A Tiger Never Changes its Spots

Brian already covered this, but it’s so funny it’s worth covering twice. From yesterday’s NY Times?

[Harvard] can tenure Harvey Mansfield, the professor of government famous for his politically incorrect pronouncements, and Hilary Putnam, the philosophy professor who was handing out Progressive Labor pamphlets 35 years ago and seems not to have changed his mind on any issue since.

I always thought that a Putnam was a unit of time, measuring how long it took the good professor to change his views, but the Lexicon reveals my memory was playing tricks on me.

Thanks to Dmitri Tymoczko for the pointer.


A few days ago I posted a link in the sidebar to Richard Rorty’s review of Scott Soames’s history books in the London Review of Books. (2005).

Now Gillian Russell has posted Scott Soames’ response and Nathan Salmon’s response to that review.

When I’m done teaching/writing etc for the day I may have a little more to say, because I’m surprisingly sympathetic to Rorty on some of the methodological points at issue. But for now read the whole things as they say on the internets.

Website Problems

There was a small website snafu for the last 2 hours. It was, I’m sorry to report, entirely my fault. I was adding more anti-spam defences and, well, I broke everything. I think it’s all put back together now, but if you find any lingering 500 errors, email me and (if I’m awake and at a computer) I’ll do what I can.

How Many Cats in New York City?

It’s problem of the many week around here. First Peter Unger’s argument for dualism using the many as a vital step, now Robbie Williams on many mountains. Since Robbie’s paper is 9 pages while Peter’s is 158, and I already promised to talk about Robbie’s argument, I’ll talk about his today.

I always thought that my various views about vagueness were in some amount of tension. What I say about truer requires that the supervaluationist’s precisifications be theoretically unimportant, at best things we can construct out of what is theoretically important, i.e. the truer relation. But what I say about the Problem of the Many seems to require that precisifications matter quite a lot. I’ve never really figured out how to resolve that tension, and that’s basically why I’ve never written a book on vagueness. Now Robbie argues (among other things) that I don’t have a tension in my views, I have an outright contradiction. This is worrying.

The first part of the contradiction is what I say about the Sorites. Following Kit Fine and Rosanna Keefe and Patrick Greenough, I give a pragmatic explanation for the superficial appeal of Sorites reasoning. I say that the reason the true claim (1) is often rejected is that it is mistaken for the false claim (1a).

(1) There is a cutoff in any Sorites series.
(1a) There is a determinate cutoff in any Sorites series.

(I think Robbie somewhat overstates how much this is my idea – Kit and Rosanna and Patrick were really there first. This is my fault for being sloppy with accreditation in the past.) If that’s right, I should predict that the plausibility of (2) would stand or fall with the truth of (2a).

(2) There is a mountain in front of Robbie.
(2a) There is a determinate mountain in front of Robbie.

But, I say, (2) is plausible even though (2a) is not true. Contradiction.

Robbie suggests I resolve the contradiction by accepting the ‘insane’ claim that there are millions of determinate mountains in front of him. That won’t do for two reasons. First, it’s false. Insanity I can live with, not falsity. Second, it makes the wrong prediction about (3).

(3) There is exactly one mountain in front of Robbie.
(3a) There is exactly one determinate mountain in front of Robbie.

On the position Robbie offers me, there are millions of determinate mountains facing him as he starts his climb, so (3a) is false. So (3) should be unacceptable. But (3) is acceptable.

In conversation in The Cellar I believe Robbie offered the following alternative solution to his puzzle, which I more or less accept. We can treat (2a) as being ambiguous between a false sentence where the quantifiers are interpreted objectually, and a true sentence where the quantifiers are interpreted substitutionally. It might be that the substitutional interpretation is what matters. This has the nice advantage of having vague quantifiers without vague objects, because all the vagueness can come in the subtitutends. This looks like it has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, in other words it is my kind of solution.

(I just noticed that Wo says something similar, and said it literally while I was writing this post. Great minds think alike!)

This is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. What if the mountain in front of Robbie is unnamed? Or worse still, if he correctly utters (4).

(4) There is exactly one unnamed mountain in front of me.

A purely substitutional reading won’t help then. My first pass at an answer is to say that the quantifiers range over possible demonstrations. So that, accompanied by the right pointing, is a possible substitution. But this leads to yet another puzzle which I can’t entirely solve.

There are many ways to point to the mountain in front of Robbie, and any such pointing will, determinately, pick out a mountain. So it looks like there are again multiple determinate mountains in front of Robbie. I have two possible replies to this, neither of which is successful.

The first is that in the formalism for There is exactly one determinate mountain in front of Robbie, although the substitutends are demonstrations, the identity claim is defined over mountains. This isn’t yet a formal proposal, because I don’t know how to formalise it.

The second is that the substitutends are not demonstrations, but possible demonstration types, where two demonstrations that pick out the same object are of the same type. I’m more sympathetic to this approach, for the substitutends, although officially demonstrations, now correlate with mountains in just the right kind of way. I think this way I can get (2a), and even (3a), to turn out to be true, just as I need.

Much thanks to Robbie, and to Wo, for suggestions pushing this along.

Harry Frankfurt on The Daily Show

Karen Bennett (Philosophy, Princeton) reports that Harry Frankfurt is scheduled to be on The Daily Show, presumably promoting his book On Bullshit. The date is now set to be March 14, though that doesn’t seem to be absolutely certain. Non-philosophers should feel free to be less overjoyed with excitement at a philosopher getting this much attention, but I think it’s rather fun, and that episode won’t end up being one of the Daily Shows that I miss – or fastforward through the interview.

A Real Prankster

When Andy and I wrote the pranks paper we believed that we were dealing with purely fictional cases. We didn’t believe, that is, that there could be wrongdoing that actually increased utility. David Killoren reports on a guy who attempted to actually carry out the wrongful utility-maximising plan. The guy is an artist, so he doesn’t explictly talking about doing wrong for the sake of utility, but doing wrong for the sake of beauty. Given the broad conception of utility Andy and I are working with, this is less of a distinction than it may first appear.

Richard Chappell argues that David’s case isn’t a counterexample to consequentialism because it should be solvable by whatever solves the liar paradox. I’m not entirely sure I understand the response, but think I don’t think it’s correct. The guy did perform an act, and it either was the right thing to do or it wasn’t. And it sure seems to me that there are possible contexts (whether or not the actual world is one of them) where the actions make for an all-things-considered better world but it is still a wrong act. Anyway, it’s worth reading David’s piece to get the full background to see if you agree.