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Ambiguous contents?. Arvid Båve , Higher seminar in Theoretical Philosophy, FLoV , Gothenburg University, 8 May 2013. Last time , I gave an argument for: (7) The LF C of ”All Fs are G” is the same as that of ”a is F”

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ambiguous contents

Ambiguous contents?

ArvidBåve, Higher seminar in Theoretical Philosophy, FLoV, Gothenburg University, 8 May 2013


Last time, I gave an argument for:

(7) The LFCof ”All Fs are G” is the same as thatof ”a is F”

To saythat the LFCofsentences S and S’ are the same is tosaythat the propositions they express have the same syntacticstructure.

(7) thusentailsthatthere is a syntacticcategory at the levelofthoughtincludingbothquantifierseverything, every F, some F, etc., and individualconcepts like Aristotle, etc.


(7) is just an expression of a common stance in contemporarylinguistics, accordingtowhich it waswrongtosuggestthatsentenceswith the same surface grammars have ”different logical forms”.

Focussingnow on the present, specific sense oflogical form, however, wecanseethat a potential problem involvingstructuralambiguityimmediatelyarises for (7).


Objectionagainst (7):

  • ”Everyonegreetssomeone” (E) is ambiguous.
  • Ambiguityconsists in the expression ofdistinctcontents.
  • If (7) weretrue, (E) couldonly express onecontent.

Hence, (7) is false.

((b) is supported by the ideathatcontentscannot be ambiguous)


The idea is thatif (7) weretrue, (E) would express something like

(C) P2(Greet, <everyone, someone>)

P2 is a function from relationalcontents and pairs of nominal contentstopropositionalcontents, and, importantly, the order of the elements of the pair indicatesonly agent-patient relationships.

So, P2(Greet, <John, Mary>) is the proposition that John greets Mary, and so on.

But (C) would be ambiguous! For although it is determinedwhat agent-patient roles the quantifierstake, theirscopesareleftundetermined!


Reply 1:

Wecandeny (c), i.e., the claimthatif (7) weretrue, (E) couldonly express onecontent. That is, wecouldclaimthat nominal quantifiersareindexed or marked, so that (E)’s ambiguityconsists in itsexpressingcontents like (C), differentlyindexed, as per:

(C’) P2(Greet, <everyone1, someone2>)

(C’’) P2(Greet, <everyone2, someone1>),

where the subscriptsindicatescope.


Reply 2: Wedeny (b), and claimthatambiguoussentencescan express singlecontents. It followsthatcontentscan be ambiguous!

Butwhatcould it meantosaythat a content is ambiguous???


Whether on a truth-theoretic or conceptualroletheoreticframework, the ideaofambiguouscontents is, in onerespect, straightforward:

On the former, the ambiguityof (C) consists in itshaving different extensions (intensions, truth-conditions, etc.) on different ”readings”.

On the latter, the ambiguityof (C) consists in itsfiguring in different inferencesdepending on the ”reading”.


Since the different truth-conditions or inferentialpatternscan be describedunambiguously (usingfirst-order logic), at least part ofwhat it is for contentsto be ambiguouscan be described.


However, someonemightvery understandably objectthatifsamenessofcontentdoes not entailsamenessofinferentialrole or coextensiveness, it is unintelligiblewhat ”content” means.

Letus grant thatthis is true in onesense of ”content”: let’sstipulatethatsamenessof A-contentsentailssamenessofinferentialrole and coextensiveness (etc.).


But I havebeenspeakingofpropositionalcontentsas thoughtcontents, i.e., as the objectsof propositions attitudes, and I havedescribedthem as a kind ofstructuredentities, involvingessentially a numberof non-compositecontents/concepts. Letuscall contents in this sense ”B-contents”.

Reply 2 is thus the claimthat the B-contentof an attitudedoes not determinedeterminate A-contents. Similarly, that a sentenceexpresses a given B-contentdoes not determinewhichdeterminate A-contents the sentence has.


Were all thesephilosophers from William ofOcchamto Jerry Fodor just wrong, then, in holding thatcontentscannotpossibly be ambiguous?

No, for it seemsplausible thatsamenessofnon-composite B-contentsentailssamenessof A-contents. It would be absurd toproposethat, e.g., there is a singleyetambiguousconceptbank. It is possiblethatexclusive focus on this kind ofexample has sustained the ideathatcontentscannotpossibly be ambiguous.


I amproposingmerelythat (certaincasesof) structuralambiguityconsists not in the expression ofdistinctcontents, but in the expression ofsingle, yetambiguous, contents.


