Runs and Knows

There are a lot of comparisons between the verbs runs and knows (and their cognates) that seem relevant to the contextualism debates.

First, whether a certain kind of activity counts as running depends on features of the context, very broadly construed. For instance, (1) is not inconsistent.

(1) At the last turn in the 400m final, Harry stopped running and jogged the rest of the way.

That’s despite the fact that (2) could sound true even if the way Jack moved on his way to work was exactly the same as what he did down the straight in that 400m.

(2) Today, Harry ran to work.

In other words, whether a certain kind of jogging counts as running seems to depend on features of context, very broadly construed.

The repeated reference here to broad construal is because it isn’t clear whether the best explanation of (1) and (2) is by something analogous to contextualism in epistemology, or something analogous to subject-sensitive invariantism. (These are not the only options of course.) The contextualist about runs says that it is the speaker’s context that determines the boundary between running and something less energetic, the subject-sensitive invariantist says that it is the context of the subject.

At first glance, (1) and (2) look more suitable to the SSI account. Another reason for thinking this is that it’s unlikely there is a syntactic place attached to runs that marks how energetic the motion must be for it to count as running. Since SSI doesn’t need this variable place, but (according to some theories) contextalism does, SSI looks more plausible.

So (1) and (2) are meant to be analogous to high-stakes/low-stakes examples that (allegedly) support contextualism/SSI about knowledge. There is another way in which runs is like knows. In both cases contrast effects, either through explicit mention or the use of contrastive stress, can decrease the range of cases that fall under the verb.

Assume, as was the intended background in (2), that Harry normally flies to work on his broomstick, but today started his exercise regime of jogging to work. He jogs reasonably briskly, but he isn’t going to break any landspeed records. In a discourse-initial setting, the appropriate answer to (3)

(3) Did HARRY run to work today?

is Yes. On the other hand, the appropriate answer to (4)

(4) Did Harry really run to work today, or only jog?

is He only jogged. And possibly, though it might depend a lot on the features of the conversation, the most appropriate, or natural answer to (5)

(5) Did Harry RUN to work today?

is No, he jogged.

The same effects seem to arise with knowledge.

Assume Harry believes that his boss dislikes him because (a) Harry knows that his boss dislikes all the other workers and (b) Harry can’t see any reason why he’d get specially favourable treatment. Moreover, Harry is right – his boss does dislike him, though Harry has no direct evidence of this.

I think the appropriate answer to (6)

(6) Does HARRY know his boss dislikes him?

and (7)

(7) Does Harry know HIS BOSS dislikes him?

is Yes in each case. But when knows is explicitly contrasted with something else, as in (8)

(8) Does Harry really know his boss dislikes him, or only believe it?

the most appropriate answer is He only believes it, with perhaps an additional comment that the belief is indeed true. And even some kinds of stress can get the same result, though as with (5) here it depends a lot on the context and a lot on the particular type of stress.

(9) Does Harry KNOW that his boss dislikes him?

It’s not too hard to get oneself into the frame of mind where the appropriate answer to that question is No.

This kind of data is less obviously explicable on the SSI model, because the subject has not changed. There are three options on the table, both in the case of runs and in the case of knows.

First, we could adopt the kind of contextualist options currently on the market. (With, presumably, some work to show how they apply to runs.)

Second, we could say that focus, stress, contrast etc have truth-conditional effects, so the appropriate answers in all these cases are the true answers, but this is because of phonologically (or typographically) encoded semantic features, rather than the kind of contextual effects currently posited.

Third, we could say that changing stress patterns can’t change the true answers to these questions, though they can change the speaker meaning of the questions, which in turn changes the appropriateness of various answers. This move is available in both the runs and knows cases.

The main point here is just to stress analogies rather than to promote one or other of these lines. A subsidiary point is to point out the importance of keeping effects of changing expectations (as in (1) and (2)) apart from effects of changing contrasts. It’s perfectly consistent to think that the background (whether it’s a 400m race or a jog to work) affects the truth of running-ascriptions, but changing contrast sets does not. (I’m not necessarily endorsing this view, I’m just saying it’s consistent, and the arguments against it should be sensitive to this kind of distinction.)

But what I really want to stress are the analogies, which seem much closer than between knows and, say flat or tall. The obvious way in which runs is closer to knows is that it’s a verb not an adjective. It also is hard to find natural ways of making the salient and intended running-standard explicit, just like it is hard to find natural ways of makiing the salient and intended knowing-standard explicit.

Having said all that, there is one very important disanalogy between runs and knows. (I’m grateful here to Zoltán Szabó for pointing this out.) Runs is an event verb, and knows is a stative verb. Hence it would not be at all surprising if they differed in some crucial respects. This is not to say they must differ in the kinds of respects being discussed here, just that we should be very wary of drawing too many analogies. The analogies do seem closer than with flat or tall, but they are not at all exact, so it’s more than possible that we shouldn’t make the moves in the contextualist debates about runs as in contextualist debates about knows.

