[lit-ideas] Re: When you were in Oxford, did you dine in college?

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2012 15:58:59 +0000 (GMT)

The issue that I was drawn to post re Dummett was realism v anti-realism and, 
in particular, how this issue is affected by the extent to which we accept the 
existence of entities independent of their 'knowability'. But I am not sure how 
Dummett sees the issues from the titbits in the obits (though it seemed Dummett 
had a whiff of verificationism in that what exists for him must somehow depend 
on what is knowable). I should say that Popper's 'realism' is not only against 
'verificationism' in any logical sense such as might ground a theory of 
induction but carries through on this at a fundamental metaphysical or 
ontological level: that is to say, for Popper, 'what is real' is logically 
independent of what is known (of what is real) - this means our attempts to 
know (or, better, guess) 'what is real/what is the case' are always 
conjectural. The 'problem of knowledge', in Popper's approach, is how to 
properly evaluate conjectures - how to assess their
 relative merits. There is no need, on this approach, to ground the relative 
merits of conjectures in some characteristic of the act of knowing that 
(somehow) guarantees that the knowing reflects what is the case. This 
represents a radical shift from the approach of traditional theories of 
knowledge. Not only is there no need but it cannot ever be done - these are the 
lessons behind Popper's claims that 'all knowledge is conjectural' but that we 
can nevertheless guess which of our conjectures are to be preferred. These 
lessons are exemplified by studying the workings of 'science'.

But I turn to some other things - beginning with Popper's remark, made in a 
reported conversation, that "grammar" is a late stage in the development of 
language (he has in mind "grammar" in a Chomskyan sense and in the ordinary 
sense of the rules governing how language makes sense). Now this remark might 
be challenged by a linguist on the basis that if a language is to have any 
sense it must, by definition as it were, have grammar. But let us, as 
Wittgenstein was fond of saying, look at an actual case. This weekend I was 
engaging with a child of about 18 months that is not at the stage of making 
sentences but can utter some names ['mama', 'papa'] and some utterances - 
'uh-oh' and 'bye-bye'. The child's use of 'bye-bye' is interesting for it uses 
the utterance the number of distinct ways. One is in the context of having to 
say 'bye-bye' to someone: this may be where the child was 'taught' the 
utterance. But the child most commonly uses 'bye-bye' to
 express that they have had enough of something - whether a story being read or 
food being offered. It also uses 'bye-bye' in a variant of 'having had enough' 
when the child is also being made anxious - so when brought too close for 
comfort to cows or dogs, for example, it will verbalise this with a 'bye-bye' 
and the body-language of retreat. The child also has a fascination with any 
gadgets and with computers - but is aware it should not be touching or 
approaching computers. Believing itself alone, the child heads under a chair 
where it has seen a lap-top and is reaching in to pull the lap-top out when 
they become aware of an adult entering the room - the child draws back from the 
computer and says 'bye-bye' to it, all the while checking that the adult is 
aware of this clear utterance. It seems to me in this last case the use of 
'bye-bye' is a form of dissembling - the child is verbalising to signify to the 
adult (falsely) that the child's interest in
 the computer has come to an end or even to pretend that such interest does not 
exist (as if just by chance the child had ended up proximate to a lap-top which 
it wants nothing to do with). It seems to me that studying language-acquisition 
in children must be important as a testing ground for our 'philosophy of 
language', whatever that may be - and, in particular, that cognitive awareness 
of a kind much more sophicasted than the child's capacity to express itself 
must, in many of these cases, predate the development of the child's capacity 
to express itself.

As to Dummett's view that 'philosophy of language' is the key to philosophy 
more generally, I suspect Popper would say the problem with people like Dummett 
is that they don't have a proper 'philosophy of language' at all - and 
certainly not one that can do justice to language-acquisition and the 
higher-level functions of language like theorising and arguing. For Popper it 
is the 'theory of knowledge' and not so-called 'philosophy of language' that is 
key to philosophical understanding: and, as the example of the child perhaps 
shows, even in explaining how we acquire language and understand 'meaning' we 
cannot operate without guessing what kind and level of 'knowledge' is held by 
the person acquiring and using language. 


