Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Waterfall Illusion

On Thursday, May 26, Nate Z. presented his paper dismantling Crane's argument for non-conceptual content. Not only did Nate give good reasons to think Crane's argument doesn't go through, he also made some provocative claims about differences between the content of experience and the content of belief.

Jay E. provided his camera so we could document the last meething of the workshop this year, and the last meeting of the workshop in the Anscombe Lounge.

Below: Nate Z. demonstrates the sprial version of the waterfall illusion.

Justin S., Rachel G. and Aidan G. are transfixed by the illusion.

David F. taxis down the runway.

Jason B. makes a claim and David F. looks on in despair.

Nat H. in the Logical Positivism shirt: Cruisewear for Neurath's Boat.

Nate Z. reads his paper.

Farewell to the Lounge.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Standard Meter Bar

standard meter bar
standard meter bar,
originally uploaded by Nat Hansen.
This is the American standard meter bar. I didn't expect it to look like this--I thought it would look like a meter ruler (with centimeter marks, e.g.) but, you know, made of platinum.

Below is the picture of the similar looking French standard meter bar (together with a standard kilogram). Thanks to an anonymous commentator for the reference.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Naming and Necessity, Lecture III

[Note added Dec 21, 2005: The second half of this post has been lost. I reconstructed the first half from notes that I made in preparing the original post.]

Last Thursday the workshop met to discuss lecture III of Naming and Necessity.

David F., Jason B., Jay E., Nat H., Chris F., Nate Z., Aidan G., Rachel G., and Will S. were present.

Discussion did not stray far from Kripke's treatment of the contingent a priori and its relation to the way reference is "fixed" or "determined" for proper names and natural kind terms (NKTs).

If there was a theme to this workshop, it was precious metals (gold, platinum) and diamonds.

Before we began, David F. asked about the parenthetical reference on p. 139 to "anti-scientific fundamentalists [such] as Bryan" casting aspersions on the "natural scientific curiosity of Man". Jay E. pointed out that the reference must be to Williams Jenning Bryan's role as the prosecutor of John Scopes in the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). John Scopes was a biology teacher who was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in Dayton, TN. (The character based on Bryan ["Matthew Harrison Brady"] in Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind is an anti-science Christian fundamentalist).

Jay pointed out another connection (probably unintended by Kripke) between Bryan and the passge from Kripke. Kripke says,

...the 'original sample' [used to fix the reference of a NKT] gets augmented by the discovery of new items. (In the case of gold, men applied tremendous effort to the task. Those who doubt the natural scientific curiosity of Man should consider this case. Only such anti-scientific fundamentalists as Bryan cast aspersions on the effort.

Besides his role in the Scopes trial, Bryan is most famous for his "Cross of Gold Speech" opposing the gold standard ("You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold"). As far as my understanding of the politics of the 1896 election go (not very far), Bryan represented farmers for whom higher inflation would be beneficial. Keeping the dollar on the gold standard would keep inflation in check.

Once we had the Bryan allusion sorted out, David F. started the workshop by asking why a speaker can know the identity "Heat = that which is sensed by sensation S" a priori (p. 136).

Obviously, Kripke cannot think that a speaker knows that identity simply in virtue of the meaning of "heat", because there are counterfactual situations in which heat is not sensed by sensation S (there are no conscious creatures, for example). But in those situations, we would not say that heat does not exist, only that there are no creatures that can sense it. So the meaning of heat cannot be tied to the sensation S.

We thought that Kripke here must be saying something about heat that was analogous to what he says about the Standard Meter Bar (p. 56). The contingent a priori is a way of knowing something that essentially involves "definition" or stipulation. Kripke says of this way of knowing something that one knows it "automatically, without further investigation" (back when we talked about this remark in lecture I, many of us worried that that was not the best way of describing the a priori).

Monday, May 02, 2005

Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference

On Thursday, April 28, the workshop met to discuss Kripke's paper "Speaker Reference and Semantic Reference".

Attending the workshop were David F. (though he was feeling sick), Jason B., Jay E., Nat H., Chris F., Ben M., Will S., Aidan G. and Rachel G.

The workshop fell into roughly three different stages. I'll post them separately.

Stage I: Pre-Workshop Banter

Chris F. was reading a book of Wallace Stevens essays in preparation for Stanley Cavell's talk on Friday. Someone asked why Stevens was interesting and David F. said something about Stevens's poetry being about conceptual and non-conceptual perceptual content. David F. then told the story of Stevens's employment at an insurance agency (vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company), and how a literary agent who was trying to track Stevens down caused a stir at the insurance agency by mentioning a book of his poems to an oblivious co-worker. According to David F., his co-workers could not believe that "Wally" Stevens was an accomplished poet.

Jason B. later showed up and also told a story about Stevens, which began, "It's interesting how it's not very interesting that Stevens was an insurance salesman". Nat H. was interested in hearing more, since David F. had just reported that fact as if it
were interesting.

