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Ideas of Ofra Magidor, by Text

[Israeli, fl. 2009, At Balliol College, Oxford.]

2013 Category Mistakes
1.1 p.5 Category mistakes are either syntactic, semantic, or pragmatic
     Full Idea: A plausible case can be made for explaining the phenomenon of category mistakes in terms of each of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.1)
     A reaction: I want to explain them in terms of (structured) ontology, but she totally rejects that on p.156. Her preferred account is that they are presupposition failures, which is pragmatics. She splits the semantic view into truth-valued and non-truth-valued.
1.1 p.5 Weaker compositionality says meaningful well-formed sentences get the meaning from the parts
     Full Idea: A weaker principle of compositionality states that if a syntactically well-formed sentence is meaningful, then its meaning is a function of the meaning of its parts.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.1)
     A reaction: I would certainly accept this as being correct. I take the meaning of a sentence to be something which you assemble in your head as you hear the parts of it unfold. ….However, irony might exhibit meaning that only comes from the whole sentence. Hm.
1.1 p.5 Strong compositionality says meaningful expressions syntactically well-formed are meaningful
     Full Idea: In the strong form of the principle of compositionality any meaningful expressions combined in a syntactically well-formed manner compose a meaningful expression.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.1)
     A reaction: [She cites Montague as holding this view] I find this plausible, at least. If you look at whole sentences they can seem meaningless, but if you track the process of composition a collective meaning emerges, despite the oddities.
1.1 p.6 Are there partial propositions, lacking truth value in some possible worlds?
     Full Idea: Are there such things as 'partial propositions', which are truth-valueless relative to some possible worlds?
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.1)
     A reaction: Presumably this could be expressed without possible worlds. Are there propositions meaningful in New Guinea, and meaningless in England? Do some propositions require the contingent existence of certain objects to be meaningful?
1.1 n1 p.2 Some suggest that the Julius Caesar problem involves category mistakes
     Full Idea: Various authors have argued that identity statements arising in the context of the 'Julius Caesar' problem in philosophy of mathematics constitute category mistakes.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.1 n1)
     A reaction: [She cites Benacerraf 1965 and Shapiro 1997:79]
1.3 p.18 Generative semantics says structure is determined by semantics as well as syntactic rules
     Full Idea: Generative semanticists claimed that the structure of a sentence is determined by both 'syntactic' and 'semantic' considerations which interact with each other in complex ways.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 1.3)
     A reaction: [She mentions George Lakoff for this view] You need to study a range of examples, but this sounds a better view to me than the tidy picture of producing a syntactic structure and then adding a semantics. We make up sentences while speaking them.
2.1 p.26 'John is easy to please' and 'John is eager to please' have different deep structure
     Full Idea: The sentences 'John is easy to please' and 'John is eager to please' can have very different deep structure (with the latter concerning John as a pleaser, while the former concerns John as the one being pleased).
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 2.1)
     A reaction: This demolishes the old idea of grammar as 'parts of speech' strung together according to superficial rules. The question is whether we now just have deeper syntax, or whether semantics is part of the process.
2.3 p.33 Category mistakes seem to be universal across languages
     Full Idea: The infelicity of category mistakes seems to be universal across languages.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 2.3)
     A reaction: Magidor rightly offers this fact to refute the claim that category mistakes are purely syntax (since syntax obviously varies hugely across languages). I also take the fact to show that category mistakes concern the world, and not merely language.
2.3 p.36 Category mistakes as syntactic needs a huge number of fine-grained rules
     Full Idea: A syntactic theory of category mistakes would require not only general syntactic features such as must-be-human, but also highly particular ones such as must-be-a-grape.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 2.3)
     A reaction: Her grape example comes from Hebrew, but an English example might be the verb 'to hull', which is largely exclusive to strawberries. The 'must-be' form is one of Chomsky's 'selectional features'.
2.4 p.39 Embedded (in 'he said that…') category mistakes show syntax isn't the problem
     Full Idea: The embedding data (such as 'John said that the number two is green', compared to '*John said that me likes apples') strongly suggests that category mistakes are not syntactically ill-formed.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 2.4)
     A reaction: Sounds conclusive. The report of John's category error, unlike the report of his remark about apples, seems perfectly syntactically acceptable.
3.2.1 p.46 Understanding unlimited numbers of sentences suggests that meaning is compositional
     Full Idea: The fact that speakers of natural languages have the capacity to understand indefinitely many new sentences suggests that meaning must be compositional.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.2.1)
     A reaction: To some extent, the compositionality of meaning is so obvious as to hardly require pointing out. It is the precise nature of the claim, and the extent to which whole sentences can add to the compositional meaning, that is of interest.
