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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.

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