:: Article

About five o’clock on the sun

By Richard Marshall.

Stephen Yablo, Aboutness, MIT Press 2014

The philosophical theory-builder argues Humean supervenience is tenable so long as physics doesn’t show it isn’t. As David Lewis writes: ‘Falsity for scientific reasons can be tolerated, until the physicists get their act together.’ He will oppose any philosophical argument against it. Yablo notes both this Lewisian philosophical type, and another type, who doesn’t want theory at all but is a primitive, dreaming of sweeping all theories away and seeking to speak the language of unadulterated truth. The primitive cave dweller a hundred thousand years ago says ‘It’s getting dark out’ and means something basic and unmistakable. What is it? ‘A hypothesis can be found such that we agree on (i) her saying it (ii) what it means, (iii) that she is right. But is the hypothesis speaking of experience? Middle sized objects? Pyrronhian evidence? To answer we are condemned to choose a theory. Yablo writes: ‘The words don’t exist any longer to state the facts plainly, in a way that gives no hostages to theoretical fortune. One always winds up saying too much.’

Yablo suggests that if this is our condition then we need to acknowledge this and build better technology to navigate the territory we’re in. If, as he says, we’re always overshooting the mark then we need cognitive machines for backing up to the parts that are true. This is why what he’s doing in this book is inventive, imaginative, original, enlightening, important, complex and needed. Suggestions that this is empty and unenlightening, or that it isn’t required because of the scientists are suggestions that precisely miss the point of philosophy done in such a register. This is metaphysics, philosophy of language, logic and epistemology all working to make us think again about how plain truths and their figuratives get it on. It’s lubricious thinking, very sexy.

Novels are about… well, whatever they are. Proust’s is about memory (and more), Stewart Home’s are about breaking culture from it’s money belly. Music can be about things too, although that’s tricky to know just what. Working backwards from Yablo, music may well be best thought of in the same way as numbers. Get your presuppositions in order and there you’ll have it figured. Your conversation yesterday was about something. What’s that slogan about? X. About is whatever x is on or of or addresses or concerns etc. Phenomenologists say phenomenology is all about. About defines the mental is the kind of thing Husserl is about. Brentano thinks the mental is all about about. Fodor thinks aboutness is grounded in materialism’s natural regularities. What I’m talking about isn’t the same as what can be said about it, say medieval grammarians, and some modern ones too. Frege on identity does touch on it, ‘Kripke on counterparts, van Frassen on empirical adequacy, Yalcin on epistemic modals, and Hempel on confirmation’ Yablo mentions, plus Ryle in 1933 (who thought sentences were about what was mentioned in them), Goodman in 1961 (who thought it was about items mentioned in some of a sentence’s consequences) and Lewis in 1988 (who thought a sentence’s subject matter were equivalent relations on logical space) . So this is what Yablo’s book aboutness is about, and what he proposes is a theory going a little further than what conservative Lewisians might propose. Why doesn’t he propose Lewisian equivalence relations where you divide logical space up and have subject matters that share equivalent logical spaces? Yablo substitutes similarity for equivalence. This allows him to deal with cells of logical space that overlap so that sentences are overdetermined ie they can be true in more than one way at the same time. But this is running ahead and way more than what my review can do. All I can do is sketch a little.

So Yablo’s book is about the aboutness of sentences. He’s saying that current theories of analyzing how sentences mean overlook aboutness, relying on truth conditional theories, (where you take a sentence and then list scenarios where it is true and false – and say nothing about why they’d be true or false in those scenarios) or theories that say sentences are amalgams of whatever makes the sentence (which lets in too much because whatever a sentence is about it isn’t about it’s negation, which would mean you’d have to exclude negation operators in an unprincipled way, as Armstrong and Stanley pointed out three years ago). Neither option uses the aboutness of a sentence as a resource and Yablo intends to rectify this situation. Yablo argues that aboutness is an independent factor of meaning. It isn’t reliant on truth conditions (though they do constrain). We can see the motivation for using aboutness if we return to truth conditional theorizing: we do have to list the scenarios that make a sentence true or false – but to say what is responsible for the truth value of each scenario is why aboutness is introduced.

Aristotlelians think of truth as a metaphysical notion and Tarskians make it foundational in semantics. DM Armstrong is Aristotlelian and thinks of ‘truthmakers’ as things in the world making sentences true. Yablo is a Tarskian and so his truthmakers are semantic. ‘To the first approximation.. semantic truthmakers are facts that imply truths and proportionally explain them.’