3.2.1 p.47 The normal compositional view makes category mistakes meaningful
     Full Idea: The principle that if a competent speaker understands some terms then they understand a sentence made up of them entails that category mistakes are meaningful (as in understanding 'the number two' and 'is green').
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.2.1)
     A reaction: [compressed version] It is normal to impose restrictions on plausible compositionality, and thus back away from this claim, but I rather sympathise with it. She adds to a second version of the principle the proviso 'IF the sentence is meaningful'.
3.2.2 p.56 Two good sentences should combine to make a good sentence, but that might be absurd
     Full Idea: The principle that if 'p' and 'q' are meaningful sentences then 'p and q' is a meaningful sentence seems highly plausible. But now consider the following example: 'That is a number and that is green'.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.2.2)
     A reaction: This challenges the defence of the meaningfulness of category mistakes on the basis of strong compositionality.
3.3 p.58 If a category mistake is synonymous across two languages, that implies it is meaningful
     Full Idea: Two sentences are synonymous if they have the same meaning, suggesting that they must both be meaningful. On the face of it the English 'two is green' and French 'deux est vert' are synonymous, suggesting meaningful category mistakes.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.3)
     A reaction: I'm fairly convinced already that most category mistakes are meaningful, and this seems to confirm the view. Some mistakes could be so extreme that no auditor could compute their meaning, especially if you concatenated lots of them.
3.4 p.61 To grasp 'two' and 'green', must you know that two is not green?
     Full Idea: Is it a necessary condition on possessing the concepts of 'two' and 'green' that one does not believe that two is green? I think this claim is false.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.4)
     A reaction: To see that it is false one only has to consider much more sophisticated concepts, which are grasped without knowing their full implications. I might think two is green because I fully grasp 'two', but have not yet mastered 'green'.
3.4 p.62 People have dreams which involve category mistakes
     Full Idea: It is an empirical fact that people often sincerely report having had dreams which involve category mistakes.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.4)
     A reaction: She doesn't give any examples, but I was thinking that this might be the case before I read this idea. Dreams seem to allow you to live with gaps in reality that we don't tolerate when awake.
3.4 p.63 Propositional attitudes relate agents to either propositions, or meanings, or sentence/utterances
     Full Idea: Three views of the semantics of propositional attitudes: they are relations between agents and propositions ('propositional' view); relations between individuals and meanings (Fregean); or relations of individuals and sentences/utterances ('sentential').
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.4)
     A reaction: I am a propositionalist on this one. Meanings are too vague, and sentences are too linguistic.
3.5 p.66 Metaphors tend to involve category mistakes, by joining disjoint domains
     Full Idea: The fact that most metaphors involve category mistakes is not a coincidence. …A big part of them is to do with connecting objects and properties that normally seem to belong to disjoint domains.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: Metaphysica poets took disjoint domains and 'yoked them together by violence', according to Dr Johnson.
3.5 p.67 Category mistakes are meaningful, because metaphors are meaningful category mistakes
     Full Idea: Metaphors must have literal meanings. …Since many metaphors involving category mistakes manage to achieve their metaphorical purpose, they must also have literal meanings, so category mistakes must be (literally) meaningful.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: Hm. 'This guy is so weird that to meet him is to encounter a circular square'.
3.5 p.67 Theories of metaphor divide over whether they must have literal meanings
     Full Idea: There are theories of metaphors that require them to have literal meanings in order to achieve their metaphorical purpose, and those that do not.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: I take almost any string of proper language to have literal meaning (for compositional reasons), even if the end result is somewhat ridiculous. 'Churchill was a lion' obviously has literal meaning. And so does 'Churchill was a transcendental number'.
3.5 p.68 The simile view of metaphors removes their magic, and won't explain why we use them
     Full Idea: The simile theory of metaphors makes them too easy to figure out, when they cannot be paraphrased in literal terms, …and it does not explain why we use metaphors as well as similes.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: [She cites Davidson for these points] They might just be similes with the added frisson of leaving out 'like', so that they seem at first to be false, until you work out the simile and see their truth.
3.5 p.68 One theory says metaphors mean the same as the corresponding simile
     Full Idea: On standard versions of the simile theory of metaphors, they mean the same as the corresponding simile.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: Magidor points out that this allows the metaphor to work while being meaningless, since all the work is done by the perfectly meaningful simile. But the metaphor must at least mean enough to indicate what the simile is.