 From: "Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx" <Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx>
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx 
Sent: Tuesday, 10 January 2012, 12:32
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: When you were in Oxford, did you dine in college?

"When you are in Oxford, do you dine in college?" ---  Grammar and Style 
(reviewed by J. Winder, for the Independent).

"[Dummett]", Winder writes, "does himself few favours by proposing, as  a 
model of a compound question, the sentence: 'When you are in Oxford, do you  
dine in college?' Good manners can, in the wrong company, appear merely 
snooty  and disdainful. Dummett counters this line of criticism in his 
conclusion. The  language has not, he insists, irrevocably renounced its rules. 
the contrary,  many people, reading prose written in conformity to them, find 
it exceptionally  clear or pleasing, without being able to analyse why it 
makes this impression on  them.' Probably he is right that not many people 
will be able to analyse exactly  what is so clear and pleasing about this 
stiff, repetitive sentence. But the  truly unsatisfying thing about this 
argument is: that's it. The sentence stands  alone, begging about a thousand 
ns and casting doubt on the otherwise  sensible advice with which [Dummett] 
is full."

Three passages from the Guardian obituary, by Moore,  online:

"Dummett's many non-philosophical publications included books on  
immigration, Catholicism, tarot cards, and voting procedures (he devised the  
Borda system of voting), as well as Grammar and Style for Examination  
Candidates and Others (1993), the culmination of his relentless fight against  
standards of literacy."

"That fight occasionally found amusing expression in his other work.  His 
last book on Frege included a delicious footnote in which, having  
forestalled a possible misunderstanding of one of the sentences in the main  
text, he 
went on to lament the fact that the only reason for the note was that  few 
writers or publishers nowadays 

[----->] "evince a grasp of the distinction between a gerund and a  

He continued, with characteristic tetchiness: "People frequently remark  
that they see no point in observing grammatical rules, so long as they convey  
their meaning. This is like saying that there is nothing wrong with using a 
razor blade to cut string, so long as the string is cut. By violating the 
rules,  they make it difficult for others to express their meaning without  

"Some readers of Dummett would say that it was ironic that he was so  
preoccupied with style, since his own prose left much to be desired. It is 
that his sentences often displayed a rather unwieldy complexity. But they 
also  displayed an acute sensitivity to the structure of the thoughts that 
they were  intended to convey; and that fact, combined with the precision with 
which  Dummett chose his words, meant that there was a real clarity about 
his writing,  however lacking it might have been in facility. The writing was 
in some respects  like the man – marked by honesty and integrity, though it 
could at times be  difficult."


Re: Moore's 
"it was ironic that..." cfr.:
Peacoke's memoir of Dummett in the NYT, online:

"The gap between Michael’s theory and his practical life was a reliable  
source of pleasure to his friends. He published original contributions to the  
theory of voting; yet he designed a system for a Wardenship election in 
Oxford  that permitted — and produced — massive tactical voting. He published 
a book on  writing style in philosophy, an enterprise described by one 
philosopher as  comparable to Attila the Hun producing a book on etiquette."

Finally, Stanley's anecdote therein, too. He was

"sitting in the New College Senior Common Room after lunch discussing the  
meaning of the word “if” with another philosopher. Dummett was huddled over 
a  newspaper elsewhere in the room. I remarked how odd it was to think that 
the  word “if” could have radically different meanings on different 
occasions of use,  for example one meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald didn’t 
kill Kennedy,  someone else did,” and another meaning in a sentence like “If 
Oswald hadn’t of  killed Kennedy, someone else would have.” From a cloud 
of tobacco smoke halfway  across the room, Dummett piped up, “I wonder if you 
really think that.”"


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