Paul Grice published “Meaning” in 1957, having drafted the piece in 1948. In it, he presented an important positive proposal about the basis of linguistic meaning, making appeal to a distinctive range of intentions with which speakers act, and he supported the proposal by providing fruitful arguments against a range of alternative views. This work immediately generated a cottage industry of specific engagements and now forms the background for almost all work on the topics it treated. It has recently been suggested by some scholars that Grice was beaten to the punch, and that a lesser known but important Swiss philosopher, Anton Marty, developed a version of Grice’s proposal as early as 1908. The suggestion raises two questions. (1) To what extent does Marty’s early proposal converge with Grice’s? (2) To what extent could Marty’s work have exerted an influence on Grice’s? At a recent conference on Marty’s work, I raised the second question in passing, and Kevin Mulligan sketched a positive answer. In this note, I want to record the basis of his answer, as it struck me. Mulligan should be held responsible for whatever truth there is in the account offered here; for the rest, responsibility is mine. (As to the first question, the issues are delicate, but my view is that Marty’s proposal is more similar to one of the views that Grice aims to demolish than it is to Grice’s own positive proposal.)

Mulligan’s answer takes off from the central role played in early 20th Century thinking about language by The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (1923) by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. Ogden and Richards’ book had an enormous impact on philosophy and linguistics from its publication until at least the mid-50s. Although Grice never cites the book, it is enormously likely that he read it. (Grice tends against full citation, though does a reasonable job of mentioning individual influences. However, more evidence would be needed before we could be absolutely sure that Grice read carefully this text.) Moreover, Ogden and Richards include proposals relevantly similar to Marty’s, and relevantly similar to proposals discussed in “Meaning”. Let’s assume that Grice read their book, and that it had an influence on his discussion in “Meaning”. The question now is whether Ogden and Richards’ book served as a conduit for Marty’s earlier work.

Initial inspection is disappointing. Odgen and Richards include no reference to Marty in their index. However, as Mulligan notes, they discuss positively other work relevantly similar to Grice’s, in particular work by the archaeologist Alan Gardiner. They quote the following:

Is the meaning of a sentence that which is in the mind of the speaker at the moment of utterance or that which is in the mind of the listener at the moment of audition? Neither, I think. Certainly not that which is in the mind of the listener, for he may utterly misconstrue the speaker’s purpose. But also not that which is in the mind of the speaker, for he may intentionally veil in his utterance the thoughts which are in his brain, and this, of course, he could not do if the meaning of the utterance were precisely that which he held in his brain. I think the following formulation will meet the case: The meaning of any sentence is what the speaker intends to be understood from it by the listener. (Gardiner, 1922: 361)

Gardiner’s proposal is strikingly similar to—though not identical with—Grice’s positive proposal, and is taken very seriously by Ogden and Richards. That is of some independent interest. But does it aid our search for a line back to Marty? Specifically, can we trace a line of influence from Marty to Gardiner?

We can. Gardiner cites Marty (1908) in a very positive way:

Most writers on Languge have, of course, been more or less alive to this standpoint [roughly, the standpoint of attending to speakers’ purposes in theorizing about language, GL], but Marty alone, so far as my reading goes, is entirely impregnated with it. His statement of the purpose of Language agrees closely with my own definition, which runs: Language is the name given to any system of articulate symbols having reference to the facts of experience, whereby speakers seek to influence the minds of listeners in given directions. (Gardiner, 1922: 354.)

So, Gardiner provides us with the remaining portion of our path back to Marty. Disappointingly, as the quote indicates, Gardiner finds in Marty a more or less generic appeal to speakers’ intentions and, more specifically, their intentions to influence listeners’ minds. Thus, Gardiner’s own view is closer to Grice’s than the view he admits to finding in Marty. Insofar, then, as the path of possible influence that we have traced from Marty, through Gardiner and Ogden and Richards, to Grice is the only, or main, line of influence, the most we can say is this. Marty’s work, so transmitted, may have suggested to Grice, or supported his standing interest in, the idea that speakers’ intentions to influence the minds of listeners are important determinants of what speakers mean by what they say. Given the specificity of Grice’s positive proposal, and his objections to other views that also attend to speakers’ intentions, that is less than some Marty enthusiasts might have hoped for. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable, in light of Mulligan’s suggestion, to hold that Marty’s work exerted at least an indirect influence on Grice’s.


