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Hello,

Hello, My question is: what makes a swear-word/curse/cuss offensive? I submitted to a friend that in order for a word to be offensive three criteria have to be filled. 1) The speaker must utter the word with the intention to offend. 2) The speaker and hearer must both be aware of the background context of the word as an offensive word. 3) The hearer must hear the word and react; taking offence The justification for this is that a word is just a sound and that many languages use sounds that in another language are curses. It is irrational to take offence to a sound if the speaker is ignorant of it's vulgar connotations. Without a shared contextual understanding of a word's history as offensive, a speaker seeking to offend through uttering a word (without using other signs of contempt or emphasis) is just making a sound to the hearer which has no offensive connotations to them. The hearer upon hearing the word reacts, consciously or unconsciously actively taking offence. A person intending to offend...

I'd suggest that we need to keep three things separate: 1) whether the word is offensive, 2) whether offense was intended, and 3) whether the hearer was offended. All eight possibilities are real. To take the most relevant, a word might be offensive, and yet the person using it might not have intended to offend and the hearer might not be offended.

For example: suppose someone who's not a native speaker uses a deeply racist term to refer to someone. The speaker is not at all a racist and would be deeply mortified if she knew how the word is normally used. She intended no offense. But that's because she didn't know that the word is an offensive word.

The person she was speaking to, meanwhile, is a racist. The speaker doesn't know that; she's just met him. He's not offended, but only because of is racism. On the contrary: he thinks he's met a kindred spirit.

There's no mystery here. The word is offensive because of its history, its usual meaning, and the way people typically respond to it. None of that changes if the speaker is unaware of this or the hearer, for whatever reason, doesn't have the usual reaction.

You're right, of course, that if I come to learn that a speaker didn't realize the full connotations of his words, it might be unreasonable to hold on to my offense. But if I tell the speaker "You might want to know: that word is actually a very offensive one," I could be right even if in light of the full situation I'm not offended.

I'd suggest that we need to keep three things separate: 1) whether the word is offensive, 2) whether offense was intended, and 3) whether the hearer was offended. All eight possibilities are real. To take the most relevant, a word might be offensive, and yet the person using it might not have intended to offend and the hearer might not be offended. For example: suppose someone who's not a native speaker uses a deeply racist term to refer to someone. The speaker is not at all a racist and would be deeply mortified if she knew how the word is normally used. She intended no offense. But that's because she didn't know that the word is an offensive word. The person she was speaking to, meanwhile, is a racist. The speaker doesn't know that; she's just met him. He's not offended, but only because of is racism. On the contrary: he thinks he's met a kindred spirit. There's no mystery here. The word is offensive because of its history, its usual meaning, and the way people typically respond to it. ...

I am sometimes struck by how we use language in an exaggerated manner. We often

I am sometimes struck by how we use language in an exaggerated manner. We often say "That is SO GOOD!" when it is not that good; we say "it has been a pleasure to talk to you" simply out of convention, regardless whether we derive any pleasure from the conversation. I am troubled by this because first when I hear people say those words I cannot help doubting their sincerity. Also, it is because those words become devalued: when I want to express my genuine praise by saying "this is really good," it just sounds like what everybody else will say no matter what. So how should we view those uses of words?

If I'm writing a letter to someone I don't know very well, I might begin it "Dear _____" and end it "Yours truly." But nobody is under the slightest impression that the recipient really is dear to me, nor that I'm declaring any sort of fealty.

I said "nobody," but of course that's not quite right. Nobody who's even noddingly familiar with the conventions of letter writing will be confused, though someone from a very different culture might be. What someone means by using certain words isn't just a matter of what you find when you look the words up in a dictionary.

Or suppose I run into a nodding acquaintance by chance. I hug them and say "Good to see you." Is the hug an expression of intimacy? Am I really pleased to see this person? Maybe or maybe not, but at least in my part of the world, this is how people great one another. I don't make judgments about people's overall sincerity based on interactions like this, because in following the conventions of polite greeting, sincerity isn't the issue.

Do conventions like this really undermine the usefulness of words like "good?" I'm not convinced. There are all kinds of contextual cues that help us figure out what people mean, and typically we pick up the cues more or less automatically. For example: if I'm having dinner at a mutually-agreed-on restaurant with a friend and he spontaneously says "This risotto is really very good!" it's a fair bet that he means it.

