Friday, July 3, 2009


Certain arguments that I've used myself in the past have presupposed that back-reference to things one's interlocutor said standardly reference the interlocutor's expressed proposition. For instance, if George says "I am hungry" and you say "I believe that", you are not expressing a belief in your hunger, but George's—you are assenting to the proposition that he is hungry. I knew, of course, that there are cases where things aren't quite like that. For instance, you tell me on the phone "It's a cold day", I might say "Not here!" But of course the proposition you uttered includes a rigid reference to the place you uttered it (it's implicitly indexical), and it is just as true there as here. I took these exceptional cases to be "mere exceptions", where one references the sentence rather than the proposition, or cases to be handled by, say, positing a "relocation" operator that acts on propositions.

But I've been thinking about religious dialogue and coming across more cases, and ones that may be fairly important to our communication. Here is one example. My concept of marriage is such that it is analytic that marriage is not just a social status. But let's say you think that marriage just is a social status, and you know what my concept of marriage is. When I say "Fred and Jane got married last Saturday" then I am expressing a proposition that you believe to be false. For the proposition that I expressing is that they entered a marriage—i.e., entered into a marital relationship that is more than a social status. If standard back-reference is to the expressed proposition, then you should say "That's not so!" But instead you will say "Yes" or "That's true" or at most "Indeed, though I understand 'marriage' differently." Moreover, because differences in concept are quite common, this is a pretty normal situation.

It seems, then, that what I refer back to is your words, classified lexicographically (if you said, "Yesterday, Fred was at the bank", meaning a financial institution, it would be misleading for me to agree, when I believed that Fred spent all of yesterday by the side of a river), and with indexicals shifted. The effect of your "That's true" in these cases seems to be basically that of repeating (without plagiarism) my words, with indexical shifts, rather than asserting my proposition.

Perhaps, though, this is just another exceptional case, reflecting the fact that "That's true" in ordinary concepts means "That's close enough in the present context."

If, however, this is more than an exceptional case, then I may have been wrong in this paper of mine when I said we had a duty to use words in our interlocutor's sense.


ryanb said...

Dr. Pruss,

These examples make me think of another I've had on the brain this past year--the case where eliminativists and non-eliminativists use the same words and express different propositions. For instance, Trenton Merricks says that when he talks of chairs and tables, he expresses a different proposition than the folk.

Now, I'm not sure he succeeds in expressing a different proposition. For, his case is slightly different from the cases you mention. He is using words which have a long history of being used in a certain conventional sense, and he thinks that just because of his belief in eliminativism, the meaning of his words changes. I'm not sure language works like this. But, suppose he is right.

Two remarks. First, Merricks would seem to have compelling reason to reject your former contention that he has a duty to use words in his interlocutor's sense, I would think. For, on almost any normal occassion, his interlocutor will be someone who uses 'chair' and the like with the folk sense. And, Merricks would not want to be required to use these terms with these senses, because there isn't much he can say about these things besides the fact that they don't exist. He wants to make more useful utterances and to do so without violating the sincerity norm. (Unless, perhaps, such people don't count as interlocutors?)

Second, I wonder if the view you suggest here--that backreferencing refers to sentences and not to propositions--would suggest that sentences rather than propositions are the primary bearers of truth? When I say "That's true," if the "that" refers to the sentence and expressly not to the proposition expressed by it, it seems that I am saying that the sentence is true without commenting much on what proposition (if any, or if more than 1) is expressed by the sentence.

Keith DeRose said...

Related: You're discussing Ben as a high school basketball player, and say that he is "tall." Later (though not much later: Ben hasn't grown by any noticeable amount), you're discussing him as a potential NBA center, and, as is appropriate given the standards for height in play when discussing NBA centers, you admit that Ben is "not tall." But it turns out somebody in your new conversation has heard about what you said before, and challenges your consistency: "Hey, but didn't you say yesterday that Ben *is* tall?!" Here, it seems wrong (to me; I take this as a datum; wonder if it seems the same to you?) to respond, "I never said that!", or, more expansively, "I never said he was tall, I was merely saying that he was tall for a high school player." What instead seems correct is something along the lines of: "Yes, I said he was tall, but I was only speaking of him as a high school player then. He's not tall for an NBA center."

Alexander R Pruss said...


The view sure does suggest that sentence types are bearers of truth. Which is a reason I don't like it that much, because I'd like either propositions or tokens of some sort to be bearers of truth.


As a fact about habits of speech, I'd be more likely to say: "I didn't mean that!" And here "that" seems to refer to a proposition.

But let's go back to the "said".

Some more cases.


A: "My niece just broke her promise to me."

A: "My niece is getting less clumsy. Yesterday, she didn't even break anything."
B (playing the wise guy, or just being dense): "But yesterday, you said your niece broke her promise."
A: "I never said that!"

