I Want the Interpretation I Can’t Have

The latest installment in a running series … philosophy thoughts had while listening to Smiths songs.

So presumably the desire-ascription in the title of I Want The One I Can’t Have is meant to be de re rather than de dicto. There is some particular one that Morrissey can’t have, and he wants him/her/it. But I was wondering whether it was possible to have a de dicto interpretation of the title. We could start meandering off here into the wisdom of self-destructive desires, but there’s a more pressing matter of syntax and semantics to attend to.

It’s rather hard, on its own, to read the title as a claim that Morrissey wants the one, whoever it is, he can’t have, as such. But we should be able to get that reading out, because when the title appears inside a quantifier it is clearly meant to have (something like) the de dicto reading. As in…

Not being able to eat dishes containing stewed rhubarb is so awful. It always seems to brighten up anything, from steak to green curry. But I can’t eat it. Most of the time I’m completely paralysed ordering food because I look at the menu and I want the one I can’t have.

Not entirely natural English, but I think you get the drift. (I was toying with an example closer to the original meaning of the title, but it seemed a little tacky.) Anyway, maybe the whinger in this example could, when he walks into a new restaurant, say on inductive grounds “I want the one I can’t have”, meaning he wants the dish, whatever it is, that he can’t have because it contains rhubarb.

It’s tricky to do a full analysis of this because it’s tricky to analyse sentences of the form I want NP. The temptation is to treat them as being elliptical for I want to VP NP, and then treat that as elliptical for I want that I VP NP, and then analyse I want as a modal. This is all a little absurd, but if we just treat want in I want NP as a regular transitive verb, it is hard to see how to get the de re / de dicto distinction to fall out. Since I’m sure that this is a relatively well-trodden area of syntax/sematics, I won’t try and resolve it here.

3 Replies to “I Want the Interpretation I Can’t Have”

  1. In my opinion, Morrisey means some sort of de dicto reading. On the one hand, there are particular things that he wants:

    “A double-bed
    and a stalwart lover,”

    But then, these are the things that the kind of guy he is, in general, can’t have:

    “for sure
    these are the riches of the poor”

    So, the reading may be something like:

    I want the one, whatever/whoever it is, that the unfortunate type under which I fall generally can’t have.

    Also the beginning of the song indicates a general type of situation:

    “On the day that your mentality
    catches up with your biology
    I want the one I can’t have”

    Finally, it ends with an identification of the narrator with his reader who is of the same unfortunate type:

    “And if you ever need self-validation
    just meet me in the alley by the

    A bit of hermeneutics…

  2. It seems to me that even the whinger doesn’t fulfill the most de dicto reading of all—which is that I desire that the following state be fulfilled: I have the one that I can’t have. This is a desire for an impossibility, but I don’t think it’s obviously impossible to desire impossibilities. (I myself want it to be possible to desire an impossibility, and that leads to a two-step proof that it is possible to desire impossibilities.)

    In fact I find something a bit weird about saying that Morrissey’s desire is de re but not de dicto on your reading. I can say “Morrisey wants the one that he can’t have [de re]” because I may know that he can’t have it, while he doesn’t. But if Morrissey himself says “I want the one that I can’t have,” then he knows he can’t have it. So it seems to me that he wants the one that he can’t have de dicto, just as much as the whinger does.

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