April 12, 2015

What is understanding a sentence?

Michael Johnson gives the following argument for compositionality in his article on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

We are capable of understanding a very large number—perhaps an infinite number—of sentences that we have never heard before. …
If we understand the meaning of a new sentence whose meaning we haven’t been specifically taught before, it must be that we can work out its meaning from information available to us when we hear that sentence and other things that we have already learned.
Suppose for a moment that English is a compositional language, in the sense that the meaning of a sentence of English can be computed (worked out) from its syntactic structure and the meanings of its morphemes. This would explain how one could understand a novel utterance [shouldn’t this be “sentence”?] such as There is a cauliflower-shaped spacecraft from Saturn on television. English speakers who have never learned the meaning of this sentence specifically have nevertheless learned the meanings of each of the words in it: cauliflower, shape, the past tense morpheme -ed, spacecraft, and so forth. Furthermore, part of mastering a language involves acquiring the ability to parse sentences of that language, that is, to figure out their syntactic structure—for example, figuring out that cauliflower-shaped modifies spacecraft, but on television doesn’t modify Saturn. Thus if English is compositional, English speakers have all they need to understand novel English sentences they have never encountered before—provided those sentences don’t contain unfamiliar words. (Michael Johnson, “Compositionality” , Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy¸ accessed 11 April, 2015)

This is one version of a familiar line of argument. However, it doesn’t seem clear to me what precisely it is supposed to prove. I had never heard the sentence, “There is a cauliflower-shaped spacecraft from Saturn on television” until I read this article. I immediately recognized it as an English sentence, and I suppose I can say I understood it: it didn’t bewilder me, I understood how it was meant to be taken. (This was partly due, no doubt, to the context in which I encountered the sentence, as an instance of “sentences-understood-though-never-before-heard”.)
I could, as it were, identify the place of the sentence in the language calculus. Or we might say, I can state its truth-conditions (“the sentence p is true if and only if p”). But considered as an achievement, it seems to me, this is tautologous. Mastery of the system gives me mastery of the system; the question, however, is what enables us to reach beyond the language cage. After all, compositionality I take it is supposed to explain how we are able to communicate by means of combinations of words we have never encountered before, and all its seems to explain is how we are able to recognize combinations of words as the combinations of words they are. Suggesting that understanding a sentence takes us beyond mere recognition because it enables us to tell what the truth-conditions of the sentence are is no help: for one thing, this is true only if truth-conditions are understood as tautologically conveyed by the sentence itself. (“’Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” ) Second, if I don’t understand what the speaker is up to I don’t know how he means for his words to be related to the question of truth: is he trying to tell me something, musing on a formulation, telling a joke, composing a line for a science fiction story, planning the interior design of a room (“On top of the television set there will be this funny-shaped spacecraft-looking thing.”)?
            In fact, the condition that I must know the words in the sentence in order to understand it – in this sense – seems gratuitous, as long as I know what grammatical categories they belong to. Thus, to cite a famous example, while I have no idea what a runcible is, I have no difficulty understanding that the sentence “Smith kept a runcible at Abbotsford” is true if and only if Smith did indeed keep a runcible at Abbotsford. Why should my familiarity with the words have a bearing on my ability to extract the truth-conditions from the sentence?
            The idea seems to be that compositionality can explain the mysterious leap from simply hearing a sequence of words to a state called “understanding the sentence …”, a state which, although it does not yet tell me what I am to do with the words spoken, yet puts me in a position to deal with them wherever I might encounter them. And I doubt whether any such state needs to be postulated.