3.5 p.69 Maybe a metaphor is just a substitute for what is intended literally, like 'icy' for 'unemotional'
     Full Idea: According to the substitution view of metaphors, a word used metaphorically is merely a substitute for another word or phrase that expresses the same meaning literally. Thus 'John is an ice-cube' is a substitute for 'John is cruel and unemotional'.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: This seems to capture the denotation but miss the connotation. Whoever came up with this theory didn't read much poetry.
3.5 p.71 Metaphors as substitutes for the literal misses one predicate varying with context
     Full Idea: A problem with the substitution view of metaphors is that the same predicate can have very different metaphorical contributions in different contexts. Consider 'Juliet is the sun' uttered by Romeo, and 'Stalin is the sun' from a devoted communist.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: The substitution view never looked good (especially if you like poetry), and now it looks a lot worse.
3.5 p.72 Gricean theories of metaphor involve conversational implicatures based on literal meanings
     Full Idea: Gricean theories of metaphor …assume that conversational implicatures are generated via literal contents, and hence that a sentence cannot generate an implicature without being literally meaningful.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: Magidor gives not details of such theories, but presumably the metaphor is all in the speaker's intention, which is parasitic on the wayward literal meaning, as in cases of irony.
3.5 p.73 Non-cognitivist views of metaphor says there are no metaphorical meanings, just effects of the literal
     Full Idea: According to non-cognitivists there is no such thing as metaphorical meaning. …The effects on the hearer are induced directly via the literal meaning of the metaphor.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.5)
     A reaction: [This is said to be Davidson's view] I wonder how many people defended some explicit 'metaphorical meaning', as opposed to connotations that accumulate as you take in the metaphor? Any second meaning is just a further literal meaning.
3.6 p.75 If a category mistake has unimaginable truth-conditions, then it seems to be meaningless
     Full Idea: One motivation for taking category mistakes to be meaningless is that one cannot even imagine what it would take for 'Two is green' to be true. …Underlying this complaint is sometimes the thought that the meaning of a sentence is its truth-conditions.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.6)
     A reaction: I defend the view that most sentences are meaningful if they compose from meaningful parts, but you have to acknowledge this view. It seems to come in degrees. Sentences can have fragmentary meaning, or be almost meaningful, or offer a glimpse of meaning?
3.6 p.75 A good explanation of why category mistakes sound wrong is that they are meaningless
     Full Idea: The meaninglessness view does seem to offer a simple and compelling explanation for the fact that category mistakes are highly infelicitous.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.6)
     A reaction: However, I take there to be quite a large gulf between why meaningless sentences like 'squares turn happiness into incommensurability', which I would call 'category blunders', and subtle category mistakes, which are meaningful.
3.6.2 p.77 Category mistakes are neither verifiable nor analytic, so verificationism says they are meaningless
     Full Idea: No sense experience shows that 'two is green' is true or false. But neither is 'two is green' analytically true or false. So it fails to have legitimate verification conditions and hence, by the lights of traditional verificationism, it is meaningless.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.6.2)
     A reaction: If a category mistake is an error in classification, then it would seem to be analytically false. If it wrongly attributes a property to something, that makes it verifiably false. The problem is to verify anything at all about 'two'.
3.6.2 p.77 Category mistakes play no role in mental life, so conceptual role semantics makes them meaningless
     Full Idea: One might argue that conceptual role semantics entails that category mistakes are meaningless. Sentences such as 'two is green' play no role in the cognitive life of any agent.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 3.6.2)
     A reaction: [She quotes Block's definition of conceptual role semantics] I would have thought that if a category mistake is believed by an agent, it could play a huge role in their cognitive life.
4.1 p.80 Two sentences with different meanings can, on occasion, have the same content
     Full Idea: It is commonly assumed that meaning and content can come apart: the sentence 'I am writing' and 'Ofra is writing' may have different meanings, even if, as currently uttered, they express the same content.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 4.1)
     A reaction: From that, I would judge 'content' to mean the same as 'proposition'.
4.1 p.81 A sentence can be meaningful, and yet lack a truth value
     Full Idea: 'That is red' in a context where the demonstrative fails to refer is truth-valueless, despite being meaningful, as is 'the queen of France in 2010 is bald'. ...The claim that some sentences are meaningful but truth-valueless is, then, widely accepted.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 4.1)
     A reaction: The lack of truth value is usually because of reference failure. It is best to say the words are meaningful, but no proposition is expressed.