A's response sounds wrong.


Yesterday, conversation about real estate developments on both sides of a river:
A (a rich guy): "I just bought out one bank."

A: "I would never, ever buy any part of a financial institution these days."
B: "But didn't you say you bought one bank?"
A: "I never said that!"

That, too, sounds wrong.

Likewise, it would sound wrong to say "I never said that!" in cases of homophony, misspeaking, unclarity and using a different language than today (think of a case where a bunch of sounds means one sentence in one language and another in another; to make this work in real-life, one's accent needs to be neutral between the languages). That's pretty neat.

On the other hand, things seem to work differently in translation.

A (talking of Brazos real estate): "I bought one bank."
Next day, B to C, about A: "Il a achete une banque." ("He bought a bank (unambiguously a financial institution).") (Please excuse my French grammar and spelling.)
A (upon overhearing): "Non, non! Je n'ai pas dit ca! Je dit que j'ai achete une rive" ("No, no! I did not say that! I said that I bought a bank (unambiguously of a river)."

So "I didn't say that" seems to work differently across languages and within a language. The propositionalist could say that we have a pragmatic rule on which "I didn't say that" is to be avoided when the exact noises in question were in fact uttered assertively--we should instead give the more precise denial "That's not what I meant" or (shifting the blame) "You misunderstood me".

All this is very confusing.

Keith DeRose said...

The "I never said that!" data are different for what are sometimes called "core indexicals" (I, here, now, this, that) than they are for the likes of "tall": A's last line seems correct below:

A: I am funny.
B: I'm funny, too.
A: No you're not.
B: But didn't you just say that I am funny?
A: I never said that; I said that *I'm* funny.

Keith DeRose said...

To me, your Helga/Gestapo example in your paper seems a quite clear case of lying (and justifiable lying, too, though that may be a little less clear). You write:

The language of the Gestapo officer's social milieu was defined by works such as Mein Kampf and by Goebbels's propaganda. For the Gestapo officer, the primary meaning of the word "Jew" was something like "a sub-human, cold-hearted, shameless, calculating trafficker in vices."

They may have believed such things about Jews (though individual officers may have been just following orders), but weren't those supposed to be substantive claims about Jews, not empty analytic truths? In which case, what the Gestapo officers *meant* by "Jew" in the relevant sense was pretty much what others mean.

We should want to avoid the result that Helga would be speaking honestly and truthfully if she were to say to the Gestapo, "Jews are sub-human."

Heath White said...

For what it’s worth, I’ve long been inclined to the view that propositions are convenient fictions, reifications of meaning in effect, and that when it counts we should be prepared to go without them. This case is another datum in favor.

The idea of “concepts” at issue—where having the same concept of e.g. marriage as someone else entails accepting the same analytic implications as analytic—requires a sharp analytic/synthetic distinction which, generally speaking, I am not inclined to credit. Moreover, it makes it very hard to understand what a “partial grasp” of a concept would be, while I think this phenomenon is rampant.

We could adapt Putnam and Burge to this case. We could say that the concept of marriage is controlled by the “experts.” The rest of us piggyback on those experts’ account of marriage. (In this case, from the introspective claim that “For me it is analytic that Fa entails Ga” nothing follows about the concepts F and G—you could be wrong about the connections.) Further, we could say that there is a natural kind ‘marriage’ which our language tracks whether or not there are any completely competent experts. Who counts as an expert will itself be a subject of disagreement here. We could go two ways here: either there is a truth of the matter, in which case there are true and false experts, or we are really using words in two different ways, in which case there can be divergent sets of experts about different subject matters. I tend to think this is a pragmatic decision, though I am open to persuasion there.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think that with propaganda, etc., a word can shift meaning in such a way that certain implications become analytic truths. I also think that there may be a sense in which people when they ask non-theoretical questions are asking for what is practically relevant to their action. ("Do you have a watch?" is not properly answered "yes" if one has a watch that one knows shows the wrong time.)

But what is practically relevant to the Gestapo officer's action is whether there are any people there who ought to be arrested. And there aren't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Variant on Gestapo case: You want a cigarette and ask if I have one. I have one but it has contact poison on it. I assume that that's not the sort of cigarette you want (were you to know the facts, etc.--or take the account of desire in the Gorgias) so I say "No." Likewise, Helga's Jews aren't the sort the Gestapo wants--that sort doesn't exist.

enigMan said...

Hi Alex,

If we have a duty to use words in our interlocuters' senses, then so do they. So we can assume that they mean to mean, by their words, some public meaning, where the sense of 'public' should include their interlocuters, us. Consequently I would say (and have observed) that we also have a duty to mention when we think that meanings may be diverging too much. And that may be a problem for your Gestapo case.

