Roughly speaking..

I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus for a class I’m teaching tomorrow and the following line just kills me:

[2.0232] Roughly speaking, objects are colourless.

I think it’s because, before reflection, it sounds as if it has a lot in common with these sentences:

Roughly speaking, you’re going to get an F.


Roughly speaking, teddy bears eat people.


Roughly speaking, Elvis wrote “As you like it”.

I think these are funny in two different respects. Firstly, the embedded sentence is so absurd that the fact that the author takes the care to say “roughly speaking” – as if you might be about to jump in and correct him on some small point – is hilarious. And secondly, it’s hard to see how the state of affairs described could be “roughly” right. One wants to say: look mate, do teddy-bears eat people or not? I might have children to save! What’s all this “roughly” business?

But after some consideration I suppose Wittgenstein’s sentence isn’t really like that. He thinks that objects are strictly property-less, and so “objects are colourless” might seem like one way to express that they don’t have any colour properties. But of course to say that would strictly be to ascibe a property to them (the property of being colourless) and so it isn’t strictly true either.

My German copy is in my office, otherwise I’d be checking the original of the “roughly speaking” – maybe this is a translation thing.

A distinction

Suppose I’m hanging out with a friend and I point to an object on the table in front of me and utter a subsentential expression questioningly: “—–?” Sometimes I can be construed as having asked something about the object pointed to, e.g. if I said “my coffee?” And sometimes not, e.g. if I said “that?” In the former case it would often make sense for my interlocutor to either answer the question or say that they don’t know (“sure, that’s your coffee”/”I don’t know whether that’s your coffee”. In the latter they’re more likely to look puzzled and say “—- what?” (“that what?”).

Or suppose I utter the expression confidently. Sometimes I can be construed as having said something about the object I’m pointing to e.g. if I point to someone and say “the chair of the department”. And sometimes not e.g. if I point to someone and say “him”. In the former case it often makes sense for my interlocutor to agree, or disagree, or say “ok”. In the later, they’re more likely to look puzzled and say “what about it/him?”

Here are some examples and illustrations.


Suppose I point to a man drinking coffee and wearing dark glasses in the corner and I utter a name questioningly: “Hunter Thompson?” Then I can be easily understood as asking whether that man is Hunter Thompson.

This sort of example can be messed up if I point to the wrong kind of object for the kind of name. For example, if I point to the table we’re sitting at and say “Hunter Thompson?” my friend will probably decide that I’m not asking whether the table is Hunter Thompson on the grounds that he knows that I know that that isn’t Hunter Thompson. But in many cases context will settle that I am asking some question or other. For example if I arrived at the cafe after my friend and there are two coffee mugs on the table, incluing a half empty coffee mug at the place to his left, and I point to it and say “Katy?”, I can be construed as having asked whether that’s Katy’s mug.

But names also work with confident utterance to say something (rather than questioning utterance to ask something.) I could point to a picture of Hunter Thompson in a magazine and say “ooh, Hunter Thompson”, and be construed as claiming, for example, that the person the picture is a picture of is Hunter Thompson.


But I claim you can’t do this with many demonstratives. I can’t point to the man and say “him?”, or “that guy?” without my friend saying “what about him?” – that is, asking me what I’m asking. Similarly I can’t point to the coffee mug and say “that?” or even “that mug?” without prompting my friend to say “what about it?”

(Caveat: maybe you can do it with some very complex demonstratives. I could point to the guy in the dark glasses and whisper “that guy whose book you’re reading?”)


Unsurpisingly, it works with definite and indefinite descriptions. I can point to the guy and say “the author of the book you’re reading?” and be construed as asking whether the guy is the author of the book you are reading. And I can say insistently “the author of the book you’re reading” and be construed as asserting that the guy is the author of the book you’re reading.
Or I can point to the unfamiliar fruit in the still life my friend’s child is constructing on our table and say “a dragon fruit?” or “a vision of oddness!” and be construed as asking or asserting.


Indexicals seem to be rather an odd case. I can’t point to the man with the glasses and say “I?” or “me?” without my friend asking me to clarify what the hell I’m talking about. But maybe that’s like asking whether my mug is Hunter Thomson – it’s implausible that I could be asking or asserting whether that’s me. But I could point to the coffee cup and ask or assert “mine?”/”mine”. Or say “my coffee?”

One might think that this distinction tracks something related to the referential/attributive distinction. Perhaps it’s only expressions which have an attributive reading which can be uttered alone with a demonstration like this and only expressions which have no attributive reading which cannot be so used. (You’ll only think this is you think names can be used attributively, of course, but it seems to me that they could be.)

I think this distinction does track something like whether or not it’s possible to use an expression predicatively, by which I mean, to say something about an object (as opposed to to pick out an object in order to say something about it.)

Formal Epistemology Workshop

I’m off to FEW at Berkeley tomorrow, which promises papers by Robert Stalnaker, Gilbert Harman and Sanjeev Kulkarni, Tim Williamson, Adam Elga, Katie Steele, Mike Titelbaum, Edward Epsen, Horacio Arlo-Costa and Rohit Parikh, Lydia and Tim McGrew, Eric Pacuit, Jon Williamson, Jan-Willem Romeijn, Sara Rachel Chant and Zac Ernst, Jonathan Weisberg and Johan van Benthem, as well as tutorials on judgement aggregation (Christian List) and “no free lunch” theorems (David Wolpert).

