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Suppose I have never played a game of chess. If I now make the claim that I've won all the games of chess I've ever played, is that claim true, false, or undefined? A group of friends had an argument over this, and I figured that philosophers are deeply logical thinkers that can give us the answer and also to get a proper understanding of why the answer is what it is.

The claim is true. There is no game of chess that you have ever played and lost. That said, if you say that every game of chess you have ever played you have won, then you have said something very misleading . But that is different from saying something false. H.P. Grice started the development of a theory that would explain that difference.

I read in one of my dad's linguistic books that some languages have exactly three basic color words: black, white, and red. I wondered if this meant that for the people who speak these languages, everything that is not black and white is called red (the sky is red, grass is red, etc.) -- or if they just don't have a word to describe anything that is not black, white, or red. If it is the latter, then how would they describe the color of the sky and grass? Noah L. Age 11

Hi, Noah, thanks for writing us with your question. I'm not sure which book you were reading, and I have never heard of such languages myself. To be honest, I kind of doubt there really are such languages. Have you ever heard about how Eskimos have lots of words for "snow"? Well, at least a lot of people think that's just wrong. It's a myth. In this case, I find it hard to imagine that the people speaking any language wouldn't find it useful to have words for more colors than the ones you mention. And if it's useful, then they will introduce such words. But let's suppose that there are languages like that and ask what we should say about them, if so. Both options you mention seem possible: that they have words for "black", "white", and "colored", and that they have words for "black", "white", and "red". In the latter case, then, as you say, they would have no word for the color of the sky. But they could still describe it, if they had a word meaning "same color". They could say the sky was the...

I've heard some philosophers of mind use the term 'singular content'- but what does that mean?

The usual term would be something like "singular proposition", as opposed to a "general proposition". A singular proposition is one that is about some particular object. For example, the proposition that the Dalai Lama is German is a singular proposition. A general proposition would be something like: One and only one person is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and that person is German.

The notion of something being a "fake" seems linguistically odd. Normally, if you have an adjective and a noun, the noun notes what the thing being talked about is, and the adjective describes some quality of the thing in question. A "fake plant", however, doesn't seem to fit that pattern at all, because a fake plant isn't a plant to begin with; the noun seems to be violating its intended function. Is "fake" something other than an adjective, then, perhaps analogous to "not a"? Or is a "fake plant" actually a "fakeplant", i.e. the fake is a part of the noun rather than an adjective, despite its apparent form? Doesn't the adjective "fake" somehow undermine the purpose of nouns?

One point worth noting here is that words like "fake" are, so far as I can see, always intensional. meaning that whether something is a fake F depends upon what property F is, and not just which things are F. They are also "attributive", meaning that an Adj-Noun isn't just an Adj that is Noun, but (roughly) something that is Adj for a Noun. E.g., a tall basketball player is someone who is tall for a basketball player, not just someone who is tall and a basketball player. Attributives are hard enough; intensionality is hard enough; both by themselves. Put them together, and it's a nightmare.

How can phrases mean things their words don't appear to mean? For example, if I'm eating a salad, my friend asks how it is, and I say "not bad," the words "not bad" seem to be extremely open - the salad could be amazing, it could be okay, it could be great or it could be totally neutral; it might even be horrible, so long as it isn't "bad." However, I would normally be understood as saying the salad was okay, rather than any of the other logically plausible alternatives. How does that work?

I think there's rather more that can be said here (and, for what it's worth, I don't actually agree that "words mean what we use them to mean"). We probably need to distinguish a couple different things here. One kind of case is that of idiom . These are linguistic expressions, like "kicked the bucket", whose meaning has nothing to do with the component words. These sorts of phrases are really just single words, but long ones, and there are good tests for when you have an idiom. Note, e.g., that I cannot say "The bucket was kicked by John" and have it mean the same as "John kicked the bucket", where the latter is the idiomatic use meaning "John died". It might well be that "not bad" in this kind of case is an idiom, but the case seems to me to have many features of a case of implicature . Here's a standard kind of example. Suppose Professor Jones writes a letter of recommendation for Mr Smith. The letter says: To whom it may concern: Smith has excellent handwriting and was never late...

