According to some, telling is a lot like promising. More specifically, some people hold that in telling and promising one puts others in a position to rely on that which one tells or promises to do by providing them with an assurance or guarantee: in the case of telling, one provides an assurance or guarantee of fact; in the case of promising, one provides an assurance or guarantee that one will act. 

We might reasonably wonder at the added value of the assurance. In the case of promising, it would be natural to trace this added value to one’s preparedness to act. On that view, the added value would be conditional on one’s continued preparedness to act. Thus, the value of the assurance would lapse—except perhaps as a ground for complaint—should the preparedness lapse, for example if one shed one’s preparedness or ceased to be. What about the added value of telling? 

Were we to press the analogy, we might naturally expect the value also to consist in a preparedness, but preparedness for what? Presumably, not a preparedness to make so what one told someone to be so. Alternatively, then, perhaps the value consists in a preparedness to answer challenges. I tell you that such and such. Were you to tell someone else such and such, they might reasonably challenge your credentials. Assuming that I hadn’t told you anything about my credentials—for example, anything about how I know that such and such—the best you could do would be to tell the interrogator that you heard such and such from me. The added value might be supposed to emerge, then, from my preparedness to take on the obligation of meeting the further challenge: “Well, how does he know?” If we thought that meeting such challenges were in general important, we might then think it of value to you that I offer the assurance that I’m prepared to shoulder the burden. We might even think that, absent my preparedness, you couldn’t have acquired from me knowledge that such and such. For lacking an autonomous full answer to challenges to your credentials, we might hold that you failed to meet a necessary condition on autonomous knowing.  

There are three sorts of cases that cause trouble for that last thought. The first sort comprises cases in which you forget from whom you heard that such and such. Having forgotten, you are no longer in a position to exploit my assurance and transfer challenges to your credentials back to me. But your forgetting from whom you heard that such and such would not ordinarily be thought to undermine your claim to know that such and such. (It might do in special cases in which what one knew concerned the teller.)

The second sort comprises cases in which you remember who told you that such and such, but they teller is no longer prepared to shoulder the burden of explaining their credentials. Again, such reticence on the tellers part would seem not to threaten your title as knower. 

The third sort comprises cases in which you remember who told you that such and such, but they are no longer capable of shouldering the burden, for example because they have forgotten what they knew, or their credentials, or because they are no longer alive. Again, their incapacity seems to leave intact your knowledge. Moreover, denying that it leaves your knowledge intact would dramatically reduce the extent of your knowledge. 

There might be other ways of articulating the analogy between telling and promising, but I suggest that the way considered here is not viable. 

Anthony Kenny’s Action, Emotion and Will approaches its three topics from a perspective shaped by four key influences: Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein, and Ryle. Its central arguments are motivated and shaped by a respect for differences—between, for example, feelings and emotions, actions and relations, and states, performances, and activities—together with optimism about our capacity reflectively to discern intrinsic connections—between, for example, feelings, their objects, and their manifestations in behaviour. In the course of developing a critical reaction to some early experimental approaches to the study of the emotions, Kenny considers the way introspection had been exploited in developing those approaches. He writes:

Some, believing that an emotion was the object of an inward perception, concluded that the study of the emotions could be made scientific only by training introspectors in precise observation and accurate measurement of their interior states. Thus were devised series of ‘introspective experiments’ designed to secure ever more detailed and precise descriptions of internal impressions. (Kenny 1963: 29.)

Kenny’s critical engagement with the approach is largely confined to an Austinian method: quotation, perhaps accompanied by a sardonic expression:

A textbook recently in use remarks: “The observer in an introspective experiment on feeling needs to adopt a special attitude to the situation which is presented him. Rather than perceiving the situation and dealing actively with it, he must immerse himself in it and live it, at the same time trying to observe the emotional experience which comes over him.” (Kenny 1963: 29–30. The embedded quotation comes from Woodworth 1938.)

On the method, Kenny comments as follows:

The presuppositions of this type of experiment are clearly Cartesian. An emotion is regarded as an experience only contingently connected with its manifestation: no essential part of it is lost if the normal behaviour characteristic of it is replaced by a quite special laboratory attitude of ‘immersion in experience’. (Kenny 1963: 30.)