9 Replies to “Runs and Knows”

  1. Not sure exactly what you mean by “there is a syntactic place attached to runs that marks how energetic the motion must be for it to count as running” but mightn’t somebody claim that we can treat

    1) Harry ran to work

    as having the logical form

    2) There was an event that was a running and was by Harry and to work.

    and by analogy

    3) Harry ran to work at a sprint


    4) There was an event that was a running and was by Harry and to work and was at a sprint.

    thereby supplying the right kind of syntactic place, and then treat 3) as equivalent to

    5) Harry sprinted to work.

    That would explain why ‘Harry ran to work at a sprint’ seems okay, but ‘Harry sprinted to work at a run’ is weird. It would also explain why we can infer

    6) Harry ran to work with some degree of energetic motion.

    from 1).

  2. I think the issues here turn out subtle matters that are clearest to runners. The difference between x running and x jogging is that for x to run is for x to exert an x-appropriate level of effort, whereas for x to jog is for x to exert less than the x-appropriate running effort. If x is jogging, that means x is running at an effort that isn’t exhausting to x.
    So, for example, a natural discourse among runners would be:

    (1) That guy we passed is just jogging.
    (2) No he isn’t — look at the strain on his face.
    He’s running really hard.

    I don’t see how any kind of contextualist account is relevant here (I’m not counting subject-sensitivity as contextualist). A 400 meter runner’s pace is far faster than a marathoner’s pace. But a top 400 meter runner can’t say (unless they are speaking non-literally) of the winner of the New York City marathon that they jogged the whole way (unless of course the winner could have run much faster). That is, the 400 meter runner can’t use her standards to judge the speed of the marathoner.
    These facts explain Brian’s intuitions about example (1). Harry wasn’t exhibiting Harry-running-appropriate effort down the final straightaway of the 400, so he wasn’t running.
    Now, of course people sometimes use language loosely. So, for example, a runner might make the distinction between a runner and a jogger (even though the person described as a jogger might be exerting a lot of effort). This is meant to mark the distinction between someone who pushes themselves in training and someone who doesn’t push themselves in training. But to the casual observer, such usage might lead them to think that there is something contextualist going on, when there isn’t.
    Similarly, it is possible to derisively describe someone’s pace as “jogging”. But this isn’t literal usage. So, I don’t see much of an analogy between “runs” and contextualism about “knows”. But I agree with Brian that there is a good analogy between subject-sensitive invarariantism and “runs”.

  3. I suspect that the difference between running and jogging is a quite complex, multi-dimensional matter. (Perhaps we need a “Cone Model” of running?!) Some perfectly fine uses of the relevant verbs may perhaps make the difference out to be primarily a matter of the level of effort involved, but other fine uses may stress other factors.

    Hugo has to put out an enormous effort just to jog, while Swifty barely has to work at all to run like the wind.

  4. Andrew,

    That seems plausible, and it seems like one of the reasons the event/state distinction that Zoltan reminded me of is relevant here.


    I agree entirely about that explanation of (1) and (2). But do you have any way to extend that story to the other cases? (This isn’t a rhetorical question – I think there are lots of prima facie plausible options and I’m interested which one you think is best.)

  5. I suspect a contextualist account would work best here. (I know: No surprise.)

    Suppose Harry of Brian’s example slowed on the final turn because he slightly pulled a muscle, and didn’t want to hurt it further. The coach instructs him not to run, but only to jog, for the next week. Since he’s not supposed to run anyway, Harry stops even coming to track for the next week, and instead just “runs”/“jogs” to and from work. What he does to get back and forth does not count as “running” by the coach’s standards — in fact, it’s precisely the kind of “jogging” the coach wanted Harry to do. If the coach checks up on Harry, he could be truthfully told, “Harry’s following your instructions. He hasn’t run at all this week.” But if Harry’s workplace is keeping track of who is running or jogging to get to work (as part of a company program), what Harry does may well count as “running” by the standards employed there, and one co-worker can truthfully say to another, “I’m not sure how many are running to work this week, but Harry certainly is.” So it seems that one in the same set of actions can be truthfully counted as “running” in one of the contexts while truthfully counted as “not running” in another. An SSI-like view won’t allow this.

    I know one may claim that one or the other assertion about Harry is non-literal, but that seems implausible in this case. (And I’m not even sure which assertion — the affirmation or the denial or running — is the better target for this maneuver.)

    That we typically should/will employ different standards to a marathoner than to a 400-meterer of course can be easily handled by contextualism.

  6. Keith,

    I worry when people defend a contextualist account of an expression by appealing to an explicit legislation (perhaps in a quasi-legal environment, such as the workplace) about how the term is to be used. The workplace can legislate anything it wants — it can also legislate that the term “dog” refers to cats, when it is used in the workplace. That doesn’t show that the word “dog” is context-sensitive. It just shows that the relevant workplace has created its own lexical item “dog”.