A. Gardiner (1922) “The definition of the word and the sentence.” British Journal of Psychology, XII, 4: 352–361.

P. Grice (1957) “Meaning.” The Philosophical Review, 66: 377–88. Reprinted in his Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (1923) The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

A. Marty (1908) Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung der allgemeinen Grammatik und Sprachphilosophie. Vol. I. Halle a. S.: Max Niemeyer.


Descartes wrote many puzzling things about what is impossible, many of them connecting issues about what is impossible with issues about God’s power. For example,

I do not think we should ever say of anything that it cannot be brought about by God. For since every basis of truth and goodness depends on his omnipotence, I would not venture to say that God cannot make an uphill without a downhill, or that one and two should not be three. But I merely say that he has given me such a mind that I cannot conceive of an uphill without a downhill, or a sum of one and two which is not three, and that such things involve a contradiction in my conception. (Descartes, letter to Arnauld, CSMK: 358–9.)

On the basis of such dark sayings, it is tempting—and many have been tempted—to attribute to Descartes one or both of the following pair of theses:

(Voluntarism) Insofar as anything is impossible, that is because God has decreed that it be so.

(Libertinism) There is nothing that is impossible for God.

Amongst the problems facing this pair is that they seem to entail that nothing is impossible. Suppose that God has decreed that it is impossible that one and two not equal three. Still, nothing is impossible for God, so God could have decreed that one and two not equal three. So, it is possible that God decree that one and two not equal three. And, since such a decree would suffice to make possible that one and two not equal three, it is therefore possible that one and two not equal three. Not only does that seem to undermine God’s power to make it impossible that one and two not equal three; in addition, it seems to deliver a contradiction: it is both impossible (due to God’s actual decree) and possible (due to God’s possible decree) that one and two not make three. And of course the difficulties ramify. Doesn’t the question whether these are genuine entailments depend—since A entails B only if it is impossible that A is true and B is not true—on God’s decree? And doesn’t the question whether the outcome contradiction is problematic—that is, an impossibility—also depend on God’s decree?

Numerous attempts have been made to soften Descartes’ fall. Some restrict the range of impossibilities that he aims to treats, allowing that some genuine impossibilities are left standing in the face of God’s power over other merely seeming impossibilities. Others exploit the distinction between something being merely impossible and it being impossible that it not be impossible, and so forth, in order to block the slide from its being possible for God to make it possible that one and two not make three to its being possible that one and two not make three. I wish briefly to consider a nuanced version of the latter type of manoeuvre due to Jonathan Bennett.

Bennett’s account takes off from Descartes’ appeal, in the above quotation, to a connection between what we cannot conceive and what is impossible. His proposal has two main components:

(Conceptualism about impossibility) Insofar as anything is impossible, that is because it is inconceivable by us.

(Conceptual voluntarism) Insofar as anything is inconceivable by us, that is because God has decreed that it be so.

On this view, the reason that it is impossible that one and two not make three is that it is inconceivable by us that one and two not make three. That is, we are unable clearly to conceive of a circumstance in which one and two makes, e.g., four, or a cake. (Notice, but don’t dwell on, the appearance that the core notion of inconceivability is itself bound up with impossibility, the impossibility of our clearly conceiving something.) And the reason that it is inconceivable by us that one and two not make three is that God has decreed it.

Bennett’s proposal is deep and interesting, and seems to fit well much of what Descartes wrote. However, as Bennett notes, issues remain. Consider again the following, quoted above:

I would not venture to say that God cannot make…that one and two should not be three.

