A Certain Belief or Intention.

I was struck by Geoff Pullum’s Lingua Franca post about complicated sentences:

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.

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. […]

He goes on to analyze and summarize it (“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”), calling it “mind-crunchingly difficult.” Now, I’m certainly not claiming it’s not difficult; I had to read it twice to make sure I knew what was going on, and it would clearly be educational malpractice to give it to hapless students as a reading exercise. But I didn’t find it all that difficult, which shows how accustomed I’ve become to academic prose. Why, sometimes I’ve understood as many as six impenetrable clauses before breakfast.

Comments

  1. Yvy tyvy says:

    This is more or less the experience I’m having learning Turkish. The difficulties I’ve encountered make me seriously respect all those Turks who can speak English so well.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    Well, I’ll criticize it. The sentence is chock-a-block with needless repetition pretending to be precision. Adding commas and other punctuation could hardly mitigate the robotic wordiness.

  3. Lars (the original one) says:

    I am dubious that you can in fact abstain from having any belief as to whether someone intends you to believe what they are saying — the null hypothesis must be that people are not just running off at the mouth but have a communicative intent, and that that intent is to align your understanding of the state of the world with theirs.

    (Other evidence can make you believe that what is being said is deliberate nonsense, irony or satire, or repetition of known facts just for the sake of hearing their own voice. You can also decide that it expresses lies, sincerely held but false beliefs, or failure to communicate what the speaker really means, but in that case you are still believing that they want you to agree with something).

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    the null hypothesis must be that people are not just running off at the mouth but have a communicative intent, and that that intent is to align your understanding of the state of the world with theirs.

    Habermas alarm ! Hiding behind “align your understanding” is “achieve consensus”.

    We have a prominent counter-example in the person of Donald Trump. He may occasionally have communicative intentions, but much of the time what he says is confused and rambling. Is that an instance of his wanting to bring what other people think into alignment with how he thinks ? I suppose it might be, in a sense, provided his mental state is correspondingly confused – on the other hand, I don’t see where “intentions” to communicate could come in here. His intentions seem to be to get his way by sowing chaos, not to align understandings.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    No, I really don’t think he wants to sow chaos or has any such distant goal. He says whatever he thinks will get him cheered. And if later the same day the opposite will get him cheered by a different crowd, that’s what he’ll say then. I see your Habermas and raise you a Frankfurt.

  6. @Lars:
    I am dubious that you can in fact abstain from having any belief as to whether someone intends you to believe what they are saying

    I think it’s perfectly possible to be uncertain about whether someone intends you to have a particular belief, in which case “I believe the speaker intended X” is false, but “I don’t believe the speaker intended X” can be true (in the somewhat overly logical sense that both Millikan and Pullum seem to be working in).

    Also, to be a bit nitpicky: it’s not clear from the sentence (or from Geoff Pullum’s analysis) that “a certain belief or intention” is always the same as “what they are saying”. (Maybe there’s some context about what Grice was discussing which makes it clearer.)

    Imagine I make a sweeping, dramatic statement about a situation or subject, a statement which you, due to your superior knowledge, know is erroneous. Maybe my intent was to make you agree with my statement. Or possibly I don’t care about that so much as giving you the impression that I am wise and knowledgable. I most likely do not intend to make you believe that I’m a fatuous, ignorant blowhard — but that might well be what you end up believing. In that case, Grice is wrong even in his “sensible premise”: you end up believing something (I’m an ignorant blowhard), even though you believe I did not intend you to have that belief.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    I had trouble with my first reading of the Millikan sentence, which may be because I had not yet had my first cup of coffee or may be because the sentence is constructed so as to flow smoothly only for a reader who has been primed by the previous few paragraphs to understand fairly specifically what is under discussion, with the lack of that context perhaps making it more important to break down a single structurally-complex sentence into multiple shorter sentences to make the step-by-step progression of the argument easier to follow.

