Moore’s Paradox and Focus

Ishani pointed out something the other day about Moore’s paradox that I’d come close to noticing, but never quite noticed. Well, two things actually, one of which had almost occured to me and the other of which never did. These might be well-known to Moore’s paradox afficianados, but I suspect they are new. Consider the sentence (1)

(1) I can’t bench press 1000 pounds, but I don’t know that I can’t bench press 1000 pounds.

The typical philosopher’s reaction is to say that the sentence is somehow pragmatically defective, and then tell (or rehash) their favourite story about why it is defective. Ishani’s first point is that it isn’t obvious that every token of (1) is defective. In particular, with the right kind of stress on know in (1), it might almost be properly assertible.

It’s a little remarked upon fact in epistemology that to make seriously sceptical claims you have to use a non-standard focal pattern. Listen to what an ordinary sincere utterance of (2) sounds like. (This isn’t an audioblog, so you’ll have to pronounce it yourself. But think about how you’d say it, if you meant to be saying it truly.)

(2) I don’t know that I can’t bench press 1000 pounds.

I think you need strong, perhaps super-strong, stress on know to get that to work. It’s the kind of stress you’d indicate in writing by italicising the word. (Here’s Josh Marshall, who for current purposes will do as a man on the street, using just that convention.) Conversely, it’s possible, well maybe possible, that if you do stress know this way, (2) is true. This is a respect in which know does resemble a gradable adjective, although I’m still impressed by Jason’s list of the ways in which it does not. In any case, there’s a certain kind of setting where (2) is acceptable with the right kind of inflection, whether or not it is actually true.

For another demonstration of this, consider the following example. I’m sitting at home watching a Red Sox game, and the Sox are down big in the late innings. Someone tells me I should give up on the game and head to the bar, because the Sox are going to lose. Compare the stress patterns, especially the stress on know, in these two possible answers.

(3) You don’t know they’re going to lose – teams have been known to climb out of deeper holes.
(4) I know they’ll lose – but if they come back I want to be able to say I saw it.

Both are acceptable answers (well, relatively acceptable answers) but only with know stressed in (3) and destressed in (4).

Here’s Ishani’s first point then, the one that I’d almost noticed. With this kind of heavy stress, the kind that makes know pragmatically equivalent to is absolutely certain , (1) could be acceptable. Or at the very least, with that stress (5) could be acceptable.

(5) I don’t know I can’t bench press 1000 pounds, but I can’t bench press 1000 pounds.

That’s interesting, and should be a constraint on a theory of how Moore’s paradox works. Here’s the more interesting point, the one that I was completely surprised by. (1) isn’t the only kind of Moore paradoxical sentence. There’s also (6).

(6) I can’t bench press 1000 pounds, but I don’t believe that I can’t bench press 1000 pounds.

And here’s the new point. No amount of focal stress on believe changes the fact that (6) is defective. (6) is just plain defective. That looks like an important disanalogy between the belief case and the knowledge case. And it suggests, strongly suggests to me, that the two cases reflect subtly different phenomena.

One caveat on the point about (6), one that doesn’t affect the overall point. If you put the right kind of stress on believe, so that the negation in (6) becomes metalinguistic negation, (6) might almost be acceptable.

(7) I can’t bench press 1000 pounds, but I don’t believe that I can’t bench press 1000 pounds.

But that isn’t quite right either. The problem is the ‘but’. (8) is relatively OK, but means something quite different.

(8) I can’t bench press 1000 pounds. I don’t believe that I can’t bench press 1000 pounds(, I know I can’t bench press 1000 pounds).

Stress makes believe turn into merely believe and know turn into is absolutely certain. So the effect of stress on the “Moore paradoxical sentences” (1) and (6) is very very different. Again, this suggests that we aren’t necessarily looking at a unified phenomena.

9 Replies to “Moore’s Paradox and Focus”

  1. I find (3) definitely acceptable with ‘don’t’ rather than ‘know’ stressed. In the right discourse that can be true of (2) as well:

    Sadistic Trainer: Lift that 1000 pounds! You know that you can lift that 1000 pounds!
    Me: I don’t know that I can lift that 1000 pounds! I know that I can’t!

    And I’m not sure about (4). Imagine this: I say, “They’ll lose, Brian. They’ll lose, Brian. They’ll lose, Brian.” Finally you snap and say “I know they’re going to lose! But I want to see if they can come back.” Doesn’t that seem as around as acceptable as (4)? Even (4) seems a bit dubious to me.

    I also think it may be possible to get something that entails “p but I don’t believe that p” to come out as true:

    John is dead, but I still don’t believe it. I keep thinking of how amused he’ll be when he hears this story.

    That would depend on the idea that sometimes it makes sense to say that emotionally you don’t believe—can’t bring yourself to believe—things that intellectually you know. But this may be quite to the side of the points you’re raising.

    BTW, Keith DeRose somewhere cites the guy in the philosophy class who says “I know that I’m sitting in a classroom, but I don’t KNOW it.” That prefigures “I’m sitting in a classroom, but I don’t KNOW it.”

