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A statement P about a single element in a dual or multiple set does not seem to

A statement P about a single element in a dual or multiple set does not seem to logically exclude P applying equally to other elements in the set; yet we often talk as though "P is true of X" implies "P is not true of Y (or Z)", when X, Y, and Z all belong to some grouping. For example, take "Men work to support their families". Does this logically imply that women do not work to support their families? What about "African Americans suffer from discrimination"? Does this logically imply that Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and white Americans (among other racial groupings) do not suffer from discrimination? Such objections are often raised in discourse. Given (x, y), "P is true of X" is thought to imply "P is not true of Y", or "Not-P is true of Y". If there is no logical exclusion above, what are these objections targeting? Is it a question of salience, rather than logic?

Thank you for your good question! Answering questions of this general type has been a big concern of the field of philosophy of language for the last few decades. One way of starting to understand where this tradition is coming from, is to distinguish between the literal meaning of a sentence, and the meaning that a speaker using that sentence is normally thought to convey. So suppose that you often has unkempt hair. One day you show up with nicely combed hair and I remark, "Your hair is combed!" Now it will be natural to take me to be *suggesting* that your hair is normally not tidy. But this is no part of the literal meaning of the sentence. If it were, then I'd contradict myself by saying, "Your hair is combed, though of course it is normally tidy." This might be an odd things to say, but it isn't a self-contradiction like, "Bob is a bachelor, but he is married."

So we can distinguish between what a sentence usually means and what a person uttering that sentence might be conveying, suggesting or insinuating in saying it. This distinction applies to your examples: The sentence, "Men work to support their families." does not imply that women don't (because it fails the self-contradiction test), but it is true that often speakers who utter such a sentence are suggesting or insinuating more than that they literally say, namely that women don't, or that they usually don't.

In everyday discourse we usually don't distinguish between the literal meaning of a sentence and that speakers convey in uttering it. But it helps to keep that distinction in mind when we need to be careful about what an argument actually establishes, and what a speaker is actually committed to. When in doubt, I'd say commitment is a matter of the literal meaning of the sentences uttered; anything beyond that is just suggestion, and we would need to ask the speaker whether she meant to be committing herself to something stronger than that literal meaning.

Mitch Green

I understand that generalizing from one example can be fraught with problems; at

I understand that generalizing from one example can be fraught with problems; at the same time, here is an experience that might bring some clarity to the question, "when we think, do we have to think in words, or can we think without using words?" Years ago, our family went to a state park. we were walking along a paved path near the edge of the cliff, and the place at which we were walking had a fence along the edge of the path because the cliff edge was quite close there. My wife, myself, my 2-1/2 year old daughter, and 16-month old son were strolling together, and my son toddled along ahead of us until he was about 18 to 20 feet away. He was past the end of the fence, because the fence stopped once the cliff edge was eight feet away from the path. My son stopped, looked at the end of the path, then looked back at me, made eye contact, and grinned. Right after that I had a blur of sensory impressions; after which I saw my right hand clutching the front of his overalls. I was on my stomach around...

Thank you for your question and the very dramatic example! Your question is, "When we think, do we have to think in words, or can we think without using words?" I take your example to be one in which you seem to have been thinking but not in words. You then break down your first question into two, one of which is about the significance of self-reported events; the other is about whether response mechanisms should count as thought.

About the significance of self-reported events. I'd say that in philosophy and even more in psychology, self-reported events don't carry a great deal of weight. However, your example is one that any student of human behavior knows happens quite often. Furthermore, if someone were to doubt that claim, we would have a good sense of how experimentally to settle it.

About the second question: I would say that a majority of scholars concerned with cognition and action would agree that you did not verbalize much of anything to yourself in the process of saving your son. However, many of them would also try to skirt the question whether you were thinking, and talk instead about whether your behavior was *intelligent*. Surely the answer is that it was, and it was still more sophisticated than behaviors that are automatic and inflexible, like sneezing or the startle reflex.

