Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The narrative conception of reference

Sentences like “I noticed the dark-haired girl I had met the other night” drive me to frustration. I read fiction in a slapdash way, and have a poor memory for detail. So I leaf through the pages, trying to find when ‘the other night’ was, and when I have, try to find the dark-haired girl. But who or what am I really trying to find here? It’s a piece of fiction, there was no such girl. And what do I mean ‘no such girl’? There are billions of dark-haired girls, and thousands of ‘other nights’.

However, frustration aside, the example throws light on an idea I have discussed earlier, namely that the semantics of a definite description are ‘external’ to the proposition that contains it. According to the classic theory of descriptions, the semantics of the description is ‘internal’ to the proposition. We understand the meaning of ‘the first dog born at sea’ by understanding the dictionary meanings of ‘first’, ‘dog’, ‘sea’ etc. But we don’t understand ‘the dark-haired girl I had met the other night’ simply by understanding a dictionary. I have to locate a passage from a previous part of the narrative in order to understand it. The description is incomplete, and we require information external to its proposition in order to understand its meaning.

It also illuminates the conception of reference that I have defended in many posts here, the conception of reference as essentially embedded in a narrative. When the author used that description, he or she was doing so in the knowledge that information provided earlier would be available to me. They knew that because they had written the narrative that included the information, and they knew it would be available in a text presented (either in print or in hypertext) in an ordered sequence. They knew that I would be reading ‘the dark-haired girl’ on p. 46 after I had read ‘a dark-haired girl’ on p.15.

I would argue that all descriptions are presented to us in essentially the same way. The author of the description uses it with the expectation that the background information necessary to understand it are available to his audience. A work of history, for example, is no different from a work of fiction. Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall is written as a single work covering more than a thousand years of history. But if he wrote it correctly, i.e. such that his intended meaning was available to any diligent person reading it, recurring descriptions, even when incomplete in the sense above, should be intelligible to the reader. In writing his history, Gibbon knew, or intended, that the persons reading it would have the whole work available, and that proper understanding of it requires reading it in the intended order.

It may seem to be different in the case of narratives which do not have a definite order, but I will discuss these cases later.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

There's pretty much no dispute that "the dark-haired girl I had met the other night" contains an indexical, namely "I".

1:13 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>There's pretty much no dispute that "the dark-haired girl I had met the other night" contains an indexical, namely "I".

Use of indexicals in narrative is also in interesting topic.

9:34 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

My point is that there is a significant difference between "the first dog born at sea" and "the dark-haired girl I had met the other night" regardless of whether or not the latter is part of a narrative. The latter description is incomplete, at least in part, because of the use of the word "I" (and "the other night" for that matter, which is also pretty indisputably an indexical).

I like the fact that you seem to be dispelling the notion of a "context free sentence", but, first of all, I don't think you're being careful enough in your examples, and secondly, I think your manner of argument is completely upside down.

Clearly and obviously, we can learn and speak and write about reality.

1:17 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I think your manner of argument is completely upside down.

You need to clarify this :)

I'll talk about 'I' later.

2:39 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

I mean, what would right way up look like?

2:39 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Clearly and obviously, we can learn and speak and write about reality.

I wouldn’t deny this. What I assert is that the meaning of a sentence is entirely independent of whether it is true or false, or whether anything in reality corresponds to it. We can’t determine from the semantics of the gospels whether Jesus existed or not, and their meaning would remain entirely the same in either case.

3:20 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

The right way up is to start with reality, and our ability to perceive reality. A child does not "understand the meaning of ‘the first dog born at sea’ by understanding the dictionary meanings of ‘first’, ‘dog’, ‘sea’ etc." We don't form concepts by reading dictionary definitions. Concepts are formed by making generalizations about concretes. Dictionary definitions come after concept formation, not before it.

Furthermore, the concept of fiction is dependent on the concept of reality, not vice versa.

I don't take you to be one to advocate philosophical skepticism, but you say "A work of history, for example, is no different from a work of fiction."

You don't really mean that, right? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you've said before that all sentences about fiction are false. Surely not all sentences about history are false, right? Clearly and obviously, we can learn and speak and write about reality.

3:26 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

First of all, by "the meaning of a sentence", are you referring to what the person uttering the sentence wishes to convey by it, are you referring to a meaning intrinsic to the sentence itself, or something else?

3:34 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>First of all, by "the meaning of a sentence", are you referring to what the person uttering the sentence wishes to convey by it, are you referring to a meaning intrinsic to the sentence itself, or something else?

The meaning of the sentence that it has in context. Otherwise I talk about the ‘intended meaning’.

>> The right way up is to start with reality, and our ability to perceive reality.

But I am starting with meaning. I am assuming we are not children, and that we have a command of the English language, which includes appropriate understanding of the English dictionary.

>> A child does not "understand the meaning of ‘the first dog born at sea’ by understanding the dictionary meanings of ‘first’, ‘dog’, ‘sea’ etc."

