Quine and Groucho
I was watching the Marx brothers film Horse Feathers and noticed a reference to the distinction between de reand de dicto readings of vernacular sentences. Groucho says to Chico, “You have the brain of a four year old…and I bet he was glad to get rid of it”. The joke depends upon switching from a narrow scope reading of the quantifier to a wide scope reading–as if Chico had stolen the brain of an actual four year old. I wonder if Quine ever saw the film and had his attention drawn to the ambiguity of the original sentence. The unexpected reading is: “There is a four year old whose brain you have”.
“Of the talking of rubbish, there is no end” (anon.)
I have found what distinguishes us from animals after much patient research: our capacity for talking rubbish. And not just talking it–thinking it. You see, animals don’t talk or think rubbish: it’s all good sense with them, nothing rubbishy at all. But we humans are constantly talking and thinking rubbish. Our heads are full of rubbish. Those massive brains of ours are repositories of mental rubbish. That’s what makes us special! That’s what sets us apart as superior to other animals! They just can’t get their heads round rubbish, whereas we have a real talent for rubbish–absorbing it, transmitting it, wallowing in it. We are so brilliant at rubbish! I knew there had to be something that made us unique.
My book on the hand finally comes out next week (August 14). I just got copies: nice cover, good paper. Oh what trouble that book has caused me! It is pretty academic stuff actually. I’m curious to know what people make of it. It’s really a science book, laced with philosophy. People might object that it is more than conceptual analysis, and don’t I say that philosophy is conceptual analysis? But philosophers can do things other than philosophy, and might even be helped by their strictly philosophical expertise. I am all in favor of cross-disciplinary work, though it is harder to do than people think.
I went to see Woody Allen’s new film yesterday, about a homicidal philosophy professor. The story itself was paper thin, as well as absurd, and the dialogue clunking and cliched, with none of the usual Woody Allen wit and charm. But what really struck me was the low level of the philosophy in the film. Woody has been preoccupied with philosophy for his entire career, so you might think he had made a study of it. But to call the philosophy in this film sophomoric would be insulting to sophomores. Mainly confined to superficial readings of existentialism, it bore no relation to philosophy as it is taught in universities; the one reference to the “analytic tradition” was pathetically ignorant. The supposedly brilliant professor came across as a complete nincompoop. You would think Woody might bone up a bit on philosophy if he is going to make a film about a philosophy professor, but so such thing. What has he been reading all these years?