A great deal of research in experimental psychology (especially social psychology) in recent years has been concerned with the so-called "automaticity" of much human behavior. This is behavior that is not guided by conscious deliberation, but is still more flexible and intelligent than the inflexible responses I mentioned above. Important researchers in this area include John Bargh, Tanya Chartrand, and Tim Wilson. For a readable introduction to this approach see T. Wilson's _Strangers to Ourselves_ (Harvard U.P. 2004).

Mitch Green

My experience with philosophy (including reading this site) has given me the

My experience with philosophy (including reading this site) has given me the impression that every utterance (or at least nearly every utterance) can be interpreted in such a way that gives it plausibility. This holds for ethically trivial utterances like "I don't believe that 2+2=4", which I can defend with an explanation like "well, 2+2=4 is not an absolute truth because a) there is skepticism in the spirit of (perhaps and among others) Descartes and b) no base was clarified in which this equation takes place" as well as ethically significant utterances like "I did not have sex with that woman" which I can defend with an explanation borrowing ideas I saw in some responses to the question about whether cybersex was sex, for instance, "Well, we used a condom which prevented literal contact which I believe is a necessary condition for something to count as sex". Now my questions are: a) is there some interpretation of every utterance such that it is plausible and b) if so, can I, in responding to...

Oh dear, oh dear, I hope not! You are right that many statements can be interpreted in ways that would make them plausable, but communication rests on agreed upon meanings and nuances. So, it became apparent during the Clinton years that his claim not to have had sex with Monica was outright deception, even though he might have had a definition of "sex" that did not include (what most people would describe as) the types of sexual acts they performed. The key lies in wrongful deception, whether or not you say something that is literally true. Imagine you are late for an appointment because you lingered too long over lunch. The person you were to meet says: "You're late." You respond: "The traffic today is horrible." Let's say it is true the traffic is horrible, so this is not (in some narrow sense a lie, but it is lying insofar as you are engaged in deception by implying that the reason you are late is due to traffic. You might like to read Thomas Carson's Lying and Deception; theory and practice (Oxford University Press, 2010) for a sweeping, compelling treatment of the issues. I am not sure one can plausably deny 2+2 = 4 without lots and lots of alterations in meaning.... perhaps you are referring to someone (Skippy) with a t-shirt on with the phrase "2+2" on it and you are claiming that the person, Skippy, is not 4. But in ordinary, non-Monty Python seetings 2+2=4 is equivalent to the identity statement 1+1+1+1 is 1+1+1+1

and denial of such an identity is very difficult to believe, let alone understand. Good wishes, CT

Dear AskPhilosophers,

Dear AskPhilosophers, I am struggling to understand a point about Verificationism, which as I understand it is a doctrine that says that a statement is only meaningful if it can (in principle) be proved true or false. One interesting aspect of this doctrine is that is suggests that the sentence "The Earth is very old" is meaningless, as it is impossible to verify whether the Earth really is very old or whether we and it popped into existence a few seconds ago with all our beliefs about its age 'pre-coded' in our heads and various clues as to its age (fossils, radiometric dating etc) planted there to trick us if we choose to investigate in the future. But doesn't this mean ANY statement is meaningless under a verificationist account, since it is impossible to distinguish between "P" and "I, and anyone I choose to consult on this topic, are being systematically deceived into believing P"? Can a verificationist give an account of a sentence that she would find meaningful? Thanks very much

Your class of problematic cases is problematic for verificationism only on the assumption that the distinct sentences you pair with each other differ in meaning (refer to distinct propositions). But this is what a verificationist might well want to deny. She might say that, if two sentences coincide in their truth conditions, then they have the same meaning (refer to the same proposition, make the same claim). And this claim can then still be meaningful because empirical evidence can be brought to bear on deciding whether this claim is true or false.


(A1) The universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old.


(A2) The universe was created very recently but everything has been arranged to suggest to human inquirers that the universe is between 6.23 and 6.24 billion years old.

If no empirical evidence can possibly decide between these two sentences, then they express the same claim or proposition A. And this proposition is meaningful because empirical evidence can be brought to bear on deciding whether A is true or whether instead some other claim B or C or D is true -- propositions that can once again be expressed in many different sentences such as

(B1) The universe is between 5.1 and 5.2 million years old.