I don’t understand how this is relevant. The point is that we can form certain sentences which have never been formed before, but which are intelligible to any competent speaker of the language. That is the whole point of language: that by combining 26 letters in the right way, we can communicate any thought we like to any other competent user. There, I have just communicated the thought expressed by the previous sentence using just those letters. You will probably object that I also used the digits ‘2’ and ‘6’.

>>Furthermore, the concept of fiction is dependent on the concept of reality, not vice versa.

This is irrelevant to the point I am making. Which is that the semantics of a narrative are independent of any reality corresponding to it. Again, the point of language is that between competent users its meaning is relatively stable. If the meaning of words were unstable and changed frequently, or differed from hearer to hearer, we would be unable to communicate at all.

>> I don't take you to be one to advocate philosophical skepticism, but you say "A work of history, for example, is no different from a work of fiction."

A work of history is not semantically different from a work of fiction.

3:57 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

Regardless, I agree that the meaning of a sentence is entirely independent on whether it is true or false, and whether or not anything in reality corresponds to it. However, I think you and I have a different sense as to what that entails.

"OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson." That sentence has the same meaning independently of whether it is true or false, and whether or not anything in reality corresponds to it. (By "it" I assume you mean the sentence.)

3:59 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>"OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson."

The proper names are clearly context-dependent. Example “I have a bull terrier called OJ Simpson and I use to have a cat called Nicole Brown Simpson. Unfortunately, OJ Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson”.

4:07 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"The proper names are clearly context-dependent."

I have no dispute with that. In fact, I probably shouldn't have put the quotation marks around the sentence, because I wasn't referring to the meaning of all instances of the sentence, I was referring to the meaning of the sentence as I had just used it. In that context, I think you know what I meant. By "OJ Simpson", I meant OJ Simpson. By "Nicole Brown Simpson", I meant Nicole Brown Simpson. By "killed", I meant killed.

The context, is a context in which there was this big famous trial, which I assume that you're aware of.

I guess that's where I'm confused by your comment about "The meaning of the sentence that it has in context". Is this context purely linguistic, or is it (at least sometimes) extra-linguistic?

4:28 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:35 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:36 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> That is the whole point of language: that by combining 26 letters in the right way, we can communicate any thought we like to any other competent user.

Can you adequately communicate "the sunset is beautiful" to someone who was blind from birth, solely by combining 26 letters in the right way?

(Sorry about the deletions, I try not to do it but this time I felt it necessary.)

4:37 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Is this context purely linguistic, or is it (at least sometimes) extra-linguistic?

More later. I was intending to discuss that at some point.

>>Can you adequately communicate "the sunset is beautiful" to someone who was blind from birth, solely by combining 26 letters in the right way?

Two points here. (1) Some philosophers have argued that a blind person can understand colour words (2) In any case it doesn’t matter because I have a ‘competent speaker’ out-of-jail card. The claim is that by combining 26 letters we can express a thought whose meaning is reasonably clear to any competent user of the language (or some subset of that language). That won’t work if I am a non-lawyer who does not know the meaning of some legal term expressed by combining 26 letters. Or medical language, and so on.

8:43 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> Some philosophers have argued that a blind person can understand colour words

Well, I don't deny that you might be able to help a blind person understand the experience of a beautiful sunset by somehow stimulating the same biochemical response using some sort of non-visual means. But I don't think that qualifies as "solely by combining 26 letters in the right way" (even if you use those 26 letters to teach the person how to self-stimulate such a response).

>> In any case it doesn’t matter because I have a ‘competent speaker’ out-of-jail card.

Well that was why I presented a scenario where the person was perfectly competent at speaking, just not at seeing. Yes, I now realize you mean something more than that, but then I think you're dropping the context.

The point I was making earlier is that all concepts are ultimately reducible to their base in perceptual entities. Even if we learn the meaning of the word via a dictionary, the meaning of the words in that definition, or the words in the definitions of the words in that definition, or ultimately however many iterations you have to go; that meaning is learned through interaction with reality, not through consultation with a narrative.

This is even clear if one looks at the word "first" from "the first dog born at sea". The most relevant dictionary definition for the word "first" would be something like "corresponding in order to the number one". So, then, what is the dictionary definition of "one"? The relevant definition would be "the cardinal number designating the first such unit in a series". Two steps and we already have a loop - "first" is defined using the concept "one", and "one" is defined using the concept "first". Even if you choose a more circumlocutious set of definitions, you're still going to find a similar loop. Clearly we don't learn these concepts merely by consulting with dictionaries. We learn the concept by experience and inductive reasoning. "One two three" (pointing), "first second third" (pointing). And so on for "dog", "sea", etc.

4:27 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>We learn the concept by experience and inductive reasoning. "One two three" (pointing), "first second third" (pointing). And so on for "dog", "sea", etc.

You are missing the point, which is that some communication involves some kind of background that is specific to the communication. Other kinds simply involve correct understanding of the language, which can be acquired in any way, by any capable person.

1:29 pm  

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