Is it always easy to tell? No. Are people sometimes insincere in social situations? Yes. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily and certainly not always. We have to interact with people we like and people we don't like. I may not like John, but there may be no good reason to rub his nose in that fact. None of us likes being snubbed, and often there's nothing to be gained by putting our true feelings on display.

We use words to state facts, but we use words for many other things as well. Social conventions and forms of politeness do something important: they help us get along, sometimes by papering over differences. By and large, getting along is good. Often it's at least as important as saying exactly what we think.

If I'm writing a letter to someone I don't know very well, I might begin it "Dear _____" and end it "Yours truly." But nobody is under the slightest impression that the recipient really is dear to me, nor that I'm declaring any sort of fealty. I said "nobody," but of course that's not quite right. Nobody who's even noddingly familiar with the conventions of letter writing will be confused, though someone from a very different culture might be. What someone means by using certain words isn't just a matter of what you find when you look the words up in a dictionary. Or suppose I run into a nodding acquaintance by chance. I hug them and say "Good to see you." Is the hug an expression of intimacy? Am I really pleased to see this person? Maybe or maybe not, but at least in my part of the world, this is how people great one another. I don't make judgments about people's overall sincerity based on interactions like this, because in following the conventions of polite greeting, sincerity isn't the issue. Do...

I'm grateful for Allen Stairs' response to question 5821, but he, like Richard

I'm grateful for Allen Stairs' response to question 5821, but he, like Richard Heck and Stephen Maitzen when answering question 5792, ASSUMES that words like "all" have the same meaning in everyday English as they have when used by logicians. That's what seems very strange to me. At least, everyday "all" is ambiguous. Professors Stairs, Heck and Maitzen believe that "all the strawberries he has" always means "all the strawberries he may have", and never "all the strawberries he does have". But look at the latter example ("does have"): you're still using the word "all", but here it is clearly said that he has some strawberries. Why can't that happen (in the right context) with "all the strawberries he has"? By the way, in several Romance languages, there is a difference between (e.g., in Portuguese) "todos os morangos que tem" (indicative) and "todos os morangos que tenha" (subjunctive). Both can be translated as "all the strawberries s/he has", but the first sentence indicates that he (or she) does have...

I'm not convinced that your expression "all the strawberries he does have" is a recognized way of disambiguating the expression that you say is ambiguous: "all the strawberries he has." When would we use the expression "all the strawberries he does have"? As far as I can see, only in special contexts such as this one: "He doesn't have all the strawberries in the county. But all the strawberries he does have are organic." In that example, "does" isn't used to signal the indicative mood; instead it's used merely to emphasize a contrast.

Nor am I convinced that "does" + infinitive always carries existential import (i.e., implies the existence of at least one thing satisfying the verb phrase). Consider:

(P) "All the intelligent extraterrestrials our galaxy does contain are extraterrestrials."

Again, P will sound awkward except in a context such as this:

(Q) "Our galaxy may not contain any intelligent extraterrestrials. But all the intelligent extraterrestrials our galaxy does contain are extraterrestrials."

Whether or not you believe our galaxy contains intelligent extraterrestrials, it would be wrong to deny the second sentence in Q, wouldn't it?

Thanks for your thanks. I'm not sure whether we really disagree. The point of my post is that we can go different ways here, but there are costs and benefits. To repeat my last paragraph, "There are approaches to logic that find ways around this sort of thing. But the carpet will have to bulge somewhere. Either the rules of inference will be a bit more complicated or we'll have to give up principles that seem appealing or we'll end up with some cases of "correct" inferences that seem peculiar. Different people will see the costs and benefits differently. My own view, which would not win me friends in certain circles, is that there's nothing deeply deep here. But not everyone agrees." Your concern is about what words like "all" really mean in English, and in particular about whether "all the strawberries he has" actually entails that he has at least one strawberry. Perhaps it does, but I'm not sure this is a question that has a uniquely correct answer. One linguistic approach is to distinguish...

I'm still puzzled by the answers to question 5792, on whether it is true that

I'm still puzzled by the answers to question 5792, on whether it is true that Mary won all the games of chess she played, when Mary never played any game of chess. Both respondents said that it is true. But is it meaningful to say "I won all the games I played, and I never played any game."? It seems to me that someone saying this would be contradicting himself.

I think you're right to at least this extent. If I say to someone "I won all the games of chess I played," the normal rules of conversation (in particular, the "pragmatics" of speech) make it reasonable for the other person to infer that I have actually played at least one game. Whether my statement literally implies this, however, is trickier.

