philosphy of language

I don’t know any academic field whose writing regularly indulges in sentence structure as complex as in analytic philosophy.

Let me exemplify for you with a wonderful sentence from Page 182 of a recent philosophy book by Ruth Garrett Millikan, Beyond Concepts: Unicepts, Language, and Natural Information (Oxford University Press, 2017). I thought I might have it embroidered on a wall hanging. I omit the initial connective adjunct “Second” (since the link to the previous paragraph is not relevant here) and a reference date (1957) at the end.

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In arguing for his analysis of non-natural meaning, Grice made the mistake of arguing from the sensible premise that a hearer who believed that a speaker did not intend by his words to produce in the hearer a certain belief or intention would not acquire that belief or intention to the invalid conclusion that a hearer who merely failed to believe that a speaker intended by his words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer also would not acquire that belief or intention.

That is an 86-word sentence, so by the usual standards of readability it’s off the charts, even for high-school students. Yet it is perfectly formed; don’t imagine that I’m criticizing it. It’s just extraordinarily complex and demanding.

For example, the words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer form an infinitival complement governed by the verb intended, which is the main verb of a finite clause complement of believe, which is the verb of an infinitival complement of failed, which is the the main verb of a relative clause modifying the noun hearer, which is the subject of a finite clause of the noun conclusion, which is the head noun of the noun-phrase complement of the preposition to, which is the head of the preposition phrase, which is the second complement of arguing.

I’m sorry; I can see your eyes glazing over. Let me tackle this a different way, from the top down, trying to wrestle the sentence into simpler form.

The top-level main point is that Grice made a mistake. The mistake was one of logic: arguing from a sensible premise to a conclusion that doesn’t follow from it.

The sensible premise was about how hearers of utterances form beliefs. It says that if someone says something to you, but you think the speaker did not say it in order to make you intend or believe X, then you won’t come to intend or believe X.

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The conclusion Grice wrongly drew was also about how hearers of utterances form beliefs. He concluded that the following holds: If someone says something to you, but you don’t happen to think he intended thereby to make you intend or believe X, then you won’t come to intend or believe X.

BeyondConcepts

This is subtle, but Millikan is appealing to the difference between (i) “John believes Mary didn’t intend to deceive us” and (ii) “John doesn’t believe Mary intended to deceive us.” There is an extremely strong tendency for us to assume that if (ii) is true, (i) is as well. But that is a fallacy, because (ii) could be true if John held no beliefs about Mary at all: He might never have heard of Mary, or he might have been in a coma for the past three months. Hence although (i) might be grounds for thinking John trusts Mary, (ii) doesn’t necessarily give us those grounds. For John to be holding no beliefs about Mary in his head tells us nothing about whom he would trust.

Millikan is saying that your failure to have any beliefs either way about what someone intended you to believe is not necessarily enough to ensure that you won’t come to believe it anyway.

Let’s face it, this is mind-crunchingly difficult. And this is just one sentence out of Millikan’s brilliant 256-page book.

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At the very least, let’s keep in mind that when we expect our students to read original work in the field of analytical philosophy, we are asking a lot.

Actually, I’m co-teaching (with Brian Rabern) a course on the philosophy of the language sciences this fall, so I’m really addressing the forgoing remark to myself.