I’ll be commenting on van Bentham’s paper “Dynamic Logic for Belief Change” and the usual crowd of blogging epistemologists promises to be in attendence. See you there…

Ofsted: Can’t get no…(no no no)

John Clare reports in the Telegraph on a bizarre report from Ofsted (a body that regulates standards in UK schools.)

What exactly does Ofsted mean by “satisfactory”: good enough or not good enough?
Bizarrely, it could be either – or even both. Take, for example, this Alice in Wonderland sentence from Ofsted’s recent report on Toynbee School in Eastleigh, Hants: “There is too much satisfactory teaching, which has resulted in students making satisfactory progress overall.” The curriculum, the report adds, is “satisfactory” as are achievement and standards and leadership and management; the school also offers “satisfactory” value for money. In which sense (if any), though, it is impossible to tell.

Even though this reads like hilarious nonsense, it’s easy to see what’s going on. Ofsted will have some kind of scale that goes something like “fantastic, good, satisfactory, unacceptable”. The school gets lots of “satisfactory”s and the writer thinks that it should be doing better.

This is one place where some kind of local holism story about the meaning of Ofsted’s use of “satisfactory” seems to make a lot of sense. “Satisfactory” here gets its meaning in part from its place in the scale. If the scale was two valued, “satisfactory, unsatisfactory” then calling teaching “satisfactory” would say something different. Similarly if the scale was “super fantasic, fantastic, very good, good, fairly good, satisfactory, poor.”

I’m inclined to think the “real” (everyday, non-Ofsted) meaning of “satisfactory” does play some role in constraining where the word can appear in the scale though. A scale that reads “good, satisfactory” is not a scale in which “satisfactory” is a terrible grade, it’s just a dodgy grading scale.

Upgrade in Progress

I’m about to upgrade to Movable Type 3.2 in an attempt to control the massive amount of spam I’m receiving at the moment. Everything might be about to go to hell…here goes…

Update: Well, everything seems to be going ok so far. I got my ip address banned from my own weblog (so that I couldn’t visit the page) because I logged in with a bad password, but that’s sorted out. The problem now seems to be that when I visit what was the front page of my blog I get a page saying “please log in to movable type”. That’s not what I want you guys to see…but at least something is happening.

Update: OK, negotiations with Multiblog completed. Everything seems to be running smoothly enough. Easier than I thought.


Very exciting mail this morning! Just received a (gratis) copy of John P. Burgess’ new book Philosophical Logic. Among other things it’s nice to have a good copy of a Burgess-written text on tense logic (or, as he calls it “Temporal Logic”) – my copy of his article “Basic Tense Logic” is the first chapter of my “course pack” of photocopies from his Heresies in Logic course at Princeton and all the pages are now loose and apt to disappear. Anyway, I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m confident it’s going to be a very strong candidate for the textbook when I teach philosophical logic next. Also it’s like $20 $14 in hardcover! I’m guessing there’ll be no better bargain this year.

My old grad school friend Antony Eagle also has a new book out, an edited collection of readings in the Philosophy of Probability. No doubt that would also make a good course book.

Lecture Stunts

I love hearing about tricks and stunts that people have used as part of their teaching strategy in lectures. I have just been reading Williamson’s description of his technique for setting up real life Gettier cases:

To make the point vivid, I have occasionally created Gettier cases for lecture audiences. For example, I have begun a lecture by apologizing for not giving a power-point presentation; I explained that the only time I gave a power-point presentation it was a complete disaster. Since my listeners had no reason to distrust me on a claim so much to my discredit, they acquired through my testimony the justified belief that the only time I gave a power-point presentation it was a complete disaster. They competently deduced that I had never given a successful power-point presentation. Thus they acquired the justified belief that I had never given a successful power-point presentation. That belief was true, but the reason was that I had never given a power-point presentation at all (and still do not intend to.) My assertion that the only time I had given a power-point presentation it was a complete disaster was a bare-faced lie….Someone commented “you can’t believe the first thing he says.” (192, The Philosophy of Philosophy, 2008)
(I like the story, but I also like the subversive insertion of a hyphen into “powerpoint.”)

My friend Nate Williams told me a story about a professor who taught intro ethics at Chapel HIll. Upon the first occasion in the semester a student relativised an ethical claim to a person, as in “Eating meat is wrong for you but it isn’t wrong for me” he would have them removed from the lecture hall by a couple of grad students in white coats. When the student (invariably) protested that this was wrong, the professor would reply, “well it might be wrong for you…”

The same friend also gave me an idea for a trick I use when teaching personal identity. After some discussion of the soul, I ask the students whether they think they have souls, and if so, whether they are the kind of thing that can be sold to another person. After getting their views, I hand out contracts beginning “I hereby agree to sell my soul to Gillian Russell for the price of one candy bar…” The contract states that if they have no soul, or if its ownership is not transferable to me, then get to keep the candy bar and the contract is complete. Then I lay out enough candy for the entire class on the front desk and wait … I have seven so far. All reasonable offers will be considered.