    BTW again, I am quite committed to the idea that we’re not dealing with unified phenomena. In earlier drafts of my paper arguing against the knowledge account, I even tried to argue that it could be OK to say “I don’t know that Moriarity committed the crime; but mark my words, he will turn out to be the guilty one.” But nobody I showed this to thought it made sense, so I took it out. In the case I discuss at, where Archer asserts something and them disclaims knowledge of it without retracting his assertion, it would be very very odd for him to disclaim belief without retracting his assertion. So maybe that does provide more evidence that we’re not looking at unified phenomena.

  2. Brian claims that the two Moorean-paradoxical statements

    (1) I canít bench press 1000 pounds, but I donít know that I canít bench press 1000 pounds.


    (6) I canít bench press 1000 pounds, but I donít believe that I canít bench press 1000 pounds.

    must involve fundamentally different phenomena because changes of stress on “know” in (1) can alter its plausible truth and pragmatic appropriateness, but changes in stress in “believe” in (6) can’t.

    Naively, I would have thought this was evidence that they involved the same phenomenon, the Moorean paradox about belief. When we put stress on “know” we stress the ways in which knowing requires more than believing — more justification or more certainty — and hence we make it easier for the second conjunct (the one following “but”) to be true, consistent with the pragmatic propriety of asserting the first.

    So, it seems to me, when (1) is paradoxical, it’s because we’re reading “know” as not much different from the ordinary reading of “believe”, hence tapping into the one paradoxical phenomenon, and when (1) isn’t paradoxical it’s because we’ve stressed the difference between knowledge and the ordinary notion of belief.

    The reason that it’s easier to do this with “know” than “believe” is that we’re accustomed from other contexts to stressing “know” to ramp up its requirements beyond that of mere “belief” (in the ordinary sense). But I think we can do this with “believe” too, as Matt’s example illustrates:

    (6’) He’s dead, but I don’t beleive it yet.

    For me, the most plausible reading of this requires some sort of stress on believe, to highlight that you’re thinking that really believing something is harder to do (e.g., it may involve changing deeply held emotions) than just getting into a position where you can appropriately assert it.

    This lends to my naive suggestion that there is just one paradoxical phenomenon here: generally not believing/knowing something disqualifies you from appropriately asserting it, and that propriety can be regained only by stressing that the sense of “believing”/“knowing” that you’re using is a more rigorous one than what would normally be presumed.

  3. It seems to me that, in the examples given, ‘believe’ and ‘know’ mark several distinct things:

    1. being in a state where you can honestly assert P
    2. being comfortable with P, such that you readily use it for planning actions (as in, “I don’t believe he’s dead”)
    3. thinking that P is the case, although it is not (italicized mere ‘belief’)
    4. being absolute certain that P (italicized ‘know’)

    Moore’s paradox is only paradoxical if we take ‘believe’ or ‘know’ in sense 1. That is, I honestly assert P (implicitly showing that I am in a state such that I can do so) and then deny that I am in such a state. So Justin is right to say that the paradox requires ‘know’ and ‘believe’ to pick out a single phenomenon.

    Of course, this does not show that belief and knowledge are a unified phenomenon. Quite the opposite, since italics and context make them mean 2-4.

  4. It seems to me that perhaps one can use emphasis to get a version of the paradox without negation, like so:

    It’s raining, and I believe it’s raining.

    One has to hear that emphasis the right way — e.g., not as meaning, “Wow, I’ve actually formed a true belief!” But if one does hear it in a the same manner as (7) and (8), then it seems to have something Moorean about it. One might presumptively analyze that as the “p” part implying or presupposing that you are in position to flat-out assert it, but the “I believe that p” part implying or presupposing otherwise. Can anyone else get that intuition, or am I just tricking my own ears this Sunday morning?

  5. -Peter Unger paid lots of attention to stress in defending skepticism, so folks might want to have a look at Ignorance. His hypothesis as to the role stress plays strikes me as implausible, but it sure advances the skeptical cause: As I recall it, Unger claimed that what stress does is get us to focus on the actual meaning of the stressed term — as opposed to other junk that might be tied up with the use of the terms.

    -My thinking about the role that stress plays here is closer to (though I’m not saying identical with) what Brian says: I think that in terms that can be governed by higher or lower standards, stress often indicates the use of high standards.

    -Also important to the evaluation of conjunctions like several of those above, certain types of stress can also be used to signal that one is “changing the score” on a key term from one clause to the next, and thereby overcome the presumption that one shouldn’t do so. The example I’ve used here is how one would say the heres as one points first to one and then to another spot on a roadmap and says, “The exit we want isn’t here, it’s here.”

    -BTW, Keith DeRose somewhere cites the guy in the philosophy class who says ďI know that Iím sitting in a classroom, but I donít KNOW it.Ē That prefigures ďIím sitting in a classroom, but I donít KNOW it.Ē
    Matt: That’s in section iii, “The Second Problem, the Context-Sensitivity of Knowledge and the Methodology of Flat-Footed, ‘All-in-One-Breath’ Conjunctions,” of “Simple MIGHTs, Indicative Possibilities, and the Open Future,” PQ, 1998.