(B2) The universe was created recently but everything has been arranged to suggest to human inquirers that the universe is between 5.1 and 5.2 million years old.

Does anybody seriously believe that reality itself is merely a function of

Does anybody seriously believe that reality itself is merely a function of language, thought and social convention? Some postmodernists like to say this ("reality is socially constructed"), but I doubt any of them would be willing to drink arsenic that has been socially reconstructed into harmless water. Furthermore, if reality is a function of these other factors, then one could not expect anything unexpected to happen (in a reality that is a function of thought, why should a volcano suddenly erupt if nobody thought of it?); yet the unexpected clearly does happen. So why do people stick to extreme versions of anti-realism and constructivism, when more moderate positions that don't deny an external reality, yet still conserve the valuable aspects of postmodernism (understanding of culture, power structures, categorization and convention; deconstruction of beliefs & ideologies; interpretations of and assignment of meaning to natural phenomena; etc.), are perfectly reasonable and tenable?

Hm, you'd first have to specify who you mean by the proponents of "extreme versions" of anti-realism etc, and then ask them directly! (I'm not an expert here but I wonder if some very respectable philosophers (such as Goodman, Putnam, Quine etc) can often get reprsented in ways more extreme than are accurate ...) ... Even a classic idealist of the Berkeleyan variety (ie Berkeley himself), though claiming that all reality is mind-dependent perceptions (and the perceivers of those perceptions) does NOT hold that reality is arbitrary, up to us, constructed by us -- that it's in any sense 'up to us' whether a volcano erupts or whether arsenic kills us-- he holds (at least) that something external to our minds, namely God, controls all that good stuff. So, too, I imagine, contemporary anti-realists (don't know if anyone endorses Berkeleyan idealism/anti-realism any more) would hold that while everything we say about the world, everythign we think about the world, every proposition we utter, etc. is "constructed" or influenced by our cognitive structure or theory-laden etc., it needn't follow that what happens is up to us entirely and in every way -- rather the claim (as I understand it) is more that we can never perfectly reflect in our concepts and language etc. the way things are in reality, how things are in themselves, independent of our ways of conceiving them or interacting with them ... And this, I imagine is what you're calling the more "moderate" position here -- but it is, I think, much more what almost every "anti-realist" holds than the extreme position you are questioning ....

(I could be wrong on this, not being an expert on the literature; but, in short, I suspect you're attacking a straw man, as they say.)

hope that's useful--


You often hear statements like "90% of our communication is non-verbal", though

You often hear statements like "90% of our communication is non-verbal", though the percentage tends to vary. What exactly do these statements mean? How can you quantify communication? Surely, non-verbal communication can't communicate 90% of abstract concepts or information. So what is communication? Do claims that most of communication is non-verbal make any real sense, or are these just cliché statements?

Interesting question! Would be nice to look at specific examples of people making such claims, and then analyzing them; one suspects that such phrases are mostly rhetorical, ie dramatic ways of saying 'we communicate a LOT non-verbally', but it's not impossible that some might intend something more empirical, precise, quantifiable by them. After all, we say things like "a picture's worth a thousand words", because we realize that we must often utter many, many propositions to describe everything that is contained in, or communicated by, some image -- so why shouldn't something similar be true re "non-verbal communication", which would include everything from facial expressions to tone of voice to body language to general behavior etc .... Perhaps you could (perhaps some have!) actually studied (say) actual conversations between people and then (roughly) measured what was communicated strictly verbally (ie just which/how many propositions were uttered by the people speaking) and then studied how much information was transmitted non-verbally (by literally trying to express that infromation in propositions) ... If you study some of the classic work on "speech acts" by philosophers such as John Searle (he has a book and numerous articles on the subject), you'll discover careful analysis that shows how, by uttering a single proposition in the right context much MORE can get communicated than what is actually said .... So, again, while one must be skeptical of specific numbers ("90%"), it doesn't strike me as purely non-sensical or meaningless to believe that "much" or "much more" of our communication is non-verbal than explicitly verbal ....

hopethat helps!

