Could we ever be Time Lords?

is the title of a not bad article in The Age today on time travel. They give too much credence to branching universe hypotheses for my tastes, but there’s some fun quotes from some leading thinkers, and a relatively straightforward description of Paul Davies’s time machine plan.


John Symons, the new editor of Synthese, sent me the following letter about what they are doing to address some of the issues that have been raised here and on Brian Leiter’s blog. It’s fairly interesting, and presents a different side to the debate to what has been here so far. It is, however, reasonably long, which is why it is in the extended section. (By the way, did you know Jaakko Hintikka was no longer editing Synthese? I had no idea. Shows you how inattentive I can be sometimes.)
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Ethics Blogs

Jonathan Ichikawa, who has a shiny new blog, asked me an interesting question the other day. Why are there so few ethics blogs? One simple answer would be that there are lots of ethics blogs, they are just spread around between political theory and legal theory and other areas of normative philosophy. Sad to say, these bloggers seem to be just as interested in day-to-day affairs as in high points of theory. Where’s the fun in that? (Not that they don’t write excellent posts when they do turn their attention to theory. If only the world was less pressing.) So if any aspiring (or established) ethicist wants to start up a blog on the finer points of Korsgaard’s or Blackburn’s or Smith’s views, there’s probably a market niche waiting to be filled.

By the way, it’s a sad day when the graduate students start seeming to be appallingly young. Sad day indeed.

Singular ‘they’

There’s a fun discussion going on at Language Hat about singular ‘they’. No discussion of the limits of singular ‘they’s appropriateness, but as a nice bonus there is some discussion of whether plural ‘they’ is historically correct.


The papers blog is usually quiet of a weekend. So I normally don’t feel bad about leaving it late to do, since there’s often nothing to do. But today there’s a bumper crop of papers, including papers by Alex Byrne, Paul Pietrowski and Johan van Benthem. There’s also a curious argument that “texts mean what their authors intend them to mean.” I was thinking I could just be a good Gricean and point out how this is obviously ridiculous, but it turns out this is a premise in an argument against something Scalia once said. Now I have to decide whether I care more about the truth or about winning arguments against Tories.

(In case you were wondering about its ridiculousness, just remember the old example of the bad reference letter. If one writes in a reference letter for me “Brian is a snappy dresser,” and doesn’t go on to talk about my philosophical abilities or lack thereof, clearly one means that I’m no good, even if one’s text means that I’m a snappy dresser. What would be really interesting is if textualists about interpretation deny that we should use interpretative principles that rely on the existence of such things as scalar implicature. If they do, then they are really interpretativists in textualists clothing I would think.)

As you may have noticed, I added a new feature to the blog. In the sidebar I now have a menu that keeps track of the most recent comments. I’ve been noticing a few comments being added to posts that rolled off the main screen, and these usually fall stillborn from the (e-)presses. Hopefully now it will be easier for people to see active comments threads, and it may encourage people to leave comments on old posts.

Scholarly Publishing

(From Crooked Timber.)

There are several interesting discussions going on at the Invisible Adjunct’s, Chun the Unavoidable’s and Brad DeLong’s about scholarly publishing. The basic theme is that universities are currently making incompatible demands. Their tenure committees demand books for promotion. Their finance offices demand that the presses be profitable. And the kind of books that get published for tenure aren’t profitable.

I’m mostly posting this to link to the interesting discussions, but I thought I’d also add some points about how philosophy differs from the humanities in these respects, and how things look a little more hopeful from our shores.
Continue reading “Scholarly Publishing”

Philosopher’s Annual

Brian Leiter reported a couple of days ago on the accepted papers for this year’s Philosopher’s Annual. At risk of violating some copyrights, here’s the list:

Nomy Arpaly, “Moral Worth,” from the Journal of Philosophy.

Ned Block, “The Harder Problem of Consciousness,” from the Journal of Philosophy.

Michael Friedman, “Kant, Kuhn and the Rationality of Science,” from Philosophy of Science.

Hans Halvorson and Rob Clifton, “No Place for Particles in Relativistic Quantum Theories?,” from Philosophy of Science.

John Hawthorne, “Deeply Contingent A Priori Knowledge,” from Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

Richard G. Heck, Jr., “Do Demonstratives Have Senses?,” from Philosophers’ Imprint.

Karen Jones, “The Politics of Credibility,” from Louise M. Antony and Charlotte E. Witt, A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, Westview Press.

Marc Lange, “Who’s Afraid of Ceteris-Paribus Laws? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Them,” from Erkenntnis.

Derk Pereboom, “Robust Nonreductive Materialism,” from the Journal of Philosophy.

