Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Big Beethoven Poll (2nd attempt)

Sorry, I completely messed up the wording for the first poll, so I cancelled it and let's try it again now.

Again, this is in reference to a discussion that ensued in a previous post.

Sorry about the error - it was too early this morning when I filled out the form.

If you voted before, go ahead and vote again.


kubla said...

'Among people who study and appreciate classical music, Beethoven's music is held in high regard' and 'Beethoven's composing abilities were "good", according to generally-accepted criteria for "goodness"' are essentially encyclopedia statements. I don't need the speaker in particular to tell me either of those things; an encyclopedia, or really anyone, could tell me either of those things. Particularly in the case of a commonplace judgment of a widely recognized figure, such as, "Beethoven was a good composer," it strikes me as wildly unlikely that the speaker intends to convey only the meaning that could be found in an encyclopedia, or rather, crucially, only the information most likely to already be known to the listener. It is much more likely that the speaker intends to convey something about himself.

I am willing to bet that, in the lives of everyone who has chosen either of the above semantic parsings in this poll, almost no one, for fear of seeming dull or patronizing, actually makes such prosaic statements in order to literally convey some encyclopedic fact. However, I bet that people in their lives do make such statements, in contexts that make their meaning look much more clearly like this: "Despite what I was just saying about the overwhelming brilliance of contemporary Electronica composer Blah Blah, I am still willing to acknowledge the validity of certain mainstream tastes." In those cases, the intended meaning is much closer to 'Beethoven's composing abilities were "good", according to my own private criteria for "goodness".'

The single most known thing about Beethoven, himself a widely known figure, is that lots of people, or lots of people who know about classical music, think he's good. If you have heard about Beethoven at all this is probably the thing you have heard. It is therefore the least likely meaning someone could intend when saying "Beethoven was a good composer."

An obvious riposte would be that people make valueless speech all the time; look at conversations about the weather. However, I think that weather observations do, in fact, regularly carry more information than the encyclopedia-content-only evaluation of the Beethoven statement.

One way to restate everything I am saying succinctly, but sadly with a little jargon, is:

You can't parse language correctly without understanding implicature.

A good place to start is

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Wildly unlikely it may be; and yet currently 'Among people who study and appreciate classical music, Beethoven's music is held in high regard' leads the poll. So perhaps your understanding of what other people mean is deficient...

Michael J.J. Tiffany said...

Or people could be misreporting, in the context of a poll, what they actually do in the context of real situations.

Anonymous said...

and even moreso if the question had contained "great" instead of "good", an associated meaning of the leading answer (is something i voted for actually going to win for once?) would be (especially in reference to literature) - something we have to study in school but otherwise ignore


RichardW said...

Jeff, if you expect this poll to resolve the matter that we discussed in that other thread, then you've failed to understand anything I wrote about the distinction between the meaning of "good composer" and the criteria for judging whether someone is a good composer. As I've kept pointing out (in one form or another) you're failing to make the distinction between "Beethoven was a good composer" and "Beethoven was a good composer by criterion X". These two sentences are not equivalent. All you're doing here is asking people which criterion they understand a speaker to be judging by. You've offered people a choice of four different criteria for judging whether a composer is good: the regard of people who study and appreciate classical music, "generally accepted criteria", "my own private criteria", and what I like. But you've only labelled two of these as criteria. And you didn't offer your respondents any more nuanced options, like "Sometimes they mean one thing and sometimes they mean another."

All your poll has established is:
1. People do indeed employ a number of different criteria for judging the goodness of a composer (as I've said all along).
2. Most of your respondents have also failed to observe the distinction I'm making.

It would hardly be reasonable to take point 2 to mean that no such distinction exists. That would be to answer a conceptual question by reference to a poll of people's opinions on the subject, instead of by addressing the arguments. Moreover, you didn't ask the question explicitly, and most of your respondents will not have seen my arguments. They will have no reason to suspect that such a distinction exists. If difficult conceptual questions about meaning could be settled just by asking the general public what they understand things to mean, then philosophers have been wasting their time over many years analysing the meanings of conceptually difficult words like "good" and "knowledge". They should have just held an opinion poll instead! I don't think you are taking the work of philosophers seriously.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I don't think you are taking the work of philosophers seriously.

If philosophers don't base their discussion of meaning in part on what people think they mean by their utterances, then there seems to be a disconnect between theory and reality. Maybe philosophers should conduct more polls.

I'm sorry you didn't find my poll of value, but perhaps that is because the interpretation I advocated is leading the pack.

Michael J.J. Tiffany said...

Wow, if the experimental setup here is really meant to resolve the question RichardW posed, there is certainly a problem getting from here to there. But RichardW's categorical refutation of the utility of polls in these situations looks overly broad. Happily, there has been some fairly recent rigorous work on just this sort of thing; see

On balance, there is probably more bad philosophy than bad experimental setups, but only because people have been doing philosophy for so much longer ;-)

RichardW said...

@Michael. I didn't reject the utility of polls. Note the word "just" in my post. Polls alone aren't sufficient.

I suspect you read Jeff's straw man misrepresentation of my position, and took it as my actual position.

RichardW said...

Jeff, you are of course under no obligation to respond to my posts. But going through the motions of responding, while making no genuine attempt to understand and address my arguments, just wastes everybody's time.

