Data: Bruno, Ilsa, Friedrich

Sat 02 Dec 2006 12:13 PM

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.


from: Greg

Mon 04 Dec 2006 10:04 AM

Just thinking about the Ilsa case, I was wondering whether (you think) there is a difference between

(1) Ilsa knows that Karl is a batchelor.


(2) Ilsa knows that the English sentence "Karl is a batchelor" is true.

This is different, I think, from putting quotes around just the word 'batchelor.' And I think your students, by their 'show of hands,' might not make the (too?) subtle distinction between (1) and (2).

And if you think (2) is a bit convoluted/ contrived, I think it probably adequately represents my knowledge of much of advanced science: I can repeat the sentences I read, and I know that they are true, but there is a real difference between my knowledge and the knowledge of the scientific practicioner in that field.

from: P.D.

Thu 07 Dec 2006 09:52 AM

Greg: I don't really see any difference between your (2) and the sentence with just 'bachelor' in quotes; call that

(1.5) Ilsa knows that Karl is a "bachelor."

I suspect this may be more fine-grained than just a binary distinction. There is a real difference between the knowledge of someone who just hears a claim, the knowledge of someone who has studied it in textbooks, the knowledge of someone who has hands-on experience, ... and so on. (This starts to sound like Plato's distinction between the user, maker, and philosopher, but I suspect that there are many more than just three variations.)

from: Greg

Fri 08 Dec 2006 09:40 AM

I am in complete agreement with your main (quasi-Platonic) point, but to pick nits: I don't think your (1.5) is quite the way to cash out your idea, because it's saying that Ilsa knows that Karl is a word. (Assuming you're using quotation marks to show that you are mentioning the word instead of using it. Are they supposed to be some other sort of quotes? Scare-quotes, e.g., wouldn't be right, since Karl really is a batchelor...)

from: P.D.

Fri 08 Dec 2006 08:19 PM

Greg: You are right that (1.5) can't be mentioning rather than using bachelor and that it can't be scare quotes in the sense of '(not really a) bachelor.' I meant it as 'bachelor (whatever that means).' In speech, the parenthetical could be suggested by inflection. I am not sure how else to punctuate it.