Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Another silly linguistic observation, plus a non-sequitur

Another conversational quirk I've noticed among philosohers is one that seems to be more prevalent among the ones that have done a fair amount of math. When confronted with a formulation of something that they don't understand, they say, "What does that even mean?" It isn't "what does that mean?" Rather it is with an "even" stuck in there. I'm not sure why, but it sounds stronger even though I'm not sure how it is asking for anything stronger than the "even"-less question. What does "even mean" even mean?

To change the topic, I was talking to some guys in the Pitt program earlier about great philosophical dialogues to be written. One guy suggested a dialogue between early and later Putnam in which the early Putnam wins. Another one might be a conversation between early and later Wittgenstein. What would they say? Maybe the early one would just recite the main propositions of the Tractatus while the later Wittgenstein would explain why they are nonsense.


Aidan said...

As someone who is prone to using this locution, I want to hazard an inchoate guess. In some uses of 'even' in such contexts, there's at least an implicit suggestion that you were trying to evaluate the formulation for, say, truth, but one of the major prerequisites for that isn't met (namely you don't understand it). Compare:

A: Shoot it! Quickly!
B: Shoot it? I can't even see it!

Often, 'even' seems to play this kind of role of signaling that this is some prerequisite for some further task (or whatever) that hasn't been met. This is easiest to see when it's followed by a 'let alone'-type phrase:

1. I can't even see it, let alone shoot it.

2. I can't even understand it, let alone figure out if it's true or not.

There's at least a flavor of that in 'What does that even mean?'. 'What does that mean?' is usually a straightforward question, whereas 'What does that even mean?' to me carries the further suggestion you were trying to do something else with the sentence, but can't (because to do that you'd need to understand it). This seems consistent with both questions receiving pretty much the same kinds of answers, and so the 'even'-ed question not asking for anything stronger than its 'even'-less counterpart.

Shawn said...

That seems more or less right to me. The thing I was getting hung up on with the 'even'-ed version is easier to see now. The examples you've given have this in common: an agent A can't do X, let alone (or even) doing an easier Y. But, in the case where A doesn't understand P, A doesn't do the meaning. So:

B: The meaning of being is the being of meaning.
A: I don't understand. What does that even mean?

A's doing the not-understanding but not the meaning, whereas in the other dialogues. A's failing to shoot and failing to see. Having said that, the semantic and pragmatic analyses seem right even with that minor disanalogy. I have a feeling the disanalogy stems from the verb 'mean'.

Aidan said...

Yes, I see the point. I wonder if there are other verbs which behave like 'mean' in this respect. For example,

*What did you even say?

is simply awful, and

?What does that even say?

doesn't seem great either (though better).

Oh well.