    But I am separately struck by Pullum’s claim that “analytic philosophy” is the syntactic-complexity champ because adding the modifier “analytic” seems to make it an assertion that the Other Leading Brand of academic philosophy (conventionally called “continental”) does not have an equally-well-deserved reputation for a prose style that is complex to the point of opacity but is instead prone to using shorter and simpler sentences. Really?

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    I find that the OLB in question has an equally-well-deserved reputation for a prose style that is opaquely short and to the point. It’s rarely clear what that point may be, but that’s merely a side-effect of opacity.

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    @Peter Erwin:
    I most likely do not intend to make you believe that I’m a fatuous, ignorant blowhard — but that might well be what you end up believing. In that case, Grice is wrong even in his “sensible premise”: you end up believing something (I’m an ignorant blowhard), even though you believe I did not intend you to have that belief.

    Yes !

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well there is a lot of internal diversity both substantive and stylistic within the “continental” dudes. Nietzsche favored a pithy and epigrammatic style, which inspired a number of less competent imitators, whereas it is comparatively easy to find 86-word-or-longer sentences by opening e.g. Husserl to a random page.

  11. Philosophy aside, I have made three or four attempts to read The Wings of the Dove, but each time I have been defeated by the length and tortuousness of the sentences, to the point where I couldn’t decipher what James was trying to say and then decided I didn’t care enough to keep trying.

    H.G. Wells, or perhaps it was Rebecca West, said of James that he chews more than he bites off.

    (As evidence I am not a total philistine, I greatly enjoyed Portrait of a Lady and some of the other earlier novels, but the big three books of James’ late career are more than I can handle).

  12. Lars (the original one) says:

    In re Trump: Is ‘I believe it is impossible to tell’ really the same as ‘I hold no belief what so ever’? In other words, at first it was natural to believe that the man had a consistent view of the world that he wanted to inform us about, and only the weight of self-provided evidence has disproved it — but that isn’t really the same as having started out without that hypothesis.

    @Peter, everything has a background. Yes, you can be uncertain whether a specific utterance is to be taken seriously — but that in my experience is always felt as a deviation from the normal state of affairs, even more than the certainty that someone is joking (for instance). And maybe more to the point, even though you may end up assigning ‘maybe’ to ‘are they being serious’ that is not the same as having started from that position without evidence. Daily life would be very stressful if you always did that.

    (Hmm, I think I just stated the same thing twice, sorry).

    Note that my argument is not about the logical constraints on the assumptions of speech act participants, but about the assumptions that we as socialized humans cannot help making.

  13. 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

    The Minsk/Pinsk joke (quoted at the reference with Krakow and Łódź instead) seems like a clear counterexample: you say you are going to Minsk so that I will believe you are going to Pinsk, but in fact I do believe (on other evidence) that you are going to Minsk, so why are you lying? While this is convoluted and a fortiori funny, it seems to me that it can actually happen.

    (A bit of work with Google Maps establishes that from Petropavlovsk in Kirov oblast to Minsk is some 15,000 versts — it is not possible to go from Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka even to Dnipro(petrovsk) in Ukraine by road. Unfortunately, Dr. Lehrer does not tell us where the speaker is, but it is not unreasonable to conjecture he is in Kazan, an additional 1400+ versts. Quite a journey, 225 hours by motor vehicle today, who knows how long by stagecoach!)

  14. In the era of Trumpiness, Analytic Philosophy seems an entirely redundant activity.

    Whatever effect Trump’s utterances have on his supporters, they have almost diametrically opposite effect on his opponents. Neither of those effects have very much to do with the ‘propositional content’ — which seems almost entirely absent most of the time.

    Indeed, the more Trump’s utterances outrage his opponents (including the media and the ‘deep state’), the stronger the resonance with his supporters.

    To call it ‘dog whistle politics’ is to insult the intelligence of dogs.

  15. Yes, we live in interesting times as far as propositional content is concerned.

  16. AntC:

    Indeed, the more Trump’s utterances outrage his opponents (including the media and the ‘deep state’), the stronger the resonance with his supporters.

