April 10, 2013

Face value

This is in response to David Cockburn’s comment on my previous blog. David wrote:

There is something not so very far from what we might call a ‘face value’ of certain sequences of words. (The ‘duck’ example features in the literature because it is a very obvious exception to this.) Much as there is a ‘face value’ of many facial expressions: the face suggests to us (no doubt generally defeasibly) a certain context and certain feelings. And this is important to the way in which our understanding of a situation may run through our understanding of other people. Similarly, I think, with our understanding of words. (I suspect that the grip of ‘standard’ philosophical views of language partly turns on this.)

I’m sure something like face value plays a role in our thinking about language, and in our actual linguistic communication as well. (I believe the notion is closely related to what Bernard Harrison had in mind in speaking of the autonomy of the linguistic sign in his Philosophy of Language (1979).)
                             It seems to me that one might mean several things (some of them closely related) in speaking about face value. One is this: when we encounter a sentence out of all context, say, written on a slip of paper we find in the street, we may be ready to venture an interpretation. E.g. “Caesar was a highly popular ruler.” We immediately suppose that the speaker is referring to the Roman dictator G. Iulius Caesar, who was murdered in 44 B.C. Or: “The sun’s distance from the earth is 300 million kilometers”, where we’d assume the reference was to conditions in our solar system (even though in such a case the sentence would not be true, evidently). This is not equally true of all sentences, e.g. “After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before”, to use Wittgenstein’s example from Philosophical Investigations § 525. There’s much less we’d be ready to say about the latter independently of context (I imagine it comes from a telling of Rumpelstiltskin).
                             These are mere psychological facts, though. In fact, the sentences containing “Caesar” and “the sun”, above, don’t actually refer, since they owe their existence simply to occurring as example sentences in this blog.  It wouldn’t make sense to say that the first sentence “really” or “probably” refers to the Roman dictator, or that “we can’t know” whether it does.
                             Another thing one might mean by face value is something like this. We probably have something like default responses to things we hear. That is, unless the context gives any indication, or an indication to the contrary, speakers of a language are likely to take what is said in such and such a way in preference to some other particular way. Thus, among a certain group of speakers, if they catch the word “cricket”, they’re more likely to assume that the topic of conversation is the game rather than the insect. But this can hardly be a general rule of the language; for in another group, the opposite might be true. (Of course, certain default expectations might be near universal.)
                             Very often, in practice, I would imagine that what’s at play in listening to someone speak is a kind of dialectic between our expectations and the actual situation. But to me these are empirical rather than logical observations. In practice, they undoubtedly have a great role in how linguistic communication is carried on, but I don’t see why they should have a bearing on a discussion of “the meaning of meaning”. (Donald Davidson discusses such matters in “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, but I don’t see what makes it philosophy. When I insist on this, it’s not because labels matter, but because it’s important to be clear what kind of inquiry one is conducting.)
                             Be that as it may, I believe both types of face value phenomena, as David suggests, help explain the lure of much standard analytic philosophy.


  1. Hello Lars

    I am not sure I understand the point you are trying to make here. In particular, I am not sure what you mean when you say of one understanding of face value that our expectations about what sentences mean are "mere psychological facts." How does this relate to the point you want to make about philosophy, language and standard analytic philosophy?

    If you ask me whether I think someone understands English, in part I will be guided by whether their responses to sentences are in the main "normal", e.g. for example suspecting that the sentence refers to Caesar, who crossed the Rubicon. If I am trying to do things in English, I will take into account these normal expectations too. Comedy depends on understanding how people will likely take things, so that punch lines may be surprising. Rhetoric depends on something similar.

    Learning to speak English--to be an English speaker--involves learning just these things too. For that reason, I should not want to describe these expectations as mere psychology, but as part of learning the language. Learning to overcome arachnophobia by the standard techniques is something I might describe as "learning" something merely psychological.

    However, I may have misunderstood the thrust or point you were making in the post.

    For what it is worth, the origin of "face value" is financial. There is the face value of a financial instrument (the amount printed on the, e.g. bond certificate) that people often speak of in terms of whether in this situation they will honor it or not. This terminology exists more prosaically when scalping concert tickets at or above face value.