Why not? Assume the following:

(A1) If it is impossible that A, then everything is such that it cannot make that A.

(A2) If everything is such that it cannot make that A, then God is such that He cannot make that A.

(A3) It is impossible that one and two should not be three.

On the face of it, we have grounds for (A1)–(A3). (A3) seems obviously correct, and also follows from (Conceptualism about possibility), given that we cannot conceive of one and two not being three. (A1) seems to expose a necessary connection between the notions of ability—what things can and cannot do—and impossibility. And (A1) seems to entail (A2) and, moreover, it seems inconceivable to us that (A1) is true while (A2) is not true. But if we accept (A1)–(A3), we seem forced to accept that God is such that He cannot make that one and two not be three. And that leaves Descartes refusal to venture that claim looking coy: at best, a response to constraints on what one shouldn’t say that are distinct from a simple concern to speak only truth.

Now Bennett seeks to respond to a version of this difficulty. His response amounts to the following. Descartes accepts (Conceptual voluntarism). It follows that God’s decrees—that is, the specific decrees that God has made, including that it is impossible that one and two not make three—form part of “what has to be the case for the modal concepts [i.e. the concept of impossibility, GL] to be usable at all.” (Bennett, 2001: 70.) It follows that, when we try to consider, or conceive of, what would be the case had God’s decrees differed, we find that our modal concepts are inapplicable. In response to the difficulty sketched above, I think that the idea would have to be that our modal concepts have no traction on questions about their own bases, including God’s decrees. We can’t say, or judge, that it is impossible for God’s decrees to have been other than they were, or that it is possible for them to have been other than they were. Thus, we should venture no claims, or judgments, in this area.

As I said, the proposal is deep and interesting, and demands further reflection. One putative difficulty with which further reflection should engage is a concern about (Conceptual voluntarism)—that is, the claim that insofar as anything is inconceivable by us, that is because God has decreed that it be so. The concern is that it might seem natural to think that we understand the “because” here only insofar as we understand the co-variation of God’s decrees with the space of what is inconceivable, and that seems to depend in turn on our understanding the possibility that God’s decrees might have been other than they were. The outcome of Bennett’s discussion, however, seems to be that that is something we can’t understand: we have no conception of possibility such that we can conceive of God’s decrees as varying.

Well, there appear to be at least four potential ways out. (1) We might seek to deny that our understanding of the “because” depends on our understanding the co-variation of God’s decrees and what is conceivable. (2) We might deny that our understanding that depends in turn on our having a positive conception of God’s decrees being other than they were. (3) We might distinguish our optimal judgments about what is impossible from what is really impossible, thus rejecting (Conceptualism about impossibility): God’s decrees fix the space of what is conceivable by us, and so determine the extent to which we have access to the space of possibility, but (as far as we can tell) are impotent to affect the independent space of genuine possibility. (4) We might accept that God’s decrees might have been other than they were, and so accept that the space of what is conceivable might have been different, while denying that that would make a difference to the space of possibility. That is, we might tie our conception of what is possible, and so what is possible, to what is fixed by God’s actual decrees and, so, accept the argument sketched above to the conclusion that God could not have decreed otherwise, while allowing that we could have had a concept in some ways akin to our concept of impossibility—impossibility*—but which allowed that it is not impossible* that one and two not make three.


J. Bennett (2001) Learning from Six Philosophers, vol.2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

J. Cottingham. R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, and A. Kenny (eds.) (1991) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [CSMK]

A recent report in The Independent about the Chocolate Digestive reported as follows on a passage from a United Biscuits email (United Biscuits are responsible for producing the prestige brand of Chocolate Digestive):

“For your information,” a spokesperson wrote, “the biscuits go through a reservoir of chocolate which enrobes them so the chocolate is actually on the bottom of the biscuits and not on the top.”

The Independent reported the story as “serious snack news.” And if the report were substantiated, they would be right. For the biscuits have ordinarily been presented and consumed chocolate-side up since they were first produced in 1925.