    -As the “I know it, but I don’t KNOW it” example shows, if stress is allowed, lots of conjunctions that otherwise “clash” can be made to sound OK. That’s why those who practiced the ancient art of testing for such clashes, or at least those from whom I learned the game, typically would not allow such stress; it was “cheating.”

    -I think this —
    Stress makes believe turn into merely believe and know turn into is absolutely certain.
    —overstates the contrast a bit. Generally, I don’t find that meta-linguistic negation comes off OK without the appropriate follow-up. Thus, “She isn’t smart, she’s brilliant“ works fine, but simply saying “She isn’t smart“ and shutting up seems, at least to me, to not really succeed as m-ln, no matter how one pronounces “smart.” (But I find it does help a bit here if one opens one’s hand and makes a “continue the sentence on your own” motion.) Likewise, at least without follow-up, “She doesn’t believe it” doesn’t seem to me to really work as m-ln. I don’t take myself to be really disagreeing with Brian here; he rather guardedly writes that uses that require such a m-ln reading “might almost be acceptable.” But what I want to add is that to the extent one can get a “doesn’t merely believe (but e.g., knows)” reading out of “doesn’t believe,” one can also, to about the same extent, get a “doesn’t merely know (but e.g., knows with absolute certainty)” reading out of “doesn’t know.”

  6. Just curious. If we accepted that focus on ‘know’ shifts the standards of knowledge to ‘is absolutely cerain’, then do we say that ‘knows’ is ambiguous and focus disambiguates? Or, do we say that ‘knows’ is not ambiguous, but focus is a contextual parameter? Or do we say that ‘knows’ in a sentence is not meaningful as a consituent, but ‘knows’ in a sentence in conjunction with focus of some sort on ‘knows’ is meaningful? The last case seems bad because truth-conditions for knowledge attributions seem to be characterizable independent of focus, e.g. sentences on paper tht express propositions, sign-language users might express true knowledge attributions without focus, etc. Again, I am curious how focus is supposed to make a difference to the truth-conditions of propositions that attribute knowledge.

  7. Lots of interesting points here, but I just wanted to note that his argument would, if successful, prove too much. Focus sometimes makes a difference to truth conditions, as in “Gentlemen usually take ballerinas to dinner parties”. It seems possible in principle that the same could happen with know. One way (but not the only way) this could happen is if the meaning of know contains a variable for the standard of justification that has to be met, and the focus shifts the value of that variable.

    By the way, I don’t think sign languages lack devices for focus. I thought (and this is poorly remembered anecdotes, so take with a grain of salt) that more expressive gestures could be used to generate focus.

  8. Just to follow up on the technical side of Brian’s last comment. Focus is a semantic, or semantic/pragmatic phenomenon which is realized in English by ‘stress’ (or more accurately, by specific intonation contours). It (or something like it) can be realized in other ways as well, such as by syntax or morphology. Hungarian and Catalan, for instance, appear to mark focus syntactically (by very different means). I think most phonologists will tell you that sign languages do have phonologies, but regardless, there are lots of other ways to realize focus.

    One big caveat in all this. To take one example, it is controversial whether what is marked by the Hungarian ‘focal position’ has exactly the same semantics as English intonational focus or not. It may have something stronger, closer to what we see in English clefts. So, though it seems pretty safe to say that focus-like phenomena are realized in different ways in different languages, there are some very delicate issues of cross-linguistic comparison involved as well.

  9. On What is Defective in Moore-Paradoxical Propositions

    I think it’s a real mistake to construe what’s defective about such propositions as a pragmatic problem (i.e., in terms of the problems with asserting such props).

    Take Moore-paradoxical (MP) proposition (1) I can lift 1,000 pounds, but I don’t believe I can lift 1,000 pounds.

    As other philosophers have pointed out, pragmatics won’t get at the heart of the oddness here. Consider that (1) is just as odd taken as a person’s thought, rather than a person’s utterance. Suppose I believe (1). I must believe both conjuncts, so my belief will be: “I believe that I can lift 1,000 pounds and I don’t believe that I can lift 1,000 pounds.” This is straightforwardly logically impossible (i.e., either I do believe it or I do not, but not both).

    But now consider the other form of MP props. (2) I believe that I can lift 1,000 pounds, but I cannot.

    (2) does not express a straightforward logical impossibility. Someone may believe (2), but not without considerable cost to her rational health. Richard Moran (in Authority and Estrangement) spells this point out nicely. Moran argues, and I think he’s right, that what’s going on here is not merely a pragmatic problem, and nor is it a merely semantic problem (i.e., it is logically possible for it to be true and for someone to believe it). What’s going on, instead, is a transparency failure: the person who believes (2) answers the question “Do I believe that I can lift 1,000 pounds?” DIFFERENTLY than she answers the question “Is it true that I can lift 1,000 pounds?” (i.e., she answers “yes” to the former question and “no” to the latter). In this way, she is alienated (or, in Moran’s terminology, estranged) from her belief, such that she could not AVOW her belief.

    So, as Brian suggested (for different reasons), the two MP cases are different. However, neither admits of a merely pragmatic solution.

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