    Thanks for the blog entries.


    1. I share David Levy’s worries about the phrase ‘mere psychological facts’ as used here. As David expresses the matter: coming to have expectations of these kinds is part of learning the language. ‘But couldn’t we imagine someone who wholly lacked such expectations and yet was still a manifestly competent speaker of the language?’ Well, we will have to spell out the case in some detail and then ask what we want to say. It is possible that people will want to say different things; and possible that there will be no definitive resolution on the question ‘Does this person have a full mastery of the language?’ But my hunch is that you (Lars) nicely express something that is very important in normal conversation when you write: perhaps what is often ‘at play in listening to someone speak is a kind of dialectic between our expectations and the actual situation’ Spontaneously taking some of his words in a certain way in the absence of sufficient context fully to ‘fix’ that reading we imaginatively fill in a fuller context: an unspecified feature of the situation he is speaking of, an assumption he is making about our understanding, or whatever. This in turn provides part of the context in our reading of other of his words. My suspicion is that someone who could not handle this kind of interplay would be at sea in normal conversation to a degree such that he could not unproblematically be thought of as a competent speaker of the language. (I would defend Davidson’s paper as being ‘philosophy’ on the same kind of grounds.)

      Well, it would take a good bit of careful work to show that this is such a pervasive and important feature of normal conversation. But perhaps something of the force of the point can be brought out by returning to your original example. I suggested that your initial presentation of the Jane Austen example obscured a genuine contrast between understanding what is said and understanding the speaker (understanding why he said it): that contrast being important in some of the work that you are criticizing (for example, in presentations of the “austere” view of nonsense). You write there: ‘Yet we have no difficulty understanding the sentence [“It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for.”] The narrator is making gentle fun of the heroine’s impatience’. But isn’t there at least some truth in the suggestion that we understand what the narrator is up to because we have some independent, even if slightly murky, understanding of the sentence. Our grasp of what is going on here is dependent on the fact that we have a moderately context independent way of making something of the sentence “Wednesday came when it might have been expected”: one that models it loosely on “The rain came when it might have been expected” (uttered in the kind of context that we spontaneously imagine for these words.) (The force of this suggestion depends, I think, on the view that you rather overstate the contrast between those two cases – but that, independently, seems to me to be so.)

      I do not believe that these considerations, if roughly right, undermine the extremely important point that you draw from your discussion of the example. But I do think they call for some reworking of the argument for those conclusions.


    2. I would imagine some kind of dialectic between words and context is regularly involved in linguistic interaction. For until we have *some* idea what someone is saying we will, in many cases, have no clue as to what the relevant context is. The problem to me of Davidson’s paper is that he seems to think this recognition needs to be elaborated into a complex philosophical theory.
      I’m in total agreement with your point that we understand “Wednesday came when it might have been expected” by modeling it on sentences like “The rain came when it might have been expected”, although I should express my agreement by saying, in my (possibly preverse) terminology that this dependence is psychological, not logical. I.e. the former sentence does not make the sense it makes because of some underlying logical relation to the latter sentence, but simply because we naturally hear the former sequence of words as an echo of the latter sequence – and because we recognize the author’s intention in making a play on this echo.
      I’m not sure why what I said should be taken to exclude this kind of dependence. Anyway, when I wrote “The problem with this line of thought is that it is taken for granted that the sense of an utterance can be adjudicated on the basis of the words of which it is made up”, what I had in mind in speaking of adjudication was the idea that we could establish what an utterance means by some sort of logical diagnosis of the sequence of words.

    3. One small addition to what (I think) has already been said.

      Perhaps there is a reason here to re-think the relation between the logical and the psychological, and the idea that we cannot learn about the logical by learning about the psychological. For it seems that there is a sense in which the logical depends on psychological, as well as other kinds of, contingent facts: The sense in which Wittgenstein says “If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments” (PI 242).

