I'm sure there's some such story to be told. I never enjoy my soup as much with a teaspoon.) This is analogous to the disinterested/uninterested case: If you use the words as Ben Wolfson (and I) would prefer, then you can tell a nice story about how the word's meaning can be seen from its roots, you can trace its etymology and have it match up with current usage nicely, you sound like a Man Who Knows How To Speak, etc. But there's really no huge problem with understanding the schmucks who use the words wrong. It just irks.

(Davidson had a pet peeve about "the data shows..." and a few other words, like "octopi". He just doesn't think these peccadillos are much important for what needs to happen if people are to understand one another and make themselves understood.)

I think you're right that The People usually mean the schoolmarmish thing when they talk of "using words wrong". It's what drives newspaper editorials and the like whining about how English is being sacrificed to barbarism, that sort of thing. And I don't think anyone (certainly not Davidson) is opposed to the idea that speaking well might demand adhering more closely to some such schoolmarmy norms (though what those norms are, it would be stressed, is not given from Heaven or forced on us by anything inhuman). It's just that philosophers have often thought that there was something more to semantic normativity than this sort of thing.

Ben Wolfson said...

Sure sure.

Duck said...

Thanks guys, that's very helpful. Let me say a few things now, and then I have to think about it some more (and maybe read "Norms and Meaning" again).

Ben, those are some interesting cases. Philosophical talk about meaning tends not to use examples like "disinterested"/"uninterested", but it's at least worth wondering why not, as the general public is indeed more likely to think of this as a case of "using words wrongly," where calling a lynx an ocelot is more likely to strike them as a simple falsehood (you're wrong, that's not an ocelot). You're right that spelling is similar to this case in that way, but of course that doesn't have anything to do with *meaning*, so we might as well use these examples instead.

As for the sorites, this started out as a post on that (sparked by Language Log), so we'll be getting back to that. In a way, it's actually healthy to think of the sorites as not problematic. It's *not* a problem unless you have a problematic conception of the relation between language and the world. But then it *is* a problem, and it's helpful to see why, even if you yourself are safe. (Like with skepticism.)

Oh, and what Daniel said there at the end about Davidson and schoolmarmishness. I love Language Log about this issue by the way: always serious, but deadly snark when called for.

Abbas Raza said...

Dave, please email me at s.abbas.raza [at]

I have lost your email address.



N. N. said...

Why aren't we forced to talk this way?

Take the first example. Assume that you mean by 'lynx' and 'ocelot' what a cat expert means, that the animal you've admitted is indeed an ocelot, and that you've made a thorough examination of it. You then mention that the lynx you admitted today had some interesting markings. Ceteris paribus (e.g., you're not drunk and you havn't hit your head), can your use of 'lynx' be anything other than a mispeaking?

Duck said...

Hi Abbas - I've sent it to you but I can put it here too. My hotmail account is: duck1887 at hotmail dot com.

Duck said...


"Zooduck's intention to say something which was true if and only if the lynx which they got in that day had interesting markings went off without a hitch: That is what he meant. No error in meaning."

"The error isn't in meaning; it's just in making the wrong noise. (Zooduck intended to say something that meant P by making the sound /P/; instead he said something that meant P by making the sound /Q/. So one thing he was doing went fine; one thing he was doing went awry.) "

Okay, now I'm really confused. Do *you* mean "ocelot" instead of "lynx" in that first part? I'll explain why I ask, and maybe that will help if I am mistaken.

Let's substitute in for our variables. The sound ZD actually made was /links/. So that's /Q/. /P/ must then be (pardon my nonstandard phonetics) /oselot/. But now what's P? That the cat was an ocelot, right? That's what I correctly believe (or at least have done so all morning), and I intended to communicate that belief in the standard way.

If this is right, your Bilgramian claim is that /links/ in my mouth at that moment meant "ocelot", because that's what I intended to mean by it. My mistake was simply that I chose the "wrong" sound to carry my meaning, where the "wrongness" is precisely not semantic, but instead prudential: you didn't take my meaning right away, but instead checked to see if I might not have made a doxastic mistake instead (again, as opposed to the prudential slip I did make, where no properly semantic mistake is even conceptually possible).

I'll continue on this assumption – that *you* committed an infelicity – but let me stop here for now. (I'm surprised to hear about a character limit on comments btw).

Of course this makes Bilgrami (and Davidson) sound like Humpty Dumpty. Why don't I post the relevant excerpt from "Nice Derangement," and say more about your second comment there.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Right. I meant "if and only if the ocelot..." above. I erroneously typed something which you would reasonably take to mean "if and only if the lynx...", which was mea culpa.

But, I reasonably believed that you could grasp my intention to say something which was true if and only if Zooduck's intention to say something which was true if and only if the ocelot which they got in that day had interesting markings went off without a hitch, which is what separates me from Humpty Dumpty. HD perfectly well knew there was no way Alice could grasp his meaning, and yet was supposed to have said something to her with that meaning. HD intended to use means he knew would fail, which isn't rational. (Presumably, he's not supposed to unconsciously believe that Alice could grasp his meaning, or anything like that; he's just supposed to be a nonsense-character. What he says about his own meaning-intentions just can't be right.)

That's how I meant the variables to be read, yes. "P" is "ocelot" (or the sentence containing "ocelot"), /P/ is "/oselot/" (or the string of sounds containing the phonemes "/oselot/"), "Q" is "lynx" (or the relevant sentence), "/Q/" is "/links/" (or the relevant string of sounds).

I would note that I think we can intelligibly say that Zooduck made an error apart from the prudential one you mention, though. Zooduck presumably does want to go on speaking in a regular fashion, and to speak as those around him in the zoo staff do. (These are wants that most normal people who work at a zoo would have.) So even if he knew that /links/ and /oselot/ would both be as easily understood, he would want to say /oselot/ and not /links/. One of the things he was doing in speaking was conducting himself in a way he liked (for, I'll suppose, aesthetic reasons), and he failed at that in this instance. This isn't really a matter of prudence, or of speaking in a way which will be most easily understood; it's another layer at which (non-semantic) normative concerns can come up. I think this is a point Bilgrami doesn't mention.

Ben Wolfson said...

It's *not* a problem unless you have a problematic conception of the relation between language and the world. But then it *is* a problem, and it's helpful to see why, even if you yourself are safe.

Well, I was being a bit facetious; I do see why some people find it problematic, but from my point of view that's just a symptom of other problems that they have. (Though I wouldn't have put it the way you did, so perhaps you've got something else than I do in mind.)

I'd be interested in knowing what, if anything, you think does underlie the sorts of examples people use when talking about meaning—not just the fact that people don't use hotly-contested pairs like dis/uninterested, but that it's so often boring ol' nouns, or integral sentences. There are so many other things! Why not the mood of verbs, or demonstratives?

Old 333 said...

Whoo, my lynx is ocelating.