    Similarly, a workplace can legislate whatever meaning it wants for “runs” and “jogs”. The fact that in your envisaged scenario, the lexical item “run” introduced by the workplace has a meaning similar to English “run” doesn’t make it the same word — just as if they legislate that “dog” (as used in the workplace) refers to cats, that doesn’t provide evidence that our ordinary English word “dog” is context-sensitive between cats and dogs.

    So I just don’t accept this kind of evidence as evidence for context-sensitivity.

    Let’s please stick to examples, like “tall” and “here” and “now” and “local”, that are uncontroversially context-sensitive, as models (as you do in your work)!

  7. Jason: Re your last paragraph: Agreed. For models, we should stick to the uncontroversial examples. I certainly don’t mean to use ‘runs’ as a model against which to measure other terms’ credentials for being context-sensitive. But though it shouldn’t be uncontroversial (at least at this point: who knows what the future holds?), a context-sensitive account of ‘runs’ does seem to me more promising than other commenters were letting on — and even seems to me more likely than not — for the reason I gave.

    On legislating a special (though related to the ordinary) meaning: Yes, that is a danger. One needn’t imagine the workplace setting as having involved some memo sent out specifying what would count as “running” and what as “jogging” — some semblance of shared standards could have been arrived at quite informally, by means quite similar to how a group of speakers can often arive at a common usage for “tall”. Of course, then one might worry that this is a case of more informal legislation. Indeed, one can worry about that back at the track, too. I can remember back in my cross-country days, that my teamates, coach, & I all seemed to have a good shared idea of what counted as what (which was important, because instructions in practice specified which one we were to do & for how long) — but an idea we couldn’t count on being shared with outsiders, even other runners. (I suspect that middle distance track runners would find it useful to use, and probably therefore did use, much higher standards for what would count as “running.”) Perhaps we developed some special, non-standard meaning. But then I wonder whether there’s ever much more than some such more-or-less arbitrary “legislating” going on whenever the distinction is used at all precisely. There is widespread agreement, I think, about the kind of things that make something more like running & less like jogging & vice versa, and some quite broad limits that a given set of people can cross only by talking very strangely (& probably non-standardly) — nobody would call Carl Lewis’s world championship performance in the 100 a case of “jogging,” for instance. But within some pretty wide boundaries, a group of speakers who want to have some helpfully precise distinction (as those on a team who will be instructed to jog 2 miles to warm up, and then to run 6 will want to have) just have to get together & develop some mutual understanding of what they will count as what.

  8. Two quick points.

    It would be bad to argue for contextualism about ‘knows’ via contextualism about ‘runs’, since the latter is obviously controversial. But since the analogies to words like ‘local’ are controversial I thought it might be fun to move the point of controversy around. (I.e. get a word where the analogies to ‘knows’ seemed stronger, but the contextualist claims seemed less immediately plausible than with ‘local’.)

    Second, just as Jason likes SSI for ‘runs’ and Keith likes contextualism, I’m in favour of a very liberal invariantism. I think all jogging is running, although on occasion the speaker meaning of ‘runs’ might be more restrictive. And perhaps (though I don’t have a settled opinion here) some forms of stress can change the truth-conditional content, so it becomes more restrictive. I’d like to think stress only changes speaker meaning, but maybe it changes the sentences truth-conditions as well. That’s pretty close to what I think about knows, so the sociological analogy is holding up.

  9. Keith,
    In the case where a group is discussing a running/jogging distinction, (“we’ll jog 2, then run 6”) what counts as running is going to be determined by the nature of the group, since presumably it’s some sort of collective predication.
    One more point about legislating — note how absurd the reply I gave to your workplace example would be for the case of obviously context-sensitive constructions, such as those involving comparative adjectives. It would be crazy to say that every instance of ‘N is tall’ is really a case in which some explicit legislation has occurred about the meaning of ‘tall’, since the content of ‘N is tall’ can change so easily without any explicit legislation (in contrast to your workplace analogy, where one is considering such explicit legislation).
    I am genuinely worried about trivializing claims of context-sensitivity by appeal to these kinds of cases (and remember, I’m a philosopher of language who thinks there is far more context-sensitivity than most). Once, Stew Cohen argued that “hit” is context-sensitive because we could envisage a group that always used it to refer to an action that involved any kind of force whatsoever (so a touch would be a “hit”). Again, this is a case in which we’re imagining a group or community with a different lexical item “hit”, one whose meaning is related to our own, not a case of context-sensitivity.
    In contrast, one and the same person can use
    “tall” within a single short discourse with several different meanings. We don’t need to envisage communities with slightly different meanings, or explicit legislations.

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