It would take us too far afield to discuss the justice of Kenny’s characterisation of the target presuppositions as Cartesian. Moreover, a discussion of that issue would have to involve untangling a number of issues run together in Kenny’s characterisation. We would need, for example, to distinguish between, on one side, treating as contingent the connections between experience and their behavioural manifestation and, on the other side, so treating the connections between experiences and bodily activity more generally, experiences and attention, and experiences and their objects. The last type of connection assumes prominence in another of Kenny’s experiments in sardonic quotation:

One subject, for instance, given a piece of chocolate, produced this report: “The characterization, pleasant, applies to the experienced complex, the predominant components of which were the quality of sweet and a brightness or lightness reminiscent of bright pressure. [Fn: “Bright pressure” was a technical phrase of Titchener’s laboratory; it meant something “not far removed from a tickle”.

Fairly clearly, something has gone wrong here. If one knew that the topic of the report was an experience of eating a piece of chocolate, and also that the reporter liked chocolate, then suitable training might put one in a position to predict the appropriateness of such a description. However, the converse seems implausible. That is, it seems implausible that any course of training could put one in a position to predict, just from the report, that the target experience was one of eating chocolate. At a minimum, that suggests information loss. Furthermore, the issue seems not to concern causal factors extrinsic to how things seem to the subject. For the same would appear to be true of a perfectly matching hallucination of eating a piece of chocolate: being told that such an experience is pleasant and a predominance of sweetness, brightness, and lightness reminiscent of something not far removed from a tickle, would reveal many distinctive aspects of the experience less well, and less determinately, than being told that it seems to the subject as if they were eating some chocolate. It’s common, in discussions of experience, to observe that for certain purposes, it can be advisable to draw in one’s horns: for example, on acquiring evidence that one is not really eating chocolate, to move from the judgment that one is having an experience of eating chocolate to the less committal judgment that it at least seems to one that one is eating chocolate, or that one is eating what seems to be chocolate. In so doing, it is often possible to gain security by sacrificing commitments. It is less common, but attested, that in some circumstances, it is possible not only to have reason to think that, insofar as the correctness of one’s views depends upon facts about extra-psychological reality, those views might be mistaken—that one might be wrong in taking oneself to be eating chocolate—but also that one might be wrong even about how things seem to one—that one might be wrong in taking it that it seems to one that one is eating chocolate. The superficial similarities between the two sorts of error might then lead to the idea that drawing in one’s horns should be possible in the latter sort of case— that one might draw back from the judgement that it seems to one that one is eating chocolate to a less committal judgement, to the effect that it at least seems to one that it so seems to one, or that it at least seems to one that one’s experience is pleasant and involves sweetness, brightness, &c.  One way of understanding the ‘introspective experiments’ that Kenny describes is as attempts to gain security in introspective description on the basis of such manoeuvres. One potential lesson of Kenny’s discussion is that attention to differences between the two sorts of cases, and in particular to the sorts of loss of determinacy involved in attempting to draw in one’s horns in characterising how things merely seem to one, might reveal ways in which errors about how things seem to one are not appropriately modelled on errors about the extra-psychological factors on which one’s experience sometimes depends. References  Anthony Kenny (1963) Action, Emotion and Will. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Robert S. Woodworth (1938) Experimental Psychology. New York: H. Holt and Company. (Kenny cites this as 1950 and seems to have in mind the London: Methuen reprint, rather than the 1954 second edition.)

In the course of developing his distinctively dual aspect account of the ontological nature of actions, Brian O’Shaughnessy makes the following comment on the idea that actions might be of ‘psycho-physical’ status:

It will help to pinpoint the difficulties I experience with ‘psycho-physical’ if we briefly consider other specific types in which we link one kind with another via a hyphen. Suppose I ask the question: ‘What is “brunch”?’ If you say that it is ‘breakfast-lunch’, you merely hint at a sense. Because ‘breakfast-lunch’ could easily be applied to several meal types—a midday first meal of bacon and eggs—an 11 a.m. first meal of three lunch-type courses—it applies uniquely to none. In other words, the sense of ‘breakfast-lunch’ has not been specified: the expression is not self-explanatory, the hyphen fixes nothing. (O’Shaughnessy 2008: 413)

O’Shaughnessy’s comment raises several questions, not only about definition-by-hyphen, but also about the kinds breakfast, lunch, and brunch. We can array some of these questions as follows:

  1. Is brunch a determinate kind, or fixes an application to a unique type of meal?
  2. Is it true that ‘breakfast-lunch’ fails alone to specify a unique kind?
  3. Is it true that ‘breakfast-lunch’ fails to specify the kind brunch, whether the latter be a determinate kind or not?
  4. If the answers to 2. or 3. are affirmative, is blame to be assigned to the method of definition-by-hyphen, or rather to the vagaries of the embedded kinds, breakfast and lunch?
  5. More specifically, is breakfast a determinate kind?
  6. And is lunch?
  7. Finally, how are we to discern answers to these questions? By judgment and reflection? By survey? By empirical inquiry into an array of purported examples?