      The idea, I take it, is at least partly that noting such contingent facts as that people often agree when it comes to color-judgments, or are typically interested in some things and not others, or that they usually cannot remember huge quantities of information, or that they have more difficulty distinguishing between certain colors, and so on—noting facts like this is often a good way of getting ourselves to see the point (and the meaning) of certain (linguistic or non-linguistic) practices. In general, perhaps, sharing a platform of human interests and sensitivities (a human form of life) is a condition for understanding human language. The psychological in this way can be a clue to the logical.

      I take it that this dependence of the logical on the psychological is different than the dependence of “Wednesday came when it might have been expected” on “The rain came when it might have been expected.” In this latter case, I’m more inclined to think that in the Wednesday proposition there is a kind of riddle, or a sort of figurative use of language, in which the listener is not only expected to passively get the meaning of the proposition, but is expected to actively make sense of it—imagine a meaning into it, so to speak. (I do not mean that the listener is encouraged to imagine whatever she wants into the sentence; as typically with riddles and figurative uses of language, there are constraints.) Anyway, understanding-a-sentence' seems to me to take a logically different form here. So perhaps in order to understand the Wednesday sentence, the listener or the reader would have to rely on all sorts of psychological associations she has, and on surface similarities between the Wednesday sentence and other sentences like the rain sentence. So this is a different way in which the logical could depend on the psychological.

    4. My suggestion is that we need to distinguish between *dependence in logic*, and the *dependence of logic on matters external to it* - i.e. between what the logic is, and how it has come to be that way.

      Suppose by ”logic” we mean something like: “the kinds of thing we’d invoke in trying to settle a disagreement in understanding”. To use an example I’ve used before: I tell my wife we’ll meet at the bank at 12. She goes to the river bank, I go to the First National Bank. Who got it right? She’ll tell me “But we always meet at the river bank”, and I say “But we were to meet for business at the bank”, etc. etc. Was she right in taking my words as she did? Was I right in expecting her to understand what I meant? We try to agree on what were the relevant background factors, i.e. what was the logic of my remark. We may or may not reach an agreement.

      Our whole conversation takes place in a cultural context in which there are ways of agreeing on dates, etc. One might of course come to have a discussion of why these conventions look the way they do (or why the word “bank” has come to have these two meanings, etc). Just as in a different case one might have a discussion about the nature of colour language or some of the other things suggested by Reshef. But these discussions would not bear *directly* on the question my wife and I are disagreeing about, or so I would argue.

      (I believe this is related to the point Peter Winch is driving at in his discussion of Kripke’s reading of Wittgenstein in “Facts and Superfacts”, *Trying to Make Sense*, p. 58.)

    5. If I understand, you are separating two questions: (1) how words came to have the particular meaning they have, and (2) what the words mean in a particular case. Is this right?

      If so, are you saying that, in order to decide in your ‘bank’ example what you told your wife, it would be useless to ask questions of the first sort?

      Or are you saying that even if it is not useless, asking questions of the first sort cannot be asking about the meaning of the words in the particular case?

      Or again, it seems to me that unclarity about what a particular word means in a particular case can give rise to different kinds of questions. In particular, it can give rise to a question like: “By “bank,” did you mean “money-bank” or “river-bank”? But in a different case—say, the waiting for Wednesday case—it can also give rise to questions like “What exactly is the word ‘waiting’ doing in this sentence? How did it come about that this word was the one that seemed best suited to capture the intention? What do we have the word ‘waiting’ for in the first place, and how is that reflected (if at all) in this particular use of the word?” – Are you denying this?

    6. Yes, that’s roughly what I want to say, though I’d prefer to put the distinction as follows (reversing the order): (1) what the speaker meant in this particular case, (2) the circumstances that have contributed to shaping the conversational conventions we have. (I would avoid speaking about the particular meanings of *words*. To do so is to generalize about the contribution a word makes to the various contexts in which it may be used, and any such generalization is apt to be fuzzy and incomplete. Cp. Wittgenstein’s discussion of the use of the word “God” in *Culture and Value*, p. 94. In this sense, word meanings are abstract, whereas speaking about what a particular speaker meant by what she said on a particular occasion is concrete.)