4.2 p.84 Maybe when you say 'two is green', the predicate somehow fails to apply?
     Full Idea: One might argue that although 'two' refers to the number two, and 'is green' expresses the property of being green, in 'two is green' the property somehow fails to apply to the number two.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 4.2)
     A reaction: It is an interesting thought that you say something which applies a predicate to an object, but the predicate then 'fails to apply' for reasons of its own, over which you have no control. The only possible cause of the failure is the nature of reality.
4.3.1 p.91 If category mistakes aren't syntax failure or meaningless, maybe they just lack a truth-value?
     Full Idea: Having rejected the syntactic approach and the meaninglessness view, one might feel that the last resort for explaining the defectiveness of category mistakes is to claim that they are truth-valueless (even if meaningful).
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 4.3.1)
     A reaction: She rejects this one as well, and votes for a pragmatic explanation, in terms of presupposition failure. The view I incline towards is just that they are false, despite being well-formed, meaningful and truth-valued.
4.4 p.100 Intensional logic maps logical space, showing which predicates are compatible or incompatible
     Full Idea: Intensional logic aims to capture necessary relations between certain predicates, such as that 'green all over' and 'red all over' cannot be co-instantiated. Each predicate is allocated a set of points in logical space, and every object has one point.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 4.4)
     A reaction: This produces an intriguing model of reality, as a vast and rich space of multiply overlapping modal predicates. Things can be blue, square, dangerous and large. They can't be small and large, or square and round. Objects are optional extras!
5.1 p.111 Category mistakes suffer from pragmatic presupposition failure (which is not mere triviality)
     Full Idea: I argue that category mistakes are infelicitous because they suffer from (pragmatic) presupposition failure, ...but I reject the 'naive pragmatic approach' according to which category mistakes are infelicitous because they are trivially true or false.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.1)
     A reaction: She supports her case quite well, but I vote for them being false. The falsity may involve presuppositions. 'Two is green' is a category mistake, and false, because 'two' lacks the preconditions for anything to be coloured (notably, emitting light).
5.2 p.112 The infelicitiousness of trivial truth is explained by uninformativeness, or a static context-set
     Full Idea: In Grice's theory if a sentence is trivially true, asserting it would violate the maxim of quantity. For Stalnaker, if p is trivially true, it involves no update to the context-set, and is thus pointless.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.2)
     A reaction: 'Let us remind ourselves, before we proceed, of the following trivial truth: p'.
5.2 p.112 The infelicitiousness of trivial falsity is explained by expectations, or the loss of a context-set
     Full Idea: In Grice's theory if a sentence is trivially false, asserting it would violate the maxim of quality. For Stalnaker if p is trivially false, removing all worlds incompatible with p would result in an empty context-set, preventing any further communication.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.2)
     A reaction: [compressed] I'm not sure whether we need to 'explain' the inappropriateness of uttering trivial falsities. I take the main rule of conversation to be 'don't be boring', but we all violate that. p.117 A presupposition is what makes an utterance sound wrong if it is not assumed?
     Full Idea: The most obvious test for presupposition would be this: if s generates the presupposition p, then an utterance of s would be infelicitous, unless p is taken for granted by participants in the conversation.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013],
     A reaction: The principle of charity seems to be involved here - that we try to make people's utterances sound right, so we add in the presuppositions which would achieve that. The problem, she says, is that the infelicity may have other causes. p.119 A test for presupposition would be if it provoked 'hey wait a minute - I have no idea that....'
     Full Idea: A proposed test for presupposition is the 'Hey, wait a minute' test. S presupposes that p, just in case it would be felictious to respond to an utterance of s with something like 'Hey, wait a minute - I had not idea that p!'.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013],
     A reaction: [K. Von Finkel 2004 made the suggestion] That is, you think 'hm ...this statement seems to presuppose p'. She says the suggestion vastly over-generates possible presuppositions - unlikely ones, as well as the obvious ones. p.120 The best tests for presupposition are projecting it to negation, conditional, conjunction, questions
     Full Idea: The most robust tests for presupposition are the projection tests. If s presupposes p, then ¬s does too. If s1 presupposes p, then 'if s1 then s2' presupposes p. If s1 presupposes p, then 's1 and s2' presupposes p. If s presupposes p, then 's?' does too.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013],
     A reaction: [compressed] She also discusses quantifiers. In other words, the presupposition remains stable through various transformations of the underlying proposition.