I've encountered people who think that the complex grammar of German or French,

I've encountered people who think that the complex grammar of German or French, or the complicated writing system of Chinese or Japanese, make speakers of those languages more intelligent, on average, than speakers of "simplistic" English. Do such claims make any sense?

Well said. And, as an empirical matter, there is no evidence whatsoever that it is any more difficult for children to learn Chinese or German than it is for them to learn English or Spanish.

So I was having an argument with a friend that went a little like this: He was

So I was having an argument with a friend that went a little like this: He was saying that because he was a genius, he walked like a genius. I was saying this was logically invalid, that is, he couldn't walk like himself. If there was a particular way of walking that was specific to geniuses, and he was walking this way, then fine. He could be walking, and he could be a genius, so his walking was a genius walking, but it wasn't like a genius. He couldn't be like himself; he was himself. Who was correct?

Hm. Technically I'd ahve to side with your friend. The relation "is like" strikes me as a perfectly reflexive one, as the logicians might say: everything is like itself. If "being like" is a matter of "being similar", then why wouldn't "identity" simply be the hghest degree of similarity? Everything definitely IS identical with itself, ie maximally similar to itself ... If so, then a genius definitely could walk like a genius .... (Now your debate might have other things going on: you might be relying, say, on ordinary English usage,a ccording to which it sounds a little strained to say something is like itself; but then we should distinguish between the logical status of the relation "is like" and the ordinary usage of the phrase "is like", and you can both be right!)

hope that's useful...


Some definitions can be justified - for example, cats seem to be a discreet

Some definitions can be justified - for example, cats seem to be a discreet category in the real world, and thus a definition of the word cat must adequately describe this category and how its members differ from other things in the world. But when it comes to things like love, justice, government or art, these things are human constructs, and not some discreet entity in the world; so how do we create justified definitions of these terms? How do we decide what true love is, or what true art is, or what true justice or government is? We all have intuitions, but these intuitions change with time and culture, and people tend to bicker about the details. So how are definitions that do not apply to physical phenomena justified?

This is a great question! I would be inclined, however, to probe it a few different ways. First, there are many who are skeptical of the idea that there are true "natural kinds" ("discreet categories") in nature -- rather, species are themselves notoriously difficult to define, and even "within" some given species there is always tremendous variation across individuals, suggesting "fuzzier" categories rather than strict ones. In fact, if anything you might say we're almost more justified in providing definitions for the "human constructs" than for the natural things, because then we can clearly all agree that it's "up to us" how to define the things and dispense with the idea that we're trying to map our terms onto a pre-existing object or world. And further, I might ask why we need to "decide" what true love is etc; what's wrong with (say) realizing and accepting that many people use these words differently, as long as we strive continuously to be clear about our meanings, to recognize (and occaisonaly perhaps reconcile) our competing definitions, etc.? The deeper mystery might be why people (or cultures, or times) use the "same" word (such as "love" or "justice") when they in fact have very different conceptions or definitions ... it woudl be so much clearer if each distinct meaning or definition had its own distinct word! .....

hope that's useful ...


What way of communicating is better? Is it a verbal communication or text

What way of communicating is better? Is it a verbal communication or text communication? Why? I believe there are no different between them. Yet all girls say that better way of communicating is verbal communication.

Great question! In the dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates offers reasons why the girls (if you are right that all girls prefer verbal communication) may be right. Among other things, Socrates proposed that verbal, in-person communication is superior to writing for it is less subject to misunderstanding. One can, on the spot, correct misleading communication, and one can also retain the ability to revise one's position in the here and now. Socrates thought that writing things down, in contast, is akin to abandoning your speech. Still, even if Socrates is right about this, we would not know his position unless his observations were written down (asssuming that a reliable oral tradition going back to 399 BCE would be a bit unlikely) and there is often (though not always) a clarity and endurance in written communication. In reply to your question, I suggest, instead, not that there is no difference between written and verabal communication; each has its virtues and vices. If you want a record, I would go with writing or with some kind of recording, but the immediacy of verbal communication also has its virtues (and dangers). Still, I agree with you that one is not always superior or better than the other.