Monday, July 5, 2010


My wife just got a wrong-number call from some woman: My wife asks whom her caller wants to speak with. The caller responds:
  1. "You!"
The caller than says:
  1. "The boss says the next time you come in, you are fired."
Whom did the caller's "you" refer to? If the extension-determining rule for "you" is "the speaker's interlocutor", then it referred to my wife. In that case, (2) was a false statement, and probably so was (1).
A more charitable reading would be that here we have an "attributive use" not of a definite description but of an indexical, and hence "you" refers to the person who is to be fired. This would have the paradoxical hypothetical consequence that had the caller added at the end of the conversation: "You didn't hear anything I just said", that would have been true—for "you" would seem to still be referring to the person to be fired, not to my wife. Maybe, though, the "you" would have shifted in reference by this point?
I think the story about attributive use of definite descriptions transfers to attributive use of indexicals. Suppose I am watching a soccer game on the tube. I falsely believe the game is being broadcast live, but there is in fact a ten minute delay. Suddenly upon seeing a pass I exclaim: "Now is the best moment in a soccer game that I have ever seen!" The "Now" does not, I think, refer to the time at which I am watching, but to the time at which the pass actually happened. Nothing surprising about attributive use of indexicals, because after all an indexical is essentially a degenerate case of a definition description. "The next shortest man after me" is a definite description even though it uses "me" and likewise "The entity identical with me" is a definite description. And we can just say "I", which is briefer.

1 comment:

enigMan said...

Hmm... I suspect that the caller did at the time want to talk to the woman she was talking to, i.e. to your wife. The caller was clearly a rather impatient person at that time (presumably her boss wanted her to talk to someone else). And in general, if you are saying "you" to someone you have just heard or seen, you mean that person, even if you are mistaken about who they are. And if you are mistaken, what you say may well be false.

Regarding the soccar game, I see that one would mean the moment in the game, which one imagines is happening (even though one is just looking at lots of dots of light). And similarly, if I say "You" to an actor playing a part, I might mean the fictional character. But then I would be choosing to play along, so that would be disanalogous to the phone call...