X-Message-Number: 23395
Date: Fri, 6 Feb 2004 20:50:49 EST
Subject: Beware the Butler

These notes are more or less random snippets from YOUNIVERSE, or related to 
topics therein. The order in the book is different, and the treatment often 
different and usually longer.

Beware the Butler

There is no agreement on the proper range of philosophy, or the proper 
distinction between philosophy and science. A reasonable view might be that 
philosophy is mainly concerned with language, its use to reveal or conceal.

There is no agreement on the meaning of meaning, or the proper definition of 
a proposition. Here's a little example involving the slippery concept of 

"proposition" and the depth of language. Consider the sentence, "There is dust 
this table." Is it a 
proposition? (This sentence, or a similar one, is used by R.M. Hare in 
Sorting Out Ethics, Oxford 1997.)

At first thought, it is a prime instance of a genuine proposition, a 

statement of fact which is either true or false. One might quibble about 
questions, how much dust it takes to entitle a surface to be called dusty, or 
how big a grain qualifies 
as a dust grain, but most of us would disregard that. However, we have not 
inquired about the context of the sentence. 

Suppose it was spoken in a stern tone of voice by a butler to a maid. It 
might then be surmised that the real message was: 

"Look at this, you lazy slut, I am distinctly annoyed, and you had better 
shape up pronto." All right, an English butler probably wouldn't say "shape up 
pronto," but there are probably a few butlers in Texas too. 

In any case, identical sentences (the same exact string of symbols, 

written/read at different times or places) can have different meanings. If you 
let your 
guard down just a little you may be sucker-punched. 

At least, that is one way to read the Butler lesson, but I don't entirely 
agree. We must avoid confusing meaning with consequences or reactions. I would 
say the sentence about dust on the table means just what it says, and nothing 
regardless of who is listening or how the listener reacts or interprets what 
she hears, or even what the speaker intends. After all, the speaker or writer 
does not necessarily know how to convey what he intends, or may be 

deliberately deceptive; and the listener or reader can misperceive or be misled.
We are 

therefore led into a murky need to rely on "reasonable" writers and readers, so
it boils down to an uneasy reliance on collective experience and judgment.

As a side light, philosophers, like most specialists, are prone to inventing 
jargon, sometimes without need. To distinguish different types of sentences, 
J. L. Austin (How to Do Things with Words, Oxford, 1962) names three types of 
illocution, and perlocution. His main point is that a perlocutionary act is 
one intended to produce a consequence, not necessarily the apparent one. For 

example, if a mean adult wants a sullen child to misbehave, the adult might tell
the child very 
sternly to behave, expecting defiance which would then be punished. So the 
same words might seem to have very different 
meanings as illocutions or perclutions--but my comment is the same as in the 
paragraph above. 

Indeed, the prevalence of jargon in many works of professional philosophers 

gets so out of hand that the work is inaccessible to the layman--which is often
the layman's good luck, to be sure.

Another change in the Update section on the Youniverse site,


Robert Ettinger

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