I won’t here attempt to address all of these questions. However, I want briefly to comment on questions 2., 3., and 4. It seems reasonable to follow O’Shaughnessy’s approach to questions 2. and 3. That is, we might begin by asking two questions, implicit in his comment:

  1. Is it true that ‘breakfast-lunch’ may be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs or an 11 a.m. first meal of three lunch-type courses?
  2. Is it true that ‘brunch’ may not be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs or an 11 a.m. first meal of three lunch-type courses?

If the answers to questions 8. and 9. are affirmative, then the answer to 3. is also affirmative. If not, then we might pursue further inquiries of the same broad kind. Here, however, we hit a first snag. What precisely is being claimed when it is said that ‘breakfast-lunch’ may be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs? Here, we might reasonably distinguish two sorts of response. The first would appeal to the idea that ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’, and the structure ‘A-B’, make determinate, uniform contributions to the determination of complex expression meaning, so that anyone, or any thing, appropriately sensitive to those individual contributions would be in a position to discern the meaning of ‘breakfast-lunch’. Given that approach to definition-by-hyphen—and, perhaps, given the further assumption that if the meaning of a complex expression doesn’t rule out an application as incorrect, then it rules it in as correct—it would be natural, I think, to allow that ‘breakfast-lunch’ may be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs. For that application seems not to be ruled out by what anyone who understood the expression’s operative components would be in a position to rule out. In order to rule it out, they would have to take O’Shaughnessy’s hint, and go beyond the simple compositional meaning of ‘breakfast-lunch’. If the answers to questions 8. and 9. are affirmative, then the answer to 3. is also affirmative. If not, then we might pursue further inquiries of the same broad kind. Here, however, we hit a first snag. What precisely is being claimed when it is said that ‘breakfast-lunch’ may be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs? Here, we might reasonably distinguish two sorts of response. The first would appeal to the idea that ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’, and the structure ‘A-B’, make determinate, uniform contributions to the determination of complex expression meaning, so that anyone, or any thing, appropriately sensitive to those individual contributions would be in a position to discern the meaning of ‘breakfast-lunch’. Given that approach to definition-by-hyphen—and, perhaps, given the further assumption that if the meaning of a complex expression doesn’t rule out an application as incorrect, then it rules it in as correct—it would be natural, I think, to allow that ‘breakfast-lunch’ may be applied correctly to a midday first meal of bacon and eggs. For that application seems not to be ruled out by what anyone who understood the expression’s operative components would be in a position to rule out. In order to rule it out, they would have to take O’Shaughnessy’s hint, and go beyond the simple compositional meaning of ‘breakfast-lunch’. This type of consideration—and this understanding of the power of definition—might figure in a standard form of answer to questions like 4., according to which the compounding of nominal in general, and their compounding around hyphens in particular, is messy. Thus, consider one favoured example, ‘bread-knife’. Given our backgrounds, and the effects of habit, convention, and tradition, we would ordinarily take a request for a bread-knife in a particular way, as a request for a knife reasonably apt for, and perhaps reasonably well designed for, the slicing of (paradigmatic cases of) loaves of bread. However, reflection indicates that that understanding is not fixed uniquely by the meanings of the constituents, ‘bread’, ‘knife’, and ‘A-B’. For one might reasonably use an expression built in the way that ‘bread-knife’ is from those constituents in application to a knife made of bread, a knife kept near bread, a knife concealed inside a loaf of bread, a loaf shaped like a knife, and so on. However, there is a second sort of response that is consistent with allowing that O’Shaughnessy’s hint might figure in determining the definitional power of an appeal to ‘breakfast-lunch’. According to the second response, the power of a definition is to be conceived of as, in a way, dependent upon the powers of those to which it is presented. The meanings of the constituent expressions considered alone determine a plurality of meanings or understandings for the whole, from amongst which creatures select, exploiting their own kind of special psychological design, as tuned by their specific developmental and social circumstances. On this type of view, it is not be required that anyone, or any thing, appropriately sensitive to those individual contributions would be in a position to discern the meaning of ‘breakfast-lunch’. All that is required is that someone, or something, appropriately like those to whom the definition is presented would be in a position to discern that meaning. Thus, a creature might need to be very much like us in order fully to benefit from this case of definition-by-hyphen. Endorsement of this more expansive view of definition wouldn’t rule out that we should nonetheless agree with O’Shaughnessy in giving affirmative answers to questions 8. and 9., but it would perhaps makes less clear that we should. Whether we should depends upon the extent to which we are suitably placed to take the required hints. References O’Shaugnessy, Brian 2008. The Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I’ve been thinking, more or less loosely, about various issues to do with the appropriate ways to engage with, or treat, past philosophers. Some of these issues concern the ways in which the work of particular philosophers is highlighted as of especial importance and—what I think is a more or less independent issue—the ways in which the work of other philosophers is largely ignored. (I think that the issues are more or less independent since I think that it’s consistent to think that someone has done especially brilliant work without holding that other work is of lesser, or no, importance.) Connectedly, and of wider significance, are more systematic biases in our patterns of engagement with the past: a general failure to engage with the work of people who are not white, or male, or European. These are all things that I need to think more about, and read more about.

