Philosophy Majors Sit Around and Think About Things

Big questions, elusive answers.

Sentence one: Lois Lane believes that Superman can fly. Sentence two: Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent can fly. Sentence one is true. Sentence two is false, because Lois Lane doesn't know that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same person. From this, it seems reasonable to conclude that it's the substitution of the name "Superman" for "Clark Kent" that changes the sentence from true to false. Let's call that our intuition. And let's call the truth or falsity of a sentence its truth value Simple enough. But trust a philosopher to make trouble with even the simple things, as UCSD philosophy major Andre Niemeyer is about to do here. And it's not even as if he's some young rabble-rouser out to mess with the system. (In fact, he's 28.) Instead, he's presenting what he terms "a well-worn problem in the philosophy of language."

To begin his assault on the seemingly obvious, Niemeyer lays out three generally accepted ideas about language. The first: Proper names that refer to the same thing have the same meaning. In this case, "Superman" and "Clark Kent" mean the same thing, since they both refer to the same person. The second principle: "Embedding a proper name in a belief context does not change its meaning." That is, putting "Superman" and "Clark Kent" in sentences about Lois Lane's beliefs doesn't change the meaning of "Superman" and "Clark Kent." Got it. And for principle number three: "The meaning of a sentence comes from its structure and from the meaning of its parts."

Now -- "If we accept that sentences with the same meaning must have the same truth value" -- a reasonable claim in Niemeyer's opinion -- "then the truth value of the sentences must be one and the same." So, because sentence one and sentence two mean the same thing, they must have the same truth value. But our intuition was that they did not have the same truth value. Figure that one out, Man of Steel.

Niemeyer is presenting all this as his contribution to the 2006 UCSD Faculty Mentor Program Research Symposium. "I was already doing some work related to this as part of my honors thesis," he explains to his fellow presenters, gathered in Gallery A of the University's Price Center (the gallery is more of a spacious conference room, adjacent to the computer lounge). "I got the McNair Fellowship" -- a PhD-preparation program funded by the Department of Education -- "and said, 'Hey, I'd like to do something around this field.' "

This particular group is one of several gathered throughout the Price Center. Niemeyer's fellows are a pretty motley collection, hailing from the realms of philosophy, arts, and cultural studies. One student is studying computer music and improvisation in the jazz department and has been researching sound descriptors. A philo/communications major has made a study of deadpan performances on film, focusing especially on Bill Murray in Broken Flowers and Johnny Depp in Dead Man. A Filipino girl is examining the "contested debate over tradition and innovation in cultural forms," while a psych/Judaic studies major is looking at rationality in the ancient world. Andre Niemeyer is digging into brain teasers about Superman. And tonight, they're all making presentations based on their research, with a short Q&A after each.

Superman is up second, after the film presentation. It's a tough segue -- even if few people in the room have seen the films in question, everybody knows Murray and Depp, and everybody has at least a passing familiarity with cinematic analysis. But Niemeyer admits up front that "my research is on a very technical subject. I tried to get rid of as much jargon as I could, to make it intelligible to nonphilosophers. I'm not sure if I was successful in doing that." His tone is polite and self-deprecating, bordering on apologetic. To help matters, he's even brought a handout, "but I also expect that to be Greek to you, and that's assuming that you don't speak Greek."

You see, laying out the problem is just the beginning. Next up is a proposed solution, put forth by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, one that embraces the semantic principles and rejects the intuition. Niemeyer proceeds carefully, even ploddingly -- he doesn't want to lose his audience. The result is that, by the time he finishes laying out the Millian solution -- which concludes that the content of sentences is not always the same as the content of the assertions made by the speaker of those sentences -- the moderator is telling him to wrap it up. That wouldn't be a problem, except the whole point of his presentation is to critique the Millian solution. As it is, all he's able to do is read off his three objections: the Millian solution gives you problems with iteration. Also, multiple assertions may be made by the same sentence. Finally, "Even if you try to motivate the theory by looking at metaphors, there is a major disanalogy between metaphoric and nonmetaphoric uses of sentences."

Mary Corrigan, retired USCD theater professor and panel moderator, opens the Q&A. "You know, I was just thinking during the first part: if you look at people who are rigid -- any rigid extremist religious group -- the interpretation of the Bible... This would seem to fit within the context of assuming certain things were absolutely true, based on the juxtaposition of words in the sentence. That just struck me. And it also struck me that this kind of syllogistic thinking, if you make those assumptions..."

Niemeyer jumps in, and I get the feeling that he is trying to affirm what he can, before syllogistic thinking comes under attack. "Right. Say that someone takes a biblical text out of context. The text as a whole might be trying to assert more than simply the content of the sentence. This is something that actually happens, and the Millian is trying to take this thing that actually happens and apply it to a very particular phenomenon of language."


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