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Suppose I have never played a game of chess. If I now make the claim that I've

Suppose I have never played a game of chess. If I now make the claim that I've won all the games of chess I've ever played, is that claim true, false, or undefined? A group of friends had an argument over this, and I figured that philosophers are deeply logical thinkers that can give us the answer and also to get a proper understanding of why the answer is what it is.

It would, of course, be equally true that you've lost every game of chess you've ever played. Bad news to go with the good.

The claim is true. There is no game of chess that you have ever played and lost. That said, if you say that every game of chess you have ever played you have won, then you have said something very misleading . But that is different from saying something false. H.P. Grice started the development of a theory that would explain that difference.

I read in one of my dad's linguistic books that some languages have exactly

I read in one of my dad's linguistic books that some languages have exactly three basic color words: black, white, and red. I wondered if this meant that for the people who speak these languages, everything that is not black and white is called red (the sky is red, grass is red, etc.) -- or if they just don't have a word to describe anything that is not black, white, or red. If it is the latter, then how would they describe the color of the sky and grass? Noah L. Age 11

Hi, Noah, thanks for writing us with your question.

I'm not sure which book you were reading, and I have never heard of such languages myself. To be honest, I kind of doubt there really are such languages. Have you ever heard about how Eskimos have lots of words for "snow"? Well, at least a lot of people think that's just wrong. It's a myth. In this case, I find it hard to imagine that the people speaking any language wouldn't find it useful to have words for more colors than the ones you mention. And if it's useful, then they will introduce such words.

But let's suppose that there are languages like that and ask what we should say about them, if so. Both options you mention seem possible: that they have words for "black", "white", and "colored", and that they have words for "black", "white", and "red". In the latter case, then, as you say, they would have no word for the color of the sky. But they could still describe it, if they had a word meaning "same color". They could say the sky was the same color as the lake, maybe, and that the grass was the same color as the leaves on the tree.

If they couldn't describe it, and felt they needed to do so, then, as I kind of said before, I think they would probably make up a word for it. Languages grow that way all the time. They are alive, changing every day to fit the needs of the people who use them.

In fact, you might even have made up new words yourself! We all do it. Mostly, we make up names for things, but sometimes we make up names for new kinds of things, even. One of my cats used to make lots of different kinds of meows depending upon what it was he wanted. So we made up words to describe his meows. We needed a word, and there wasn't one, so we created it.

Isn't language cool?

Hi, Noah, thanks for writing us with your question. I'm not sure which book you were reading, and I have never heard of such languages myself. To be honest, I kind of doubt there really are such languages. Have you ever heard about how Eskimos have lots of words for "snow"? Well, at least a lot of people think that's just wrong. It's a myth. In this case, I find it hard to imagine that the people speaking any language wouldn't find it useful to have words for more colors than the ones you mention. And if it's useful, then they will introduce such words. But let's suppose that there are languages like that and ask what we should say about them, if so. Both options you mention seem possible: that they have words for "black", "white", and "colored", and that they have words for "black", "white", and "red". In the latter case, then, as you say, they would have no word for the color of the sky. But they could still describe it, if they had a word meaning "same color". They could say the sky was the...

Could someone explain the Frege's puzzle? Is it directly related to semantic

Could someone explain the Frege's puzzle? Is it directly related to semantic stuff? How?

I could explain the puzzle, but there are already good explanations at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

I've heard some philosophers of mind use the term 'singular content'- but what

I've heard some philosophers of mind use the term 'singular content'- but what does that mean?

The usual term would be something like "singular proposition", as opposed to a "general proposition". A singular proposition is one that is about some particular object. For example, the proposition that the Dalai Lama is German is a singular proposition. A general proposition would be something like: One and only one person is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and that person is German.

The usual term would be something like "singular proposition", as opposed to a "general proposition". A singular proposition is one that is about some particular object. For example, the proposition that the Dalai Lama is German is a singular proposition. A general proposition would be something like: One and only one person is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and that person is German.

The notion of something being a "fake" seems linguistically odd. Normally, if

The notion of something being a "fake" seems linguistically odd. Normally, if you have an adjective and a noun, the noun notes what the thing being talked about is, and the adjective describes some quality of the thing in question. A "fake plant", however, doesn't seem to fit that pattern at all, because a fake plant isn't a plant to begin with; the noun seems to be violating its intended function. Is "fake" something other than an adjective, then, perhaps analogous to "not a"? Or is a "fake plant" actually a "fakeplant", i.e. the fake is a part of the noun rather than an adjective, despite its apparent form? Doesn't the adjective "fake" somehow undermine the purpose of nouns?