One more specific issue in this broad area, and the topic of this post, concerns how to deal with the fact that many past philosophers gave expression to views that are morally repugnant—for example, views that are racist or sexist. I think it pretty clear that one important part of dealing with that fact is to acknowledge it, and to recognize—and moreover to emphasize—that such views are morally repugnant. But questions remain about how to deal with the work of people who hold such views, especially given that engaging with someone’s work is, in part, a way of engaging with that person. Should one view their work as a whole as tainted? Does it depend upon the extent to which their work is in fact infected by their racism or sexism? Should one perhaps disengage, in the way that one might, in some circumstances, feel the need to disengage from a contemporary who gave expression to such views? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I don’t even have firm views about them. However, I wanted to post one such view, with which I have some sympathy. The following passage, by Allen Wood—a white, male philosopher—concerns Kant, who at least sometimes expressed views that are racist:

“It is a sometimes uncomfortable fact that the philosophers of the past whose thoughts we study with most profit were not especially fine human beings. The only way to deal with this fact is to face up squarely to the cognitive dissonance it occasions and then to resolve to set it aside as irrelevant to anything that could be of legitimate interest in deciding which philosophers to study. It displays a deplorable misunderstanding of what philosophy is – and what may be gained by studying it – to treat past philosophers as gurus at whose feet we are to sit in order to absorb their wisdom, or alternatively, to find in their unattractive personal traits and characteristics an excuse for not studying them at all. If a past philosopher, Kant for instance, was an admirable person, that still gives us no reason to study his philosophical thoughts if they were unoriginal or mediocre and do not repay our careful investigation and critical reflection. If the philosopher was a thoroughly unattractive character, or even if some of his opinions on morality or politics offend enlightened people today, it may still be true that his contributions to philosophy are indispensable to our understanding of philosophical problems and of the history of people’s reflections on them. If we study the writings of the admirable philosopher in order to honor his virtuous character, then we are merely wasting time and effort that could have been better employed. By the same token, if we refuse to study the writings of the personally repulsive philosopher either because we think our neglect justly punishes him for his misdeeds or his evil opinions, or because we want to avoid being influenced by such a pernicious character, then all we accomplish by this foolish exercise in self-righteousness and closedmindedness is to deprive ourselves of what we might have learned both from attaining to his insights and from exposing his errors. It is always sad to see philosophy students, and sometimes even professional philosophers, missing out on many things they might have learned on account of their moral or political approval or disapproval of the personality or opinions of some long-dead philosopher, who is far beyond their poor power to reward or punish. The only people we punish in this way are ourselves, and also those around us, or in the future, whom we might have influenced for the better if we had educated ourselves more wisely.” (Wood 2006: 20)

As I said, I have a certain amount of sympathy with this line about the very specific question: should one engage with philosophers some of whose views are morally repugnant? However, before attaining any sort of settled opinion, I’d need to read, and engage with, a far wider range of discussions, on a far wider range of issues in this area, including especially work by the marginalized targets of such views.


Allen Wood (2006) “Kant’s Life and Works.” In Graham Bird ed. A Companion to Kant.