What I think I see here is a phenomenon that is commonplace in internet discussions, and I've occasionally been guilty of it myself. One thinks that the other person's position is obviously false; therefore his arguments must be flawed; therefore it's not worth taking the time to carefully read and understand them; so one just looks for an excuse to dismiss them as quickly as possible. I expect you've been on the receiving end of this many times youself, so you must know how frustrating it is.

If you've decided that my posts are not worth bothering to read carefully, then please just say so and stop responding to them. I prefer brutal frankness to time-wasting.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

But going through the motions of responding, while making no genuine attempt to understand and address my arguments, just wastes everybody's time.

I'm certainly not going through the motions, but perhaps I'm not addressing every single point you make, either. I appreciate your contributions and I've learned from them.

RichardW said...

Jeff, thanks for that kind comment. I'm sure I have a tendency to be too brutally frank in saying what I think about other people's arguments. My social skills are lacking!

Still, you haven't addressed my arguments, and if it's not because you're going through the motions, then it must be because I haven't made them clear enough. I know I haven't always been clear, but I have refined my presentation as we've gone along, and I don't think I can make them much clearer than I have. (My limitation perhaps.) I'm happy to clarify in response to questions. But apart from that, I see no way to proceed further.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Don't read too much into a lack of immediate response. I'm currently dealing with lots of work and also a broken ankle, so sometimes things get done in a strange order.

RichardW said...

OK, Jeff. I'm sorry for being impatient.

May I recommend that you avoid responding to just one minor part of a post, and wait until you're ready to respond to the whole thing. Otherwise it looks like you're ignoring the main argument.

Best wishes for your recovery.

James Cranch said...

Though I'm not sure what I mean when I say it, I disagree with Kubla's reasoning at the very top.

I don't see a problem with it meaning 'Beethoven's composing abilities were "good", according to generally-accepted criteria for "goodness"'

It may very well be an encyclopaedic statement. After all, nobody in real life walks around saying "Beethoven was a good composer", and this may very well be because that is a commonly-understood point of fact.

d. swart said...

kubla and James Cranch must spend very little time with children.

Michael J.J. Tiffany said...

On the contrary, children say things like "That food is yucky" when they mean "I do not like that food." It is normal for children to express quite particular tastes as universal pronouncements. But the *meaning* of the universal statement is very particular to the child's taste, and children can distinguish between these two very different meanings (universal vs particular taste) even if they express them the same way. For example, eating garbage and eating broccoli may both be "yucky", but generally speaking, a child will only try to prohibit YOU from eating garbage, though they may reject both activities themselves.

D. Swart said...

I was merely refuting the claim that no one ("wildly unlikely" "almost no one" "nobody in real life") makes such "dull or patronizing statements" or "valueless speech" to convey a encyclopedia statements.

Daddy who's Beethoven?

Michael J.J. Tiffany said...

Nevertheless, in the case of children's speech, we understand "This food is yucky" to mean something much closer to "I don't like this food," than "among people who study and appreciate food, this food is held in low regard." And as it happens, children (and probably all people) make more qualitative statements about food than composers.

If you don't like my yuckiness example, evaluate the straightforward substitution "Fried chicken is a good food." Children clearly do not intend this statement to mean, "Among those who study food, fried chicken is held in high regard."

I don't think children make more encyclopedic speech or more valueless speech than adults, but your mileage may vary. Anyone interested in language should spend time listening to children.

Perhaps this poll shows, more than anything else, that exercises in semantic evaluation like this are meaningless when the unit of analysis is a single sentence with no context. The different ways in which we would evaluate a kid saying "This food is good" and a nutritionist saying "This food is good" are just part and parcel to how all semantic evaluations always function: it's a swirl cake, not a layer cake. Single sentences are not a useful primitive.

D. Swart said...

You misread. I was referring to talking to children. I didn't know I had to be so explicit:

"Daddy who was Beethoven?"
"Beethoven was a good composer."

Neither dull, patronizing, nor wildly unlikely.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Well, to address some of your points after a long delay:

1. You claim But the sentence "Beethoven is a good composer", as the words are normally understood, does not mean the same thing as "among people who study and
appreciate classical music, Beethoven is held in high regard".

My poll seems to refute that. You dismiss that because you think the options weren't labeled clearly enough, that I didn't give responders a chance to read your arguments, that the responders are confused the same way I am, etc. Still, I wonder how one can determine what people think they mean by an utterance without asking them.

2. Thanks for the link to the article of Hare. I found it interesting. But it suffers from a deficiency that seems common to many articles I've read in the philosophical literature: namely, he's arguing about the meaning of words without doing any scientific analysis of how the words are actually used. I'd like to see a more scientific philosophy, where we query people about their intended meanings. You apparently don't think this would be of much interest.

3. You want to draw a distinction between
A. This type of society is better than that one
B. Most people are of the opinion that this type of society is better than that one.

But I don't see that there is a huge distinction between the two. A is the opinion of one person; B represents the consensus of all opinions. In both cases the opinions ultimately derive from our psychology and our experience.

4. A recent post of Russell Blackford is worth reading. He says "morality is not objective: it is not grounded solely in something external to our psychological makeup. Since our psychological makeup is not identical from person to person, this leaves room for some indeterminacy, but perhaps not all that much if we can agree on all the non-moral facts. The more we agree on the facts, the more we tend to converge on agreement about what should be done.

Morality is, however, non-arbitrary: it is grounded in widespread human values, sympathies, desires, needs, etc., combined with facts about the world.

I think this is pretty consistent with what I've been saying.