Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The average philosopher disbelieves this thesis

I take it most of us agree that some form of compositionality is true and that many of us have an aversion to paraphrase strategies. Nonetheless, even amongst those philosophers who share our commitments and aversions there are few, if any, who would accept that we should take phrases of the form ‘the average F is G’ at face value. Most of them will say either than it is literally false and conveys the some truth or other about philosophers or that it simply means the same thing as a truth that has a radically different grammatical structure. I wish to present a strategy for taking phrases of the form ‘the average F is G’ at face value.

Nathan Salmon, and others, have defended the view that certain activities give rise to certain kinds of mentally and socially dependant entities. For example, worship-like activities in ancient Greece gave rise to a particular kind of entity. These philosophers also think that some such entity is the referent of ‘Zeus’ in our mouths. I think that Salmon says, a bit more controversially, that some such entity is the referent of ‘Zeus’ in the mouths of the ancient Greeks.

The view sometimes seems a bit less crazy if we note that these entities are much like bank accounts. Few people would believe that bank accounts are physical objects. Rather, bank accounts seem to be entities the existence of which is dependant upon certain human activity.

I would like to suggest that the same strategy might be adopted to provide satisfiers to phrases of the form ‘the average F is G’. On this view, there would be an entity that arises from certain human activities and it is this entity that makes it true that the average philosopher has read Russell. This entity is the average philosopher. It is not itself a philosopher. But, the activities that give rise to its existence require that, for example, if the average philosopher has read Russell, then a randomly chosen philosopher will have read Russell. That is, there are interesting relations that obtain between the average philosopher and real philosophers.

Here is a problem for the view. Suppose that the average philosopher has 1.6 children. If the view suggested above is true, then it seems to follow that something has 1.6 children. It also seems to follow that there is an average philosopher. But, surely there is no thing that has 1.6 children and there is not average philosopher.

I am not sure how best to respond to this problem. I guess my first inclination is to adopt a kind of Meinongianism. I would reject that there is an average philosopher. This would require rejecting the seemingly plausible thesis that any instance of the following schema expresses a truth:

(S1) ‘Necessarily, if the F is G, then there is exactly one F and it is G.’

One idea might be to make a distinction, as Priest does, between the ‘there is’ quantifier and the ‘some’ quantifier. We might replace the schema above with the folloing:

(S2) ‘Necessarily, if the F is G, then some F is G and only one F is G.’

But, this doesn’t seem to get at the heart of the matter either. Although such a distinction allows us to avoid the inferences noted above, it doesn’t allow us to avoid the following inference: The average philosopher has read Russell. So, some average philosopher has read Russell. Moreover, (S2) just doesn’t sound quite right (even when we use some standard instances of the definite description).

I guess I would suggest rejecting any unrestricted schema like (S1) and (S2). But, I am not sure how plausible this is. So, I guess my questions to the crowd are the following: are there any more unhappy consequences of this view? Do the happy consequences outweigh the unhappy ones? And, relatedly, is it better to just say sentences of the form ‘the average F is G’ are just plain false but convey a truth?


Blogger Chris Tillman said...

I take something like Russell's point early in "On Denoting" as a fairly decisive refutation of this sort of view. Step 1: Note that definite descriptions are quantifier phrases. Step 2: Note that quantifier phrases are not referential. There are certainly moves to be made at this point, but I think the underlying idea is right: to treat definite descriptions as referential is just to misunderstand how definites work in English. So I think we should treat definites uniformly as non-referring. It would be especially awful if the referential treatment of 'the average F' were extended to all definites and to all other quantifer phrases as well. (No one knows this better than Joshua. So maybe we should consult no one on the topic.) So whatever qualms one might have on metaphysical grounds, I think there is ample reason to reject the view on semantic grounds.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

My suggestion is not that the content of phrases of the form 'the average F' is an activity dependent entity to which the phrase refers. Rather, I am suggesting that there is an activity dependent entity that is the satisfier of the variable in sentences of the form 'the average F is G'. This view should not have the unwanted semantic consequences that Russell warned against.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Chris Tillman said...

Oh okay. I understand the proposal better now. But if you're maintaining an interesting relationship between purported average philosophers and real philosophers, but invoking the average philosopher causes problems, why not just cut out the middle man? The result is a less straightforward account of the semantics of 'the avg philosopher is F', but these sentences do not cry out for a straightforward semantic treatment in the first place.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I am surprised by your suggestion. You seem to be indicating a denial of some sort of strong compositionality principle. I guess such a move might be acceptable if there is some systematic treatment of sentences of the form 'the average F is G' available. But, I am having a hard time seeing what that systematic treatment would look like.

Given that I have not yet found a plausible systematic treatement of these sentences and that a strong form of compositionality is (all else being equal) preferred over any weaker form, it seems to me that one of the two following options is best:

1. Accept the activity dependant entity account of these setences.

2. Say that sentences of the form 'the average F is G' express falsehoods yet convey truths.

6:52 AM  

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