Think about statements of the form "All P are Q." Although it may take a bit of reflection to see it, this seems to be equivalent to saying that nothing is simultaneously a P and a non-Q. We can labor the point a bit further by turning to something closer to the lingo of logic: there does not exist an x such that x is a P and also a non-Q. For example: all dogs are mammals. That is, there does not exist a dog that is a non-mammal.

Now go back go the games. If Mary says "All games I played are games I won," then by the little exercise we just went through, this becomes "There does not exist a game that I played and lost." But if Mary played no games at all, then that's true. No game is a game she played and lost because no game is a game she played.

It turns out that avoiding this conclusion isn't as easy as it might seem. We usually agree that "No X are Y" and "No Y are X" amount to the same thing. We can also agree that no animals are unicorns, because there aren't any unicorns at all. But if no animals are unicorns, then the principle we just noted entails that no unicorns are animals. which is already starting to sound awkward. Worse, we also usually agree that "No X are Y" amounts to "All X are non-Y," and so we get "All unicorns are non-animals."

There are approaches to logic that find ways around this sort of thing. But the carpet will have to bulge somewhere. Either the rules of inference will be a bit more complicated or we'll have to give up principles that seem appealing or we'll end up with some cases of "correct" inferences that seem peculiar. Different people will see the costs and benefits differently. My own view, which would not win me friends in certain circles, is that there's nothing deeply deep here. But not everyone agrees.

I think you're right to at least this extent. If I say to someone "I won all the games of chess I played," the normal rules of conversation (in particular, the "pragmatics" of speech) make it reasonable for the other person to infer that I have actually played at least one game. Whether my statement literally implies this, however, is trickier. Think about statements of the form "All P are Q." Although it may take a bit of reflection to see it, this seems to be equivalent to saying that nothing is simultaneously a P and a non-Q. We can labor the point a bit further by turning to something closer to the lingo of logic: there does not exist an x such that x is a P and also a non-Q. For example: all dogs are mammals. That is, there does not exist a dog that is a non-mammal. Now go back go the games. If Mary says "All games I played are games I won," then by the little exercise we just went through, this becomes "There does not exist a game that I played and lost." But if Mary played no games at all,...

Why are counterfactual claims taken seriously by philosophers? Aren't they just

Why are counterfactual claims taken seriously by philosophers? Aren't they just an imaginative way of thinking and talking? For example, why is a counterfactual of the form "If it had been the case that A, then it would be the case that C" supposed to have truth conditions? For if causal determinism is true, then there is a complete specification W of the history of world w in which A would occur such that W entails either the truth of C or the falsity of C, making the counterfactual either vacuously true or a contradiction (and this is so for all possible deterministic worlds which include A); whereas if causal determinism is not true, then the history of w cannot be fully specified because A depends on non-deterministic processes, and the truth or falsity of the counterfactual is not determined. And for a non-deterministic world of which the history is fully specified (i.e. W includes the outcomes of non-deterministic processes) in which A occurs, the vacuous/contradictory result again obtains. ...

The most obvious reason why counterfactual talk is taken seriously by philosophers is that it's virtually impossible to avoid it. We constantly find ourselves asking -- for good reason -- what would happen in certain circumstances, and so understanding more deeply what that sort of talk might amount to seems to be a reasonable project.

You offer a dilemma. We consider a counterfactual "If A were the case, then C would be the case." You then give us a choice between determinism and indeterminism. So suppose determinism is true. Then even if 'A' is false as things are, the deterministic story you're imagining can still be applied in a hypothetical case in which A is true. After all, we do that sort of thing all the time when we solve physics problems! If the result of applying the theory is that C also turns out to be true, then it's true as things actually are that if 'A' were true, 'C' would be true as well. Why is that vacuous? It's certainly not trivial; otherwise physics itself would be trivial.

On the other hand, if assuming 'A' rules out 'C,' then it's false as things actually are that if 'A' were true, 'C' would also be true. That's not vacuous, and it doesn't make the counterfactual a contradiction. Keep in mind: the laws of nature are contingent truths.

But in fact, we're over-simplifying. Suppose the world is deterministic. Suppose Johnny is about to strike a match. Will it light? Our two assumptions don't answer the question. Whether the match would light depends not just on the laws but also on the background conditions, as you're aware. But notice: when I say "If Johnny were to strike a match, it would light" I'm saying (on a Lewis/Stalknaker-type account) that in the non-actual situations that most closely resemble how things actually are except that Johnny strikes a match, the match lights. That's something I could well be wrong about, or right about, consistently with determinism and with the actual laws of the world. Whether Johnny's match lights in the nearest possible situations where he strikes isn't just obvious. It depends (among other things) on all sorts of contingent facts about the actual world, and these are facts about which I might well be mistaken. The point of spelling out truth conditions is to give an account of what being right or wrong would amount to.