However, further reflection reveals that the report goes beyond the evidence in significant ways. Crucially, it does not follow from the fact that chocolate is applied from below that the side to which chocolate is applied is the base. Suppose, for example, that cars had their roofs painted by the same method; that would not lead us to accept that we had been driving them upside down. Additional grounds would be required, therefore, before it could be established that the biscuits are chocolate bottomed rather than topped. Furthermore, it does not follow merely from the decision of United Snacks, or individual employees thereof, that the biscuits are chocolate based. Compare again: were Toyota to claim that their cars are being driven upside down, it would—happily—not make it the case.

However, despite its indecisiveness, the report raises interesting and delicate issues. First, could there be a fact of the matter about the correct orientation of the Chocolate Digestive? Second, if there could be, could we be universally, or near-universally ignorant, of the facts? (The aficionado will recognize that an affirmative answer would sustain a form of epistemicism about correct biscuit orientation.) Third, and related, are Chocolate Digestives handed: that is, could universes differ only in that one universe contains only chocolate-up Digestives, while the other contains only chocolate-down Digestives? (The issues are recognizable related to those about incongruent counterparts that were discussed by Kant in his 1768 essay, ‘Concerning the Ultimate Foundation of the Differentiation of Regions of Space’.)

(For further information about the Digestive biscuit, and Chocolate Digestive, see the Wikipedia entry. The entry cites the following passage from Encounter, volume 50: “A government-appointed group of scientists, the Food Standards Committee, is to study the term “Digestive biscuit”, which has been used since the reign of Queen Victoria. The committee is to decide whether the term should be banned on the ground that it implies that the biscuit eats itself.”)

Star Wars story 1

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away lived Princess Leia, her father Darth Vader, her brother Luke Skywalker, and her mum Queen Amidala. Darth Sidious had taken over all the world, but the only place that wasn’t crashed down was the palace where Queen Amidala lived, so the rebels decided to tell her why they came to stay at her palace. But, oh no, they’ve discovered that Darth Vader is a real live baddie! But Princess Leia knows what to do. She asked Queen Amidala and Han Solo to get their blasters out and they shoot all the baddies. The baddies got their lightsabers out but the rebels shot them first, so the baddies couldn’t get the rebels. And the planets came back. The End.

Our special planet

Planet name: Jewel

What’s special about Jewel? When you got to the planet you can take all the jewels, because they don’t turn to rock when you take them from the planet. If you go there, you get to play with your own little child. The children like to play with the jewels. They like to put them in bags so that they can take them home. Every jewel is blue, or pink, or purple. If you take one of the jewels, you have to be very careful that you don’t break any of them.

It seems very natural to think of sight as a mode of awareness. For example, it seems natural to think of seeing a cat as a way—one way amongst other possible ways—of being aware of the cat. The natural thought is captured, at least in part, in the following general claim:

(A1) If S sees O, then S is aware of O.

(Since seeing is, at best, one mode of awareness amongst others, the converse claim, A2, is false:

(A2) If S is aware of O, then S sees O.)

However, on seemingly plausible assumptions, (A1) appears to be subject to counterexamples. For, given those plausible assumptions, there appear to be objects of seeing that are not objects of awareness. The assumptions at issue are the following:

(A3) If S is aware of O, then there’s a sentence of the form “S is aware of N” (with “N” useable to refer to O) that can be used to express a truth.

(A4) If “S is aware of N” can be used to express a truth, then “S is aware of N” is a grammatical sentence of English.

It follows from (A3) and (A4) that if there’s no grammatical sentence of the form “S is aware of N” (with “N” useable to refer to O) then it can’t be that S is aware of O.

In order to explain the next assumption, it will be useful consider the following examples:

(1)  Jill saw John run.

(2)  Jill saw John running.

In both (1) and (2), the object of Jill’s seeing is explained by use of small clauses, phrases that lack tense, and so cannot appear alone. Thus, (3) and (4) are ungrammatical:

(3)  *John run.