    This is a manifestation of Cleek’s Law: Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    There’s a simple explanation for why Trump supporters support him no matter what he does. It is that he does what he said he would do, come hell or high water. No other president in recent history earns this distinction.

    During the election campaign he repeated a zillion times that he would drain the swamp, cut out regulations and bureaucracy, and so on. Once president, he fires incumbents right and left, sets Pruitt to eviscerate the EPA, starts trade conflicts, alarms NATO partners etc.

    He is a monkey wrench thrown by election into the machinery of the federal gummint. His mandate is to break things, and he does. This appeals to Americans who mistrust or hate central gummint.

    I believe this viewpoint covers propositional content, intention and the alignment of understandings, without once invoking these notions.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    It is that he does what he said he would do, come hell or high water.

    Except when he doesn’t, like building the wall (let alone getting Mexico to pay for it) or doing, well, anything of the long list of things he said he would do on his first day in office or in his first 100 days in office.

    Or draining the swamp. Some say he instead handed the swamp to the alligators. I say he handed it to the coal swamp monsters, and the administration – as far as it is staffed at all, vs. deliberately understaffed – now consists of anthracosaurs and baphetoids. Admittedly, some of them have now resigned or been fired for making Trump look too bad for too long, but Goldman Sachs is still secretary of finance, for example.

  19. Stu Clayton says:

    Batman and Captain America aren’t always successful either. But they show the right attitude. Nobody expects perfection from an ignorant clown.

    Also, his failures are only failures so far, and his enemies are responsible.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    His failure to drain the swamp is quite obviously deliberate.

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    You’re paying too much attention to detail. That’s not a promising way to align the understandings of Trump supporters with your understanding. Someone here recently linked to a Doonesbury cartoon on this subject: “You’re new at this, aren’t you, honey ?”

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    Scilicet:

    You’re new at this, aren’t you, Honey?

    Wiktionary warns me:
    # Where videlicet is carefully distinguished from scilicet, viz. is used to provide glosses and sc. to provide omitted words or parenthetic clarification. #

  23. David Marjanović says:

    That’s not a promising way to align the understandings of Trump supporters with your understanding.

    Which isn’t what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to say that any understanding of Trump that has him doing what he said he would do is missing a few pretty important things.

  24. January First-of-May says:

    A bit of work with Google Maps establishes that from Petropavlovsk in Kirov oblast to Minsk is some 15,000 versts — it is not possible to go from Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka even to Dnipro(petrovsk) in Ukraine by road. Unfortunately, Dr. Lehrer does not tell us where the speaker is, but it is not unreasonable to conjecture he is in Kazan, an additional 1400+ versts. Quite a journey, 225 hours by motor vehicle today, who knows how long by stagecoach!

    Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka is indeed not connected to mainland Russia by road (and, IIRC, neither is any part of Kamchatka at all).
    IIRC, the most plausible attribution for the unspecified Petropavlovsk, given the locations of other listed places, is what is now the city of Petropavl in northern Kazakhstan, an important stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

    That said, I’m fairly sure that the whole thing is supposed to be set in the second quarter of the 20th century rather than at any point in the 19th. (If nothing else, Dnepropetrovsk did not get that name until 1925.)
    The timeline still fits, if barely: assuming that the narrator’s life-changing meeting with Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky took place shortly before the latter’s death in 1856, and that the narrator was around 10 years old at the time (old enough to remember it and be inspired by it), he would then be around 80 years old by 1926, and around 105 years old by 1951; unusual but not outside the realm of possibility.

  25. Bathrobe says:

    Given our greater appreciation of the importance of wetlands, “Drain the swamp” is actually anachronistic. (It’s a bit like the anachronism of “… and it will help you cut down on your calories”, which is a hangover from the old “calories in, calories out” fallacy.)

  26. Given our greater appreciation of the importance of wetlands

    For certain values of “our” that do not, apparently, include anyone with the power to preserve them.

  27. Yes, and I assume that a lot of those Trump supporters who are all for draining metaphorical swamps would also gladly drain real wetlands, seeing all the Republican rhetoric against “greenery”.

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