December 29, 2014

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

As in many countries before it, the Finnish parliament recently passed a law making same-sex marriage possible, based on a citizens’ initiative (this was the first time a citizens’ initiative succeeded in becoming law). The margins were narrow, there was serious opposition to the law in several parties, most of all among the Christian Democrats. (The law may yet be overturned by the next parliament).
A recurrent argument, or slogan, of the opponents of the reform, was “Marriage is between a man and a woman”.
            I find this an interesting formulation. It is hard to pin down how it is to be understood. Even so, I think it would be wrong to conclude that it is a meaningless claim, or to argue that it shows that opponents of the reform are thoughtless. This is so even though I do not agree with them (I was one of those who signed the initiative). In political debates one should resist the temptation to think that logic is on one’s side. Thinking that it is is (normally) an indication that one has misconstrued one’s opponents’ position.
            Clearly, the intended force of “Marriage is between a man and a woman” can’t be that of a definition. The fact that a linguistic convention exists does not preclude going against it. (Legal terminology, in particular, is not necessarily bound by common usage.) Furthermore, as a description of an existing linguistic convention the claim would not even be true. The word “marriage” has traditionally been employed in speaking about polygamous relations. In fact, one would be unable to explain what “polygamy” means without allowing for the conceptual possibility of a marriage involving something other than one man and one woman. And, of course, the word is now being employed in speaking about same-sex marriages with regard to all those countries in which the practice has been instituted.
            (Neither, of course, can the point simply be that of asserting a fact of history: “up until now, marriage in our culture has always been between a man and a woman.” Using that as an argument would entail that change in itself is a bad thing, which would of course be nonsense.)
            It may seem more plausible to interpret the claim as saying “Marriage ought only to be between a man and a woman”. But that reading would hardly satisfy those who advance the claim, since it would then reduce it to an expression of opinion. It would be a way of marking where the speaker stands, but that by itself entails acknowledging that other stands are possible. In other words, it would push the position out into the arena of argument and counter-argument, but I do not believe that is true to the intention of those who voice the claim: they wish to claim a sort of necessity for their position, they consider the supporters of same-sex marriage to be not so much mistaken as confused.
            It should be pointed out that opinions among the opponents to the law are quite varied. Some of them would grant the same legal rights to registered same-sex couples as to married couples; in effect, they simply want to reserve the word “marriage” for heterosexual couples. (This is not to say that the disagreement is simply verbal for them.) This is the position, for instance, of the Finnish president, Sauli Niinist√∂ (who can voice his opinion but has no power over legislation).
            (At the same time Niinist√∂, like many others, does slip into argument, claiming that the reform should have been resisted because the idea of same-sex marriage offends people’s sensibilities. One should note, first of all, that this does not explain what is meant by the slogan “Marriage is between a man and a woman”. It is rather an argument for the position that marriage ought to be only for a man and a woman. One should also note that this argument has a false ring of neutrality about it. To say that a practice offends somebody’s sensibility is to bestow some degree of legitimacy on the reaction – as distinct from saying that a way of behaving irritates or angers or disgusts people – the latter would not be adduced as grounds for outlawing a practice. Again, most of us would frown upon someone who said, for instance, that interracial marriage might offend people’s sensibilities; we wouldn’t consider that an acceptable way of describing people’s resentment. Clearly those who invoke people’s sensibilities in connection with same-sex marriage consider the negative attitude acceptable, whether or not they share it. --- In some countries appeals are made to the Bible, but this would not carry much weight in most European countries. Aside from parties like the Christian Democrats in Finland, there is a large consensus that religion and public decision-making should be kept separate.)
            What makes the proposition “Marriage is between a man and a woman” philosophically interesting is that it shows that people may say things that do not fit into any of the standard categories philosophers commonly use in classifying utterances. It is neither the expression of a linguistic convention, nor a statement of empirical fact, nor a normative claim. One might say it is an attempt to express the essence of marriage, to say what a real marriage is. Some people will agree and others won’t. There seems not to be any argumentative “solution” to the disagreement.
            (In this respect I see an analogy here with the disagreement about capital punishment. Some people think, as I do, that it is a form of murder, others think of it as a form of punishment that may occasionally be justified. But I do not think there is anything that the latter have overlooked. They are not victims of sloppy thinking. They are simply wrong – that is my conviction.)

September 25, 2014

We make our own fog

Hugh Knott sums up the disagreement between him and me (see my previous blog entry) as follows:

you seem to be assuming that the only context in which “confusion” arises in philosophy is when we are drawn into “going wrong” in the use of expressions when reflecting philosophically. So, using your analogy, my lack of clarity whilst looking at two yonder buildings may be expressed in my judging that the one building is in front of the other when in fact it is the other way about—I have gone wrong. Another situation might be where I am looking at a distant building and somebody asks “what is it like, what kind of roof and windows does it have?”, and I reply “I cannot tell you it is surrounded by fog”. When the fog lifts, I can tell him. Here nothing has “gone wrong”, there has been no error. I call this getting a clear view “in its own right” to distinguish it from the case where there is actual error.

(This image, as Hugh suggests, is in line with Philosophical Investigations § 5, where Wittgenstein speaks about “how much the general concept of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze which makes clear vision impossible”.)

For my part, I believe the image of being in a fog is a good starting point for trying to sort out our differences. When a building is covered by a fog there may be certain things we can’t judge about; or we may judge with less certainty than otherwise – or we may, of course, make erroneous judgments, maybe we come to see the building as altogether different than it is (or we judge that there is no building there).  

To my mind what these shortcomings have in common is more important than what distinguishes them.

Where does the fog come from? We are here talking about the difficulty of commanding a clear view of the workings of our language, whether more generally or in some specific aspect. But this is not a thing we are prevented from acquiring by some external circumstance. We are thoroughly acquainted with the workings of our language in practice. If we have difficulty getting a clear view of it, it is a difficulty of our own making - unlike a real fog.

I would imagine that Hugh and I are at one thus far. Where we may differ is on the point that, as I see it, the interest now turns to our own ways of thinking: I feel the need to reflect on what keeps us from commanding a clear view. I should like to say: unless we were tempted by misleading analogies, illusory pretensions, a craving for generality, etc. there would be no fog. This makes me unsure about the notion of a clear view “in its own right”.


Hugh writes:

Philosophical reflection is not in any case something that only goes on within the community of philosophers (i.e. the academics), but pops up in peoples’ lives all over the place. “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life” so that (reflective) confusions “within the language” are (if they are not merely trivial ones) confusions within our lives…

Yes, of course: “the use of an expression” already embodies a chunk of life, so there’s no getting clear about its use which is not at the same time a getting clear about its role in life. The reflective confusions of philosophers and non-philosophers may or may not spill over into their lives as actually lived.