(4)  *John running.

The important point for our purposes is that the objects of Jill’s seeing in (1) and (2) seem to differ, a difference reflected in the different aspects of the object phrase, simple in (1) and progressive in (2). This can be seen more clearly by appeal to object phrases that specify achievements:

(5)  Jill saw John finish the race.

(6)  Jill saw John finishing the race.

Plausibly, (5) is useable to state a truth if Jill saw John cross the finish line. By contrast, (6) might be used to state a truth if Jill saw John’s finishing the race in progress. For just as John might have been finishing the race when he collapsed and so failed, ultimately, to finish the race, Jill might have seen John finishing the race, even though she then witnessed his collapse and failure to finish the race. One natural characterisation of what is going on here would be the following: the small clause with simple aspect characterises (albeit tenselessly) an event—in this case, an achievement of the goal of finishing the race; by contrast, the small clause with progressive aspect characterises (again, tenselessly) a process—in this case, a process structured by the goal of finishing the race. A natural generalisation of the natural characterisation would include the following two further assumptions:

(A5) Simple aspect small clauses refer only to events and never to processes.

(A6) Progressive aspect small clauses refer only to processes and never to events.

With our assumptions in place, we can now present apparent counterexamples to (A1). For consider that, although (7) appears useable, in propitious circumstances, in order to state a truth, (8) appears ungrammatical and so, given (A4), not to be so useable.

(7)  Jill is aware of John finishing the race.

(8)  *Jill is aware of John finish the race.

(Interestingly (9) seems grammatical, but seems not to provide a way to characterise Jill’s awareness of the object Jill sees according to (5):

(9)  Jill is aware of Jill’s seeing John finish the race.)

Even accepting our assumptions, a response to the apparent counterexample may be available. For it may be that there is an expression “N”—distinct from “John finish the race”—that meets the following conditions: (i) it is useable to refer to the event to which, in (5), “John finish the race” refers; and (ii) it can be substituted for “John finish the race” in (8) in a way that restores grammaticality. Failing such a response, a defender of (A1) would, I think, need to revisit one or another of our other assumptions.

If Christmas cake is homeomerous, then any part, or area, of a quantity of Christmas cake is itself a quantity of Christmas cake. The grain of Christmas cake—the fact that Christmas cake stuff is lumpy—has lead many thinkers to deny that it is a homeomerous stuff. For, they argue, some sufficiently small areas of Christmas cake contain, not Christmas cake, but rather, for example, contain only sultana.

Now it’s clearly true that there are bounded areas of Christmas cake that contain sultanas without containing other cake stuff. It’s also true that no sultana is, per se, a quantity of Christmas cake. However, it would follow that Christmas cake is not homeomerous only if it were also true that no sultana constitutes a quantity of Christmas cake. That is, the failure of homeomerousness would depend on the claim that areas of Christmas cake stuff whose boundaries coincide with the boundaries of a sultana do not contain, in addition to sultana, a quantity of cake. And that doesn’t follow just from the fact that the boundaries of a detached sultana—a sultana surrounded by air rather than, for example, cake—would contain no cake.

The suggestion, then, is that the claim that Christmas cake is homeomerous might be defensible if we were willing to accept two general claims about stuffs: (1) the contents of an area of stuff can depend upon the contents of more extensive areas of stuff including that area—so that, for example, whether a sultana constitutes a quantity of cake may depend upon whether it is attached to surrounding cake; (2) an area can contain a plurality of fundamental kinds of stuff, including, for example, both sultana and Christmas cake.

The present discussion may also bear on questions about the metaphysical nature of the holes in certain cheeses.

To a first approximation, physicalism is the view that everything is physical. Reaching a second approximation requires attending to two tasks. (1) specifying further what it is for something to be physical. (2) Specifying the range of the quantifier “everything”.