In a footnote to ‘A Plea for Excuses,’ J. L. Austin wrote the following:

Plato, I suppose, and after him Aristotle, fastened this confusion upon us [the confusion involved in collapsing succumbing to temptation into losing control of ourselves], as bad in its day as the later, grotesque, confusion of moral weakness with weakness of will. I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at High Table: I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation and even conceivably (but why necessarily?) going against my principles. But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels from the dish and wolf them down, impervious to the consternation of my colleagues? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse. (Austin 1956: 146 (reprint))

Austin appears partly to be motivated here by the idea that losing control of oneself must involve total, or near total loss: failure to govern oneself in accord with one’s views or intentions concerning what is to be done. If one allows that any failure in self-governance, any slack between one’s views about what is to be done and that which one in fact does, counts as a loss of control, then the proposed distinction between succumbing to temptation and losing control becomes less clear. However, Austin seems right to claim that one can act in accord with one’s then operative views about what is to be done, and to that extent count as fully in control of oneself, whilst counting as having succumbed to temptation, due to the fact that one’s then operative views about what is to be done conflict with what is in fact to be done, or with what one’s principles permit. There is, as ever, more to say here. However, I wish instead to consider a distinct case of bombe disposal.

Consider the following case. The bombe has been distributed fairly so that each diner has had a segment, but one segment remains. You desire the segment, and set about deliberating on the question whether to take it. You have the following views:

(V1) You are permitted to take the final segment of ice cream only if you are entitled to the final segment of ice cream.

(V2) No one who would decide to take the final segment of ice cream is entitled to the final segment of ice cream.

According to (V1) and (V2), it would go against one’s principles to take the final segment of ice cream on the basis of having decided to take the final segment of ice cream. By (V2), anyone who decided to take the ice cream would thereby lose their entitlement to take the ice cream; and by (V1), one is permitted to take the segment only if one is entitled. However, in advance of your deciding to take the final segment, (V1) and (V2) seem to leave open that you may take the ice cream. And they thereby seem to leave open that you can decide to take the ice cream. So, can you decide to take the final segment of ice cream? More precisely, can you decide rationally to take the final segment without giving up, or losing track of, your standing commitment to (V1) and (V2)?


J. L. Austin (1956) ‘A Plea for Excuses.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. Reprinted in his Philosophical Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

In ‘Pragmatics’, Charles Travis develops an argument against the view that linguistic meaning, which determines locutionary act content, also determines truth-conditional illocutionary act content. (Travis 1997.) The argument is based around cases like the following:

Pia’s Japanese maple is full of russet leaves. Believing that green is colour of leaves, she paints them. [Case 1:] Returning, she reports, ‘That’s better. The leaves are green now.’ She speaks truth. [Case 2:] A botanist friend then phones, seeking green leaves for the study of green-leaf chemistry. ‘The leaves (on my tree) are green,’ Pia says. ‘You can have those.’ But now Pia speaks falsehood. (Travis 1997: 89)

According to Travis, we can suppose that the same words, with the same meanings, are used in both cases. Moreover, we can assume that the operations of indexicals are confined to determining which leaves are being spoken about, and that the same leaves are being spoken about in both cases. Thus, we can assume that the same type of locutionary act, with the same locutionary content, is performed in case 1 and case 2. And since the same leaves, in the same condition, are being spoken about in both cases, if ‘The leaves are green’ were used in both cases to make the same statement and, so, to determine the same truth conditions, then Pia would either state a truth in both cases, or state a falsehood in both cases. Since it is plausible that Pia can state a truth (and no falsehood) in case 1 and that she can state a falsehood (and no truth) in case 2, even though the leaves are in the same condition in both cases, we have that ‘The leaves are green’ is not used in both cases to make the same statement. So, we have that the statement that Pia makes in case 1 is not the same as the statement that she makes in case 2. Finally, if we assume that the statements that Pia makes in both cases are basic illocutionary acts, we have grounds for rejecting the view that locutionary act content determines basic illocutionary act content. For we have that Pia performed locutionary acts with the same contents and basic illocutionary acts with different contents and, moreover, that the difference in illocutionary content was not due to the operation of indexicals. And since n-tuples of cases of this sort can be constructed for most, if not all, substantive expressions, there are grounds for generalizing Travis’ conclusion: most, if not all, substantive expressions function in a similar way to discretionary indexicals.

