My Problem Of The Day

The following are too false statements.

  • James Buchanan, Jr. was the 14th President of the United States.
  • James Buchanan. Jr. gave the Gettysburg Address.

In what sense can either of these statements be about James Buchanan, Jr.? Is it possible that one statement is likely about James Buchanan, Jr. and simply false while the other statement is not about James Buchanan, Jr. but makes a false attribution concerning him? If the latter, is there any way to know which is which without inquiring into the intention of the person(s) making these statements?
I thing most people who went to elementary school in the United States would see the first statement as a false statement about James Buchanan, Jr. and the second statement as a false statement about who gave the Gettysburg Address and not really about James Buchanan, Jr. at all. But, assuming I am correct, why?
Some time soon I’ll share what brought this rather abstract concern to mind.
These may sound like philosophical questions (and in some contexts they are) but here I mean them as cultural/linguistic questions.
Does anyone know of a literature on these as a language and/or culture questions? As philosophical questions they are part of the problem of reference. And there is a rather large literature on that. Much of that literature wonders if such statements have any meaning at all. But I’m not so much concerned about their meaning or lack of same as I am about how we might sort out such questions in terms of language and/or culture. It is of course possible, and the philosophers might even think it so, that cultural/linguistic questions are (all?) philosophical questions. I haven’t totally made up my mind on that either.
As you can see, I don’t have many problems and those I do have are not very great.

5 thoughts on “My Problem Of The Day”

  1. It sounds like to me your intuition is telling you that the two statements have two different information structures.
    In the field of functional linguistics (pragmatics), information structure refers to the division of a clause into information that is asserted and information that is presupposed.
    It appears that in the first sentence, you would identify “James Buchanan, Jr.” as a topic belonging to the presupposition, and “14th President of the United States” as the focus of the assertion.
    On the other hand, in the second sentence, it appears that you would identify “(someone) gave the Gettysburg Address” as the presupposition, and “James Buchanan. Jr.” as the focus of the assertion.
    To read more about this approach, I would strongly recommend:
    Lambrecht, Knud. Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representation of Discourse Referents. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
    (Ultimately, information structure is dependent on intention, but here one can possibility distinguish the presupposition and assertion, based on the relative popularity of the items of information, presumably Gettysburg Address > Buchanan > Xth President of US.)

  2. Steven,
    Thanks. I will take a look at Lambrecht. I think your parenthetical comment is likely on the right track. If so, intuitions like mine are based on a kind of informal (intuitive) cultural statistic.

  3. Aydin,
    Of course, the larger context would give away intention. I think we would say that the first statement was about the 14th President and not really about Buchanan if it were in a list of world leaders who were the 14th person in their individual countries to hold such an office.

  4. I was at first confused about the vague differences you were pointing to. Subtle but very interesting. Stephen knows what he’s talking about, I see.
    This is of course strictly about the context of the statement, not the grammatical structure of the statement itself. My intuition on this is influenced by artificial intelligence and “genetic programming”. So I look at the sentence as a kind of “web of morphemes” which are assembled by a structure imposed on them (ie. grammar). Contextual information is just another data web, complete with its very own “grammar” or structure.
    I imagine an incomprehensibly complex brain function called Interpretation() which takes in at least two variables, Grammar() and Context(), to compute greater meaning. Not everyone will derive the same greater meaning however because Context() leads to differing answers depending on the individual’s personality, experiences, preferences, state of sobriety (hehehe!), etc. etc. Now if only one could program such a function, one would be a ridiculously rich person.

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