Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Merely verbal disputes are rare

Pretty much everybody, I think, agrees that some disputes are merely verbal. For example, I may overhear someone say "Derek has big hair," think of my colleague Derek Ball, and retort, "you're wrong, Derek has short hair." If it turns out that my interlocutor was referring not to Derek Ball but to Derek Parfit, then our dispute was merely verbal. She and I were talking past one another; "Derek" in her mouth meant something different than did "Derek" in mine, and it turned out we were both right in our respective claims about each "Derek." So much is pretty uncontroversial, I think. When one party says sentence S, expressing proposition p, and another party wrongly takes q to be expressed, and takes himself to disagree in arguing against q, we have a merely verbal dispute.

In some recent work, Dave Chalmers argues that the phenomenon of merely verbal disputes is broader than the example above suggests. He rejects the necessity direction of
A dispute over S is verbal iff the parties use S to express distinct propositions p and q (respectively) and the parties do not disagree over the truth of p or of ¬q.

His argument appears to be one involving intuitive counterexamples. I'm not convinced.

Please forgive the long quotation, but I'd like to be as clear as I can that I've got Chalmers's approach right. Chalmers writes:
Consider the following exchange from Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, between the Dada artist Tzara and the bureaucrat Carr:
Tzara: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat. In fact some of my best poems have been drawn out of my hat which I afterwards exhibited to general acclaim at the Dada Gallery in Bahnhofstrasse.

Carr: But that does not make you an artist. An artist is someone who is gifted in some way that enables him to do something more or less well which can only be done badly or not at all by someone who is not thus gifted. If there is any point in using language at all it is that a word is taken to stand for a particular fact or idea and not for other facts or ideas. I might claim to be able to fly . . . Lo, I say, I am flying. But you are not propelling yourself about while suspended in the air, someone may point out. Ah no, I reply, that is no longer considered the proper concern of people who can fly.

Here, it appears that Tzara and Carr may well differ verbally on what counts as an artist. Likewise, the two protagonists in Carr’s story may well differ verbally on what counts as flying. We can consider the following dialogue:
A: “I am flying.”

B: “You are not flying. You are not propelling yourself about in the air.”

A: “One does not need to do that to fly.”

It is by no means obvious that when B says ‘You are not flying’, he denies a proposition distinct from the one that A asserts by saying ‘I am flying’. Suppose that A and B are members of the same linguistic community, and that they use the term ‘fly’ with deference to that community. If so, the meaning of the term ‘fly’ for both will be the community meaning, although one of them may be under a misapprehension about that meaning. Then B may deny the same proposition that A asserts. In fact, B’s assertion may be correct while A’s assertion is incorrect. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense in which their debate is verbal, in that the first-order disagreement is grounded in a metalinguistic disagreement about the meaning of ‘fly’.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

Let's suppose, as Chalmers does, that 'flying' and 'artist' have univocal public meanings, such that the proposed condition for verbal dispute given above is not met. In what clear sense are these disputes meant to be verbal? I don't see any. These look to me like substantive metaphysical debates about the nature of flying and artistry. One way to see this is to recognize that it seems inessential to these disputes that they be carried out in a common language; one can have exactly this argument about flying, or artistry, with an interlocutor with no common language, with the exchange relayed by translators who make no error.
A: "Ich fliege."

Translator: "He says he is flying."

B: "You are not flying. You are not propelling yourself about in the air."

Translator: "Er sagt, Sie bewegen sich nicht aus eigener Kraft in der Luft fort."

A: "Man kann fliegen ohne sich aus eigener Kraft in der Luft fortzubewegen."

Translator: "He says you don't need to do that to fly."

This, I submit, involves just the same dispute as Chalmers's version above did. And it's just not possible to think that "the first-order disagreement is grounded in a metalinguistic disagreement about the meaning" of any word at all. Indeed, A and B don't have any views about any common words, and the translator's views about relevant word meanings are all both true and consistent. I just don't see any sense at all in which the dispute looks verbal. Focusing on words won't help us here; the debate is about flying.

This contrasts with the Derek case given above, where thinking about words will help to resolve the debate. Maybe some philosophical debates are like that too, with parties giving different meanings to the same word, such that they talk past one another. However, I suspect that happens quite a lot less than Chalmers seems to think it does. Given the publicity of word meaning, one needs fairly distinctive sorts of circumstances to generate merely verbal disputes.

(Cross-posted at the Arché Methodology Blog. Comments are open over there.)

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