      In any case, going into the history of our conversational conventions would in most cases be irrelevant to settling a current disagreement about meanings.

      As for the questions: “What exactly is the word ‘waiting’ doing in this sentence? How did it come about that this word was the one that seemed best suited to capture the intention? What do we have the word ‘waiting’ for in the first place, and how is that reflected (if at all) in this particular use of the word?” – yes, to me those seem the kinds of question that I’d be very hesitant to raise. How we come to use words the particular way we do and not some other way is a matter that, for the most part, we have no way of answering. Why do we in English speak of turning off the light, the way you do with a gas main, while in Swedish we speak of “extinguishing” (släcka) the light, the way you do with an oil lamp? There may be a historical explanation for our choice of analogy, or then it may be pure chance. But there does not seem to be any ground for saying that one analogy is more correct than the other.

    7. I am not sure we are talking about the same thing (and therefore that there is a real disagreement here). What I had in mind was what Wittgenstein says in passages like this:

      “After all, another life shifts completely different images into the foreground, necessitates completely different images. Just like trouble teaches prayer. That does not mean that through the other life one will necessarily change one’s opinions. But if one lives differently, one speaks differently. With a new life one learns new language games.” [in: Public and Private Occasions, p. 169]

      He discusses related issues in §xii if the second part of PI, when he talks of how imagining different very general facts of nature would make different formation of concepts intelligible, and in PI §§569-70 he says:

      “Language is an instrument. Its concepts are instruments. Now perhaps one thinks that it can make no great difference which concepts we employ. As, after all, it is possible to do physics in feet and inches as well as in metres and centimetres; the difference is merely one of convenience. But even this is not true if, for instance, calculations in some system of measurement demand more time and trouble than it is possible for us to give them.

      “Concepts lead us to make investigations; are the expression of our interest, and direct our interest.”

      What he says in these last two remarks seems to me to be in tension with what you said in reply to my initial comment. I suggested that noting contingent facts as that people cannot remember huge quantities of information, or that they have more difficulty distinguishing between certain colors, and so on, can be part of what we do when explaining meaning. It seems to me that Wittgenstein here is saying something similar about the contingent fact that for some purposes at least some systems of measurement are more convenient than others. You said in reply that a discussion of such facts “would not bear *directly*” on questions about the correct understanding of what someone meant by some expression.

      Anyway, if Wittgenstein is right here, there is a sense--perhaps it is different from the one you have in mind--in which we could say that our concepts have a factual foundation and a history. If he is right, that is, attending to this historical and factual foundation can be part of an explanation of meaning.

    8. We are indeed, I think, talking about different things. When I’m bewildered by what someone said, I may ask her (or someone else) to explain her words; that’s one context in which we speak about explanation of meaning. Or someone who is unsure about the use of some locution in a foreign language, the way I am about the distinction between “play a role” and “play a part” in English (is there a distinction?), might ask for an explanation of their meaning. The latter would be an explanation on a more general level: a kind of sketch or rule of thumb. Perhaps there are other types of explanation of meaning as well.

      The kinds of contingencies you point to are of course of great interest in philosophy – not so much, perhaps, the particular contingencies themselves, as the realization that the ways we speak do depend on them (I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the notion of “very general facts of nature” in Wittgenstein’s thought). But would we normally refer to these kinds of observations as explanations of meaning? I’d think not, but I may be wrong.

      All the same, I can imagine that there are cases in which these different types of issues are intertwined.

    9. Could you give a reference to where you wrote about the notion of “very general facts of nature” in Wittgenstein? I would very much like to read that.

      I am not sure I understand the distinction you are making between the two kinds of explanation of meaning—the more general, and the less general. If I understand, the more general sort of explanation is supposed to explain why we have a certain word in the first place, and the less general is supposed to explain a particular use of some locution. Do I understand correctly?

      Now, you also seem to be suspicious of the more general form of explanation being useful in the more particular kind of situations. But if so—and this is what I don’t understand—what is the point of having the general sort of explanation in the first place if it cannot be used to clarify a misunderstanding in particular cases? That is, what interest is there in why we have a certain word that is not tied to how that word is used in particular cases?

