The Fighting Mongoose

Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. -Ambrose Bierce
A group weblog by the graduate philosophy students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What is the relationship between semantics and pragmatics? Or, what is the connection between theories regarding formal languages and theories about natural languages?

Based on my (very) limited knowledge of Paul Grice's work, I offer an example of the word 'or'.

Formally speaking, the word 'or' expresses the logical connective 'v'. 'v', called a wedge, is a truth functional binary connective. A formula such as (P v Q) is true if and only if at least one of the disjuncts is true. The formula is false if and only if both disjuncts are false.

There is a rule of inference that allows us to infer from a true proposition P a disjunction containing P. If P is true, then (P v Q) is also true.

This is all well and good in our formal language, but it doesn't seem to make much sense in natural language. Let's say that I make some warranted assertion, like "Madison is the capital of Wisconsin." According to our above-mentioned rule of inference, I am also warranted in asserting something like "Madison is the capital of Wisconsin or the moon is made of Swiss cheese." It seems strange, though, that I would be warranted in asserting something like that.

Grice argues that pragmatically speaking, the rule regarding the use of 'or' is that we only use it when we feel that we aren't quite warranted in asserting either of the disjuncts. Each disjunct of a disjunction makes a stronger claim than the disjunction itself. For instance, the disjunction "The keys are on the desk, or they are on the couch" is a weaker statement than either of the disjuncts. If I was warranted in asserting either disjunct, then I'd have no reason to assert the disjunction.

Ok, that's fine. So how do the two types of 'or' relate? It seems to me that they don't at all. Am I missing something here? What's the connection?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Let's say that you are sitting in your office, and you overhear two friends, let's call them Bob and Jane, talking out in the hallway. Bob asks Jane where you are. From your office, you overhear Jane's reply, "He/she might be at the student center."

Did Jane say something true or false?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Eric Schwitzgebel (Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside) has a blog post about applying to graduate programs. This may be late for some, but it is early for people applying next year.

It may also be worth looking at some posts here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Over at the Garden of Forking Paths, there's a post about movies that touch on themes in action theory.

I thought about the possibility of teaching a philosophy 101 class using just movies. Let's say you were planning the curriculum for such a class. Which movies do you think would best illustrate basic themes and subthemes in ethics, metaphysics and epistemology?

You don't have to provide a complete list. Any suggestion to get the ball rolling will be fine.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The new Gourmet is up. What's interesting is that if you go to the MA rankings page, they now list each school's area of excellence. Supposedly, our areas of excellence are philosophy of language & mind, and history of philosophy (esp. early modern, Marx, Frankfurt School).

Would you agree?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Here's something from an email I sent to Adam:

"One approaches metaphysical inquiry with a number of beliefs. Many of these will not trace back to empirical beliefs, at least not in any direct way. These beliefs may be particular, as for example the belief that I was once a young boy, or they may be more general and theoretical, for example the belief that identity is transitive. One then develops a theory preserving as many of these ordinary beliefs as possible, while remaining consistent with science. There is a familiar give and take: one must be prepared to sacrifice some beliefs one initially held in order to develop a satisfying theoretical account. But a theoretical account should take ordinary belief as a whole seriously, for only ordinary beliefs tie down the inquiry."

Theodore Sider, Four-Dimensionalism

Now, I realize that such a methodology is not one that is exclusive to contemporary analytic metaphysics. Also, I am ready to admit that this may not be the best or even appropriate form of inquiry. However, I am suspicious of those positions that seem dismissive of this sort of project. Again, I may just be interpreting the continentals incorrectly, but it just doesn't seem to me that guys like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the German idealists (as well as those crazy French postmoderns) are interested in engaging in the above-mentioned investigation. If it happens to be the case that they are, then I'll go and take a look at what they have to say. If not, I am still open to what their reasons may be as to why such a program as the one mentioned here might be wrong or ill-conceived.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

When I worked at my parents' store last summer, I'd bring along something to read to pass the time. I'd read stuff with "metaphysics," or "epistemology" in the title. Customers would come in and ask me what I'm studying in school. I'd tell them that I'm studying philosophy. There'd be a five second silence before they would inevitably ask, "What do you study in philosophy?"

I realized that this question is extraordinarily difficult to answer when the person who's asking barely finished high school, and the vast majority of my parents' customers fell into that category. Most anything that one would study, no matter how abstruse, can always be generalized into something familiar. Quantum mechanics can be restated as "physics," Hellenistic archaeology could be translated as "history," and Victorian literature can be described as "English." However, "philosophy" is about as general as you can get, and even there people are in the dark about what that is. It seems that very few public primary and secondary schools would have a class that would even remotely resemble a philosophy class. So people really have no way of even formulating an adequate concept of philosophy, much less finding any value in the subject.

The situation improves somewhat for people with a college education, but not by much. At this point, individuals have something of an idea of what philosophy is. They may have even taken a few courses. But for the most part, people still find no value in the study of philosophy. The number one question I get from these folks is, "What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?" Some may ask this question with the sincere intention of finding out what philosophers do in the real world, but most ask in that tone of voice implying that philosophy is about at useful for life as a call to Miss Cleo is.

However, others may be pleased to find out that I study philosophy, and, thinking themselves to be conversant in philosophy will then ask me some question like who my favorite philosophers are. They're expecting to hear names like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzche, etc. I proceed to drop names like Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis, Brian Leftow, Ted Sider, John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmerman, Rod Chisholm, Willard Quine, Peter van Inwagen, Trenton Merricks, Lynne Rudder Baker, etc. Of course after I say this we again find ourselves in those five seconds of silence.

It's not like these names are obscure, either. Imagine someone (we'll name him Bob) who's only contact with basketball is some book about the history of basketball. You, as a basketball fan, happen to find yourself in a casual, dinner party conversation wth Bob. Bob asks you who your favorite basketball players are. He's expecting to hear names like George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, etc. You give him names like Lebron James, Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzski, Shaquile O'Neal, etc. The situation is analogous in philosophy. Grad students follow philosophers like professional athletes. We should make philosopher trading cards.

Of course the interested individual mentioned above may, instead of asking about my favorite philosophers, ask about the kind of philosophy I study. Again, what this person may be expecting to hear will likely be very different from what I am about to tell him/her. Most people don't realize that the type of philosophy that I study is closer to physics, math and linguistics than it is to guys wearing togas and shooting the shit around the agora.

The point of all this is to reveal the prominent gap between the layperson and the professional when it comes to familiarity about what philosophy is and what it is supposed to do. I attribute this gap to the fact that philosophy is nowhere to be seen in elementary, middle, or high schools. Why is this? Why don't they teach philosophy in schools? It's not like biology, american history, shakespeare, or trigonometry will be "practical" to those who will find careers in middle management or customer service. So why not teach kids to think independently at an early age?