Jason B. said that he heard a talk (at the Franke Institute?) given by someone who had done research on early 20th century New England insurance agencies and found that it was not uncommon for them to produce in-house literary journals. So there would have been lots of insurance-salesman-poets when Stevens was writing.

"Why haven't we heard of all these other insurance poets?" someone asked.

"They weren't very good" Jason B. replied.

Discussion then moved on to a thought experiment raised in a class on perception involving a lasers, a flesh-colored bodystocking and a heliotrope sweater. There was some dispute about what color "heliotrope" was. The OED says that it's a shade of purple. Follow this link to a picture of the flowers the color is named after:


Stage II: More Discussion of the Causal Theory of Names

Jason B. got discussion moving by asking if we thought Kripke's methodological claim about purported counterexamples to linguistic analyses was right.

The methodological principle goes as follows: If you imagine a language in which the analysis is true, and the purported counterexamples still occur in that language, then the analysis (e.g. Russell's analysis of definite descriptions) has not been refuted by the counterexamples.

Chris F. bravely took a stab at assessing the correctness of the methodological principle. He got as far as describing Kripke's argument against Donnellan: (1) that Donnellan's phenomenon is meant as a counterexample to Russell's theory of definite descriptions, but (2) it is only a counterexample if it counts as a semantic distinction; and (3) it does not count as a semantic distinction--only a pragmatic one.

During this discussion there was some confusion over the proper pronunciation of "teetotaler", a word Kripke uses in describing the purported champagne quaffer in the corner in Donnellan's example. Chris F. preferred "teeto-taler" (said like "teeter-totter"), others demurred.

The methodological question not yet resolved, discussion then turned to the causal theory of names. Nat H. tried to link the topic of this paper with David F.'s worry from last time.

David F.'s worry was that I might, according to the causal theory of reference, count as satisfying the conditions for referring to the island typically referred to as "Globula" with my use of the word, but have a consistent personal use of the word to refer to Will S (say I keep a diary where I record lots of observations about what I think is Globula). Should we say, with the causal theory, that I am saying and thinking a large number of things about the island that are absurdly false (such as that it has a distinctive haircut and is a snappy dresser), or that I am saying and thinking a large number of true things about Will S.? To David F. (and others) it seemed obvious what the answer would be: I am referring to Will S., not the island.

In David F.'s case, the causal chain connecting my use of "Globula" with other members of my community seems unimportant. What is important is my consistent name-using practice.

There was then some extended discussion of the "interpretationist" (Davidsonian) alternative to the causal theory of names. Roughly, the interpretationist holds that a speaker refers to a particular object with his use of a name just in case taking him to refer to that object with that name makes the best overall sense of his behavior.

The interpretationists among the workshop attendees were Kripkean in the following way: they would include reference to causal chains in the relevant features one could rely on in making sense of a person's utterances. So, for example, if
I say things like "I wonder what Feinman's favorite breakfast cereal was", when I don't have any beliefs about Feinman other than that he's a famous physicist, I should be interpreted as referring to Feinman in virtue of having acquired the name from some other users of the language. I shouldn't be interpreted as believing that the description "the famous physicist" is uniquely satisfied and wondering about whoever uniquely satisfies that description. To that extent, then, the interpretationists agreed that Kripke was right to suggest the importance of causal connections to our name-using practices.

Jason B. worried that the interpretationists were also individualists--that they would deny the importance of pre-existing linguistic institutions to our name using practices. But Aidan G. and Nat H. objected--why wouldn't an interpretationist want to make use of every possible resource in making sense of a speaker, including the speaker's participation in all kinds of institutions and his causal imbeddedness in his social and physical world? David F. had our backs on this one.

At this point, Nat H. observed sotto voce to Jason B. that this kind of interpretationism that wants to accommodate all of Kripke's insights without embracing a causal theory of names is Evans's view in "The Causal Theory of Names".

David F. felt sicker. He said, "It was fun" and left.

At some point in the discussion after David F. left, Jason B. said that Naming and Necessity was perhaps unique among philosophical books in that it was 99% true.

Stage III: Return to the Methodological Question

Once we had gotten to the bottom of the causal theory of names, we returned to Jason B.'s original question: is Kripke's methodological principle in "Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference" right?

Will S. and Chris F. had some concerns that the Strong Russell Language would not be susceptible to the Donnellan counterexamples, but as I left to use the bathroom during their discussion I can't reproduce their arguments.

Jason B. wondered what result Kripke's methodological principle would give if we introduced a language in which a particular analysis (e.g. Russell's) were true, and the purported counterexamples happed less often than in English (rather than never). Would the analysis be a little bit false?

At the end of the workshop we debated the merits of staying with the names discussion and reading either Evans's "Causal Theory of Names" or Davidson's "Nice Derangement". Nat H. argued that we had roughly reproduced the conclusion of Evans's paper, and that since we only had two sessions left we should move on to lecture III.

Which we will, in two weeks time.