Travis’ argument depends upon three main assumptions. The first assumption is that the variation in truth conditions exhibited across cases 1 and 2 affects basic illocutionary acts performed in those cases. For if the variance affected only derivative illocutionary acts (e.g. Gricean implicatures), it would be consistent with maintaining that locutionary act content determines basic illocutionary act content. The second assumption is that the variation is not due to ambiguity. For if ‘The leaves are green’ was used with relevantly different meanings across the two cases, the variation in truth conditions might be traced to a difference in locutionary act content. The third assumption is that the variation is not due to the operation of non-discretionary—that is, meaning controlled—indexicality, like that plausibly exhibited by ‘I,’ ‘here,’ and ‘now.’ For if it were due to such non-discretionary indexicality, then the variation in truth conditions might again be due to variation in meaning-controlled locutionary act content. Travis’ second and third assumptions have been subjected to interesting challenges in recent years. In this note, I briefly consider one such challenge.

Christopher Kennedy and Louise McNally have argued that ‘is green’ carries two kinds of meanings, one kind on which it is used to attribute a gradable quantity or quality of perceptible greenness, and another on which it is used to attribute a property that is conventionally correlated with the colour green, for example a biochemical property. They argue moreover that a gradable meaning is operative in case 1, which therefore comes out true because a sufficient quantity of the surface of the leaves is perceptibly green, while the correlational meaning is operative in case 2, which therefore comes out false because the biochemical property conventionally correlated with greenness in leaves—leaves with which property are sought by Pia’s botanist friend—is absent with respect to the painted leaves. Thus, they seek the explain the divergence in truth values across the two cases by appeal to a subtle ambiguity. (Kennedy and McNally 2010.)

One worry about this type of challenge is that an unsupplemented appeal to an n-way ambiguity can explain only n-way variation in truth conditions. If Travis’ argument were based exhaustively on the pair of cases with which we began, then appeal to a two-way ambiguity would suffice. However, it is a straightforward task to multiply cases. For one example amongst very many, we might do so by appeal to cases in which the leaves look green in natural light, but yellow in the artificial light: depending on operative conversational ends—for instance, on whether the leaves will end up indoors or outdoors—it might be reasonable to use, ‘The leaves are green,’ in order to say something true or something false. In order to capture all such variations, we would be forced to appeal to a distinct meaning for each case, and so forced to appeal to a vast—perhaps indefinitely large—variety of distinct meanings for each susceptible expression.

Such an account would be unacceptable. It is, at best, unclear how we could gain facility with such an array of meanings. And even if it were possible to acquire competence with each of the meanings, doing so would supply, at best, very little guidance to what speakers were up to. For, as the number of distinct meanings increases, the task of discerning which meaning a speaker intends to deploy on a particular occasion approximates to the task of discerning the speaker’s basic illocutionary intentions without any guidance at all from the meanings of the words they use. Finally, it is far from clear that if were able to focus attention on one amongst the array of meanings carried by ‘The leaves are green,’ we would thereby have eliminated the sort of variation in truth conditions to which Travis appeals.

In order for a meaning to determine truth conditions in a way that eliminated all such variation, it would have to determine, for all possible variations in prevailing conditions, precisely how those variations would bear on truth-value. For suppose that the meaning failed to determine the bearing of a specific form of variation amongst possible cases—for instance, by failing to determine precisely how much of a leaf would need to look green, for how much of its career, for what reasons, in which viewing conditions, and so forth. There might then be pairs of cases differing in that specific way such that the meaning of the target expression left open whether the expression would be used to say something true on each of those occasions. And in that case, there would be room for speakers’ ends, in addition to the end of according with the meanings of their words, to figure in determining whether what was stated on each occasions was true. It is difficult to understand how the meanings of any expression that we could usefully employ could include sufficient detail to foreclose on speakers’ wider ends playing some role in determining the truth conditions of what they state.

Kennedy and McNally don’t claim that the ambiguity that they posit is the only source of variation in truth conditions, even with respect to colour adjectives. They allow that the applicability of gradable adjectives, including their gradable form of ‘is green,’ depends upon a standard of comparison that isn’t determined by meaning. So, they allow that even if we hold fixed that ‘The leaves are green’ is used with its gradable meaning, and that it is used with respect to the same leaves in the same condition, there can nonetheless be variation in truth value due to variation in the operative standard of comparison. And they allow that the applicability of their correlated property form depends upon the selection of one or another correlated property, again allowing for case-by-case variation in truth value even holding fixed the use of that form. Even if successful, then, their proposal serves not to eradicate, but only to mitigate, the sort of variation on which Travis’ argument is based. Thus, considered on its own, their proposal lacks the resources to save the view that Travis advises us to reject. (Kennedy and McNally suggest that their proposal might be combined with the proposal that some of the variation in truth conditions exhibited in Travis’ cases is to be explained by appeal to non-discretionary indexicality.)