    10. I’m sorry wasn’t really clear. I wanted to distinguish three things:
      (1) explanations of what someone meant on a particular occasion;
      (2) general explanations of what a word or expression means (what you’d find in a dictionary or what you’re given when you learn a foreign language); these can be useful in a rule-of-thumb sort of way, but may fail to capture particular uses;
      (3) accounts for how we came to speak in the ways we do; these may be rather general (showing the contingence of certain ways of speaking on general facts of nature) or more specific; my suggestion was that we wouldn’t call these accounts “explanations of meaning”. It strikes me that this claim may have been too categorical. Somebody might quite intelligibly say: “The word ‘maudlin’ really means Magdalene.” This sense of “real meaning”, however, has no bearing on trying to understand what somebody means in using the word: most people who use the word have no idea of its origin. (It would be better, I think, to say that such a story explains *why* a word means what it means, rather than simply *what it means*.)

      I wrote about this latter theme in “Very General Facts of Nature”, in Oskari Kuusela & Marie McGinn (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein.

  2. Hello both Davids -

    I'm sorry I'm such a slow responder. Let me get in an answer to David Levy's comment now and get back to David Cockburn's later.

    David Levy’s question is important. I’ll try to retrace my line of thought.

    Of course acquiring default reactions is an important part of learning to speak. Linguistic communication is possible because we do have shared reactions. This, we might say, is a point about the natural history of humanity. And: one consequence of our having shared reactions is that in a great many cases, issues about what someone meant don’t even arise.

    On the other hand: when issues about meaning do arise, we wouldn’t normally try to settle them by establishing which reaction is nearer to some statistical average (what would be the reference group anyway?). Sometimes we just have to agree that the words could be understood in different ways, at other times we may disagree vehemently. In other words, the fact that we share default reactions doesn’t seem to be much help when problems of understanding arise. I believe that’s what I meant to say when I claimed that an inquiry into these matters would belong to psychology rather than philosophy.

    I guess my point is *related* (though not identical) to one made by Rush Rhees in “Can there be a Private Language?”:

    I am not saying, “People see that their reactions tally, and this makes communication possible.” That would assume considerable language and understanding already. The agreement of which I am speaking is one without which it would not be possible for people to “see” that their reactions tallied. We see that we understand one another, without noticing whether our reactions tally or not. *Because* we agree in our reactions, it is possible for you to tell me something... (Rhees, *Discussions of Wittgenstein*, p. 56).

  3. Hello Lars,
    I'd want to raise a question about your statement that your sample sentences 'don't actually refer', since they occur only as sample sentences in your blog. I don't think 'actually referring' is some one thing, and one can speak of 'referring' in various ways. I read and make up masses of sample sentences, in connection with my French class. Yesterday, I made up the sentence (for an exercise on lexical anaphors)'Le vingt huit juillet mille neuf cent quatorze, Gavrilo Printsip a tué l'archiduc Franz Ferdinand', a sentence which occurs in my comment here merely as example; but I don't think there is anything philosophically heavy-duty in saying that the example sentence is about(where the word 'about' is the ordinary language word that gets turned into 'refers to' often enough in philosophy) a particular event that indeed did take place in July of 1914. So I want to deny that there is a clear question whether the sentence 'actually refers' to the event or to the two people. Say what you like.

    1. Hello, Cora –
      Thank you for your comment. Maybe I was too categorical in arguing that the sample sentences don’t actually refer. I should have heeded my own advice: always ask what we *do* with the words in question. I could of course imagine situations in which your sentence could be said to refer to an actual event. Suppose when you used it in class somebody thought it was a very funny made-up example, and then you might have said, “No no, this is about something that really happened”. And clearly, for it to do its work in the connection in which you quote it here, it would have to be understood to be, in some sense, about a historical event. In some other context, it would not. Say, if you had forgotten the exact date or the murderer’s name and put in something else instead, then for certain purposes it would be a misunderstanding to consider this a mistake. So in different contexts the answer to whether it refers is different, and in the absence of context, I’m inclined to say, there is no answer, hence no question.