Thursday, February 16, 2012

Referential isolators

The previous post gives the background. It is time to introduce the idea of ‘referential isolation’, which we can easily explicate by considering the difference between the following three sentences.

(1) There was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who lived in Stratford. There was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who was a shareholder of the Globe company.
(2) There was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was a shareholder of the Globe company.
(3) Shakespeare lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was a shareholder of the Globe company.

Discourse (1) is two separate and complete sentences. It is not part of the meaning of the two sentences that there was a person who lived in Stratford who was a shareholder of the Globe company, although it is part of their meaning that there was someone in Stratford, and that there was someone – possibly the same person, possibly a different person – who was part of the Globe company. Thus it is not part of the meaning of the second sentence that its subject, if there is one, is the same as or different from the subject of the first, nor that it is the same as or different from the subject of any previous sentence. The indefinite article is thus a referential isolator. It prohibits back-reference to any previous sentence.

By contrast discourse (2) is complete as a whole, but the second sentence is incomplete. That is because the definite article ‘the’ cannot be meaningful unless it identifies the subject of some preceding sentence – in this case, the immediately preceding sentence, the first. It forces us to look back in just the way that the indefinite article forces us not to look back, and so acts as the opposite of an isolator (a ‘conductor’, perhaps?). Yet the back reference comes to a halt at the first sentence, because the isolator (‘a man called Shakespeare’) is still in place. The two sentences are complete, and have the force of a single indefinite sentence. They tell us that some person lived in Stratford and belonged to the Globe, without telling us whether this person was the same as or different from the subject of any previous sentence.

Discourse (3) is incomplete both as single sentences and as a whole. That is because when attached to the larger text of which it is a fragment, it is capable of generating further implications that you won’t get from (2), or (1). If there is a preceding sentence saying ‘someone called Shakepeare wrote Macbeth’, then we can infer, when (3) follows it, that the author of Macbeth lived in Stratford, and was a shareholder of the Globe. The two sentences are a sort of live rail potentially connecting us an earlier part, or parts, of a larger discourse.

This all presumes two things, namely (a) that the discourse is ordered by prior and posterior sentence and (b) that all parts of the discourse are available ad audientem. This is true of any verbal discourse through the ordering of time of utterance. It is true of any written text where the order of reading is determined, and the text is securely bound together so that there are no missing pages, or worm-eaten parts, or any other form of corruption. It is true of hypertext containing fixed and ordered links. It is not true of corrupt texts such as manuscripts, or where the text is complete but with the pages wrongly bound. It is not true of a newspaper where the articles are not supposed to be read in any particular order. It is not true of news media in general, where even if there is ordering there is no guarantee that the audience has received all the elements of the ordering (for example, he or she has missed the 9 o’clock news).

The question of how reference operates in the case of disordered and incomplete texts will be the next topic for discussion.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

What if you attached (2) to the larger text of which it is a fragment, and there is a preceding sentence saying "Someone called Shakespeare wrote MacBeth"?

9:25 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>> What if you attached (2) to the larger text of which it is a fragment, and there is a preceding sentence saying "Someone called Shakespeare wrote MacBeth"?<<

You mean something like “Someone called ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Macbeth. There was [also] a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was a shareholder of the Globe company. It is believed, but it is not certain, that the Shakespeare who wrote Macbeth was the same as the Shakespeare who lived in Stratford.”

Then I hold, and I think this is obviously right, that the identity does not hold as a result of the meaning of the proper name, because of the isolating sentence. That is why we need the identity statement – which does not hold in virtue of the meaning of the terms, and is thus contingent – to connect the two clusters. This explains exactly why identity statements are (or can be) informative.

By contrast, suppose we remove the indefinite isolator and put something like this

Someone called ‘Shakespeare’ wrote Macbeth. Shakespeare lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was the man who wrote Macbeth.

Then the identity statement in the third sentence is true in virtue of the meaning of the terms. ‘Shakespeare’ refers back to the subject of the first two sentences, ‘the man who wrote Macbeth’ refers back to the subject of the first, so the identity statement is not contingently true.

8:57 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Very nice, Ed.  An decided advance on Kripke.  Just a few small points:

Could we say that for semantic completeness in a discourse each use of a proper name must be preceded by a mention which introduces it?  Each use refers to the individual introduced by the most recent preceding mention.

In programming language theory what you call a semantic isolator is termed a declaration.  Some programming languages do not require declarations.  Instead these are inferred from program statements and default assumptions.  Similarly in English if a first use of a name in a discourse does not have a preceding introduction then one has to be inferred:  Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls...

We could also say that a semantically complete discourse contains its own glossary for its specialist terms. These are quite arbitrary.  They could be permuted or consistently replaced by alternatives without affecting the meaning.

11:51 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Could we say that for semantic completeness in a discourse each use of a proper name must be preceded by a mention which introduces it?

For semantic completeness of the whole discourse, yes, but bear in mind every sentence containing a back-referring term is incomplete of itself, and can never be complete, of itself. Once we widen the scope of ‘discourse’ to include an isolating term, then the discourse is complete (relative to the term in question, of course). Consider

(1) Mr Bloom met a man called ‘Dudley’

(2) Bloom had known Dudley for years

Then (1) is incomplete, wrt ‘Bloom’. (2) is incomplete wrt ‘Bloom’ and ‘Dudley’. (1) and (2) together are complete wrt ‘Dudley’, but still incomplete wrt ‘Bloom’.

>>Similarly in English if a first use of a name in a discourse does not have a preceding introduction then one has to be inferred: Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls...

Absolute incompleteness, i.e. where there is no isolating term available at all, however far back we go, does not mean we cannot understand the sentence. It just means that the relevant singular term has to be read as an indefinite.

>>We could also say that a semantically complete discourse contains its own glossary for its specialist terms. These are quite arbitrary. They could be permuted or consistently replaced by alternatives without affecting the meaning.

I remember a short story by L.P. Hartley where one edition had the proper name ‘Freddy’ for one of the characters, but in another edition every occurrence of the name had been replaced by ‘Johnny’ (or something like that). The meaning of the story as a whole was unchanged, yes. Is that what you meant?

5:06 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

That all makes sense, and, yes, that is what I meant.

7:11 pm  

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