Furthermore, it is far from clear that Kennedy and McNally’s proposal should be accepted. There are two main difficulties.

The first difficulty is that even if we were to confine attention to perceptible greenness, and so to do our best to focus on the gradable meanings, the possible variations in truth-value seem to go beyond what would be predicted by simple appeals to variation in an operative threshold of quantity or quality of colour coverage. For example, suppose that an object were coloured in such a way that it appeared uniformly green only when viewed from certain distances, or certain angles, otherwise appearing yellow. It seems plausible that, depending on the mutually manifest ends of a speaker and their audience, ‘The object is green’ might be used on some occasions to speak truth about the object and on others to speak falsehood. (Suppose, for instance, that what is wanted is a green ornament, and that the agreed location for the ornament will constrain the angle and distance of viewing.) And yet it is far from obvious that such variation must be due to variation in an operative threshold quantity (or quality) of colour coverage. So, it is plausible that the meaning or meanings of ‘is green’ provide even less detailed guidance to truth-conditions than Kennedy and McNally suggest.

The second difficulty is that the evidence to which Kennedy and McNally appeal in support of there being distinct gradable and correlational meanings for ‘is green’ is less clear-cut than they suggest.
With respect to the circumstances of case 1, it would seem perfectly acceptable for Pia to qualify her colour attribution: ‘These leaves are greener than those,’ ‘These leaves are not green enough,’ and so forth. By contrast, with respect to the circumstances of case 2, in which Pia’s overriding interest is supposed to be in the biochemical properties of the leaves, Kennedy and McNally claim that attempts at such qualifications would be unacceptable. Their conclusion is that the difference in acceptability of qualifications of this sort is to be explained by a difference in the operative meaning of ‘is green,’ specifically that such qualifications are acceptable only with respect to the gradable meanings.

One concern here is that the clarity of the contrastive judgment to which Kennedy and McNally appeal seems to depend upon treating case 2 as one on which what matters to Pia is the presence or absence of a biochemical property that is not itself gradable. However, if, say, the quantity and quality of natural greenness were correlated with the quantity and quality of the sought for property, it would be less obvious that Pia couldn’t acceptably qualify what she said to her botanist friend: ‘These leaves are green enough,’ ‘These leaves are less green than those.’ (It might remain true that, as Kennedy and McNally observe, it would not be natural for Pia to explain to her botanist friend why her painted leaves were unsuitable by saying that they were ‘not green enough.’ However, that might plausibly be explained by appeal to the fact that, for those purposes, the painted leaves would not count as green at all, and so it would be misleading to claim that they were insufficiently green.)

A second concern is that it is not obvious why the contrast to which Kennedy and McNally appeal is better explained by appeal to ambiguity than by appeal to what it is possible for Pia to say. We are assuming that, in uttering, ‘The leaves are green,’ Pia aims to be saying something about the leaves’ natural colour, where being so coloured is (let us suppose) not a gradable quality. But if being so coloured is not a gradable quality, then it is not clear what Pia could be saying, or trying to say, about that quality in using the problematic qualifiers. So, it is not obvious that the best way to explain the contrasting applicability of qualifiers is by appeal to meanings rather than by appeal to what it would make sense to say.

In summary, then, it is not obvious that Kennedy and McNally’s proposal, according to which ‘is green’ is ambiguous, should be accepted. Furthermore, even if accepted, the proposal is consistent with Travis’s claim that meaning, and so locutionary act content, serves as a guide to, rather than as a determinant of, the contents of basic illocutionary acts. Their disagreement with Travis concerns only the quantity and quality of guidance that meanings provide. Thus, accepting their proposal is consistent with rejecting the view that linguistic meaning, which determines locutionary act content, also determines truth-conditional illocutionary act content.


Kennedy, C. and L. McNally, 2010. “Color, context, and compositionality.” Synthese 174: 79–98.
Travis, C. 1997. “Pragmatics.” In B. Hale and C. Wright eds. A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.

Despite the patronage of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege’s work had surprisingly little direct impact on British philosophy until around the early 1950s. Even amongst British philosophers who actively engaged with German philosophy from around the same period—for one important example, Gilbert Ryle—Frege’s work seems to have figured mainly indirectly before this time. That changed in the 1950s as translations of Frege’s work began to become widely available, and philosophers like Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, and Peter Geach began to engage seriously with it. Two key moments were J. L. Austin’s translation of Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1884, translated as The Foundations of Arithmetic), published in 1950, and Peter Geach and Max Black’s Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, published in 1952, and including, amongst other important pieces, translations of ‘Über Begriff und Gegenstand’ (‘On Concept and Object’) and ‘Über Sinn und Bedeutung’ (‘On Sense and Reference’). This note concerns the former, Austin’s translation of Frege’s Grundlagen.