Things don't change if we consider indeterministic worlds. One reason is that even if things aren't fully deterministic, there would still be true counterfactuals. Some aren't so interesting. For example: if I were 6' tall, I'd be over 5' 10." That's true, even if it's true as a matter of logic/mathematics. Others wouldn't have to be so trivial. There could be cases where strict causal relations hold even if not all events have strict causes. But suppose everything is, so to speak, loose and separate. Then it might be that all counterfactuals that aren't true as a matter of logic or math are false. (False, by the way; not indeterminate.) That would be a big deal but it wouldn't make the non-logical counterfactuals vacuous and it wouldn't make then contradictory. It would just make them false. It would also leave us with a lot of true "might"-counterfactuals. For example: if Johnny were to strike the match, it might light, and it might not. Lewis's account spells out truth conditions for "might" counterfactuals, and also allows us to state truth conditions for "would" counterfactuals in terms of "might." From "If it were the case that A then it might be the case that not-C," it follows on Lewis's account that "If it were the case that A then it would be the case that C" is false.

As for rigor: the everyday use of counterfactuals may lack rigor in various sorts of ways, but this isn't as bad as it might sound. The everyday use of language in general lacks various sorts of rigor, but that doesn't make the study of semantics pointless. And it's also worth keeping in mind: Lewis saw it as a virtue of his theory that it can take straightforward account of certain kinds of lack of rigor. You say there's no one answer to questions about which possible worlds are nearest? Lewis would agree. He'd point out, however, that once you're settled on the criterion of closeness that fits your purposes, you can apply his apparatus.

A closing thought: suppose the reply to my comments is that I still haven't addressed the issue about applying rigor to the non-rigorous. (It's not clear to me that your original worry amounts to this, but no matter.) Even to apply Lewis' apparatus contextually goes beyond anything we can do with absolute rigor, or so it could be argued. But now the criticism proves too much. We're almost never in a position to apply physics (or any other science, for that matter) with the sort of rigor that criticism has in mind.

Theories in philosophy are often like theories in science, or so I'd suggest: they're more or less useful intellectual tools. My own take on what Lewis and Stalnaker have bequeathed us is that this intellectual tool has more than proved its usefulness. That's not to say it's beyond criticism or will never be replaced. But it's a considerable accomplishment.

The most obvious reason why counterfactual talk is taken seriously by philosophers is that it's virtually impossible to avoid it. We constantly find ourselves asking -- for good reason -- what would happen in certain circumstances, and so understanding more deeply what that sort of talk might amount to seems to be a reasonable project. You offer a dilemma. We consider a counterfactual "If A were the case, then C would be the case." You then give us a choice between determinism and indeterminism. So suppose determinism is true. Then even if 'A' is false as things are, the deterministic story you're imagining can still be applied in a hypothetical case in which A is true. After all, we do that sort of thing all the time when we solve physics problems! If the result of applying the theory is that C also turns out to be true, then it's true as things actually are that if 'A' were true, 'C' would be true as well. Why is that vacuous? It's certainly not trivial; otherwise physics itself would be...

Isn't racist to find the word "nigger" racist? As in when it's merely said

Isn't racist to find the word "nigger" racist? As in when it's merely said around you and not directed towards you. When someone calls another an "asshole," there isn't a normally a particular ethnicity that comes to mind -- yet The "N" Word is automatically associated with people of African descent. This all seems to fit into the ideology of race making racism possible.

I'll have to admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following you.

In the sorts of cases that matter for this discussion, the "N" word is a slur. It's also a slur that, unlike "asshole," has a racial meaning. It's belittling someone because of their race. I think we agree on all that. The reason the "N" word brings "a particular ethnicity" to mind is because of what the word means; no mystery there. You write "yet the 'N' word is automatically associated with people of African descent" as though this was somehow puzzling or in need of explanation, but there's no puzzle that I can see.

Close enough for present purposes, a racist is someone who has a negative view of some people simply because of their race or who mistreats people on account of their race. Seems pretty clear that that's bad; also seems pretty clear that there are plenty of people like that. Using a racial epithet like the "N" word is stereotypically racist behavior, and I can't see why that should seem puzzling.