I presume that the man answering the door to the Gestapo wishes to avoid bearing false witness, and that the Gestapo are not being regarded as outsiders (although I would say that the acting in such a uniform makes them outsiders, with no right to honesty, life etc.). Even if the doorman thinks that the Gestapo officer has a different sense to 'Jew', he must notice that the officer is speaking to him, whence the officer should be presumed to be using a more public sense, one that might apply if the officer was talking to a Jew-lover. As Keith noted, the extensions are going to be very similar; and it is the extension that is practically relevant (as with Pope), since the question is about quantities of Jews. But furthermore, even if the doorman has reason to think that the officer is just using the more brutish sense, even so that very fact, that the doorman supposes that he disagrees a lot with the officer's sense of 'Jew', actually means that he would be bearing falsee witness (if the officer counts) by saying 'No', I think. He should either say nothing (which is not much of a problem because the officer would surely not just take his word for it anyway!), or he should point out that he suspects that they mean different things by that word.

This is quite generally true, I think; e.g. if you thought that I was using words with a different sense to you, in a way that changes 'yes' to 'no' or vice versa, then I should be offended if you did not point that out but rather just said 'no'. I think that it is only by us expecting each other to point such things out, when they become relevant, that we can hope to communicate very well at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Gestapo officer should use words in our sense, yes. But he is a victim of propaganda, we charitably assume. As such, we charitably assume, he is not fully rational.

Normally, when our words depart from the public meaning, an explanation is called for. But it is not called for as a matter of strict duty, I think, as long as we have said something true. Moreover, in a country filled with propaganda, the public sense itself shifts.

I now see that there are two distinct ways of taking my argument. One way is to focus on meaning as I did in the original piece. The other is to focus on practical salience, as I did in my comment about cigarettes (though I talked about that in the paper, too).

Finally, here is a somewhat different take on this. It's initially not quite right, but gets at something perhaps close to the truth. In lying, we are trying to get people to form false beliefs. Now, if I tell the Gestapo officer that there are Jews in my basement, he will form two beliefs: "There are Jews (in the public sense) in ARP's basement" and "There are evil subhumans in ARP's basement." One of these beliefs is true and the other is false. If I say that there are no Jews in my basement, he will form two opposite beliefs, the first false and the second true. So whatever I answer, I lead him to untruth, unless I can convince him of the falsehood of the propaganda, and I prudently judge that that's not going to happen. So now I judge which falsehood is the worse falsehood. Well, the worse falsehood is the one that leads to wrongful action. So by saying "Yes" to the question, I cause the Gestapo officer to believe a greater falsehood than I do by saying "No".

Now it might seem that this isn't a good moral argument, because by saying "No", I am making the Gestapo officer believe a falsehood, viz., that there are no "Jews" here in the public sense, as a means to his believing a more important truth, viz., that there are no evil subhumans here. But one cannot do evil that good might come of it, even if the good comes to the very person to whom one has done evil. (The Gestapo officer plainly benefits overall from not forming the false belief that there are no evil subhumans here, since were he to form the belief, he would be--we hope unwittingly--a party to the killing of innocents.)

However, perhaps, the Gestapo officer does not make an inference from "There are Jews (in the public sense) here" to "There are evil subhumans here." The word "Jew" carries "evil subhuman" with it to his hearing. The belief that there are evil subhumans here is formed immediately. That is how ethnic hatred works--it is direct, and it skews one's perception, one's understanding, etc. Concepts shift. When one has heard "Jew" in a pejorative sense on many an occasion, it is very difficult emotionally and rationally to divorce oneself from that meaning. So it is not that on a positive answer, the Gestapo officer forms the belief that there are Jews in the public sense there, from which he infers that there are subhumans there. Rather, he forms the two beliefs simultaneously. By answering in the negative, one is intending that he form the true belief that there are no evil subhumans there. One is, by double effect, tolerating the side-effect that he form the false belief that there are no Jews in the public sense there.

This last argument is closer to the "mental reservation" line of thought that some Catholic moralists have had.

Maybe the following makes the case a little clearer. Suppose the Gestapo officer asks you, as he well might: "Do you have any _____s here?" where "_____" is his favorite ethnic slur for Jews. The ethnic slur term is one that analytically entails bad-making features. In that case, a "No" seems to be the truth (not the whole truth, but we are not obliged to speak the whole truth). But in fact, in the parlance of 1930s and 1940s Germany, "Jew" (i.e., "Jude") was a slur.

enigMan said...

Hmm... If you ask if there are any cows in the field and I say 'no' because there is only one bull, I am telling the truth. If you ask if there are any bulls in the field and I say 'no' because there is only one bull, I might be telling the truth. If you ask if there is a bull in the field and I say 'no' because I imagine that by 'bull' you mean a three-dimensional brown animal the size of a horse but with horns, whereas I know a bit of physics and philosophy and so I know that there are no three-dimensional objects (such as we ordinarily think of), and no objects that are objectively in themselves brown (such as we ordinarily think of), then I am not really telling the truth at all, am I?

