Thursday, 26 January 2012

Donkey Anaphora and the King(s) of France

An end-of-the-semester gift from one of my semantics students:

A t-shirt for a (as yet fictitious?) band. Started as an in-class joke which arose from the juxtaposition of two topics:

(1) presupposition failure in sentences like "The king of France is bald", and
(2) issues involving the binding of pronouns in sentences like "Every farmer who owns a donkeyi beats iti."


  1. I'm with Quine here. There is no flavor of paradox about "The (present) king of France is bald" — it's just uncontroversially false, for there is no such person to predicate baldness of. This entails, as Wikipedia rightly says, that "It is false that the present king of France is bald" is true, but I have no trouble with that.

    But it does not mean that "The present king of France is not bald" is true either. This sentence is not logically equivalent to the negation of the previous sentence, for "not" in this sentence represents contrary negation: the nonexistent king is neither bald nor something-other than-bald (non-bald). No problem with the excluded middle, no special issues around presuppositions, no "definite descriptions", no mental muddle.

    A further advantage of this scheme is that it assigns logical meaning not only to presupposition failures, but also to subcategorization errors. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is likewise false, and if you put "don't" before the verb or "non-" on any other other words it's still false. Only when you force contradictory negation, as by zero-quantifying a NP, do you get a true statement: thus "No colorless green idea sleeps furiously" counts as true. See Larry Horn's Natural History of Negation for much more on all this.

    But it's a great shirt anyway!

    (See also "Can bad men make good brains do bad things?")

  2. Hi John!

    Well, we need to say something about "definite descriptions" in so far as they are actual linguistic objects, however we want to deal with them.

    We can still have presuppositions and yet accept the logic you outline above. Presuppositions are something that we want to have a theory for independent reasons. If I tell you "I didn't end up taking my daughter to the circus yesterday", this presupposes that I have a daughter (and was planning to take her to the circus). It's not a false sentence, since it is perfectly true there is no daughter of mine such that I took her to the circus yesterday, but it's misleading in at least two ways (due to the presuppositions it triggers, since I have no daughter and thus had no plans to take her to the circus).

    [I actually find "no colorless green idea sleeps furiously" weird, and weirder than "colorless green ideas don't sleep furiously", though I see why it should be fine.]

    (I've heard some version of "Can bad men make good brains do bad things?", but it wasn't nearly as elaborate! But, in general, I'm happier in the linguistics end of the semantics pool than in the philosophy end...)

  3. The trouble is that Russell's definite descriptions are just a tiny subset of NPs with definite articles. In particular, plural NPs need not apply, nor descriptions that are only contextually rather than absolutely defined. "ιx f(x)" means "the unique x such that f(x)", and most of the time that isn't what the means at all.

    But all this is really just a part of my general beef with semantics, which is that it's an artificial game arbitrarily plucked out of the totality of human behavior and walled off from pragmatics (also a Quine position, now that I think about it).