One point worth noting here is that words like "fake" are, so far as I can see, always intensional. meaning that whether something is a fake F depends upon what property F is, and not just which things are F. They are also "attributive", meaning that an Adj-Noun isn't just an Adj that is Noun, but (roughly) something that is Adj for a Noun. E.g., a tall basketball player is someone who is tall for a basketball player, not just someone who is tall and a basketball player. Attributives are hard enough; intensionality is hard enough; both by themselves. Put them together, and it's a nightmare.

One point worth noting here is that words like "fake" are, so far as I can see, always intensional. meaning that whether something is a fake F depends upon what property F is, and not just which things are F. They are also "attributive", meaning that an Adj-Noun isn't just an Adj that is Noun, but (roughly) something that is Adj for a Noun. E.g., a tall basketball player is someone who is tall for a basketball player, not just someone who is tall and a basketball player. Attributives are hard enough; intensionality is hard enough; both by themselves. Put them together, and it's a nightmare.

How can phrases mean things their words don't appear to mean?

How can phrases mean things their words don't appear to mean? For example, if I'm eating a salad, my friend asks how it is, and I say "not bad," the words "not bad" seem to be extremely open - the salad could be amazing, it could be okay, it could be great or it could be totally neutral; it might even be horrible, so long as it isn't "bad." However, I would normally be understood as saying the salad was okay, rather than any of the other logically plausible alternatives. How does that work?

I think there's rather more that can be said here (and, for what it's worth, I don't actually agree that "words mean what we use them to mean").

We probably need to distinguish a couple different things here. One kind of case is that of idiom. These are linguistic expressions, like "kicked the bucket", whose meaning has nothing to do with the component words. These sorts of phrases are really just single words, but long ones, and there are good tests for when you have an idiom. Note, e.g., that I cannot say "The bucket was kicked by John" and have it mean the same as "John kicked the bucket", where the latter is the idiomatic use meaning "John died".

It might well be that "not bad" in this kind of case is an idiom, but the case seems to me to have many features of a case of implicature. Here's a standard kind of example. Suppose Professor Jones writes a letter of recommendation for Mr Smith. The letter says:

To whom it may concern:

Smith has excellent handwriting and was never late for class.

Yours, Prof Jones

Now Jones certainly hasn't said that Smith isn't qualified for whatever the letter was supposed to recommend him for. But he's made his view pretty clear. Why? Well, there's a story to be told about that. Jones knows what kind of letter he's expected to write, but he's totally failed to do that. Why? The obvious thought is that Jones is just saying something positive, and that's all he's got to say that's positive. So you can infer what Jones actually thinks from what he does say and the situation in which it's said.

Here's another kind of case. Suppose I say, "Most of the students passed the test". I do not, when I say that, also say that not all of them did. You can see that because I could continue, "In fact, all of them did". But if I don't continue that way, then you might reasonably infer that not all of them did. Why? Because, if all of them did, I could just have said so. But I didn't. Now, maybe in certain circumstances, that wouldn't be relevant. Maybe all that matters is that most of them passed and, if so, then you shouldn't draw that inference. But in a normal case, you could draw it, and reasonably so.

This kind of example illustrates what's known as the "conversational maxim of quantity", which says, more or less: When you say something, say the most informative thing you can say on the topic, given the general parameters of the conversation.

The case of "not bad" is like that. If the salad were delicious, then you could have said so. Indeed, it's reasonable to suppose you would have said so. But you didn't say so, so it must not really be delicious. Rather, it's merely okay. Minimally not bad. That's it.

I think there's rather more that can be said here (and, for what it's worth, I don't actually agree that "words mean what we use them to mean"). We probably need to distinguish a couple different things here. One kind of case is that of idiom . These are linguistic expressions, like "kicked the bucket", whose meaning has nothing to do with the component words. These sorts of phrases are really just single words, but long ones, and there are good tests for when you have an idiom. Note, e.g., that I cannot say "The bucket was kicked by John" and have it mean the same as "John kicked the bucket", where the latter is the idiomatic use meaning "John died". It might well be that "not bad" in this kind of case is an idiom, but the case seems to me to have many features of a case of implicature . Here's a standard kind of example. Suppose Professor Jones writes a letter of recommendation for Mr Smith. The letter says: To whom it may concern: Smith has excellent handwriting and was never late...

