O’Shaughnessy on Brunch

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.

Advertisements
8 comments
  1. I think your bread-knife example expresses O’Shaughnessy’s difficulties better than his own breakfast-lunch. I can specify the latter by claiming (a) that breakfast is the first meal of the day (literally the breaking of an overnight fast), and (b) that lunch is any meal taken between about 11.00 and 15.00. I could further claim that brunch applied to any resulting first meal in that time-frame, and any disagreement about the meaning of ‘brunch’ could only be decided by a survey. (Not everyone has to agree with these claims for them to be reasonable; when I worked at the Bass-Charrington depot in Foxearth, lunch was a ‘meal’ taken between 10.00 and 11.00 consisting of sandwiches or, not untypically, a raw onion; the idea of brunch would have been unknown, unless it was something that might happen on a Sunday.)
    The point is, I think, that any vagueness associated with a complex or hyphenated expression has to be described on a case-by-case basis. This means that an appeal to some generalised problem with these expressions is not available to help O’Shaughnessy pinpoint his difficulties with ‘psycho-physical’.

    • Thanks. I’m sympathetic with that broadly conjunctive understanding of “brunch”. I guess that, as I think you suggest, O’Shaughnessy’s take on “brunch” is shaped in part by the idea that it (or paradigmatic cases of it) involve stereotypically breakfast foods—perhaps, e.g., bacon and eggs. But as I think you also suggest that might not be a requirement built into our ordinary understanding of “brunch”, or into its meaning. One difficulty for assessing that idea seems to be the other suggestion, that what one counts as cases of breakfast-appropriate or lunch-appropriate foods seems to be heavily dependent on local mores, &c. So, assessing examples might depend e.g. on establishing diners’ perspectives on bacon and eggs, cereal, sandwiches, onions, &c. Some people I know regularly have sandwiches for breakfast, or toast for lunch. I guess raw onions were a historical blip, an aberration that died out for contingent social reasons.

  2. I don’t know the context of O’Shaughnessy’s comment, but isn’t he saying that a neologism such as “psycho-physical” is often less meaningful than it seems – indeed it can sometimes disguise a lack of meaning by suggesting clear identification where no such thing exists.

    If I’m puzzled as to whether x is a physical or psychological phenomenon does it clear things up to say it’s “psycho-physical”? Doesn’t that just incorporate the lack of clarity into our description? It says in effect “it’s kind of both”. But what do we mean by “kind of” here? How exactly are the two aspects related to each other? Until we know that, we haven’t really clarified anything, we’ve just re-stated what we already knew: there’s a confusing mix of psychological and physical aspects here.

    And that’s where the analogy with brunch comes in. If I’m puzzled as to what brunch is (“it seems to be a bit like breakfast and a bit like lunch”) it doesn’t really help to say it’s “breakfast-lunch”. At most that merely suggests (hints at) a connection between breakfast and lunch – but I knew that already. What I want to understand is the nature of the connection, for there are any number of ways in which a meal might have affinities with breakfast and lunch.

    • Yes, that’s the basic point. Was it not clear from what I wrote?

  3. Well, I don’t see why O’Shaughnessy’s comment raises issues about what brunch actually is. He doesn’t really care what brunch is. His only point is that you don’t clarify things by calling it “breakfast-lunch”. He suggests a few ways in which someone might plausibly mistake the suggested relationship, and they don’t seem too outlandish to me. In any case, they’re just examples.

    However, since you’ve raised the point I think the answer is that, paradigmatically, brunch is a mid-morning meal taken instead of breakfast and lunch. There’s plenty of vagueness there (not least vagueness concerning what counts as “breakfast” and “lunch”), but that’s only an issue if it’s likely to cause a misunderstanding on a particular occasion.

    • Ah, I think you might have missed the partial purpose of the blog. However, if “breakfast-lunch” were usable to define “brunch”, that would tend undermine the point to which O’Shaughnessy’s example is put. As for the rest, that may be right, although I wouldn’t focus especially on vagueness, and seems broadly to recapitulate what I say in the post. However, were I seriously pursuing the question about brunch, I’d like to see evidence rather than simple assertion as to impression. For example, is it obvious that one couldn’t have brunch followed by, rather than replacing, a late lunch? Must brunch take place at mid-morning, rather than closer to, or even after, noon? I don’t think answers to such questions are straightforward, or that individual thinkers in general are bound to be especially authoritative about them.

  4. (cheepcheep) said:

    Hi,
    I’m not very analytical I’m afraid, and tend to partake of continental philiosophical breakfasts when not eating salty porridge,but the more intelligent other managed to make something of what you had to say- she’s looking up portmanteau words, and has had recourse to her dictionary in lieu of lunch.
    Anyway, she seems to be a fan of yours.
    Best wishes.

    • Thanks for passing that on. Hope you both enjoy today’s remaining repasts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: