Pragmatic Grammar

This article is part of a series entitled Language Games. See also:
1. Wild Grammar; 2. Combinatorial Grammar; 3. Pragmatic Grammar

In a famous 1966 paper, Keith S. Donnellan claimed to have identified a linguistic phenomenon unexplained by the traditional accounts of Russell, and, more contemporarily, Strawson.

Definite descriptions – phrases like the king of France, or John’s brother – were held, classically, to single out the one and only object, if it exists, which meets the criteria of the description. The truth-value of a sentence containing a definite description was assessed via the properties of this description’s unique referent. (Sentences for which no unique referent exists – like The present king of France is bald – were taken by Russell to be false and by Strawson to have no truth value.)

In a hypothetical situation suggested by Donnellan [1] and modified by Kripke, two patrons at a bar discuss a man in the corner with a champagne glass. “The man over there drinking champagne is happy tonight,” [2] one says. Though the man they point to is indeed happy, he happens to be drinking sparkling water, while another man “over there”, who is drinking champagne, and whom neither patron sees, “has been driven to drink precisely by his misery” [2]. Traditional analysis would take the sentence to be false in virtue of the properties of the sentence’s unique referent, whom neither party intended to talk about and neither party even knew about. This analysis falls short.

Donnellan’s phenomena weren’t picked up by Russell’s treatment for good reason – his analysis resides at the level of pragmatics. Continue reading


The Baltimore Snowstorm

This story is part of a series entitled Leaving Mathematics. See also:
1. The Baltimore Snowstorm; 2. The Italian School; 3. Characteristic Classes

Crows fled the cupola of the university’s old bell tower when it tolled for the last time. That was years ago, and well after the university’s gradual desertion had ground to a final halt. Howling wind blew flurries of snow between the ice-covered power lines, and old books and papers, strewn across the floor, were visible, in one classroom, through loose shutters which banged open and closed in the wind.

“I’ve reached the old castle of bullshit,” Chaim said, through his walkie-talkie, as he approached the university’s gate, squinting towards the campus buildings shrouded in white above. “Who wants to talk philosophy?” Continue reading

Function’s Lust

I’ll be taking my USMLE exam in less than a month, so I’ve been studying nonstop. Surprisingly, though—far from being a grueling grind towards the finish—the last few weeks actually been pretty nice.

I wake up at the same time every day. I eat the same breakfast every day: a single egg. My goals are the same every day: to complete three practice blocks, and to analyze the questions thereafter. Some days, I only complete two or two and a half. But my pace is steady.

Night falls, predictably, between my second and third daily blocks. I turn on my desk lamp, which fills the kitchen with a warm light. While I cook dinner, country music sounds from my radio. The next day, I repeat.

My routine calls to mind a concept I encountered in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.

The old German term funktionslust refers to pleasure taken in what one can do best—the pleasure a cat takes in climbing trees, or monkeys take in swinging from branch to branch.

Studying for the USMLE exam, at least at this phase in my life, is what I do best. There’s a distinct pleasure in doing that and only that.

Continue reading