OK, butwhatare the ”readings”, relative towhichcontentscanhave different A-contents?

Relatedquestion: what is it for a speaker to ”interpret” a contentonewayratherthananother?


Oneproposal is tosaythatreadingsofcontentsare speakers’ dispositions toinferwiththem (cf. Carruthers).

Thus, onewayto ”read” (C) is to be disposedtoinferwith it the wayonewouldinferwith ”xy (x greets y)”.

Another way is to be disposedtoinferwith it as onewouldwith”yx (x greets y)”.

E.g., on the former reading, the speaker wouldinferthat John greetedsomeone from (C), but not thatsomeonegreeted John, and conversely for the latter.


Thus, it seemsfullycoherenttomaintainthatcontents (in our sense) can be ambiguous, and rejectpremise (b).

There is also a considerationindicatingthatcontentsprobablyareambiguous:

In silent reasoning, peopleare just as pronetocommit the fallacyofequivocation as when reasoning aloud. Butthinkinginvolves operations on contents. So howcantheypossibly be unambiguous?

Note, however, thatpeopleare not pronetoequivocatebetween the different sensesof ”bank”. On the present proposal, this is becausetheyare operating on different contents, and there is no risk ofconflatingthem.


There is a response to this argument on behalf of the defender of “Reply 1”, according to which there are no ambiguous contents, but (7) is still true, because nominal quantifiers are always marked.

They might respond that when equivocating, we are merely “forgetting” or “confusing” markings, so that contents are always unambiguous after all. The assessment of this response must depend on what “markings” are supposed to be.


Could it be that a content’s being “marked” merely consists in our being disposed to infer with it a certain way? But if so, it does not seem to make sense to say that we can “conflate” or “forget” markings.

Suppose a speaker first infers with a content “as if” it were marked one way, and then begins to infer with it as if it were marked another. How, then, is it marked? If we say that its markings changed, it seems that we have said nothing other than that the speakers started inferring with the content differently.


Perhaps the proponent ofmarkedcontentsshouldsayinsteadthathaving a certainmarkingis distinct from ourhavingcertaininferentialdispositions, butthatourinferential dispositions still dependon the markingsofcontents. Markingsmight be somecategorical (perhapsphysical) propertiesofcontentsthatmerelyhelp guide inferentialpractice.

But the factthatmany speakers arepronetoequivocatingrather ”consistently”, i.e., theyhave no stableinferential dispositions, it still seemsarbitrarytosaythat the contentsuch a speaker is inferringwith is markedonewayratherthananother.


In general, it seemsthat the factthatsome speakers equivocate so much shows that no ”markings”-solution is possible: on the one hand, ”markings” must somehowconnecttoinferentialpractice (otherwise, it would be unabletoexplain the ambiguityof the relevant sentences); on the other hand, peopleequivocatetosuch an extentthattoexplainhowequivocationhappens, the markingstheorist is forcedtotake the markingsofcontentsto be verydisconnected from speakers’ inferentialpractice.


It seemsthat the ”traditionalist” has the same problem. Heexplains the ambiguityof ”Everyonegreetedsomeone” as consisting in itsexpressingeitherof:

(1) the proposition thatxy (x greets y),

(2) the proposition thatyx (x greets y).

Butwhenpeopleequivocate in silentthinking, e.g., inferring from (1) whatcanonlycorrectly be inferred from (2), howcanthis be explained? Arethey ”confusing” (1) and (2)? Butwhatgrounds the claimthat the speaker wasfirstinferringwith (1) and confusing it with (2), ratherthaninferringwith (2)? There must be somethingabout the speaker’swayofinferringwith the proposition that makes it (1) ratherthan (2), but in casesofequivocation, bothcandidate propositions areequallywell- (or, rather, ill-) fittedwith the way the speaker inferwwith it.

So the pehnomenonseemsto be betterexplained on the hypothesisthatcontents/propositions can be ambiguous.



There are at least two possible replies to the objection against claim (7).

Both replies open up new, interesting possibilities. In particular, it would be interesting to investigate which types of linguistic ambiguity are more plausibly handled by recourse to distinct contents (plausibly ”bank”) and which might be more plausibly dealt with by appeal to ambiguous contents (some or perhaps all cases of structural ambiguity).

Equivocation, we have seen, is likely to occur in the latter type of case, but not in the former. Thus, equivocation in thinking might be explained by ambiguity in contents. The alternative explanation, which eschews ambiguous contents and opts for markings that can be conflated, requires an account of how markings are supposed to work.