I don’t want to get involved here in detailed discussion of (1). I take it to be plausible that abstract objects—for instance, numbers—will not trivially be included in the domain of the physical. That’s not to say that they don’t play an essential role in theories in physics. But I take that to present a difficulty for simplistic accounts of the physical—for example, as whatever figures essentially in theories in physics—rather than as a reason for counting abstract objects as physical. It’s anyway natural to think that abstract objects will not be included except via an account of how talk about abstract objects is not to be taken at face value as talk about abstract objects, but is rather to be given some other treatment. Perhaps, for example, statements putatively about abstract objects are true, but are not really about abstract objects; rather, they are indirect characterisations of properly (that is, trivially) physical elements. Alternatively, perhaps statements about abstract objects are apt to be true or false of abstract objects but, despite appearances, are uniformly false, and their function in successful explanations is to be explained without appeal to their truth. As a third alternative, it might be argued that statements apparently about abstract objects are not statements at all; they are more like rules or regulations governing the practice of statement-making proper. I take it that the natural, default position is that no such reconstruction is required and that statements apparently about abstract objects and apparently true are about abstract objects and are true. For present purposes, I will assume that the natural, default position is correct.

If “everything” in the characterisation of physicalism meant everything, then the existence of abstract objects would provide a counter example to physicalism. The defender of that strength of physicalism would therefore be required to pursue a project of reconstruction: either one of those sketched above, or some other means of avoiding our apparent commitment to the existence of abstract objects. In fact, however, it’s common to avoid the need to pursue such a project by allowing that the existence of abstract objects is not an immediate threat to physicalism. Rather than defend the strong view on which absolutely everything is physical, many physicalists opt instead for a weaker view on which everything that is located in space-time, and/or that interacts causally, is physical.

Furthermore, standard arguments for physicalism support only the weaker view. Here is a version of a standard form of argument.

P1. Let e be an element such that (a) e impinges causally on some elements, p, that are trivially physical and (b) the status of e as physical or not is up for grabs.

P2. Wherever there is causal impingement on p, there are physical effects on, or involving, p. (Supposed to be underwritten by conservation laws in physics.)

P3. Wherever there are physical effects on, or involving, p, those physical effects are determined to obtain by other physical elements, q, together with physical laws governing the behaviours of p and q. (From P2.)

P4. Suppose that e is not physical.

P5. In that case, something non-physical impinges causally on p. (From P1.)

P6. But any effects that e has on p are determined by physical q, together with physical laws. (From P3.)

P7. It’s implausible/wrong to suppose that effects on, or involving, p are determined by q and also by independent e. (Supposed general metaphysical principle.)

P8. It’s implausible/wrong to suppose that e is independent from physical q (From P4, P6, P7.)

C9. e is, or is dependent upon, physical q.

Whether or not we think that this, or some successor, provides a good argument in favour of physicalism, it’s clear that it only applies to es that impinge causally on physical elements. So, unless we think that all existent abstract objects do that, the argument will not, on its own, support a form of physicalism that includes in its range all abstract objects. In order to make the argument bear on the status of all abstract objects, one would need a supplementary argument to the effect that all abstract objects impinge causally on the physical realm. Such a supplementary argument might appeal, for example, to a combination of the apparent fact that we know things about abstract objects together with a general principle—in need of detailed defence—to the effect that we can know about things only insofar as they impinge causally on the physical, e.g. on the physical elements that constitute our brains. However, I think that most physicalists who also accept the existence of abstract objects would not want to take that route. Since such a physicalist would have independent reason to hold that abstract objects are not physical, they would have to treat the conclusion either as a ground for viewing the argument with suspicion, or as a ground for giving up their commitment to the existence of abstract objects. Instead, I think most such physicalists would prefer to adopt a form of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental realms of being: the physical realm and the non-physical realm of abstracta.

Even the weaker form of dualist physicalism would be undermined if there were elements that were at least partially located in space-time, and that interacted causally with physical elements, but whose natures depended essentially on abstract objects. In the sequel, I’ll sketch, without attempting to defend, an argument to that conclusion.

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