Yablo takes Robert Frost’s line ‘the world will end in fire or in ice.’ We list the scenarios, subdivide where it is true or false. Yablo wants us to know why this is going to require aboutness as well as just this procedural. One problem it overcomes is logical omniscience. All truths are identical: Yablo says: ‘ mathematicians know a lot of truths; metaphysicians know a lot of others. These truths are identical if we go by truth-conditions , since they are true in the same cases: all of them.’ Truth conditions flatten out difference. They are insensitive. Hempels ‘All crows are black’ has the equivalent truth conditions of ‘All non-black things are non-crows.’ But it strikes us as wrong to say they have identical meanings. Aboutness nails the difference, suggests Yablo. ‘One is about crows, the other not.’ We should care about this aboutness feature because it is simply interesting, even if there was nothing else. But there is.

Some assertions seem to be composites. They include others. They have parts. All crows are black does not require that all crows be black or on fire, says Yablo. But that is implied by the initial assertion. So we have sentences with parts, and they need unpacking so meanings can be agreed. Yablo points out that we rely on this all the time. We unpack assertions so that we don’t run to all the implicatures. The meaning is the part that is wholly true of the sentence. Crows being black is wholly true of the sentence asserting it, even though the disjunct of being fiery is also implied by the sentence. If inclusion required all implications then we’d be in real trouble because every sentence implicature no matter how false gets something right. ‘You get something right if your claim was partly true, in the sense of having wholly true parts.’

Yablo contends that we use false sentences with truth in them and this is a resource of language not a deficit. William James writes: ‘a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were there, would be an irrational rule.’ James was arguing to tolerate falsehoods here for truths elsewhere. Yablo is arguing for a falsehood in the same sentence as its truth. The point is good and generalisable: truth Puritanism leads to irrationalism because some truths may only be accessible as parts of larger falsehoods. Here’s a great line from Yablo: ‘ Dallying with the larger falsehoods would be good policy in such cases. The proper rules allow us to stretch the truth, if we make clear that our interest and advocacy extend only to the part about thus and such.’ So we say false statements with some wholly true parts in them. Yablo provides tons of examples: the non-Platonist who says‘ the rate of star formation is decreasing,’ the non-Meinongian who wants to say ‘Pegasus does not exist,’ and the non-skeptic who says ‘I’m sitting by the fire’ because it’s known to be true about her proximity and posture.

That sentences have parts is familiar. Kant used it. To understand analytic statements we have the idea that Vixen includes fox. A synthetic statement is one where there’s more than what was included in the subject e.g. vixen doesn’t include one-legged. How can synthetic truths be known a priori is an issue that vexes us from this. Wittgenstein argued that validity is just the unpacking of the terms being used. But sometimes we seem to discover new knowledge via deduction. So from Wittgenstein we wonder how deduction can lead to discovery. Perhaps propositions don’t assert all it includes, as Ramsey proposed back in the day.

Yablo’s daughter gives us the kick. She accuses Yablo of not getting her ice cream anymore. When he denies this, saying that he got her some only last week for her birthday she snorts back: ‘I’m not talking about that.’ Her initial statement is false if aboutness is ignored. But part of it was wholly true. She selected the part that was true and by applying Yablo’s aboutness rule that takes cognizance of subject matter we are open to a different response. This is seems to be dead on to me. There’s nothing weird happening in what the girl is doing with language. Yablo’s technology gets to the normal expressive power of how we use language.

Yablo works out the aboutness rule, and the motivatons for needing them. Here’s one thought that helps see the point of doing this. It’s got to be true that Captain America doesn’t exist. But how can it be if there’s no Cap for it to be true of? (That’s a really old problem). Here’s another oldie: a non-noticeable difference can’t be the difference between red and not-red. But it must be true that it is – or else we’re stuck downriver on the sorites problem without a paddle and won’t be able to make the difference between red and green, imagine. Another one Yablo mentions to make his point: The earth has only one moon – surely that’s true too. But how can it be so if we don’t know if numbers even exist?

How does subject matter help out? Yablo proposes that his theory allows us to get behind the parts of the sentence we care about that are wholly true and ignore the rest. So, in the moon issue, who cares whether there are numbers or not. The subject matter is the moon. The number is just packaging to help us get to grips with the moon. With the sorites problem: ignore the whole package and just focus on the bit we care about – which is observational red. Observational red doesn’t tolerate what red does, and that’s what we’re talking about. Observational red isn’t red but it is the bit that we like to think of as the whole. This focus on aboutness can be done via subtraction. We subtract away from all the implications. Yablo quotes Will Rogers to make this point: ‘It’s not what he doesn’t know that bothers me; it’s what he does know, that just isn’t true.’ What to make of this? Well, Yablo suggests Rogers is dealing with ‘knawing’ here which is just like ‘knowing’ with just one little difference and that is that it might be false. There are cases elsewhere of this: in law duress is ‘ like necessity, except for the element of coercive pressure’. So duress is where we subtract coercion from necessity. Thinking of gratin as quiche not made in a shell is also subtracting ie Gratin = Quiche minus shell minus. . Yablo stands this in contrast to the standard analysis which goes ‘knowledge is belief plus truth plus. Or Plantinga’s notion of warrant which goes: warrant is whatever you add to true belief to get knowledge. Returning to Wittgenstein’s raised arm, the intention to raise it is raising it minus the arm being raised. For Goodman a statement is lawlike if it is a law that might not be true. Subtraction plays a rule in confirmation theory, and so does subject matter. By allowing for content-parts we are given access to a new type of evidential relation.

