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One way of reading Quine is to say that we each have a set of beliefs, connected in an inferential network. This set forms something like a web (hence the metaphor) with a group of core beliefs and a beliefs lying along the edges of the web. Experience impinges on the web only at its edges and modificaitons are made primarily along the edges. Changes can make their way to the interior of the web only if the recalcitrant experience is strong enough to require modifying more central beliefs to preserve as much of the overall structure as possible. This is somewhat appealling as far as it goes, but I realized I don’t understand the mechanism behind the change. What I mean is that it sounds like we have beliefs and we get sensory experience of the outside world which constitutes experience; this experience either supports or conflicts with our existing beliefs. If it supports it, so much the better we think. If it conflicts, then we must modify our web, making as few changes as possible. One of the problems is that experiences don’t come labelled as recalcitrant or not. They first have to be recognized as such. Somone can have experiences that would seem to undermine other beliefs she holds without seeing those experiences as the basis of conflicting beliefs. She could refuse to draw the inferences necessary to make the conflict apparent. Often the links between what we experience and how that experience impinges on our already held beliefs is separated by a large gulf, so problems are not immediately recognizable in most cases. That is one problem.

Another problem is how the web is revised. Suppose I have some experience E that I view (or come to view) as recalcitrant with regards to my web of beliefs. I could make the minimal changes in my web by changing the truth values I ascribe to various sentences along the periphery of the web. Or, I could change the strength of the inferential connections in different places. I could use E as the basis of a new theory that I will tack onto my web. Or, I could reinterpret E such that it actually supports rather than undermines my beliefs. Or, I could suspend any revisions while I try to figure out if my beliefs are actually compatible with E. Or, I could suspend my revisions because I think there is some crucial information that I need to make sense of the combination of E and my beliefs, e.g. I need to learn more about some topic before I can say for sure what status E has in regards to my beliefs. Or, I could reject the recalcitrant experience because I think that any conflict with my core beliefs is either merely apparent -and not real- or based on reasoning whose fallacies I don’t currently detect but am sure of due to the strength of my core beliefs. That makes seven different ways of responding to recalcitrant beliefs, some of which do not involve any modification to my web, even along the edges. I think that Quine had the fairly straight-forward minimal revision (of the sort found in some of the current belief revision literature in logic) in mind. No doubt some of these options can be removed by stipulation or idealization, but there are a lot of options. I guess my points are that belief revision shouldn’t be taken as a functional process, experience needs to be interpreted (or recognized) as recalcitrant, and recalcitrant experience need not entail even minimal revision.

I wonder what Wittgenstein would think about Calvin ball. Calvin ball is a game invented by Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes comic. The only rule to Calvin ball is that there are no rules. What counts as a move in the game? Pretty much anything. But, is this a problem? If anything counts as a move, does nothing count? I’m inclined to say no. There are not conflicting rules or conflicting interpretations being appealed to. There aren’t distinguishing rules being appealed to either. Wittgenstein would probably think that there is too little structure to the “game” for it to count as a game.

Why should one do semantics? There is a quote from Davidson (I think I read it in the early chapters of the Heim and Kratzer text) that says roughly, semantics should not tell you anything you don’t already know as a speaker of the language. My question is obviously directed at specific kinds of semantics, namely formal semantics in either the Montagovian or Davidsonian paradigm. It applies somewhat to other kinds though. If these theories aren’t telling us anything about the meaning of sentences that we didn’t already know, what is the reason for pursuing them? There are a few technical kinks to work out in different places. In the Montagovian tradition there are problems with type mismatching and non-intersective adjectives. In the Davidsonian tradition there are problems with context sensitivity.

I suppose that philosophers are interested in semantics because it is supposed to make clearer some philosophical problems. The best example of this would be to help in coming up with a general theory of meaning. By creating semantic theories for different languages, we can see what sorts of properties they share, and so what sorts of properties meaning itself has.

Another shot at an answr is that by getting clear about what the formal meaning of a sentence is, then we have taken a step at getting natural language into a form on which we can do serious logical inquiry. We can start proving theorems and finding out what follows from what. This is an extension of the Fregean-Russellian idea about the logical form of language.

Maybe producing clear, formal truth-conditions for sentences will help us make sense of philosophically loaded words like ‘necessity’ or ‘virtue’. This seems pretty doubtful.

Studying syntax, as linguists do it, gives (or is purported to give) a glimpse of the furniture of the human mind, so even if nothing else comes of syntactic theory, it will have given us some more understanding about the mind. Of course, it looks like other stuff will come of syntactic theory, so it is doing pretty well for itself.

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says something in section 593 that I think is underappreciated. He says:
“A main cause of philosophical disease — an unbalanced diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.”
I’m not completely sure why this is underappreciated, but I have an idea. Philosophy is supposed to be a very general study. Some might say that it attempts to study things in the most general ways possible. Since we are looking at general phenomena, a solution to one particular problem should apply to others in the same area, e.g. propositional attitudes. As John Perry pointed out, there are a lot of propositional attitudes, belief, doubt, thought, appreciate, hate, etc., but philosophers generally focus on belief and thought. Another reason that this is underappreciated is that philosophers want to talk to each other, not past each other, so to help the direct discourse along, so the thinking goes, talking about the same examples will let us talk to each other more easily. This has the unfortunate side effect that only a small set of examples or cases are looked at, e.g. the sentence “It is raining”. In the philosophy of math, philosohpers generally focus on arithmetic, leaving the rest of math blowing in the wind, so to speak. The idea goes, I imagine, that you shouldn’t have to check each case. Come up with a solution to one and you thereby come up with a solution to all of them. The problem with this idea should be obvious. If you appeal to some particularities of the case you look at, your solution won’t work for the other problems. You miss generality without even realizing it. I’m not sure if that was something Wittgenstein was getting at with his ardent desire to look at particular cases, but I think it is a good lesson nonetheless.

For better or worse, the sciences (at least some?) are often taken to have, maybe even to take, the goal of uncovering truth. Questions arise at how scientific theories that are revised or thrown out get at the truth or an approximation of truth. It seems to me that in engineering endeavors, truth does not enter into the picture. At least not the standard Tarski-style version of truth or any other standard philosophical theory of truth. On my rough characterization of engineering, what works is considered to be most important. This leads to an idea of ‘hacks’, most often seen in computer science contexts. If your program is not working quite right, an ugly variable name and assignment can fix it. Theoretically this is move, using such a variable, is rather ad hoc, but it gets the job done which is the main point. Similarly, if you are building a mouse trap and a part isn’t working quite right (having never built a mousetrap this will be vague) you can slap some extra glue and a reinforcing piece, for example, on to fix it. Truth doesn’t enter into the picture. What works (praxis?) is the important concept. I think this is underappreciated in philosophy. That being said, I’m not sure how it fits into many philosophical theories since engineering doesn’t fit into many philosophical theories. Not yet at least.

The beginning of Insensitive Semantics is motivated by an appeal to Kaplan’s “Demonstratives” in which they cite the curious fact that he didn’t give a reason for restricting his attention to the set of words that he discussed. I’m surprised that this uncritical interpretation of Kaplan is used for any motivating reason. He was looking at a different problem and had a different goal in mind. The set of words he looked at, which is smaller than many people realize, is just that set that works well in his logic without intentions. This fact cannot be used for any defense of semantic theses. It shouldn’t motivate the project in Insensitive Semantics either.


Shawn Standefer, recent Ph.D. in philosophy from Pitt. (More about me)