Is "understanding" a proposition necessary, but not sufficient, for "believing"

Is "understanding" a proposition necessary, but not sufficient, for "believing" that same proposition? Further, where could one find arguments (discussion) for and/or against either position?

I confess I'm puzzled by Prof. Heck's reply. He defends the following three assumptions:

(1) If you understand a proposition, then you also understand its negation.
(2) It is necessary, if you are to believe a proposition, to understand it.
(3) It's perfectly possible to believe a proposition and not understand its negation.

I interpret those assumptions as follows:

(1*) Understanding P entails understanding not-P.
(2*) Believing P entails understanding P.
(3*) Believing P doesn't entail understanding not-P.

(1*)-(3*) imply a contradiction: Believing P does and doesn't entail understanding not-P. If so, then (1)-(3) imply everything (if I've interpreted them correctly). I also don't see how the falsity of (3) implies that we would always have to believe contradictions. If (3) is false, then believing P entails understanding not-P; I don't see how any unwelcome consequences follow from that.

PLEASE NOTE: (3) above was taken from Professor Heck's original posting, which he has since amended. [Alexander George on 6/6/2014.]

Let's assume the following: (1) If you understand a proposition, then you also understand its negation. (2) It is necessary, if you are to believe a proposition, to understand it. (3) It's perfectly possible to believe a proposition and not believe its negation. It follows from these that understanding a proposition is not sufficient for believing it. So there's an argument. One might wonder why we should accept (1)-(3), of course. I think most people would take (2) to be obvious enough. What's meant here by "understanding" is something like: being able to take mental attitudes towards. Belief is just such an attitude. Regarding (1), this just seems to follow from your understanding what negation is. For detailed discussion, however, one might look at Frege's last essay "Negation". Regarding (3), one would hope that it is true! Even if we sometimes believe contradictions, one would hope we didn't always have to do so!!

Opponents to gay marriage often argue that marriage is "by definition" a union

Opponents to gay marriage often argue that marriage is "by definition" a union between one man and one women. I support gay marriage myself, but this kind of argument is interesting to me--I'm not sure what to make of it. What does it mean to say that marriage is, by definition, thus and so? (Is this just a statement about the way people tend to use the word "marriage"?) More importantly, should we ever be persuaded by such arguments?

Let me add a few words to Sean's excellent response.

I think one thing worth keeping in mind here, which I may have said already in response to a similar question, is that the institution of marriage in the United States, and in some other places in the developed world, has changed a great deal over the last sixty years or so.

A friend of mine once joked, "Of course marriage has to be between a man and a woman. Otherwise, how would you know who gets to beat up whom?" Not very funny, of course, in one sense, but perhaps you see her point. There was a time, not very long ago, when it was legally impossible in many states for a woman to be raped by her husband. A married woman's ability to own property independently of her husband was curtailed in some jurisdictions. Men had, by law, that kind of control over their wives, and the entire institution of marriage was one of ownership. That is why many radicals of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras were deeply suspicious of the entire institution. One of these people was Bertrand Russell, who wrote a book, Marriage and Morals, on the topic.

With the explosion of the feminist movement in the 1950s, these things begin to change, and marriage starts to be seen as a partnership between equals. The fact that one of these partners was male and one female slowly, over time, came to be quite irrelevant. Neither party has rights or privileges that the other does not have, simply on the basis of gender, and any such privilege would be seen as sex discrimination.It was essentially on this ground, that the gender difference had no legal significance, that the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts made its historic decision legally same-sex marriage.

That is why it is no accident that those who trumpet the "one man, one woman" line are anti-feminist, too.

Let me add a few words to Sean's excellent response. I think one thing worth keeping in mind here, which I may have said already in response to a similar question, is that the institution of marriage in the United States, and in some other places in the developed world, has changed a great deal over the last sixty years or so. A friend of mine once joked, "Of course marriage has to be between a man and a woman. Otherwise, how would you know who gets to beat up whom?" Not very funny, of course, in one sense, but perhaps you see her point. There was a time, not very long ago, when it was legally impossible in many states for a woman to be raped by her husband. A married woman's ability to own property independently of her husband was curtailed in some jurisdictions. Men had, by law, that kind of control over their wives, and the entire institution of marriage was one of ownership. That is why many radicals of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras were deeply suspicious of the entire institution...