So what's left is your first sentence and your last one. Start with the first. You suggest that it's racist to find the "N" word racist even when the person making is judgment isn't the target of the insult. But why? I don't have to be the target of an insult to recognize that someone has been insulted, just as I don't have to be the one who was hit to tell that someone was assaulted.

So let's consider your last sentence: "This all seems to fit into the ideology of race making racism possible." Now it's certainly true: without racial distinctions, racism isn't possible. You can't demean or mistreat someone on account of their race unless we can talk about their race in the first place. Same goes for gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, economic status, educational level and so on. But if I recognize that someone is being shunned simply because they don't have much money, I'm not buying into an ideology; I'm recognizing bad behavior. Same in the case of race.

Now someone might argue that by acknowledging race at all, we help make racism possible. But let's think that through. I might think that race is a category with no interesting biological basis. I might think that distinctions among so-called races are shallow. I might also think it would be better if we all just left the idea of race behind. But thoughts like that might be exactly why why I object to racial slurs. We don't live in a post-racial society, and pretending that we do doesn't make it so. Racism is real and it's wrong. Even if I dream of a world where people are judged by the content of the character and not the color of their skin, that's not the world we live in.

One last stab: maybe the idea is that the best thing to do with racism is to ignore it. By calling it out, we draw attention to it and help keep the idea that race is important alive. If that's the thought, then there's an empirical question in front of us: what ways of responding to racism are most likely to help bring it to an end? In particular: would ignoring people who make racist insults be better in the long run than worrying about it or calling it out?

Since this is an empirical question, I can't pretend that I know the answer a priori, but even a casual glance at history makes a strong case for saying that confronting racism rather than ignoring it is what's brought about the demise of many ills (slavery being an obvious example), and the diminishment of others (job discrimination, for example.) The question of how best to move forward isn't always easy to answer, and if that's part of your point, I agree. But it seems to me that we have a ways to go, and I find it hard to convince myself that racist acts and attitudes will go away if only people of good will ignore them.

I'll have to admit that I'm having a bit of trouble following you. In the sorts of cases that matter for this discussion, the "N" word is a slur. It's also a slur that, unlike "asshole," has a racial meaning. It's belittling someone because of their race. I think we agree on all that. The reason the "N" word brings "a particular ethnicity" to mind is because of what the word means; no mystery there. You write "yet the 'N' word is automatically associated with people of African descent" as though this was somehow puzzling or in need of explanation, but there's no puzzle that I can see. Close enough for present purposes, a racist is someone who has a negative view of some people simply because of their race or who mistreats people on account of their race. Seems pretty clear that that's bad; also seems pretty clear that there are plenty of people like that. Using a racial epithet like the "N" word is stereotypically racist behavior, and I can't see why that should seem puzzling. So what's left is...

Does complex and conventional language hamper the growth of true understanding

Does complex and conventional language hamper the growth of true understanding in philosophy?

On one way of understanding your question, the answer seems not just to be "No," but "Hell no!"

What I mean is this: the discipline of philosophy isn't a mystical practice. Among its most important techniques are careful analysis and well-reasoned argument. The kind of thinking philosophers pursue needs to be embodied in a rich and subtle language. And on one meaning of "conventional" -- i.e., based on shared conventions and meanings -- we would be unable to communicate successfully without the conventions of language.

Now for a couple of caveats. Good philosophical ideas might come by any number of routes, including sudden bursts of insight. But the discipline of philosophy calls for shaping and articulating those insights. And if by "complex language," you mean bad, bloated writing, then indeed that can get in the way of understanding. But this goes for any discipline; not just for philosophy.

So yes: philosophers sometimes smother their ideas in a blur of verbiage. But good philosophy really does need needs sharp, subtle linguistic tools.

On one way of understanding your question, the answer seems not just to be "No," but "Hell no!" What I mean is this: the discipline of philosophy isn't a mystical practice. Among its most important techniques are careful analysis and well-reasoned argument. The kind of thinking philosophers pursue needs to be embodied in a rich and subtle language. And on one meaning of "conventional" -- i.e., based on shared conventions and meanings -- we would be unable to communicate successfully without the conventions of language. Now for a couple of caveats. Good philosophical ideas might come by any number of routes, including sudden bursts of insight. But the discipline of philosophy calls for shaping and articulating those insights. And if by "complex language," you mean bad, bloated writing, then indeed that can get in the way of understanding. But this goes for any discipline; not just for philosophy. So yes: philosophers sometimes smother their ideas in a blur of verbiage. But good philosophy...