Christopher F. Zurn, “Deliberative Democracy and Constitutional Review,” from Law and Philosophy.

Congrats to all, especially to my current colleague Nomy Arpaly, and to my former colleague and sometime co-author John Hawthorne.

What’s particularly worth noting on this list though, especially in light of some of one of my running themes, is the inclusion of an article from Philosophers’ Imprint. This is, I would think, another sign that electronic publication, or at least at least credibly refereed electronic publication, is being taken seriously in the profession. I think that with any new journal, print or electronic, younger philosophers might be wary of publishing in it until they see what its reputation will be. This is another sign that Philosophers’ Imprint is quite well regarded.

By the way, last time I sang PI’s praises I forgot to put in a plug for NDPR. My mistake – it’s also a very good publication. My guess is that for book reviews it’s now as important as any publication in the country except, perhaps, Philosophical Review.

I try and keep in touch with lots of things, but due to the vagaries of electronic access, only two of those papers were published in journals I regularly read – Richard Heck’s paper and John Hawthorne’s. Maybe I need to be reading more widely. I’d been so hoping that I could start narrowing down.

20 Questions

Will Baude at Crescat Sententia has been running a series of online interviews with various bloggers. And the subject of the latest interview is me! Here’s the interview. Previous blogger interviews (including Lawrence Solum, Matthew Yglesias and several permanent or temporary members of the Volokh Conspiracy) are linked in the Crescat Sententia sidebar.

Complex Demonstratives and Singular ‘they’

Here’s a neat fact I learned from Geoff Pullum’s radio talk about singular ‘they’.

It’s appropriate to use ‘they’ in spoken English as a singular pronoun, provided it plays something like the role of bound variable. So (1) could mean (2)

(1) Every scientist said they believe in evolution.
(2) [All x: scientist x]Believe in evolution(x)

The proviso is important. You can’t use ‘they’ as short for ‘he or she’ (as it appears to be used in (1)) when it is anaphoric on a name.

(3) Morgan said they believe in evolution.

In (3) ‘they’ has to refer to some group. Morgan might be a part of that group, but he or she can’t be denoting him or herself with ‘they’. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could say there “they might be denoting themselves”? I can’t, which shows that the use of ‘they’ here derided by some self-ordained grammarians is actually rule-governed. (If anyone has seen Bill Safire sounding off on this use of ‘they’ I would be very happy to see quotes!)

It’s not just universal quantifiers that can bind singular ‘they’, as the following examples show. (These are all from Pullum.)

‘Everybody should marry as soon as they can do it to advantage.’ That’s Jane Austen in 1814. And there are thousands of other examples down the years.

‘A person can’t help their birth.’ (That’s William Makepeace Thackeray in 1848.)

‘Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading anything beyond the pale.’ (That’s Walter Bagehot in his book ‘Literary Studies’ in 1877.)

‘… at the end of the season when everyone has practically said whatever they had to say …’ (That’s Lady Bracknell speaking in Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of being Earnest in 1895, and Lady Bracknell never says anything ungrammatical.)

‘Who ever thought of sparing their grandmother worry?’ (That’s Edith Wharton writing in 1920, using singular ‘they’ with ‘who’ as the antecedent).

‘Too hideous for anyone in their right mind to buy.’

The conclusion Pullum draws from this data is:

The relevance of the distinction is this: in English, the pronoun ‘they’ is fairly strictly limited to having a plural-inflected antecedent when it is used as a referring pronoun, but there is no such restriction when it’s a bound pronoun.

He attributes much of this to a PhD dissertation by Rachel Lagunoff, who pointed out that some genuinely existential quantifiers can govern ‘they’ as in (4)

(4) There’s a caller with a musical question on Line 1. They realise they may have to wait. (This was an example Pullum noticed while going in to the studio to record the talk I’m ripping off here.)

I’m not sure referential/bound is quite the right distinction here, because I think (5) sounds bad, even if the definite description is uncontroversially attributive.

(5) The scientist said they believe in evolution.

Still, I think there’s a good point that when the NP is referential, singular ‘they’ is inappropriate. Which brings me back to the title. Some of the time I can convince myself that complex demonstratives can licence singular ‘they’, as in (6).

(6) That scientist said they believe in evolution.

(6) is a little marginal, especially compared to the Austen to Auden examples above, but I think it can be OK. And that’s a bit of evidence (hardly compelling, but evidence) for the claim that complex demonstratives are quantificational rather than referential.

Confession. I haven’t gone and looked up the literature on complex demonstratives, and for all I know this argument has been refuted more times than I’ve had Chinese dinners. If not, I gladly offer up some more evidence for the quantificational side of the disputes about complex demonstratives.