Is this sentence true:

Is this sentence true: "Miles Davis and narwhals both have horns." The word "horn" can mean a musical instrument (which only Miles Davis has) or a bony protrusion (which only narwhals have.) But is it possible to mean both things at once (which would make the sentence true). Or does the sentence only have two possible meanings, both of which are false?

This phenomenon is well-known. It's a form of zeugma that is known as "syllepsis".

I think most linguists would say that this sentence cannot mean that Miles has a trumpet and a narwhal a protrusion from the head. The reason is the obvious one: that "horn" has to be interpreted a single way. Note that, if correct, this shows that "Ms and Ns are F" is not, as we sometimes tell our introductory logic students, simply an abbreviation (or something) for "Ms are F and Ns are F", since, in the latter, "F" could be interpreted differently in its two occurrences.

When one makes a claim like the one just made, we are talking about how the sentence is immediately, unreflectively, and automatically understood by a hearer. So what I'm observing is, in effect, simply that our "language faculty" operates a certain way, and not another way that it could, in principle, have operated. And put that way, the point should be fairly uncontroversial. The humorous effect one can get from syllepsis depends the fact that syllpetic utterances strikes us in the first instance as odd.

But language-use is complex and one can, of course, reflect on what has been said and arrive at a kind of secondary interpretation. Certainly we do that will sylleptic utterances, and so one can manage to communicate something by such an utterance that it cannot literally mean.

This phenomenon is well-known. It's a form of zeugma that is known as "syllepsis". I think most linguists would say that this sentence cannot mean that Miles has a trumpet and a narwhal a protrusion from the head. The reason is the obvious one: that "horn" has to be interpreted a single way. Note that, if correct, this shows that "Ms and Ns are F" is not , as we sometimes tell our introductory logic students, simply an abbreviation (or something) for "Ms are F and Ns are F", since, in the latter, "F" could be interpreted differently in its two occurrences. When one makes a claim like the one just made, we are talking about how the sentence is immediately, unreflectively, and automatically understood by a hearer. So what I'm observing is, in effect, simply that our "language faculty" operates a certain way, and not another way that it could, in principle, have operated. And put that way, the point should be fairly uncontroversial. The humorous effect one can get from syllepsis depends the fact...

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some have more it seems and some have less. My question is that in a language that has less words, is it limited in it's ability to conceptualize and describe and thus understand less about it's reality around it, or is it's simplistic view what gives a clearer view of things? Follow up: If you can't define a word without using another word, wouldn't words be subjective?

You may be referring (directly or indirectly, intentionally or not) to the infamous Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, in brief the idea that the structure of one's language constrains/determines one's conceptualization of and cognitive approach to the world. (If the Inuit genuinely have more words for snow than ordinary English speakers, then that reflects that they can make (say) visual distinctions between the kinds of snow than we can ....) I'm not particularly familiar with the literature except that I believe this hypothesis is no longer much in fashion at all -- while perhaps in some limited senses different languages (including their different vocabularies, number of words, grammatical structures) are able to express various thoughts differently, etc., far more people accept these days that the 'thoughts' themselves are roughly universally available -- and indeed the fact that languages CAN be translated into each others (even if not always perfectly) suggests that all languages are capable of expressing the same thoughts ... (and even when a translation isn't perfect we can usually describe the ways in which it is imperfect, thus more fully capturing the 'thought' expressed') ... As for your follow-up: depends what you mean by 'subjective' (or course), but you have your finger on a very deep issue: whether meaning is ultimately reducible to the relationship between a word and our conception or perception of things ... (at some point words must 'make contact' with the world ....)

I tend to agree with theoretical linguists such as Chomsky that there are really no such things as languages, in the sense in which English and German are supposed to be "public languages". Rather, there are just people who talk, and some of them can understand each other. I mention this because it is surely not an essential feature of any language, in that sense, that it has some particular number of words. Words get added and removed all the time. So it's hard to ask the question in these terms. Let's focus on "idiolects". Each of us has our own idiolect, which is in various ways like and unlike the idiolects of other people. Each of these has, at any given time, a certain number of words in it. Now: Does understanding more words contribute to one's being able to conceptualize and describe more? Other things equal, one would suppose so, and it's hard to see why this ability would, in and of itself, make one's view of things any less clear, though I suppose one might miss the forest for the trees,...

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