Apologies if this has been asked before, but I would like to inquire as to

Apologies if this has been asked before, but I would like to inquire as to whether or not the application of the word "metaphysics" to New Age studies is in actuality inappropriate and inaccurate. Many New Agers tend to enjoy labeling things such as "energy healing" or "the metaphysical properties of stones" (i.e. helping you sleep, grounding, clarity, etc) as metaphysics when most of them probably have never even read Aristotle's metaphysics, much less ever heard of it. Certainly, Aristotle's book would not be found in the metaphysical section! So, I ask: is interpreting the prefix "meta" in "metaphysics" as "beyond" in a literal sense (as in non-physical) grossly inaccurate? Should New Agers find another word to describe their studies?

The word "metaphysics" wasn't actually used by Aristotle, but was a label applied later to a set of writing that seemed to come "after" rather than "beyond" in some reasonable ordering of topics. What we philosophers call "metaphysics" these days covers a broad swath of territory and includes a variety of questions about the nature of things (What is causation? Is everything physical? Is there such a thing as free will?…)

Some of the claims made by New Age thinkers would count as metaphysical by any reasonable accounting (for example: the idea that there is a non-physical "astral plane" or that matter is created by mind.) The belief that certain kinds of stones have healing properties, on the other hand, seems straightforwardly empirical and testable; not metaphysical in any obvious sense.

The main complaint philosophers have with New Age "metaphysical" claims is that they aren't subjected to analysis and critical assessment. They seem mostly based on traditions in need of evaluation or uncritical intuition or appeals to authorities that we don't have good reason to accept. At least, this is what I found some years back when I made a sympathetic attempt to understand various strands of New Age thought. Philosophers who do metaphysics take for granted that they need to argue for what they say and take account of objections and alternative views. And that gives rise to an obvious complaint: metaphysics, as a branch of philosophy, tries to go about its business with intellectual rigor and care. If the term comes mainly to be associated with an enterprise that lacks intellectual standards, then philosophers would reasonably see this as unfortunate. But while philosophers might wish that New Age thinkers would pick a different word, that horse has long since left the barn!

I'd add: if there were good reason to believe that certain New Age claims were true, that would be surprising, but it would be interesting and worth talking about. At least in my experience, however, many proponents of New Age ideas don't see the need to give reasons. And therein lies the most important difference with philosophers.

The word "metaphysics" wasn't actually used by Aristotle, but was a label applied later to a set of writing that seemed to come "after" rather than "beyond" in some reasonable ordering of topics. What we philosophers call "metaphysics" these days covers a broad swath of territory and includes a variety of questions about the nature of things (What is causation? Is everything physical? Is there such a thing as free will?…) Some of the claims made by New Age thinkers would count as metaphysical by any reasonable accounting (for example: the idea that there is a non-physical "astral plane" or that matter is created by mind.) The belief that certain kinds of stones have healing properties, on the other hand, seems straightforwardly empirical and testable; not metaphysical in any obvious sense. The main complaint philosophers have with New Age "metaphysical" claims is that they aren't subjected to analysis and critical assessment. They seem mostly based on traditions in need of evaluation or uncritical...

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 fear the answer will disappoint. "Not bad," in the kind of context you describe, means the same as "okay" because we use the words "not bad" in contexts like that to mean "okay." How we came to use those words that way is something that may be lost in unrecorded linguistic history. And how we keep track of contexts and adjust our understanding to them is a very big and very interesting question that people in a variety of fields are working on. If we knew how we can do what we do, we'd be a lot closer to full-blown artificial intelligence than we actually are. But the short answer is that words mean what we use them to mean, and how we use them changes and varies in complicated ways.

What is the difference between a "fallacy" and a "cognitive bias"?

What is the difference between a "fallacy" and a "cognitive bias"?

How about this? A fallacy is an actual mistake in reasoning. A cognitive bias is a tendency to commit certain sorts of mistakes. Not all fallacies are the result of cognitive biases, and having a cognitive bias doesn't guarantee that you'll commit the corresponding error.

How about this? A fallacy is an actual mistake in reasoning. A cognitive bias is a tendency to commit certain sorts of mistakes. Not all fallacies are the result of cognitive biases, and having a cognitive bias doesn't guarantee that you'll commit the corresponding error.

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