Is "understanding" a proposition necessary, but not sufficient, for "believing" that same proposition? Further, where could one find arguments (discussion) for and/or against either position?

Let's assume the following: (1) If you understand a proposition, then you also understand its negation. (2) It is necessary, if you are to believe a proposition, to understand it. (3) It's perfectly possible to believe a proposition and not believe its negation. It follows from these that understanding a proposition is not sufficient for believing it. So there's an argument. One might wonder why we should accept (1)-(3), of course. I think most people would take (2) to be obvious enough. What's meant here by "understanding" is something like: being able to take mental attitudes towards. Belief is just such an attitude. Regarding (1), this just seems to follow from your understanding what negation is. For detailed discussion, however, one might look at Frege's last essay "Negation". Regarding (3), one would hope that it is true! Even if we sometimes believe contradictions, one would hope we didn't always have to do so!!

Opponents to gay marriage often argue that marriage is "by definition" a union between one man and one women. I support gay marriage myself, but this kind of argument is interesting to me--I'm not sure what to make of it. What does it mean to say that marriage is, by definition, thus and so? (Is this just a statement about the way people tend to use the word "marriage"?) More importantly, should we ever be persuaded by such arguments?

Let me add a few words to Sean's excellent response. I think one thing worth keeping in mind here, which I may have said already in response to a similar question, is that the institution of marriage in the United States, and in some other places in the developed world, has changed a great deal over the last sixty years or so. A friend of mine once joked, "Of course marriage has to be between a man and a woman. Otherwise, how would you know who gets to beat up whom?" Not very funny, of course, in one sense, but perhaps you see her point. There was a time, not very long ago, when it was legally impossible in many states for a woman to be raped by her husband. A married woman's ability to own property independently of her husband was curtailed in some jurisdictions. Men had, by law, that kind of control over their wives, and the entire institution of marriage was one of ownership. That is why many radicals of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras were deeply suspicious of the entire institution...

Is this sentence true: "Miles Davis and narwhals both have horns." The word "horn" can mean a musical instrument (which only Miles Davis has) or a bony protrusion (which only narwhals have.) But is it possible to mean both things at once (which would make the sentence true). Or does the sentence only have two possible meanings, both of which are false?

This phenomenon is well-known. It's a form of zeugma that is known as "syllepsis". I think most linguists would say that this sentence cannot mean that Miles has a trumpet and a narwhal a protrusion from the head. The reason is the obvious one: that "horn" has to be interpreted a single way. Note that, if correct, this shows that "Ms and Ns are F" is not , as we sometimes tell our introductory logic students, simply an abbreviation (or something) for "Ms are F and Ns are F", since, in the latter, "F" could be interpreted differently in its two occurrences. When one makes a claim like the one just made, we are talking about how the sentence is immediately, unreflectively, and automatically understood by a hearer. So what I'm observing is, in effect, simply that our "language faculty" operates a certain way, and not another way that it could, in principle, have operated. And put that way, the point should be fairly uncontroversial. The humorous effect one can get from syllepsis depends the fact...

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some have more it seems and some have less. My question is that in a language that has less words, is it limited in it's ability to conceptualize and describe and thus understand less about it's reality around it, or is it's simplistic view what gives a clearer view of things? Follow up: If you can't define a word without using another word, wouldn't words be subjective?

I tend to agree with theoretical linguists such as Chomsky that there are really no such things as languages, in the sense in which English and German are supposed to be "public languages". Rather, there are just people who talk, and some of them can understand each other. I mention this because it is surely not an essential feature of any language, in that sense, that it has some particular number of words. Words get added and removed all the time. So it's hard to ask the question in these terms. Let's focus on "idiolects". Each of us has our own idiolect, which is in various ways like and unlike the idiolects of other people. Each of these has, at any given time, a certain number of words in it. Now: Does understanding more words contribute to one's being able to conceptualize and describe more? Other things equal, one would suppose so, and it's hard to see why this ability would, in and of itself, make one's view of things any less clear, though I suppose one might miss the forest for the trees,...

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