Data: Bruno, Ilsa, Friedrich 
I am sometimes envious of philosophers of language, since any interesting turn of phrase can become a datum. Matt Weiner is especially good at turning bon mots into blog posts. I have been lecturing on Quine's 'Two Dogmas' in my American Philosophy class, however, which gives me an occasion to make such observations.

In the section on interchangeability, Quine briefly considers cases in which interchanging synonyms changes the truth of a sentence. Although Quine doesn't mention intensional contexts like belief or knowledge, I wanted students to be aware of them. Yet when I offered an example, some students disagreed with me as to how the English language works. In the course of discussion, I formulated three further examples and gauged student opinion.

Case 1: Bruno


Imagine that Bruno has some knowledge of the English language. He understands the words "unmarried" and "man" perfectly well, but he has not learned the word "bachelor." Bruno has learned that Karl is an unmarried man. I asked if it would be proper to describe the situation in this way: Bruno knows that Karl is an unmarried man, but not that Karl is a bachelor.

15 students said yes. 5 said no.

I think the majority have it right here. One of my colleagues suggests that the 'yes' answer just is the data for which philosophy of language must account. However, I find it interesting that a quarter of the students dissent.

Case 2: Ilsa


Ilsa has a similar command of the English language. She is told by a reliable source that Karl is a bachelor, but this is the first time she has ever heard the word "bachelor." She does not know that this means that Karl is an unmarried man. I asked if it would be proper to describe the situation in this way: Ilsa knows that Karl is a bachelor, but not that Karl is an unmarried man.

16 students said yes. 4 said no.

One might object to the majority: Ilsa knows that Karl is a "bachelor", yes, but the quotation marks are required. She does not know the meaning of bachelor, and so it would be false to say that she genuinely knows he is a bachelor (without the marks).

The most direct response to this is simply the show of hands. These competent English speakers accept the sentence without the scare quotes, so the scare quotes are not required.

Even philosophers are willing to attribute knowledge involving a previously alien concept. Judith Jarvis Thomson poses the following question:
Suppose we know absolutely nothing else about blogs than just that all present and past blogs have been purple. Would it not be reasonable to expect that the next blog to come into existence will also be purple?
This is all we know about blogs,* just as that was all that Ilsa knew about bachelors. No scare quotes required.

Case 3: Friedrich


Now imagine Friedrich, who understands words like "married" and "unmarried" and thinks he understands "bachelor." However, he thinks that "bachelor" is a synonym for "polygamist", a word which he understands full well. Friedrich believes that Karl has a whole harem of wives, and so Friedrich says that Karl is a bachelor. As in the previous cases, Karl is actually an unmarried man. I asked if it would be true or false to say: Friedrich knows that Karl is a bachelor.

Students all said that this would be false. Philosophers agree.


* I cannot resist saying: Whether a blog is purple or not just depends on its style sheet. Style sheets vary from blog to blog, so color is obviously not projectable. Thomson was writing in the mid 60s, and so she meant "blog" as a philosopher's made-up word. I wonder whether a young reader in fifty years, if she were to happen upon Thomson's article, would be puzzled by this.

In a recent lecture, I used the word "fnosterbon" as a stipulated, made-up word. We'll see if the internet can go 40 years without giving it some actual meaning.

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