5.3.2 p.124 If both s and not-s entail a sentence p, then p is a presupposition
     Full Idea: In the traditional account, a sentence s presupposes p if and only if both s and ¬s entail p. Standardly, this entails that if s presupposes p, then whenever p is false, s must be neither true nor false.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.3.2)
     A reaction: 'I'm looking down on the garden' presupposes 'I'm upstairs'. Why would 'I'm not looking down on the garden' entail 'I'm upstairs'? I seem to have missed something.
5.3.2 p.124 In the pragmatic approach, presuppositions are assumed in a context, for successful assertion
     Full Idea: According to the pragmatic approach, presuppositions are constraints on the context: if a sentence s generates a presupposition p, an assertion of s cannot proceed smoothly unless the context already entails p (p is taken for granted).
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.3.2)
     A reaction: She credits Stalnaker for this approach. There is a choice between the presuppositions being largely driven by internal features of the sentence, or by external features of context. You may not know the context of some statements.
5.3.2 p.127 The semantics of a sentence is its potential for changing a context
     Full Idea: The basic semantics of sentences are not truth-conditions, but rather context change potential, which is a rule which determines what the effect of uttering the sentence would be on the context.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.3.2)
     A reaction: [I. Heim's 'renowned' 1983 revision of Stalnaker] This means the semantics of a sentence can vary hugely, depending on context. It is known as 'dynamic semantics'. 'I think you should go ahead and do it'.
5.3.2 p.129 Why do certain words trigger presuppositions?
     Full Idea: We can ask why a range of lexical items (e.g. 'stop' or 'know') trigger the presuppositions they do.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.3.2)
     A reaction: I'm not sure whether we'll get an answer, but I would approach the question by thinking about mental files.
5.4.1 p.132 Category mistakes because of presuppositions still have a truth value (usually 'false')
     Full Idea: I am assuming that even in those contexts in which the presupposition of 'the number two is green' fails and the utterance is infelicitious, it nevertheless receives a bivalent truth-value (presumably 'false').
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.4.1)
     A reaction: It seems to me obvious that, in normal contexts, 'the number two is green' is false, rather than meaningless. Is 'the number eight is an odd number' meaningless?
5.4.1 p.132 In 'two is green', 'green' has a presupposition of being coloured
     Full Idea: My proposal is that the truth-conditional content of 'green' (in 'two is green') is the property of being green, and its presuppositional content is the property of being coloured.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.4.1)
     A reaction: This requires a two-dimensional semantics of truth-conditional and presuppositional content. I fear it may have a problem she spotted elsewhere, of overgenerating presuppositions. Eyes are presupposed by 'green'. Ambient light is required.
5.4.1 p.136 'Numbers are coloured and the number two is green' seems to be acceptable
     Full Idea: 'The number two is green' is normally infelicitous, but, interestingly, 'numbers are coloured and the number two is green' is not infelicitous.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.4.1)
     A reaction: A nice example, which gives good support for her pragmatic account of category mistakes in terms of presupposition failure. But how about 'figures can have contradictory shapes, and this square is circular'? Numbers are not coloured!!!
5.4.3 p.146 Maybe the presuppositions of category mistakes are the abilities of things?
     Full Idea: The most promising way to characterise the presuppositions involved in category mistakes might be to rephrase them in modal terms ('x is able to be pregnant', 'x is able to be green').
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.4.3)
     A reaction: This catches my attention because it suggests that category mistakes contradict dispositions, rather than contradicting classifications or types. 'Let's use a magnet to repel this iron'? The dispositions of 'two' and 'green' in 'two is green'? Hm
5.6 p.156 The presuppositions in category mistakes reveal nothing about ontology
     Full Idea: My pragmatic account of category mistakes does not support a key role for them in metaphysics. It is highly doubtful that the presuppositions associated with category mistakes reveal anything about the fundamental nature of ontological categories.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.6)
     A reaction: Thus she dashes my hope, without even bothering to offer a reason. I think she should push her enquiry further, and ask why we presuppose things. Why do we take presuppositions for granted? Why are they obvious?
5.6 p.157 We can explain the statue/clay problem by a category mistake with a false premise
     Full Idea: Since 'the lump of clay is Romanesque' is a category mistake, a pragmatic account of that phenomenon is key to pursuing the strategy of saying that the problem rests on a false premise.
     From: Ofra Magidor (Category Mistakes [2013], 5.6)
     A reaction: [compressed]