But Yablo makes it clear that this subtraction thing isn’t easy and is ‘perilous.’ Yablo’s partial truth requires him to identify a type of extrapolation – for there are more than one! Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations writes: ‘If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain that I do.’ Later he writes: [Suppose] I were to say: “You surely know what ‘It is five o’clock here’ means; so you also know what ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ means. It means simply that it is the same time there as it is here when it is 5 o’clock.” Kripke in his 1982 book about Wittgenstein identifies the possible issue: ‘ The “5 o’clock on the sun” example seems obviously intended as a case where, without the intervention of any arcane philosophical skepticism about rule-following, there really is a difficulty about extending the old concept – certain presuppositions of our application of the concept are lacking… Wittgenstein seems to mean that, waiving his basic and general skeptical problem, there is a special intuitive problem…illustrated by the 5 o’clock on the sun example.’ So the problem is of trying to work out how to extend old content when presuppositions and implications are lacking. Yablo suggests that extrapolation in this case is exactly the process required for subject subtraction: for him subtracting an implication just is extrapolating in cases analogous to the 5 o’clock on the sun case. But it doesn’t always work, in that extrapolation can’t always go as far as we’d like. The logician’s recipe seems terrible in these cases.

The mysterian says there can’t be any recipe. But as Yablo says: ‘… the logician is right, insofar as a remainder always exists.’ And the mysterian is right, insofar as we may not be able to venture very far from the original region of application. Think, he says, think about the difference between subtracting red from scarlet and subtracting red from round. Here we can get a handle on how subject matter can help us out. Bring in the subject of, say, a tomato. Now ask the question. Take the red from the scarlet tomato and not much is left of that. But take the red from the round tomato and hell, there’s still the round tomato. The red doesn’t affect shape.

Assertive content is the content of what is heard when a sentence is said. This isn’t the same as what the compositional content is for many a sentence ie just the content of each of the bits of any sentence. Robert Stalnaker thinks maybe assertive content is incremental and this for Yablo suggests more of this logical subtraction. He compares the additional power to our expressiveness to the power indexicals give us. Last century the big question for language philosophy was how it is possible to be able to produce an infinite number of meaningful sentences using just a finite, and small, number of units. Well, compositionality was the way that got done. But the new century faces the new problem of how that theory can handle the fact that the same units can express many different meanings. Indexicals help us see how we can do this. Sentences indexed to a particular time, space or identity and so forth eg he, she, here, there, now, then, today, tomorrow etc etc allow the same sentence to express huge ranges of meaning eg think of what ‘I am here’ means. And Yablo proposes that aboutness offers another resource to explain the fecundity of our production of different meanings. ‘If assertive content is incremental, then any sentence whatever can be made to do this, by varying background assumptions.’

One problem with partial truth is that it seems to violate closure. Closure is what philosophers call the principle that you must know the consequences of a proposition or that they be at least as knowable as what is known. There are three main ways of dealing with the problem and Yablo mobilizes bits of all three – Nozik’s counterfactualism, Cohen, DeRose and Lewis’s contextualism, and Carnap’s idea that there are trickier sort of questions that are just much harder than what can be reasonably required for ordinary knowledge.

Yablo knows there’s something ‘sneaky’ about partial truth. But we often don’t want to know everything but just the bit that’s true of what someone’s saying. It may be rare to have someone say something that has ‘… wholly true parts; wholly true implications whose subject matter is included…’ in the sentence. He works out the mechanics of a philosophy that involves partial truth. Why should we tolerate it? Because that’s the situation we’re already in. Some truths are wrapped up in massive falsehoods and Yablo is working out a technology for subtracting the plain truths. Of course he’s not alone in this, and nor has he perfected the technology. Problems remain. But this is a supercharged book , one of the best coming out of an analytic philosophy that seems to rarely get a good press if any press at all these days. Of course this isn’t an easy read – even Yablo acknowledges that his editor thought it too hard – so he includes a guide to help readers read it. Unlike some philosophers who wrap up banalities as humourless enigmatic dogma the difficulties are because the thinking is complex, subtle and energized. It’s also always on the brink of grinning.

Because of this, to adapt a Yablo fave, there will be more people understanding it than I have.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy the book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 12th, 2014.