According to Geoffrey Warnock (1973), the Grundlagen was one of the texts read by Austin’s ‘Saturday Mornings’ discussion group, and, although Warnock suggests that the book was read in translation after 1950, the opportunity to discuss Frege’s work in the group may have played a role in Austin’s decision to produce the translation. In an encyclopedia entry on Austin’s work, I suggested that Austin’s translation was produced ‘so that it could be set as an exam,’ but I failed to record a source for the remark. The source was Michael Dummett, who records the connection in the following passage:

My fascination with the writings of Frege dates from my reading, as an undergraduate, of the Grundlagen der Arithmetik, unquestionably the most brilliant sustained performance of its length in the entire history of philosophy; and, as I then knew no German, this was made possible by Austin’s translation of that book, which first introduced it to most English-speaking philosophers at a time when there was very little interest in Frege, and was occasioned by its inclusion, I believe at Austin’s suggestion, as one of the of the texts to be studied for an excellent optional paper in the Oxford Philosophy, Politics and Economics Honours School. (Dummett 1978: xxiii–xxiv)

Dummett is clear here that the production of the translation was occasioned by the inclusion of the Grundlagen as an examined text, although he leaves open whether its inclusion as an examined text was also due to Austin and also whether the availability of a translation was a necessary condition of its inclusion. However, Dummett’s claim, together with his admitted inability at that time to read German, makes plausible that the availability of a translation was a necessary condition of reasonable inclusion. Dummett says a bit more in the following two passages:

It just so happened that Austin did a very good thing by inventing an optional paper in P.P.E., which I read, which was called absurdly, ‘Foundations of Modern Epistemology’, and consisted of a number of set texts, starting with the Theaetetus, and finishing with Frege’s Grundlagen. It was for that purpose that Austin translated the Grundlagen. (Dummett 1993: 169)

I’ve always remained an analytic philosopher—but as for logic and philosophy of mathematics, that’s a separate thing. It happened, well again, quite accidentally. I took, the first time it was set, an optional paper in philosophy in my final examination. It was one invented by John Austin and it was called, absurdly, The Origins of Modern Epistemology. What it was was a collection (a rather large collection) of texts, starting with Plato’s Theaetetus and finishing with Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic. These were texts one wouldn’t normally have come across during the ordinary Philosophy, Politics and Economics course in Oxford, and I worked my way through these. I was very interested in a lot of them but I was absolutely bowled over by the Foundations of Arithmetic, and I thought, I want to read everything this man has written. (Fara and Salles 2006: 2)

Daniel Isaacson adds some further information in the following passage from his obituary for Dummett:

In Finals, in Trinity Term 1950, he took a paper “invented by John Austin” for first examination in that term called “The origins of Modern Epistemology”. Candidates were expected to study four texts from a list of seven, one of which was Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, newly translated by Austin for this purpose. The examiners’ report records that seven candidates took this paper and that Boole and Frege “attracted the least attention”. One can infer that perhaps only one or two candidates studied Frege for this exam. Nonetheless, there was a class on Frege’s Grundlagen in Hilary Term 1950 that met twice a week, given by Mr. W. Kneale and Mr F. Waismann. Dummett’s ensuing work on Frege has transformed understanding of Frege’s philosophy. Dummett wrote recently of Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, “I thought, and still think, that it was the most brilliant piece of philosophical writing of its length ever penned.” (Isaacson, ‘In Memoriam: Michael Dummett (1925-2011)’)

This post was occasioned by a question from Michael Kremer. I’m grateful to Michael, and also to Michael Bench-Capon and Aidan McGlynn, for help in assembling sources. Thanks also to Robert May for comments and questions that led to corrections.


Michael Dummett (1978) Truth and Other Enigmas. London: Duckworth.

Michael Dummett (1993) Origins of Analytical Philosophy. London: Duckworth.

Rudolf Fara and Maurice Salles (2006) ‘An Interview with Michael Dummett: From Analytical Philosophy to Voting Analysis and Beyond.’ [Online]. London: LSE Research Online.

Geoffrey Warnock (1973) ‘Saturday Mornings.’ In Isaiah Berlin ed. Essays on J. L. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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