Your gestapo scenario reminds me of the third of those bull scenarios; but I also think that in the first two I would have given false witness by not telling the whole truth. Would my witness become true if the person asking me was someone that I had reasonable grounds for believing deserved to be chased by a bull?

Suppose someone asks me if busses stop here, and I rightly think that by 'busses' he means a solid red vehicle (whereas there are no such things, or so I believe), and that he is trying to get into town to do his job (which by his uniform is one that I disapprove of). I could say that there are no such things as what he means by 'busses' (he could reply 'how do you know?' and ask someone more helpful), or I could say 'I don't know' (do I really know what he thinks busses are?), or I could say 'no' (even though busses do stop there). But I just don't see how the fact that I disapprove of the job that he is clearly trying to do helps my 'no' to avoid being the lie that it obviously would be.

I see what you mean, with your last remark, but the officer's question is clearly about the extension of his concept of 'Jew', which clearly includes the Jew in the basement, so I think that the muddy waters of sense and reference are by the by. Maybe it is a grey area; but my bull scenarios tell me that this grey area is identified as grey only because we think it would be right to lie to the officer anyway.

enigMan said...

...had the officer asked about Christ-killers, the true answer would've been 'no', but he did ask about Jews. And I think that your cigarette scenario therefore fails, and shows why it can be alright to lie even to friends.

You did have a cigarette (as you say, you did have one), and there is little indeterminacy in what 'cigarette' means, so the true answer is 'yes'. You could've said 'yes, but it is poisonous; and while I can take responsibility for my having such a thing, I ought not to give poison to you.' That avoids explicit mention of contact poison, without lying.

After all, I may have asked because I wanted to add contact poison to it and give it to my evil acquaintance (perhaps we are in the same line of business). Had you said 'yes, but it has contact poison on it' that would have been ideal (for all you knew). But you said 'no' because it was simpler than explaining why you had a poisoned cigarette (or thinking of a complex truth). We tell such white lies to save us unnecessary bother quite often I think; maybe they are not always lies, but we hardly bother with the distinction between when we are technically telling truths at such times and when we are not, because that is unimportant.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the cigarette case, if I were the friend, I wouldn't feel deceived by a "no". I think in ordinary concepts, our assertions often come within the scope of a "for practical purposes" operator. This operator is contextual. For practical purposes, my cell phone is a watch. If I am asked "Do you have a watch" in a context where the interlocutor just wants to know the time, and I have a cell phone that can just as easily yield the time, "No" is problematic.
We have contexts and verbal markers that cancel most of the "for practical purposes". For instance, the context where one promises to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A verbal marker that cancels "for practical purposes" is "strictly speaking".
This is important to those of us who don't believe in artifacts. For practical purposes, I have a phone that I am typing this comment on. Strictly speaking, there are no phones, I believe. The "strictly speaking" is itself of variable strength.

enigMan said...

Ah, I think you're right about that. But still, Helga's Jews presumably are the sort the Gestapo officer wants. As you say, there are strictly speaking no phones; and similarly, there are no such things as the Jews the Gestapo officer has in mind. But for practical purposes Helga's are the sort he wants.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know if it is charitable to assume that Helga's Jews are what the Gestapo officer wants. Let's try the counterfactual. Suppose the Gestapo officer were to know all the relevant facts about Helga's Jews, such as that they are harmless creatures, as human as he himself, if anything more innocent of capital crimes than himself, created in the image and likeness of God. Would he still want to arrest them? He might--if he is really wicked. But we charitably should assume (at least apart from a determination to the contrary by a court of law) that he is led astray by propaganda in thinking that there is a coincidence between ethnic Jews and evil.

enigMan said...

But then you could deny having a cigarette when you have one without contact poison on it, on the grounds that were the person asking for one to know all the relevant facts they would not want one after all. That is, you might presume that such would be the case. Buf of course, the facts might be that a cigarette would actually be good for the person asking... So, you seem to be saying, in effect, that I would not be lying if, to a man who was asking if busses to town stop here, I said 'no' (when in fact they ordinarily do), if I thought (as I would) that the busses that I thought he was thinking of did not exist as such? Ah, but then I doubt if any of us have ever lied (and so God created a perfectly good world after all:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

If one's interlocutor were unaware of the harms of cigarettes, and especially if she positively thought cigarettes to be harmless, then a case could be made along these lines, yes. The cigarettes she is asking for are harmless tension relievers. You don't have any of those. You have nasty things that will blacken your lungs and may well kill you. Why would she want those?

However, a typical interlocutor can be presumed to know about the harms of cigarettes.