linked to question
from Language Log last week. Geoffrey Pullum encountered an utterance which he found odd. He solicited input, but as far as I know, hasn't gotten any answers. I'm nothing like an expert, but I have a position on the issue.
The text in question:
There's something you need to know about me, Donna. I don't like people knowing things about me.
Is there a hint of the liar paradox there? Is it coherent to tell someone (i.e., cause someone to know) that you don't like people knowing things about you, which entails that you don't want them knowing that you don't like people knowing things about you, which is precisely what you have just caused them to know about you? Is it merely self-contradictory? Or does it have no truth value at all, like This sentence makes a false claim?
I don't find it at all problematic to say something like this -- it's neither self-contradictory nor paradox-causing. Consider the Liar paradox, which is italic in Geoffrey's text.
"This sentence is false". If that sentence true, then it truthfully describes of itself that it's false. But if it's false, then it falsely describes itself as false, which means it's true. This is a genuinely interesting paradox -- every obviously possible interpretation leads to a contradiction. Not so of the "knowing about self" utterance. It might be true both that I hate people knowing things about me, and that it's very important for you to know that about me. Maybe I'm a very secretive person, to the point of being unable to function normally in society, and you're my psychiatrist. Or maybe I'm very secretive and also have, as a repressed memory, the secret to disarming the nuclear weapon that's about to destroy Manhattan.
Of course, there is something odd about the utterance in question. But it's not odd in a paradoxical way -- it's merely odd in the sense that most people wouldn't say it. That's because most people, when they want (not X) don't deliberately cause X. But it's possible. I think the speech act in question is exactly as odd as the utterance of any of the following:
- "I hate using the word 'hate'."
- "I hate mentioning the word 'mention'."
- "I wish I never spoke English."
- "I want to always use textbook-perfect grammar."
There's something funny about each of these, but it's not a logical contradiction like "this sentence is false" or "I'm hungry and not hungry." It's merely that each of these sentences, if true, looks prima facia to be a sentence that ought not to be uttered.
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