Saturday, September 03, 2005

Encore d'ECAP

Michael Devitt offered some thoughts at the ECAP on why referential uses of definite descriptions should not be thought of as conventional implicatures. Were they such, correct referential uses of 'The F is G' would convey both a proposition about whatever is uniquely F and (by implicature) a proposition about a particular thing. But (according to Devitt) in many cases the former is not conveyed at all. Consider for instance 'The book is on the desk'. This usually isn't supposed to convey any claim about some thing which is uniquely a book.

It might be argued in response that the speaker's quantifiers are supposed to be suitably restricted so that there is only one book in their range, or that 'the book' is elliptical for some longer description (such as 'the book in front of us'). But Devitt thinks this can't always be right, because in many cases, an uninformed or misinformed speaker would be unable to supply the required restriction on the quantifier or the required non-elliptical description.

I asked whether it is really fair to demand that the speaker be able to supply these things. Devitt replied that it must be facts about the speaker that determine the range of her quantifiers or the full form of her elliptical descriptions. But I wondered why it needs to be facts which are accessible to the speaker (as opposed to, say, facts about the speaker's causal relation to the world and/or other speakers of her language).

1 comment:

R.E. said...

I agree with you, Carrie. To use a different example, suppose I uttered [1] in a conversation about how well my logic students did last spring:

[1] Most students passed.

By hypothesis, I'm using the quantified noun phrase, 'most students', referentially. Relative to the context of my utterance, the domain of discourse is the set of students who took my logic course last spring - they are the ones I have in mind and about whom I intend to assert a proposition whose truth-conditions essentially involve *them*. I am saying of the members of that set (and not of all students anywhere at any time) that most of *them* passed my course.

So far, so good. Suppose that Devitt's argument in the case of referential uses of incomplete definite descriptions is sound. Then, by parity of reasoning, it should follow that I didn't convey [2] by my referential utterance of [1] (where the domain of quantification for 'a few students' is unrestricted, and where the negation has narrow scope):

[2] Only a few students didn't pass.

However, my utterance of [1] does conventionally implicate [2], so interpreted, even though I used 'most students' referentially. For, if it did not conventionally implicate [2], then I should be able to cancel the implicature by saying [3], without violating any conversational maxim:

[3] Most students [[=the students in my logic course last spring]] passed, even though only a few students somewhere in the entire universe passed [[some class or other at some time or other]].

[3] is logicially consistent but conversationally odd. I can't cancel the implicature to [2] without violating some conversational maxim (perhaps, the maxim of relevance). The non-cancellability-without-linguistic-oddness feature of [2] counts as evidence that I conventionally (as opposed to conversationally) implicated [2] by my referential utterance of [1]. Not only that, but a competent English speaker wouldn't have to figure out [2] on the basis of my utterance of [1] and Grice's Cooperation Principle. Non-calculability is another feature of conventional implicatures (for Grice anyway).

I suspect that the explanation of the oddness of [3] has something to do with the semantic meanings of the quantifier noun phrases, 'most students' and 'few students', in determining their scalar implicative relations (plus the semantic role of negation and the contrastive element implicit in the connective 'even though'). Whatever the explanation turns out to be, it will be orthogonal to the fact that I used 'most students'in [1] referentially, since [3] would still be odd even if I had used 'most students' attributively in my utterance of [1].

My example is relevantly analogous to Devitt's example of referentially used definite descriptions. I'm sure that he will say that it isn't because he thinks that incomplete definite descriptions are singular terms whereas quantified noun phrases are not. That assumes that incomplete definite descriptions do not belong in the logico-semantic category of quantified noun phrases, which begs the question against neo-Russellians like Neale and Salmon. But, leaving that aside, it's a difference that isn't crucial to the present argument. I'm assuming (like Kripke does in his well-known response to Donnellan's "semantic ambiguity" thesis about definite descriptions) that quantified noun phrases can be *used* referentially, which is what is really crucial here. But if my argument from analogy works, then Devitt's argument fails to establish that no general proposition about a unique F is ever conventionally implicated by a referential utterance of a sentence of the form, 'The F is G', fails - where 'the F' is incomplete definite description (e.g., 'the book', 'the student', etc.). And that is so even if Devitt is right in saying that speakers can't always come up with the right complete definite descriptions that denote their intended referents.