Dear sir or madam, I have a question about language, epistemology, and truth. When I make the statement "it's hot in here" is that a statement about external reality or my internal perception? Is this an objective claim (i.e. there is such-and-such temperature and that qualifies as "hot") or simply my perception of an occurrence (i.e. I don't like how hot it is.) The former explanation seems compelling since we can argue about that statement: you can claim that it's not hot in here; I simply came inside from a room with air conditioning, so I *think* it is hot and am mistaken. On the other hand, the latter explanation makes sense since we are only perceiving the heat in the room and not taking any kind of empirical index. But, if this explanation is true, why do we use objective language about the room rather than our experience of the room? It seems to me like this might be a kind of "in-between" claim: based on my experience of the room and my understanding of the experience that would likely elicit in most other persons, there is an excessive heat for the subjective experience of a significant portion of the population. Is this an adequate explanation and if so, what do we make of these "in-between" truths? Do they have any value or do they really communicate anything? In some ways, I suppose this question is parallel to questions about emotive language in ethics. Thanks for your time, -JAK

The surface grammar of the sentence “It’s hot in here” suggests that the sentence is about an objective state of the room. Let’s start there. There are two features of the assertion of this sentence that make you think it might not be about the temperature of the room: first, the assertion is based on a subjective experience of mine, and second, it uses the vague term “hot”. Let’s start with the first consideration. Notice that any claim anyone makes about contingent states of the external world is, if it’s a justified claim, going to be based on that person’s sensory experiences. If I say “You forgot to turn off the burner on the stove,” my claim will probably be based on seeing the flame, but my statement is a statement about the burner, not about my visual experience. Or if I say, “Something’s burning,” it’s probably because I smell the scorched butter, but it’s still the butter I’m talking about. (Guess what I did this morning making breakfast.) Contrast these cases with cases where I really do mean to talk about my sensory experiences: “It looked as if the burner was still on from where I was sitting,” “I smelled something that smelled just like butter burning.” In your case, the contrast would be between my saying: “It’s hot in here. (So turn on the air conditioning.)” with my saying: “I feel so hot all of a sudden. (I must be having a hot flash.) The first claim is a claim about the temperature in the room, and can be corrected, if it’s false, by someone else: “No, it’s not; it just feels that way to you because you’ve been sitting in an overly air-conditioned car.” The second claim is a claim about my subjective experience, and no one else is in a position to correct me about that. You say that we are “only perceiving” the heat in the room, and not taking any kind of “empirical index.” But in fact, “taking an empirical index” is exactly what perception is. (And I really like that phrase!) Our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin are highly sensitive registers of specific physical magnitudes. The “brute” information about these magnitudes is then processed by specialized neurological systems into representations of the external world, which we can access consciously and report on. Now think about what’s going on when I report, on the basis of looking at a thermometer, that the room is 85 degrees. The thermometer is functioning just like my skin does, reacting in a regular, law-governed way to changes in the ambient temperature. And in reading the thermometer and reporting on it, I am acting just like my own sub-personal (or unconscious) information-processing systems in accessing and reporting on the information delivered by my sense receptors. There is this difference between the two cases – a difference that might contribute to your thinking of the thermometer reading as “more objective” than the report based on the way the room feels to me: in the case where I read the thermometer, my evidence is publicly available, whereas in the case where I base my claim on the way the room feels, my evidence is available only to me. But that difference doesn’t affect the objectivity of the claim made – in both cases, I claim something about the room. Now: what about “hot”? There are two things that you might be picking up on here. The first is that “hot” is an imprecise term. That means that the content of my claim is somewhat indeterminate: how hot does a room have to be to count as hot? Where is the boundary between hotness, and mere warmth? Insofar as it seems to be up to me to fix the answers to these questions, the truth or falsity of the claim appears to be up to me. After all, you and I could differ on what counts as “hot.” (Think about the silly chili pepper symbols they put next to foods in some Mexican or Indian restaurants. They tell you that a three-pepper dish is going to be hotter than a one-pepper dish, but how hot, in absolute terms, is a three-pepper dish?) This is a problem about calibration, or rather about about synchronizing your calibration system with mine. Having some kind of external register that we can both refer to – like a thermometer – can help with this problem, but it doesn’t eliminate it. It only helps if we take for granted that our perceptual experiences of the states of the external register are synchronized. (Think about worried parents trying to decide whether to call the pediatrician: “Does he look pale to you?” “Would you call that a ‘rash?’” “I wouldn’t say the vomiting was ‘projectile.’”) Furthermore, note that the “precision” of a thermometer is only relative – the marks on a thermometer have width, after all, and the level of the mercury might fall within the space of a single mark, rendering the reading “85 degrees” vague. Is it 85.1 degrees or 85.3 degrees? The thermometer at my house couldn’t tell you. But now the second thing about “hot” is that it’s an adjective that begs for a complement. There’s no such thing as “absolute hotness:” what’s hot for a room is not at all hot for an oven. So the claim that something is “hot” seems to need qualification; we need an answer to the question “hot” for what kind of thing? Terms that behave like “hot” are sometimes called “syncategorematic” – they are only meaningful “with a category,” only in the context of modifying something. But to say that they must be used in connection with some kind of thing is not to say that that thing has to be explicitly mentioned. If I say, “it’s hot in here” my listeners will probably figure out that I mean to say that it’s hot for an interior room. (Compare: I stick my head a little ways into the oven to check whether it’s working: “Whew! It’s hot in here.”) We human beings are (as the eminent psycholinguist Lila Gleitman says) are geniuses at pragmatics – at figuring out pretty complex thoughts on the basis of very stripped down verbal expressions. Sometimes we don’t have all the information we need to interpret what a speaker is trying to convey on the basis of what they say: if someone in another room shouts: “It’s way too cold!” I might not be to tell that she’s talking about her coffee, which is only 85 degrees, or the room, which is 72. But often enough, a shared context, or shared knowledge of the speaker’s context, can solve the problem of finding the presumed comparison. Bottom line: there’s no reason to think that the surface grammar of your sentence is misleading. The statement “it’s hot in here” is a statement about the room.

Read another response by Louise Antony
Read another response about Language, Perception