Sunday, February 22, 2004

Kinds of "knows" and disjunctive concepts and the value(s) of funny things

The keynote address at our philosophy conference was Jonathan Schaffer, "Knowing the Answer" -- a really excellent talk. His idea is that "knowing that", which epistemologists have always focused on, is actually not the basic form of knowledge. To know, Schaffer says, is to know the answer to some relevant question. One (fairly minor) part of his project was to demonstrate that knowing-wh (his term for knowing the answer to a question, like "knowing what I had for lunch") employs the same concept of thing as knowing-that. (The worry is that maybe it's just kind of an accident that we use the word "know" for both cases, like we use "bank" for a financial institution and for the edge of a river.) So he proposed a kind of neat test -- we can tell we're using the same concept in two cases if we can apply it to a conjunction of them. That is,
I know that you ate pizza and what your favorite kind of pizza is
makes perfect sense, while
I ran the 100-meter dash and for governor
does not. I have two things to say about this. Thing to say about this #1. Is this a definitive test? Maybe it's just prima facia evidence... I'm thinking about knowing a person, which I'm pretty sure Schaffer thinks is a different kind of knowing. I don't think it'd be all that weird to say
I know your mother and what she looks like.
Do you share my intuition? Thing to say about this #2. I think English would be a really cool language if we were able to apply homophones over conjunctions. I have some control over my concepts, right? I think I'm going to go ahead and try to acquire some disjunctive concepts. I encourage you to do the same. So I do want to be able to say things like "After dinner, I ate a date, then went on another with a med student" and "my boss fired my partner and up the grill." And I don't want to just be able to come up with these by being clever -- I want my mind to actually instantiate concepts like "planned romantic meeting or fruit from a palm tree". I that if we actually spoke and thought like this, the world would be better for two reasons:
  1. Intrinsic value of humor. All the cool kids are adopting absurd but apparently unrebuttable philosophical views, so I will too. I claim two-partedly that (a) the world would be objectively funnier if we spoke and thought like this, and (b) objective humor is intrinsically valuable.
  2. Extrinsic value of humor. Even if there is no objective funniness, or if it's not intrinsically valuable, we do recognize an extrinsic value to humor -- it makes people laugh, which makes them happy, which is intrinsically valuable. Distant future human linguists and philosophers of language or alien observers who study our concepts (either as historical artifacts, or in the versions that persist far into the future) will surely get a kick out of these highly artificial-looking but thoroughly internalized disjunctive concepts.
Ok, I'm done for now.

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